The Kurds in Iran

Kurdish relation with government of Iran ghave not been much better than those with the Turkish government, although Iran has never exercised quite the same level of implacable brutality. It has been unable to since, unlike Turkey which apart from its Kurds is relatively homogeneous, Iran has substantial Arab, Turkic, and Baluchi minorities in addition to the Kurds. Kurds have more in common with Iranians in language and cultural affinity than with either Turks or Arabs.

The Kurds in Iran between 1514-1979
Rule by the Safavids

After the defeat at Chaldiran in 1514, the Safavid shahs tried to consolidate power in their empire by direct rule, but subsequently recognized non-tribal paramount families controlling two or three main confederation s. they used Kurdish tribes to defend the border in Khorasan against Uzbeg invaders in 1600 and these became a permanent community over the years. As their predecessors had done the Safavids dealt ruthlessly with recalcitrant Kurdish princes, but never achieved the effective arrangement of self-rule negotiated by the Ottomans with Kurdish princes. This must be partly explained by the fact that most of the Kurdish tribes were Suni, and therefore less amenable to defending the frontier of a Shi'i empire. It was also because living in close proximity to two strong states, the rulling families frequently split in to pro-Ottoman and pro Iranian branches. Frontier tribes and emirates vacillated between recognition of Safavids and Ottoman authority. Subsequently the rise of pro-Russain and pro-British faction in the great ruling families reflected the growth of imperial influence in the region in the 19th Century when, like the Ottomans, the Qajar Shahs decided to replace Kurdish princely governors with direct administration. The last and greatest of the Iranian Kurdish princes, of Atdelan, was finally deprived of his power in 1865. Despite the treatment they received from the Shahs, Kurdish chiefs demonstrated their commitment to the old order by supporting the Qajar attempt to overthrow the constitutional government of 1912.

Like Turkey at the end of World war I, Iran was also plinged into internal turmoil. Reza Khan, founder of the Phalevi dynasty, managed withe fortunate outside circumstance and British encouragement to establish himself as effective ruler in Tehran in 1912, although he did not displace the last of the Qajar Shahs until 1923, and did not proclaim himself Shah until 1925. His overriding concern in his first years was to ensure the integrity of a state composed of different groups, Kurds. Azeri Turks, Arabs in Khuzistan, Lurs, Bakhtiars and others. Successful separatism on the part of any one of these communities could prove fatal to the integrity of the rest. Amongst several separatist risings in different part of post-World War I Iran, by far the most serious was that in Kurdistan. In October 1921 a Kurdish chief, Isma'il Shakkak Simko, threw off government authority in the area west and south of Lake Urmiya. At first the government in Tehran tried to reach agreement withe Simko on the basis of limited Kurdish autonomy. When Simko incited Lur tribes to join his revolt, and occupied Maraghah east of Lake Urmiya in 1922, Reza Khan led an expedition which dispersed his followers and drove him into Iraq. Simko's revolt had almost certainly been mix between personal aggrandizement and some kind of nationalism. It was also a good example of the way in which a Kurdish chief, surrounded by loyal and wholly ruthless retainers, could dramatically change the balance of things at a time of weakness and disorder.

He first rose to prominence during the chaotic years of World War I when the Tehran government welcomed his attempt to provide authority in the sensitive region west of Urmiya at time when it was threatened by Turkish, Russian and British forces. When he found himself in competition with Assyrian Christians, themselves trying equally ruthlessly to carve out an independent state near Urmiya, he had no scruple in eliminating them. They would have done the same. Simko was a classic Kurd chief who, like those joined the Hamidiya cavalry, used government recognition at a time of uncertainty to advance his own power. Neighbours had either to be eliminated or forced into alliance as subordinates. It was the way confederations were made and unmade. It is unlikely that Simko himself would have been able to distinguish personal ambition from nationalist sentiment. The rise of Mulla Mustafa Barzani in Iraq in 40 years later was reflect the same path - use of government to reinforce his position locally, followed by a bid to throw off government control and establish his own independence. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s reza Khan suppressed separatist tendencies throughout Iran, amongst the Turkic tribes, the Arabs of Khuzistan as well as the Kurds. Lands were confiscated and sometimes whole tribes moved off their ancestral lands.

