A History of Kurdish Struggle in Iran: A Review

2 years agoPolicy Reports

By Farhang Faraydoon Namdar

This paper is authored by Dr. Stansfield & Dr. Hassaniyan. It recently appeared in the Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. It covers the history of the last four decades of Kurds in Iran.  Their story begins with the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979. A sense of revolution passed to the Kurds and they have uninterruptedly commenced a political and armed struggle against the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Revolution and Kurds in Iran
The authors depict a contemptible picture of Kurds in Rojhelat or Iranian Kurdistan. Kurdish rights have been infringed upon with Rojhelat going through a process of militarization since. However, in the 1980s Kurds began an armed resistance against Iran that was led by two main insurgent groups. Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (known as Komala in its Kurdish acronym). Though, a weakened Saddam Hussein and later the collapse of its regime in 2003 further empowered Iran and proportionately weakened the Kurdish movement in Rojhelat.
In addition, the movement in Rojhelat suffered heavily from selective assassination of its prominent leaders that continues to date. After ten years of insurgency, Kurdish groups left their bases in Iran and have settled in Iraqi Kurdistan ever since. Consequently, due Iran’s strong influence within Iraqi Kurdistan, now ruled by Iraqi Kurds. KDPI declared a unilateral ceasefire due to continuous pressure from Iran. Effectively reducing the armed insurgency to levels unseen since the Islamic revolution. After almost two decades of silence, Kurds of Rojhelat have found themselves in fresh regional circumstances. Leading to their reorganization.

Rojhelat in the 21st century
Kurds in Western Iran have gone through a transformation. The society in Iran has organized demonstrations and strikes with great effects, the paper states. It cites strikes throughout Kurdish cities of Iran in 2017 and 2018 as effective political activities. Though, it resulted in further militarization of the region. Consequently leaders of the movement were invited to the United States in the context of the US-Iran rivalry. The parties were back on the stage after years of absence.
A new strategy named Rasan adopted by the insurgents is an adaptation to the changes. It is essentially a new strategy adopted to mount pressure on Iran. It translates into combining peshmerge in the mountains with activists in urban areas of Rojhelat. Rasan brought back Peshmerge to mountainous regions of Iran after years of ceasefire. Justification for the strategy finds itself in the stubborn attitude of the Islamic republic. Even if the Kurdish groups resorted only to political means to achieve their rights. Iran only grew more aggressive. Many in Rojhelat criticize the strategy as ill-advised. For the strategy has re-ignited a frequent armed insurgency against Iran. In addition, most of the armed groups in Rojhelat have severely criticized the strategy. Usually bickering among themselves. 

Consequences of Rasan

2018 hosted multiple clashes between Kurdish armed groups and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corpus (IRGC) across Rojhelat. The IRGC’s response found itself in targeting peshmerge, Kurdish leaders and bombing of their bases. The IRGC’s operations have been precise given the latest warfare technologies. Most notably, IRGC managed to bomb the main headquarter of KDPI where Rojhelati leaders held a meeting. Although, it is division that has weakened the Kurds not lack of technology, the paper claims.
KDPI and Komala have experienced many splits since the 1990s. As the papers states “three parties laid claim to the name Komala, and two KDPI groups distinguished themselves from each other by suffixes, prefixes or hyphenated names”. Nonetheless, there have been attempts to reunite the organizations. Formation of the Cooperation Centre of Iranian Kurdistan’s Political Parties (CCIKPP) in 2018, it included almost every party in Rojhelat. Nonetheless, members CCIKPP retain their independence and some have withdrawn from the center.  

Intra-party tensions
One of the defining features of the political landscape in Rojhelat is distrust between Kurdish parties, the authors opine. For instance, PJAK (the Free Life Party of Kurdistan) is accused by the KDPI and Komala among others, for being an offshoot of the PKK (Proletariat Party of Kurdistan). They briefly fought each other. Further, the KDPI and Komala have been dependent on Kurdish Government of Iraq (KRI). The region is ruled by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) both having close ties with Iran. The authors argue that through its allies in the KRI, the Islamic Republic has attempted to minimize armed insurgency within Iran.
Thus disorganization and ineffective policies have led to the current situation in Rojhelat. The vacuum left by Rojhelati groups was filled by the PKK. The authors claim that the PKK doesn’t genuinely want to confront Iran which is why it formed PIJAK. Due to the fact, that the PKK is sponsored by Iran. As a pretense to satisfy Rojhelatis. Nonetheless, the emergence of PIJAK has altered the game. Other parties increasingly find it difficult to exclude PIJAK from inter-party cooperation.

