Spring has arrived in Qandil, the majestic mountain range separating Iran from Iraq. But the bucolic calm enveloping this far-flung corner of the Middle East could be shattered at any time. Iranian fighter jets periodically rain bombs on rebels of the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) based in Qandil. The group is the latest in a string of Kurdish groups that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Iran.
Iran’s long-repressed Kurds, including many alleged PJAK members, continue to be jailed and tortured. A growing number have been executed in recent years. But while the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq make international headlines with their successful campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the plight of their Iranian brethren has gone largely unnoticed.
That was until last week, when hundreds of Iranian Kurds took to the streets in the city of Mahabad to protest the mysterious death of a Kurdish chambermaid. On May 7, Farinaz Khosravani fell from the window of the fourth floor of the Tara Hotel. Protesters allege that the 25-year-old jumped to avoid being raped by an Iranian security official. As news of her death spread, angry locals clashed with police and set the hotel on fire. Details remain sketchy because the international media is rarely granted access to the Kurdish parts of Iran. Iranian authorities have denied that an intelligence official was involved and have arrested an individual in the case who they claimed was a private consultant of the hotel.
Kurdish parties and activists seek to portray the events as the harbinger of an Iranian Kurdish “intifada,” not least because they were sparked in Mahabad. The city enjoys a mythical status in Kurdish nationalist lore.
In 1946, with Soviet backing, the Kurds established their first and short-lived independent state in Mahabad. With a respected Sunni cleric, Qazi Mohammed, at its helm, the mini-state had its own 13-member Cabinet and national army. But when the Soviets withdrew under Western pressure, the government reasserted its grip with the help of Kurdish tribes loyal to the government. Mahabad fell barely a year after its declaration.
Mohammed was publicly hanged, much in the same way dissident Kurds are today. All overt expressions of Kurdish identity were banned.
This ushered a period of “general political depression” for the Kurds, wrote Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the founding leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which dominated Kurdish politics until his assassination in 1989 by Iranian intelligence in Vienna.
A KDPI fighter sits outside her base in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Amberin Zaman.
Under the Iranian Constitution, non-Persians are notionally allowed to be educated in their own languages in state schools. But the laws have never been put into practice.
Under Mohammad Khatami, a Reformist cleric who served as Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005, some restrictions were relaxed. Private schooling in Kurdish was permitted. Some 30 ethnic Kurds were elected to the Majles, or national parliament. Current President Hassan Rouhani is said to favor further reforms and in October the Kurds were allowed to hold their first peaceful rally since 1979 in solidarity with the Syrian Kurds.
The Kurdish language was never criminalized in Iran as it was for decades in neighboring Turkey. This is probably because the national language, Farsi, and the Sorani and Pehlewan Kurdish dialects spoken in Iran share the same roots. But unlike Turkey, where a pro-Kurdish party is running for the June 7 parliamentary elections, all Kurdish parties remain banned. Secret talks held outside Iran between regime and Kurdish officials remain sporadic and have yet to bear fruit.
Amid all the chest thumping over Khosravani, many Kurdish activists privately acknowledge that the regime will prevail and that a fresh crackdown on the PJAK and other nationalist groups will likely ensue. As one activist who declined to be identified for fear of government retaliation put it in an email message to Al-Monitor, “The regime is ruthless, and the Kurds are busy fighting among themselves.” Iranian Kurdish leaders, who spoke to Al-Monitor from exile in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, echoed this bleak assessment.
Rezan Javid, an electrical engineer from Mahabad, joined the PJAK in 2003, soon after it was founded. He rose to become the co-chair of its recently established political arm, known as KODAR.
On a recent afternoon, Al-Monitor met with Javid in a concrete hut tucked away in Qandil just 5 kilometers (3 miles) as the crow flies from the Iranian border.
Rezan Javid, co-chair of PJAK's political arm, sits for an interview in Qandil. Photo by Amberin Zaman
“Every day the regime is killing our people for nothing other than seeking their rights, and the world remains silent,” Javid told Al-Monitor. “There is an established pattern of the regime seizing on any thaw with the West as an opportunity to crack down even harder on its opponents,” he said. Javid was referring to the tentative nuclear deal that was recently signed between Iran and the six major powers. Like many Kurds, he reckons that the United States and the rest of the P5+1 — the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany — which are negotiating to curb Iran’s nuclear program, will turn a blind eye to continuing abuses for fear of jeopardizing a final accord.
