As Iran polls loom, Kurds sharpen ethnic divisions
London - In Iran’s 2005 presidential election, reformist candidate Mostafa Moin used a series of posters featuring Iranians in an array of traditional clothing to project himself as a man sympathetic to the half of Iran’s population that hails from its ethnic minorities.
In the 2013 election, the centrist Hassan Rohani polled well among both the Baluchis in eastern Iran and the Kurds in the west.
Treatment of non-Persian groups remains divided between reformists and pragmatists on one side such as Rohani, and fundamentalists on the other, who often look to security solutions. The Kurds and Baluchis are particularly suspect not just because both have spawned armed groups hostile to the Islamic Republic but also because they — unlike the Azeris, Iran’s largest ethnic minority, or Turkic-speaking nomads — are Sunni Muslims.
Rohani visited Kurdistan in June and made a speech in Mahabad, capital of the short-lived Soviet-backed Kurdish Republic of 1946. He promised to open Kurdish-language centres since the “mother tongue of ethnic groups, especially of Kurds, should be respected and recognised”. The president also inaugurated a petrochemical works, a rare large jobs provider in one of Iran’s poorer regions.
But this was also a summer with armed clashes between Iranian security forces and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which has been largely based in neighbouring Iraq since it was driven there in the early years of the Islamic Republic.
Tehran claimed this summer to have killed dozens of KDPI fighters in clashes, while Iranian security officials and commanders condemned the KDPI as “terrorists”. Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour alleged they were supported by “reactionary states”, meaning the Arab monarchies of the Gulf. During a parliamentary session, local deputy Rohulla Hazratposh explicitly named Saudi Arabia.
The KDPI denies it follows anyone else’s agenda, although its leader, Mustafa Hijri, told the Jerusalem Post in July that “Israel should be providing help to opposition groups standing against Iran”.
Apart from deciding how to build support internationally, the party has for many years faced a challenge in demonstrating a continued relevance to Iran’s Kurds, who number perhaps 8 million, about 10% of Iran’s population.
The KDPI has to avoid being outflanked by the more militant Party for Free Life (PJAK), an offshoot of the Turkish Kurd Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is gaining strength through the success of its Syrian ally in controlling territory pried from either President Bashar Assad or the Islamic State (ISIS).
Unlike the PKK, the KDPI has enjoyed friendly relations with the Kurdish parties ruling northern Iraq, which have often been put under Iranian pressure — witness this summer’s intermittent Iranian shelling of areas inside Iraq — to prevent the KDPI expanding its activities within Iran.
The KDPI has therefore since the early 1990s spoken of an “armed presence” rather than an “armed struggle”. As its deputy leader, Hassan Sharafi, recently put it: “We don’t call it armed struggle — we call it the presence of peshmerga alongside the people of Kurdistan who are under the pressure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are detained, jailed and being monitored. Our peshmerga have a presence… to protect those people.”
With Kurdish nationalist sentiment enhanced regionally by developments in Syria, the KDPI also argues there has been a toughening of Tehran’s approach. Hijri has insisted the KDPI cannot give blanket assurances to the Iraqi Kurdish authorities over its activities.
Both Sharafi and Hijri have said they believe Tehran has cracked down on Kurdish dissidents as a consequence of its 2015 agreement with world powers over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Facing a presidential election in May 2017, Rohani will seek Kurdish support and recently dispatched a delegation to Sanandaj, Iran’s largest Kurdish city but Ahsan Alawi, a parliamentary deputy for Sanandaj, told the Kurdish news website Rudaw he thought the president would lose votes.
For many Kurds, differences between Rohani and his fundamentalist critics appear small. While the Kurds are closer to Persians in language and culture than to Arabs or Turks, the overtly Shia nature of the Islamic Republic often makes them feel like second-class citizens.
The KDPI’s official policy is federalism and the party draws on the political legacy of Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, a leader assassinated by Iranian agents in Vienna in 1989 after being lured into talks by Tehran. PJAK wants something far closer to independence.
Few doubt the atmosphere is volatile. In May 2015, riots broke out in Mahabad and spread to other Kurdish cities, including Sardasht and Marivan, just days after a 25-year-old Kurdish chambermaid, Farinaz Khosravani, plunged to her death from a hotel room. Social media posts suggested she was fleeing sexual pursuit by a member of the security forces.
As winter draws in on the mountains along the Iraq-Iran border, snow will reduce the forays of both peshmerga and smugglers. Come spring, a new political season will open.