The authors chronically, albeit briefly, cover the history of negotiations between Iran and Rojhelati parties. Kurds began their struggle with negotiations and may achieve their goals through negotiations. Kurds were adamant on securing autonomy and national recognition for Rojhelat. Even though they have been futile. The last negotiation ended in assassination of general secretary of KDPI and ever since distrust has prevented any rapprochement.
However, the paper expounds that negotiations between Iran and Rojhelat have resumed. Based on leaks from anonymous sources. In 2019 Kurds had participated in the negotiations via CCIKPP in Norway.
The Kurdish party officials have described it as preliminary. KDPI denies the existence of negotiations with Iran, refusing to comment on the subject. Critics point out that Iran always uses negotiations as a tactic not a solution. A statement from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, issued after the negotiations, is used to back this claim. Though, the paper balances this statement by stating that negotiation is recognition of the Kurdish parties. Yet it also mentions the regional context in which negotiations are conducted.
The paper finds out that negotiations were preliminary and nothing of importance was discussed. The Kurdish parties believe that Iran has nothing to offer and don’t hide their distrust of the regime. Though, they don’t dismiss peaceful solutions.

The authors conclude that the society in Rojhelat has undergone a transformation since the last two decades. Becoming politicized, capable of challenging government of Iran. The general strike of 2018 is a textbook example of this. However, resumption of hostilities has undermined the politically active society and has brought more repression over the Kurds on the part of Iran. Despite continuous threats on Rojhelat, Kurdish political parties are still divided across many lines. The Kurds have resources and ability to achieve their aims but they are disorganized.

The paper provides a comprehensive insight into Kurdish struggle in Iran over the past forty years. Yet it is simplistic. The authors promote the idea that the collapse of Saddam’s regime has rendered  Rojhelat weaker and Iran stronger. However, they fail to mention that it paved the way for a Kurdish polity in Iraq. Which has been a beacon of aspiration for Kurds around the world. KRI has been a safe haven for Kurds across the Middle East. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have come together on multiple occasions to crush Kurdish political movements.
The paper refrains from mentioning the deep roots between Kurds of Iraq and Iran. For instance, the first modern Kurdish state was formed in 1946 whose official army was composed of Kurds from Iraq and led by Mustafa Barzani. Further, it displays only one side of the story. That KRI has assisted Iran to contain Rojhelat.
The paper traces division to partisan politics. Insurgencies without causes that people could embrace, almost always fail. The insurgency in Rojhelat has not realized its stated goals. On the contrary, it has been in a constant setback. Consequently, when a political group misses its aims, it will lose its raison d'être. Therefore, the main reason behind the divisions is due to the fact that these parties either stagnate or deteriorate. Therefore, Rasan would not simply substitute its raison d'être. For it’s only a continuation of the earlier strategies. The strategy only changes the means and not the end. Political groups without popular support are not insurgencies.
The authors forget the transformation of the Islamic Republic. Whose developments are inextricably linked to Rojhelat. Currently, Iran is a regional hegemon whose proxies engulf political parties working against Iran. It has been able to resist the United States and its allies and has mastered the art of proxy warfare.
In terms of references, a significant portion of the sources listed in the bibliography are either funded or affiliated with Kurdish political parties of Rojhelat. For instance, the Organization of Hengaw for Human Rights is pro-KDPI. It reports on almost every activity that KDPI conducts.
Regarding negotiations, the paper fails to mention that the Islamic republic doesn’t recognize nationalities but religions. Kurds demand a national autonomy which equals the disintegration of Iran. Because only religion is shared among the majority of Iranians and Iran is a multiethnic state.
Currently many Iranians are worried about religious freedom rather than ethnic freedom. The paper fails to mention that discrimination against Kurds is usually religious.  More importantly, it doesn’t indicate that Kurds adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam while more than 90% of Iran adheres to Shia Islam. Iran is a theocracy with most of its key decision makers being religious scholars rather than university pundits.

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