The Mahabad Republic

During World war II the Russians occupied Northern Iran and the British occupied the south. The objective was to dislodge Reza Shah who the Allies suspected would turn his pro-German sympathy into military alliance. A power vacuum resulted in the Kurdish area between the two zones, with some areas, Shahpur and Urmiya, falling under Soviet control. In the hope of using the opportunity to break loose from Iranian tutelage. Kurdish nationalists formed a party in 1942, Komala Jiwanewey Kurd (The Kurd Resurrection Group). Under Soviet influence, but not control, both the Kurds and the Azerbaijani Turks further north were able to direct their own affairs. The Soviets still harboured an interest in annexing the Azerbaijan area which they had coveted throughout much of the 19th Century, and were also extremely interested in oil concessions in north Iran. But the Allies had, at the time of their invasion, also pledged themselves to withdraw from Iran by March 1946. As that time drew near the Kurds and Azerbaijanis formalized their independence from Tehran. In December 1945 Azerbaijanis captured Tabriz with Soviet encouragement, and declared a Democratic Repuplic of Azerbaijan. Following the Azerbaijani lead the Kurds declared the Republic of Mahabad a few days later, and in January 1946 formed a government under the Persidency of Qazi (judge) Muhammad, a respected member of a leading family of Mahabad.

The Republic was outside the area actually occupied by Soviet forces stretching from Urmiya (Rezaiah) nortwards, and was unable to incorporate Kurdish areas of Saqqiz, Sanandaj and Kermanshah to south which were within the Anglo-American zone of control. It was thus pitifully small. The government was formed by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDPI), an amalgam and compromise between older groups, Komala, Hiwa, a younger Iraqi leftist party, and a group of Kurdish communists. The longstanding division between Kurds, even in so small a area were soon apparent. Before the declartion of the republic the Soviet had already econuraged separatism, not through lefist politcal groups, but more pramatically trough tribal chiefs. Each of these had been evasive, reluctant to jeopardize his own pivotal position between government and tribespeople. Following the declartion of the republic many other lesser chiefs in the area had avoded becoming to closely involed with the Mahabad Governement, which found itself depended mainly on relatives of the locally popular Qazi Muhammad and other citizens of Mahabad. Only the fortuitous acquisition of Mulla Mastafa Barzani (in flight from British and Hashemites in Iraq) and 3000 followers in November 1945 made Qazi Muhammad's position feasible.

Whether or not the Mahabad Republic was set upon a path to complete independence is questionable. At the time of its establishment it sought complete autonomy within Iran's frontiers. Within the republic Kurdish became the official language, periodicals appeared, and teh economy benefitted from direct trade withe USSR. A number of tradional leaders had fled rather than be implicated in a movement which would destroy their own powerful position between Tehran and their tribal or village populations. The land such chiefs was redistibuted, but not on leftist principles. Some of it went to the Barzanis from Iraq. Leftists and tradionalists were anxious to compromise in order to keep the republic afloat. At a political level the Mahabad Government expected the USSR to stand by them although, since pragmatism had led the Soviet to approach tribal leaders in spring 1945 rather than to sponsor ideologically correct republics, this was wishful thinking. The expectation also ingnored widespread Kurdish suspicion of the Russians, based on Russian incursions into Azerbaijan in the 19th Century, and the way in which Russians had laid bare parts of Kurdistan, invluding sacking Mahabad during World War I. Kurdish political groups elsewhere were hostile Qazi Muhammad's Soviet connections. Tribes in the region suffered economically from Soviet occupation and from the Mahabad Republic since they could not make their customary tobacco crop sales to other parts of Iran. West of Mahabad both the Mamesh and Mangur tribes (the closest tribes to the town) were bitterly hostile to Mahabad, to the extent that Barzani's men, who had outlasted their welcome in the area, were sent against them.

The Mahabad Governement also badly miscalculated Soviet interests. Although the Soviet had encouraged both Azerbaijan and Mhabad to declare autonomous republics, tehy were not prepared to defen Them. Regardless of whether either was a sound 'soviet' - and it was manifestly clear Mahabad was not - Soviet interests lay in its overall relationship with Iran, and with the oil exploration concession it was not only interested in but managed to obtain (though subsequently not ratified by Iran's parliament) in spring 1946. By late May 1946 the Soviets had left Iranian soil. Their military help to the Kurdish Republic did not extend beyond persuading a few petty tribal chiefs always ready for fighting and loot to join the Qazi and to persuade the reluctant Amr Khan of the Shikak (who had resigned from Mahabad Government) to reaffirm his support. despite honest attempts Qazi Muhammad was unable to reach an agreement with Tehran. He was aware that a majority of Kurds under their tribal chiefs were unwilling to support him and liable to support the government. In December 1946 the Iranian advanced on Azerbaijan where the republic collapsed almost without resistance, with some of its leadership fleeing to USSR. Amr Khan once more changed sides, pledging loyalty to Tehran, and along with other chiefs, being accepted back into the fold. Soon afterwards Iranian troops entered Mahahbad ( the Dehbokri, Mamesh and Mangur) in the van of the advancing column. Qazi Muhammad, a man of honour to the end, made no attempt to flee. Barzani withdrew with his men to Iraqi side of the border.

