Between Iran and Kurdistan: Iran’s Kurdish Protests in Context

Djene Bajalan

The death in September of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, Jîna (Mahsa) Amini, whilst in the custody of the Tehran branch of the Gasht-e Ershad—Iran’s “morality police”—served as the catalyst for a wave of popular protest across the country that has continued for several months, resulting in over 500 deaths. This unrest, in which women and young people have played a particularly prominent role, has been characterized by opposition not only to the hardline administration of President Ebrahim Raisi but also to the Islamic Republic in its entirety. Amini, in both name and image, has been transformed into a potent symbol of nationwide resistance to the regime. However, Amini herself is a contested figure, a contestation implicit in whether she is referred to as “Mahsa,” the Persian name imposed upon her by the Iranian state, or “Jîna,” the Kurdish name given to her by her family.

For a significant proportion of the Iranian Kurdish community (some 8-15 percent of the Iranian population), Amini has come to be seen not simply as a victim of Iran’s conservative political establishment, but also as a symbol of the Iranian state’s ongoing oppression of their community. In recent months, Iran’s predominately Kurdish northwest has been the center of some of the most sustained protests as well as being on the receiving end of some of the most violent government repression. Moreover, the uprising in Iranian Kurdistan has been distinct, in a political sense, from similar rebellions in other parts of the country. In addition to denouncing Iran’s rulers, Kurdish demonstrators have rallied behind chants of “Long live the Kurds and Kurdistan” as well as slogans in favor of exiled Kurdish opposition groups.

Protesters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil, hold up a banner with the image of Mahsa Amini and the slogan “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî“ during a protest in support of Iranian Kurds in September 2022 (SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)

It would be a mistake to assume that the nationalistic posture of these protests represents the entirety of Kurdish opinion. Whether out of a deeply held Iranian patriotism or for more opportunistic reasons, there have long been elements of Kurdish society that have supported Tehran’s rule. Nevertheless, the current unrest in Iranian Kurdistan has exposed the deep ambivalence of many Kurds towards their membership in the “Iranian nation,” an ambivalence born of historical experience.

The origins of Iran’s Kurdish question are to be found in the century-long effort of Iranian elites to transform the country into a modern nation-state. In the early twentieth century Iran was a weak, decentralized imperium, whose largely rural population was divided into a plethora of different tribal groupings and ethnolinguistic communities, including Persians, Kurds, Azerbaijani Turks, Turkmens, Baluch, Arabs, and Armenians. While Twelver Shiʿite Islam, the faith of the majority, provided some basis for imperial unity, the notion of a unified Iranian citizenry was only beginning to take root amongst a small (albeit influential) intellectual elite. For most subjects of the Shah, bonds of clan, village, locality, and sect prevailed. Such parochialism was equally true of Kurdish society. While Kurds were distinct in their religious affiliations (the majority adhering to the Sunni branch of Islam) they too lacked a coherent sense of national consciousness, being divided along sectarian, linguistic, and—perhaps most importantly—tribal lines.

However, the rise of Reza Shah and the formation of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 opened the way for a new, more vigorous, phase of nation-building that would have a profound effect on Iran’s Kurdish community. On an elemental level, the new regime violently asserted the authority of the central government over the restive periphery, including in Kurdistan. At the point of a bayonet, tribes were disarmed, nomads were settled, and taxes were extracted. However, the Pahlavi modernization project went beyond administrative centralization. It sought to refashion Iran’s diverse population into a culturally homogeneous Iranian nation. In practice, this dictated the forcible assimilation of non-Persian minorities, through the imposition of Persian as the sole language of administration and public instruction as well as, after 1935, a strict prohibition on the use of non-Persian languages (including Kurdish) in writing.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm once remarked that it is not nations that make “states and nationalisms but the other way round.” He might have added, however, that sometimes they make the wrong nation. Paradoxically, the very policies of violence and cultural assimilation upon which Reza Shah sought to erect a unified Iran created fertile ground for the germination of a distinctive Kurdish political consciousness. This was made evident following the 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, which forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. The ensuing power vacuum witnessed an upsurge of Kurdish political activism, at the forefront of which was a new urban intelligentsia, many of whom had received their educations in Reza Shah’s schools or whilst in service to his military.

