Two decades after a ceasefire, Kurdish fighters have resumed armed action in Iran, The London Times reports (subscription required). The result has been scores of deaths, cross-border artillery barrages into Kurdish villages in Iraq and threats by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders to strike at insurgent bases in the Iraqi mountains.
The fight against a common enemy [of ISIL] has begun to unite Iran’s disparate Kurdish groups, though various factions will inevitably jostle for dominance. Meanwhile, as the Kurds have gained prominence on the battlefield, external powers have taken a greater interest in them. Combined, these factors help to explain the revival of Kurdish insurgencies in Iran, STRATFOR adds.
Taimoor Aliassi (right), the UN Representative of the Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran-Geneva (KMMK-G), travelled to Kurdistan Regional Government – Iraq (KRG) to celebrate Newroz (New Year) in March 2016. He recounts the story of a couple which raises many questions. Why do intelligent Iranian Kurdish youth choose to engage in risky battles against the Islamic Republic, rather than pursuing a stable and safe life elsewhere? What does the Islamic Republic do to the Kurds and other ethnic groups that lead to such detrimental decisions made by the youth? Can Iran continue to promote and sponsor extremism and conflicts in the region, while forcefully repressing its own diverse nation, and yet not face similar challenges and conflicts that Iraq, Syria and now Turkey undergo today?
During my trip, I came across a couple from Iranian Kurdistan, who like most other young ordinary couples seemed happy and in love. I spent a day with Kawa Javanmardi and Ajin Rezai, travelling across the mountains and enjoying Newroz festivities. I recall them holding hands, and eagerly telling me their story. Ajin, an educated and modern young lady from Iranian Kurdistan residing in Europe, had come to see her fiancé, Kawa for Newroz. Kawa, a young man of high caliber whose unique sense of humor was notable in the first few interactions, was an Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, and a member of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI). He loved Ajin very much, but did not yet seem ready to leave Iraqi Kurdistan where he lived in exile to join his fiancé in pursuit of a stable European life. He wanted to stay in Kurdistan and fight for his land and his people. Iranian security forces had killed his father two decades ago; a story much too common in Iranian Kurdistan. Kawa had joined PDKI after enduring 4 years of imprisonment in notorious Iranian prisons, charged with moharebeh (imaginary crime of enmity against god). Not letting go of each other’s hands throughout the trip, I wonder if Kawa and Ajin had sensed the horror that awaited them.
In May 2016, PDKI, Iran’s main Kurdish armed movement, re-launched its armed operations after two decades of silence, and began to send its Peshmerga forces back to Iranian Kurdistan. Kawa was among one of the first Peshmerga groups that went to Iranian Kurdistan. In late June 2016, the Islamic Republic proudly announced that Kawa and three other combatants were killed during an armed clash with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the Kurdish mountain of Kosalan in Iran.
With PDKI back in the battleground, June 2016 alone has brought about three major battles between the PDKI’s Peshmerga and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the regime’s elite security force and terrorism-sponsoring outfit. Simply put, the Islamic Republic of Iran is running out of time to effectively address the suffering of the Kurdish people.
Iran may seem to be one of the region’s only peaceful and stable countries in a quick glance. The atrocities committed by its autocratic apparatus may not seem serious enough as compared to what happens in its neighboring warzones. International media has also recently taken a liking in presenting the country primarily through a rather easy narrative, featuring its blooming underground fashion industry, a general thirst for entrepreneurial endeavors, and its seemingly content modern urban youth. Nevertheless, this Tehran-centric story is not all there is to a diverse country of 80 million people. When zooming in onto some of its border, and ethnic areas there is a hidden story of state-driven discrimination and violence to depict. In particular, the Kurdish people, among them young children, have endured decades of humiliation, discrimination, repression, injustice and violence.
Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has adopted a hostile policy toward the Kurds, due to Kurdish people’s collective rejection of the Islamic Republic in a referendum held in March 1979, as well as their national and democratic aspirations. Indeed, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared a Holy War (Jihad) against Kurdish people, and adopted a hostile military approach in opposition to ethnic issues.
Years after Khomeini’s death, attempts to reform the system from within have not borne any fundamentally positive consequences for the Kurds. Pledges to improve the conditions of the Kurds made by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration did not come to fruition. Since the beginning of his presidency in 2013 until the end of 2015 alone, a total of at least 2,046 prisoners were executed in Iran many of whom are Kurds, and 276 Kurdish civilians have been the victims of security indiscriminate killings. The inaction of the reformist and moderate administrations of the Islamic Republic, including President Rouhani’s cabinet, as well as the increased repression against Kurdish people, have pushed Iranian Kurds to rethink their resistance strategy.
Discrimination against Kurdish people and other ethnic and religious groups in Iran is systemic and systematic. The Islamic Republic deprives members of Iran’s nationalities and minority groups from equal political participation, fair share of power and access to education in mother tongue. According to Iran Prison Atlas, currently out of 915 political prisoners documented, 390 are Kurds. 75% of the prisoners sentenced to mohareb (the imaginary crime of enmity against God) are Kurds. Meanwhile, more than 97% of executions in the ethnic territories were either carried out secretly or were not announced by official Iranian media. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, 14,000 prisoners have been executed for drug-related offences, the absolute majority of whom were Kurds, Balochis and Afghan refugees. A large number of these victims are political prisoners and ethnic rights activists, who are often executed under the cover of drug offences.
Inspired by the achievements of their fellow brothers and sisters in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syrian Kurdistan, and the recent developments in Turkish Kurdistan, Iranian Kurds are also determined to attain the same rights. Kurdish youth in Iran can no longer endure being called smugglers, criminals, separatists, while living in poverty and fear. Most Iranian Kurds have had at least one family member imprisoned, or executed for reasons that are often falsified, or exaggerated, by the state.
All in all, Iranian Kurds are running out of patience. As recent geopolitical upheavals reveal, when Kurds rise in solidarity, their forces are not easily deterred. If it takes a sophisticated army to kill one Kawa, imagine what it takes to physically eliminate thousands of Kawas who may rise against the Islamic Republic in strategic border areas. The Iranian state should be alarmed by the revitalized armed strategy of the Kurds, as it may also encourage other deprived and frustrated ethnic groups such as Baluchis or Ahwazi-Arabs to take up arm against the central government.
The Islamic Republic is no exception to its counterparts in the Middle East. By repressing ethnic groups and neglecting their rights, Iran will ultimately face the same challenges and conflicts as we see today in Iraq, Syria and now Turkey. With or without a sealed nuclear deal with the West, Iran cannot continue to promote conflicts and extremism in the region, yet forever remain influential and stable at the cost of committing various forms of atrocities against its diverse population – ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, women and others alike.
Taimoor Aliassi is the UN Representative of the Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran-Geneva (KMMK-G).