All traces of Qazi Muhammad's Government were eradicated. The printing press was closed, the teaching of Kurdish prohibited, and the people of Mahabad burnt their Kurdish books. The area was disarmed, though those Kurdish tribes which had co-operated with the Iranian government were exempted. In March 1947 Qazi Muhammad an two of his colleagues were publicly hanged in Mahabad's main square. Eleven chiefs hanged to encourage loyalty amongst the other. For the Kurds the episode of Mahabad held bitter lessons. Barely one third of the Iranian Kurds had fallen inside the Mahabad Republic. Many of these did not actively oppose but certainly did not support it. much rested on the personal prestige of Qazi Muhammad within the town. Beyond the 'liberated zone'few Kurds demonstrated their willingness either to rebel where they were or march to Mahabad's aid. Most stayed at home. Belief in, and dependence on, outside powerful sponsors was shown to be dangerous, potentially suicidal. The military strength of the Kurds still by lay in the hand of tribal chiefs, and these proved to be quarrelsome, capricious, unreliable, and politically uncommitted to the same ideas as urban intellectuals and nationalists. The same bitter lessons were to be replayed in Iraq.

The Kurds under the Shah

After the fall of Mahabad , as in Turkey after the fall of Dersim in 1938, the Kurdish nationalist movement went underground, and expression of Kurdish identity was banned. In 1952 when the Kurdish peasants of of Bokan revolted against their landlords, the KDPI gave a lead. The Iranian army quikly came to the assistance of landowners, crushing any resistance. The KDPI met secretly in 1956, a full decade after Mahabad, and adopted a leftist programme. Following the Iraqi Revolution of 1958, and the rehabilitation of Barzani in Iraq, Iranian Kurds became increasingly active politically, and increasingly harassed by the authorities. Two leading members of the KDPI Central Committee were arrested and remained in the jail until revolution of 1979. In 1959 at least 250 activists were arrested, whilst others escaped to Baghdad. the Iranian Kurds remained heavily dependent upon Barzani and his movement in Iraq. Under his influence the KDPI produced a more conservative leadership. When KDPI organized a conference in Iraqi Kurdistan some less 'conservative'and many leftists were forcibly prevented from attending. Some KDPI caders led limited guerrilla activity against the Iranian regime, which responded with harsh repression. Barzani, who was receiving aid from the shah, blocked those in Baghdad from returing to Iran, and refused any help to those operating inside Iran. In 1968 he executed one of the leaders (Sulaiman Muini) and handed the corpse over to the Iranian authorities who publicly displayed it in a nummber of Kurdish towns.

It was an unfortunate precedent in pan-Kurdish coperation. The movement in Iran collapsed, many militants having to go into hiding, and more than 40 KDPI members were either killed or arrested by Iranian regime, within Iran Kurds were watched by the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, and by the army and gendarmerie. Some inevitably became paid informants for the regime, and fear and suspicion prevailed amongst all those with political views. The agreement between Barzani and Iraqi government in 1970 made Baghdad the centre of Iranian Kurdish activity. The KDPI (which had moved to the left in the meantime) adopted an anti-imperialist position, declaring their opposition to the Shah's regime. It enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the Ba'th regime in Baghdad which provided it with arms and money. At the very same time Barzani was receiving large amounts of aid from the Shah, and he did not allow KDPI to translate Ba'thi support into any kind of initiative inside Iran.when Barzani broke with Baghdad, however, in 1974 KDPI refused to denounce Barzani publicly, and they were expelled from Iraq. In Iran, on the other hand, militant Kurds felt they could not attack the Shah's regime whilst it was supporting Barzani's struggle against Baghdad. they were caught in a double-bind.

When Iraq and Iran concluded their sudden and dramatic agreement in Algiers in Marc195 whereby the Shah undertook to withdraw support to Barzani, antagonism between Iranian Kurds and the regime in Tehran was resumed. But unlike Iraq, where the mainstream of Kurdish expression was through tribal loyalties exemplified by Barzani himself, the leader pf KDPI since 1973 had been Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a socialist intellectual who had taugh at the Sorbonne and lived for some years in Czechoslovakia, and the rank and file nationalists were peasants and townspeople. It welcomed active co-operation with other progressive forces determined to overthrow the Shah's regime. Although militarily weaker than the tribal army of Barzani, it promised a far better basis for national struggle.

Write by David Mcdowall

Is a freelance writer and specialist
on the Middle East. 1991