Effects of Iraqi Kurdistan referendum reverberate in Iran
The sky did not collapse following the Iraqi Kurdish referendum. The United States protested and Baghdad ruled out talks over Kurdish independence; Turkey and Iran carried out military manoeuvres, cancelled flights and tightened border security but there is a wait-and-see international approach reflecting a fast-moving, unprecedented situation.
No one knows how Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani will act, either in asserting independence or in strengthening the Kurds’ grip on the disputed city and province of Kirkuk.
While voting was brisk in some areas — authorities claimed 72% turnout overall — enthusiasm was not universal. “Turnout in Sulaymaniyah wasn’t high, partly because people saw it more as a Barzani project and partly because they lack trust in the Kurdish leadership,” said Salam Abdulrahman, head of the political science department at the University of Human Development in Sulaymaniyah. “There were no observers at polling stations, which cast doubt on the fairness of voting. In my view, holding the poll was wrong and it has not brought Iraqi Kurdistan closer to independence.”
The referendum, however, may reverberate for years as part of a wider surge in Kurdish nationalism. Just as Sivan Perwer’s song “Halabja” about the 1988 chemical attack stirred the Kurdish cause through clandestine Kurdish radio, today’s slick videos mix dance and music in extolling Kurdish peshmerga fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
Most are made in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Some highlight Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and some the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD) but all project a strong Kurdish nationalism.
Helly Luv, the singer who gave a concert in Erbil during the referendum campaign, famously shot part of the video for her 2015 song “Revolution” within a few kilometres of the front line between Kurdish forces and ISIS near Mosul.
Born Helan Abdulla 28 years ago in Urmia, Iran, Helly Luv has worked with Los Angeles producer G2, is beloved by the American right and has opened a beauty salon in Erbil. She starred in the 2014 film “Mardan” directed by the Iranian Kurdish director Batin Ghobadi and the 2015 docudrama “A Flag without a Country,” directed by Ghobadi’s award-winning older brother Bahman.
None of which endears her to the Iranian authorities. Tehran’s opposition to the referendum was partly based on commitment to a unified Iraq but Tehran is wary of ripples reaching its own Kurdish population of 8 million-10 million.
Such cross-border influence predates the Iraqi Kurds’ de facto autonomy achieved in 1991 but is accelerating with the referendum and Kurdish self-rule in northern and north-eastern Syria. Today’s media make containment impossible.
Photographs and clips of smartphone-toting, pro-referendum demonstrators in Iranian Kurdistan — in Sanadaj, Baneh and Mahabad — are rampant on social media. They feature on the website of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), possibly the largest opposition group, which urges “the people of eastern Kurdistan… [to] take every opportunity to express their public support for the independence referendum… [and] raise the Kurdish flag to demonstrate… that the Kurdish nation in all parts of Kurdistan support one another.”
This goes beyond the party’s commitment to a federal Iran, a solution rejected in Iraq by supporters of independence. A KDPI statement in mid-September stressed “the Kurds are one nation… divided against their will.” Mustapha Hijri, the KDPI leader recently in Washington, has stressed “the bravery of our peshmerga forces” in ensuring the survival of the “Kurdish nation” despite “partition.”
Iranian Kurdish peshmerga, based in northern Iraq since the early 1980s, are unlikely to change this soon. The KDPI last year strengthened its armed sorties into Iran having largely ended them in the 1990s. The KDPI claims the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps fighters, while Iran claims to have killed dozens of rebels and has shelled KDPI positions in Iraq.
The Iranian Kurdish parties are also weakened by divisions. The KDPI split in 2006. Both parts, like the leftist Komala, distrust the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), which, like the Syrian PYD, is affiliated to the Turkey-centred Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). PJAK has been less active militarily in recent years, reportedly sending fighters to Syria, but claimed to kill 32 Iranian security forces last October after it lost 12 fighters.
Neither is there much enthusiasm for the Kurdish cause throughout Iran, although Iranian President Hassan Rohani promised to improve Kurdish rights. Iran’s Kurds are probably a majority in three provinces — Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam.
Their motives are suspect to many Persians, who make up half Iran’s population, and Azeris, who are around one-quarter. Both the reformist and principlist fundamentalist media in Tehran have condemned the Iraqi Kurdish referendum. The former emphasise the dangers of conflict, especially over Kirkuk; the latter stress Israeli support for Kurdish independence.
It is hard to see a way forward that does not exacerbate tensions between Kurds and others in Iran. This is especially so for the Azeris and the Lurs, who live to the south of the Kurds. Whatever happens next, the Kurdish genie is out of the bottle.