Iran has been playing with fire for a hundred years— specifically, Iranian state policy towards the Iranian Kurdish community is a recipe for disaster. The Kurdish people are consistently shortchanged. Despite being the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds have yet to establish their own independent state and, as a result, are spread across a vast array of countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Syria, and Iran. The advent of neocolonialism after the fall of the Ottoman empire divided the Kurdish people into separate enclaves in hopes that the different ethnic groups could coexist. However, Britain and France’s approach of hoping for cultural pluralism to flourish in the Middle East has only served to exacerbate political violence. In order to transcend Kurdish political violence and gain greater economic prominence in the Middle East, the Iranian government must grant Iranian Kurds de facto equal rights, cease meddling in Kurdish affairs abroad, and allow Kurdish separatist groups to officially enter the political fray. In order to achieve such an outcome, Iran must be coaxed by Russia to grant the Kurdish people autonomy as the Russian Federation has invested a billion dollars in the Kurdish oil fields. Only then will Iran be willing to stop feeding the flames of nationalism.

History of Kurdish Nationalism

The desire for Kurdish independence is not a new phenomenon. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1916, the Kurdish people believed that forming a Kurdish nation-state was finally a real possibility. Prior to the partitioning of Ottoman territory, the Kurdish people struggled to form a national identity due to the mountainous terrain of the Zagros mountains separating different Kurdish enclaves. Unfortunately for the Kurds, their dreams of an autonomous state were dashed by great-power politics. Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle East into separate spheres of influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The great powers split the Kurdish people into five separate countries as Kurdistan would have been too valuable serving as the bridge between the Arab and Persian world. Due to this division, different insurgent movements rose in all the countries the Kurds are currently present as they were continuously denied their bid for equality and independence.

In Iran’s case, the Kurds successfully built the first Kurdish nation-state in 1946 called the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan. While the presence of an autonomous Kurdistan posed an issue for the Iranian government, the de-escalation of Kurdish insurgency allowed for Iran’s security forces to focus all their attention towards fighting off Britain and Russia during the second world war. Although, Iran’s situation would not be considered unique in modern times as the Iraq referendum of 2017 has brought about a second Kurdish state called Iraqi Kurdistan. However, the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan quickly fell, which is a situation that remains to be seen in Iraqi Kurdistan, due to the pulling out of Anglo-Soviet troops in Iran giving the Iranian military the power necessary in re-absorbing the region. With the absorption of the region, the Iranian government also assassinated the Kurdish leader, Qazi Muhammad, a huge blow to the Kurdish Iranians. This was not the first time that Iran had decided to solve the issue of Kurdish separatism with state-sponsored murder. In 1930, Ismail Agha Simko, who was the leader of multiple Kurdish revolts in the 1920’s, was assassinated by individuals who were contracted by the Iranian government. The constant undermining of Kurdish autonomy and disregard for their rights incited anger and frustration across Kurdish communities against the Iranian government and their security forces, especially Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Hatred of security forces has went on to inspire the formation of two insurgent groups to rise on the account of Kurdish ethno-nationalism and secession. The oldest Kurdish nationalist group, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), was founded in 1945 by the same man who founded the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan, Qazi Muhammad. Until 1979, the formation of this group went wholly unnoticed by the Iranian government. However, that all changed once PDKI initiated guerrilla warfare during the Iranian Revolution.

Denial of Equal Rights

Initiation of guerrilla warfare led to an extreme rise in insurgency in Sunni Kurd dominated areas for the next four years until 1983 and it ended with a clash between the PDKI and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps (IRGC). Following the 1979 Kurdish rebellion, which was the biggest act of political demonstration for Kurdish autonomy in Iran, was the 1989 Kurdish rebellion which was also headed by the PDKI. This insurgency was sparked due to the assassination of the PDKI leader, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, who was killed under false pretenses of having peace talks with the Iranian government. The assassination of Ghassemlou led to Kurdish soldiers launching attacks on Iranian military bases in the Kurdish dominated regions. PDKI and the Iranian government reached a ceasefire agreement in 1996 following relentless attacks by the Iranian government and its military. However, PDKI has just recently ended this ceasefire agreement after accusing the Iranian government of sanctioning the assassinations of eleven PDKI and KDPI members at their respective party bases in Koya. Widespread conflict erupted at the Iran-Iraq border in response to these state-sanctioned killings  intensifying ethnic tensions between Iranians and Kurds. Due to the denial of the Kurdish people’s rights as citizens of Iran, the drafting of the ceasefire did nothing at the time. A new group that is just as militant rose in the absence of PDKI called Iran-Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).

PJAK was formed through a split of the infamous Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish separatist party deemed a terrorist organization, which in turn led to PJAK’s designation as a terrorist organization though affiliation. PJAK formed in 2004 after the Iranian government crushed a Kurdish protest, killing 10 people in the demonstration. Following the Kurdish demonstrations, there were a series of attacks from both the Iranian military forces as well as PJAK. However, the tipping point was finally reached in 2011 when Iranian forces captured and tortured a confession out of a 17 year-old boy who was suspected to be part of PJAK. In that raid, the Iranian government’s security forces also managed to capture three of PJAK’s army bases which was a major blow to their group. These extrajudicial killings were a signal to the Kurdish population that any suspected involvement in groups that advocate for secession and government accountability would lead to death.  

