Iran’s Kurdish Question
The Islamic Republic's recent execution of five Kurds has sparked outrage in northern Iraq, and renewed unrest at home.
Two days after the hanging of five Iranian Kurds in Tehran, protesters gathered across the Iraqi border in the Kurdish city of Suleymanieh. Thousands of them crowded into the city’s leafy Freedom Park, where Javad Alizadeh, a well-known former political prisoner in Iran who had recently left for Iraqi Kurdistan, addressed the gathering. The Iranian regime "follows neither the principles of republicanism, nor does it abide by holy laws of Islam," Alizadeh declared. "The Islamic Republic has shown in the past 30 years that it only cares about its own survival and it will not abstain from committing the vilest of acts in achieving its goal."
The memorial was one of the greatest outpourings of Kurdish opposition to the regime in recent memory, and one among numerous protests and hunger strikes — quiet ones in Iran, less so in Iraq’s Kurdish region, where Kurds were once persecuted but now enjoy relative autonomy — that have broken out since the execution on May 9. The victims, the Iranian authorities claimed, were activists for Kurdish autonomy; two of the five were accused of belonging to the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), a Kurdish nationalist group that Iran considers a terrorist organization. The uproar has prompted, and been worsened by, the government’s refusal to allow the families of the five victims to be buried publicly, for fear of massive protests.
The executions and other crackdowns in Iran have set up a bind for the country’s Kurds, who increasingly fear that the price of political activism within Iran is death or imprisonment — but worry that their abilities to pressure the regime will be lessened if they instead choose exile in northern Iraq, where the Kurds enjoy protection by their own defense forces. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, religious and ethnic minorities have faced worsening discriminatory practices in Iran, the Kurds (who are also mostly Sunni Muslim in majority Shiite Iran) among them. When human rights and political activists have protested the unequal status, the Islamic Republic has prosecuted many of them. Most recently, Kaweh Ghassemi-Kermanshahi, a member of the central committee of the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization, was arrested after he spoke to the foreign media; he has been in detention for nearly 100 days.
The demonstrators in Suleymaniah hope their protests and vigils will inspire the Kurds in Iran to rise up, despite their fear of Iran’s security forces. (They succeeded last Thursday, when Iranian Kurds responded by launching a general strike and shuttering their shops.) Salahaddin Mohtadi, an exiled Iranian Kurd in Suleymaniah who has been fighting for Kurdish independence in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, believes that Iran’s recent actions could be the goad that activists need to form a broad Kurdish front that transcends political rivalries. "The execution of political prisoners can be a great opportunity to create a large coalition among Kurdish parties against the central government of Iran," he said.
On the evening of May 10, hundreds of Iranian and Iraqi Kurds took part in a protest gathering at the Shneh Dari Park in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where demonstrators lit candles in memory of Sunday’s victims. Farhad Pirbal, a dissident Kurdish author who spoke at the event, compared what is happening now in Iran to the repression of Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein. "There was a time when Baathist agents executed young Kurds right here in the neighborhood just because they were carrying cassette tapes with Kurdish music on them," Pirbal said. "But now, we are here at this very place in freedom protesting against a regime that hangs Kurds for the crime of defending their own rights."
"No dictatorship can last forever," he went on. "There was a time when the demise of the Baath regime seemed impossible. … I am sure that there will be a day when the Iranian people will be free of dictatorship and achieve liberty."
Life in the Kurdish provinces in Iran, meanwhile, remains tense. There is a heavy security presence in places such as Kamyaran, Sanandaj, Mahabad, and Saghez, and local Kurdish media reported that 15 students were arrested Wednesday morning in the Kurdish city of Marivan. Thursday’s strike in the region was reportedly the largest in recent years; bazaars were empty, students and activists stayed home, even government offices were closed. These five executions, the activists believe, don’t just mark the end of the victims’ lives, but also the beginning of a new era in which the Iranian regime will have to answer to its critics.