This culminated in the formation of the Republic of Kurdistan, proclaimed in the town of Mahabad in January 1946. That experiment in Kurdish self-government was short-lived. In the end, government forces, supported by pro-government Kurdish tribesmen, crushed the Mahabad Republic after only 11 months, putting to death its leader, Qazi Mohammad. Yet, repression failed to stamp out Kurdish nationalism.

While Mohammad Reza Shah lifted some of the more draconian restrictions on Kurdish culture and language, Kurdish life remained tightly controlled. The Kurdish language continued to be prohibited in education and administration and any form of Kurdish political activism remained strictly proscribed. Cultural and political grievances were only further exacerbated by economic trends. The Shah’s program of rapid modernization served to shift the center of gravity in Kurdish society from the countryside to the growing towns, weakening tribal bonds and expanding the social base for modern Kurdish nationalism. At the same time, Iranian Kurdistan remained relatively poor and underdeveloped, a situation that fueled resentment towards the monarchy. Thus, while the Shah’s secret police forced Kurdish activism underground for a time, it reemerged in the late 1970s heralding the beginning of a new phase of armed struggle that would last for over a decade.

At the head of this wave of militancy were the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), a left-leaning organization established by the founders of the Mahabad Republic in 1945, and the Organization of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala), a newer Marxist-Leninist political formation that emerged in the late 1960s. Both parties participated in the revolutionary upsurge that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy, with large parts of Iranian Kurdistan quickly falling into rebel hands.

However, Iran’s revolutionary government had little sympathy for Kurdish demands for self-government. The Islamic Republic quickly reasserted military control over Kurdistan and, by 1980, Kurdish insurgents had been driven from much of the region. Although sporadic partisan activity continued, with Iraqi support, throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), by the late 1980s much of the Kurdish opposition was forced into permanent exile. Some remained in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, while others departed for Europe. Yet even in exile, the Kurdish opposition continued to be pursued by the Islamic Republic, with Iranian operatives assassinating KDPI leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Austria in 1989 as well as four more Kurdish leaders in a gun attack on a Berlin restaurant three years later. Iranian Kurdish camps in Iraqi Kurdistan were also subject to periodic attacks from Iranian forces—including the rocket strikes that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched in response to the most recent round of unrest.

Despite their apparent resolve to eliminate organized Kurdish political opposition, the Islamic Republic’s approach to the Kurdish question—and the question of minority rights more generally—marked a departure from that of the Pahlavi monarchy. For example, Article 15 of the post-revolution Iranian constitution, which defines Persian as the country’s official language, explicitly permits the use of “regional” and “tribal” languages in the public sphere, including in education.

Still, old patterns continue. Kurdish cultural freedoms continue to be curtailed. While the state has allowed the study of Kurdish language and culture at certain institutions of higher education, the use of the Kurdish language as a medium of instruction in primary and secondary education is still prohibited and Kurdish names for shops and businesses continue to be forbidden. Indeed, the imprisonment in 2020 of Kurdish-language teacher Zahra Mohammadi demonstrates that even the private teaching of the Kurdish language runs the risk of legal sanction. At the same time, Iranian Kurdistan continues to be one of the poorer regions of Iran as well as one of the most heavily policed, with a 2019 United Nations report observing that Kurds made up 50 percent of those incarcerated in Iran on political grounds as well as a disproportionately large number of those sentenced to death.

It is this history of cultural exclusion, economic deprivation, and political repression that has given the current protests in Iranian Kurdistan their nationalist character. They reflect not only anger towards the current political order, anger shared with other elements of Iranian society, but also a deeper antipathy born out of policies of successive generations of state elites to impose Iranian national unity through coercive means.