Despite the victory for the Iranian government, IRGC had gone ahead and decided to launch a military offensive against PJAK rebels stationed in northern Iraq in 2011. As a result of PJAK’s heavy loss, PJAK members and the Iranian government put down arms against each other and called for a ceasefire. PJAK had dropped their arms first despite the fact that the Iranian government had been ramping up military campaigns against them. However, the ceasefire still remains to this day.

Meddling in Kurdish Affairs

Despite the mess of how the Iranian government has went about handling this issue, the U.S. has done no better. The U.S. has consistently went against the Kurdish separatist movement in fear that the fight against ISIS, which is mostly facilitated by Kurdish military groups, will be diminished in Kurdish dominated regions. However, the U.S.should not involve themselves on the issue of Kurdish separatism as they would not wish to alienate Turkey, a major ally in the Middle East and the custodian of dozens of American nuclear warheads. The Turkish government is currently dealing with a swift political shift, and further agitating that fine balance could send the entire nation into civil conflict. With the advent of a failed coup d’etat and the creation of Turkey’s de facto dictator Erdogan, the U.S. has an impeding interest in not getting involved on the issue of Kurdish separatism.

In modern times, Iran’s strategy in quelling Kurdish separatism is counterproductive as it has only served to heighten Kurdish nationalism. Tensions continue to rise with the advent of the referendum for Kurdish independence in Iraq. Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. disagreed with the outcome of granting Iraqi Kurds an autonomous republic, although Iran and Turkey attempted to actively stifle the creation of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The result of Iran interfering with Iraqi Kurdistan was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in Iran, something they hadn’t experienced this severely in over a decade.  

Allowing the formation of PDKI into a Political Party

While Iran’s experience in interfering in Kurdish issues outside state boundaries is quelling Kurdish nationalism, allowing for the legitimization of a Kurdish nationalist party would be a step in the right direction. Offering to recognize the Kurdish separatist party as a legitimate political entity will not only reduce the power of the insurgent movement, as half may wish to form a political party while the other half will want to remain an insurgent group, but it will also serve to lighten the Kurdish secessionist message in order to appeal to a broader political base. Many countries have set the precedent for this very strategy including Colombia with FARC, Afghanistan with the Taliban, and Ireland with the IRA. All the aforementioned countries were successful in reducing the amount of violence conducted by these insurgent groups. The reason why is because they decided to join the mainstream political stage in order to gain a wider platform. Recognizing groups like the PDKI would allow the Iranian government to cut the insurgent movement in half, have greater control of the political narrative, and reduce violence within Iran. The oil fields of the Kurdish dominated regions in Iran would also see increased stability as the IRGC would not have to commit extrajudicial killings in attempt to find potential insurgents. The benefits for the Iranian government of allowing PDKI to be a legitimate political party would be in the best interest of Russia’s state enterprise, Rosneft, as it has invested heavily in Kurdish oil reserves. As a result, Rosneft and the Russian state will act in their best interest and push Iran to calm the violence in the oil-rich Kurdish region. Until the Islamic Republic of Iran commits to forming an understanding with the insurgent groups, Russia will see Iran’s sparking of violence as undermining the Russian state’s bottom line.

Facilitating a Solution

Russian interest in the oil fields of Kurdish dominated regions serves as the facilitator of reforms in terms of Iran’s political narrative concerning Kurdish nationalism. Meddling with the state of Iraqi Kurdistan only serves to meddle with Iran’s economic interests as Russia has signed a contract and pre-paid over a billion dollars in exchange for Kurdish oil. Rosneft, a Russian state enterprise much like Gazprom, has an exceeding interest in the issue of Kurdish independence and recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s continuous antics against Iraqi Kurdistan and their own Kurdish population are cutting into the Russian state’s investment of overseas oil reserves. Russia’s GDP is heavily dependant on oil exports as it makes up about 13% of their GDP, so the economy’s dependence on resources will incentivize Russia to push Iran towards accepting Kurdish political autonomy.

The constant battle between the Iranian government and the Kurdish people is a conflict that would be better served trying to reform how the issue is approached. The Kurdish region of the Zagros mountains, with its vast amount of oil in the Kirkuk oil field, would not only provide for the world economy but also provide the Middle East with a potential example of democracy. In order for peace to materialize, Iran must be economically pressured and incentivized by OPEC and Russia towards accepting the idea of Kurdish separatism. It would benefit Iran economically as they could claim exclusive energy contracts with Kurdistan as well as receive permission from OPEC to increase their own oil and gas production quota.

To achieve peace in the fight against Kurdish insurgency the Iranian government must  recognize Iranian Kurds rights to equality before the law. The killing of suspected Kurdish insurgents without the use of the court of law has only went on to inspire every Iranian Kurd who fears of the same fate befalling them. Iran’s government must also cease meddling in Kurdish affairs abroad as it has only served to create ethnic tension between the Kurdish community and the rest of Iran. Finally, Iran must allow for Kurdish separatist groups to officially enter the political fray, much like other developing countries with the same issue have done. This will help cut the insurgent movements power in half by dividing them into separate factions as well as help mellow their political message. Until all these reforms are enacted, Kurdish nationalism will continue to burn.

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