Many Iranian Kurds appear to support the upcoming Sept. 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is planned to go ahead despite fierce opposition both at home and from the international community.
On numerous occasions in recent weeks, the Kurdish leadership in Erbil has reiterated its commitment to holding the referendum. Other Kurdish officials, however, doubt that the referendum will be held. Bahroz Galali, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan representative in Turkey who was recently expelled by Ankara over the abduction of a number of Turkish secret agents by the Kurdistan Workers Party in Sulaimaniyah province, told reporters at the airport, “I am confident that the referendum will not go ahead on Sept. 25.”
While Iraqi Kurds suffer from historical disunity and a lack of coordination on the referendum, many Kurds across the eastern border, in Iran, say they would like to see Iraqi Kurdistan become independent. The Kurds residing in Iran who were interviewed by Al-Monitor only spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of repercussions from the authorities in Tehran. It should be noted that Iran has fiercely opposed the referendum, charging Iraqi Kurds with creating instability in the region with the vote — and threatening dire consequences for the region.
"Yes, I am in favor of Kurdistan going independent, and I think they have the right to decide their future," a 20-year-old computer programming student in Iran told Al-Monitor via Facebook. "Enough of oppression. I have also spoken with many other students who say the Kurds deserve their own state.”
There are currently around 8 million Kurds in Iran, many of whom complain about discrimination by the central government, whether it be in relation to economic development, human rights or their language. Most Kurds in Iran do not know how to write and read in their mother tongue because the government has barred teaching in the Kurdish language since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, despite the constitution guaranteeing such rights for ethnic minorities.
In the border area near the Iraqi town of Halabja, under sprawling walnut trees where many Iraqi Kurds escape during the heat of the summer, a 69-year-old Iranian Kurd mingled with a group of Iraqi Kurds while pouring tea for them. "Is there anyone in the world who is Kurdish and who is against a Kurdish state?” the man whispered rhetorically as he tried to avoid other Iranian Kurds from eavesdropping. "I hope they go ahead with the referendum and create their own state."
Despite the seemingly broad support from among Iranian Kurds, there is genuine opposition against the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan that could potentially derail the process. "I would say that many Kurds here in Iran support the referendum, but there are some who are not happy with the social injustice that exists there [in Iraqi Kurdistan]," a secondary school teacher in Iran’s Kurdistan province told Al-Monitor via telephone. "Many are well off, while others cannot feed their families." Some Iranian Kurds who lived in Iraqi Kurdistan as political refugees often complained about harassment by the security services, questioning whether a genuine democratic state can be established in Iraqi Kurdistan under the current leadership.
Since early 2014, when Iraqi Kurdistan plunged into a financial crisis because of the drop in oil prices, the war with the Islamic State, an influx of a large number of internally displaced people and colossal mismanagement of the economy, the rate of poverty has increased dramatically. This has created widespread resentment, leading many Iraqi Kurds to try to take revenge on the political elite by opposing the referendum.
Rahman Javanmardi, a Kurd from Iran who campaigns for human rights and is in constant contact with people inside the country, says there is no scientific way of measuring the views of Iranian Kurds. However, he noted to Al-Monitor that based on his own observation of Iranian Kurds on social media, "It is fair to say that eastern Kurds [Kurds from Iran] have sympathy with other Kurds, and in this case, with the Kurds in the [Iraqi] Kurdistan region." Javanmardi believes that federalism has failed in Iraq due to chauvinism and dictatorial tendencies in Baghdad and therefore supports the referendum, charging that most Kurds in Iran "support independence" for Iraqi Kurds, too.
Historically, Iranian Kurds have come to the rescue of Kurds across the border on many occasions. In May 1919, as Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, the governor of Sulaimaniyah under British tutelage, tried to revolt against the British, it was not the Kurds of Iraq — who suffered from disunity at the time — who came to his support. Rather, a group of 300 armed Iranian Kurds crossed the border and helped Sheikh Mahmoud inflict a humiliating defeat on the British at the entrance to Sulaimaniyah. The same is true today. As the Kurds in Iraq quarrel about the benefit of the referendum, Iranian Kurds — including political parties — are encouraging them to stay united. "The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran considers this referendum … an inalienable right of the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan,” read a June 10 statement by the oldest Iranian Kurdish opposition party. In the same statement, the party also called on “all its members and supporters to back and help to succeed this historical decision.”
Iranian Kurds in the diaspora also appear to support the referendum. Diman Sohrabi, a 28-year-old poet and writer who resides in Germany, took part in a 20,000 strong demonstration on Aug. 26 in Cologne to back the referendum. “It is a national and historical duty of any Kurd to support Kurdistan’s independence because chances like these are rare,” Sohrabi told Al-Monitor via Facebook. “This is the basic right of Kurds to have their own independent state, and I hope the Kurds would take good advantage of this opportunity and [that] … greater Kurdistan becomes a state one day.”