In recent months, Iran’s leaders have sought to portray the protests that have engulfed Iranian Kurdistan as a nefarious plot organized by outside forces designed to threaten Iran’s territorial integrity. This is hardly a new accusation, nor is it one exclusive to Iran. While the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Western Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Kermanshah mark the northwestern boundary of the Iranian state, they simultaneously represent the easternmost extent of a zone of Kurdish settlement extending into northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. The specter of a “Greater Kurdistan” uniting Kurdish communities across the Middle East within a single state has long haunted regional capitals, stoking hostility to even the most mundane Kurdish political activity.

Such fears are not entirely groundless. Developments beyond Iran’s frontiers in the greater Kurdish homeland are not without implications for Iran’s Kurds. Historically, Iranian Kurdish politics has both influenced and in turn been influenced by the wider Kurdish struggle. At times, such influences have been direct. Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq share a common origin in the organization founded in Mahabad in 1945. Moreover, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who would lead the Iraqi KDP from 1946 until his death in 1979, served as the head of the Mahabad Republic’s armed forces.

Such cross-border connections are far from unique. In more recent times, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) was established in 2004 with the support of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deriving its political program from the writings of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Moreover, the slogan Jin, Jîyan, Azadî (“Woman, Life, Freedom”)—adopted in its Persian translation by protestors across Iran—has its origins in Turkey’s Kurdish movement and was popularized to a great extent by the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the all-female Kurdish militia in Syria that came to international prominence during the conflict with the Islamic State.

At other times, this influence has been more intangible. The last 30 years have witnessed not only a general intensification of Kurdish political mobilization across the region but also some significant political successes. Perhaps most important in this regard was the formation of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. Although Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has been marred by civil war, corruption, and creeping authoritarianism, it is hard to dismiss the effect this concrete manifestation of Kurdish self-rule has had on Kurdish political consciousness in Iran, especially given the relative ease with which Iranian Kurds can travel to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yet despite these entanglements and interconnections, for much of its history, Iran’s Kurdish movement has eschewed calls for both a pan-Kurdish state and political separatism. This has been true from the very inception of modern Kurdish nationalism in Iran. In outlining the intentions of his Mahabad administration, Qazi Mohammad sought Tehran’s recognition of the laws that his government had promulgated “concerning the education of the Kurd and the autonomy of the local administration and the army.” Likewise, both the KDPI and Komala rallied behind programs of cultural rights and administrative autonomy within the framework of a democratic Iran, rather than calls for outright independence. PJAK has also rejected secession, presenting its left-wing vision of a pluralistic system of decentralized regional self-management as a model not just for Kurds but for all Iranians.

Ultimately, the identity and political orientation of Iran’s Kurdish community are far more complex than it is often assumed. They cannot be neatly disentangled from the wider Kurdish community and nor can they be clearly separated from Iranian society. Iranian Kurds are bound to both through a multitude of social, cultural, and political linkages, a reality that has birthed a distinctive Iranian Kurdish identity.

This identity is perhaps most succinctly articulated in the term “Rojhilatî” (Eastern Kurd). At first glance such terminology, favored by the more nationalistic elements of the Kurdish population, is a repudiation of an Iranian identity in favor of a pan-Kurdish one. However, when understood within a vocabulary in which Bashurî (Southern Kurd) and Bakurî (Northern Kurd) are used to refer to Kurds from Iraq and Turkey respectively, it becomes clear that such language simultaneously serves both as a rejection and reification of the international boundaries that bisect the Kurdish community. Indeed, it reflects not only the liminal position of Iran’s Kurdish population but that of Kurds across the Middle East. They are people whose identity and politics have been shaped and will continue to be shaped by both the specific histories of the nation-states within which they reside and a broader pan-Kurdish arena that transcends international frontiers. And, for Iran’s Kurds, this means that the success or failure of their struggle will have profound implications for both Iran and the wider Kurdish community.

Website | + posts