Abbas Vali, a prominent Istanbul-based Iranian Kurdish academic, agrees. “The nuclear agreement is part of a larger strategy to bring Iran back to the international fold,” he said in an interview with Al-Monitor. He added, “[US President Barack] Obama’s calculation is that Iran is stable and that the regime is in control and is therefore reluctant to do business with nonstate actors such as the PJAK and the KDPI.”
Iran’s human rights record is unquestionably horrible and Kurds are among the worst hit. “We suffer from double discrimination because we are mainly Sunni,” Javid said. Estimates vary, but almost half of Iran’s estimated 10 million Kurds are thought to be Shiites.
The Islamic Republic has the highest rates for executions in the world after China. Human rights groups say these are on the rise despite pledges from Rouhani to erase this stain. Death sentences were carried out against more than 740 prisoners in 2014, marking a 10% rise on the previous year. And at least 350 people have been executed so far this year.
Among them were six Kurdish detainees at the Raja’i Shahr prison in Karaj, west of Tehran, who were hanged in March. Their families were not permitted to retrieve their remains or to attend their burials. The men, all Sunnis, were convicted on charges of “morahebeh” ("enmity against God") for alleged involvement in Kurdish nationalist and Salafist violence. Javid reckons that there are at least 30 Kurdish prisoners currently on death row, most for alleged links to the PJAK.
Saman Naseem, who was sentenced to death in April 2013 on just that charge (and for supposedly taking part in a gunbattle against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is one of the rare cases to have drawn international attention. This is because Naseem was only 17 at the time of his arrest in 2010. He was brutally tortured for 97 days until, still blindfolded, he signed a confession. Citing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders, international rights groups have appealed to the Iranian authorities to scrap his sentence, but to little avail. On Feb. 18, a day before his scheduled execution, Naseem was transferred to an unknown destination from the Orumieh prison in western Azerbaijan province. His fate remains a mystery.
The PJAK claims that it is the most influential Kurdish movement in Iran with “thousands” of fighters and has the power to obtain the Kurds’ rights. But the rebels were forced to call a cease-fire in September 2011 and withdraw their forces to Qandil following a massive Iranian army offensive, which left hundreds dead.
The PJAK’s rivals call the rebels interlopers. This is because the PJAK was established by another Kurdish guerrilla outfit with Turkish roots: the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting on and off for Kurdish autonomy since 1984 inside Turkey.
While the PJAK denies any formal ties to the group, it views Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, as its own. It also parrots his talk of “democratic confederalism,” a blurry form of political autonomy that is inspired by the late American radical Murray Bookchin. Giant portraits of a mustachioed Ocalan hang from the hut where Al-Monitor met Javid. We conversed in Turkish, the main language of communication within the PKK.
Ahmet Sumbul, a veteran Kurdish journalist from Turkey who recently returned from a covert tour of Iran’s Kurdish region, told Al-Monitor that pictures of Ocalan are a common sight in the homes of ordinary people. “The PKK and the PJAK appear to be recruiting more than any other group,” he said.
Clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK have virtually stopped as Ocalan pursues bumpy peace talks with the Turkish government. The hiatus has allowed the rebels to expand their influence in Iraq and Syria where they and their Syrian proxy, the People's Protection Units (YPG), are fighting IS jihadists with the help of US air power. Iranian Kurdish volunteers flocked to help the YPG liberate Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town on the Turkish border, which has emerged as a global symbol of Kurdish resistance.
The PKK’s growing popularity riles its competitors.
“They are not an Iranian Kurdish party, they are a product of the PKK,” said Abdullah Mohtadi, who leads the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, another major Iranian Kurdish group.
During a three-hour interview at his party’s headquarters on the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, Mohtadi described the ups and downs of the Iranian Kurdish movement. Like many Iranian Kurdish politicians, Mohtadi hails from landed Kurdish aristocracy, yet espouses leftist views. Speaking in flawless English, he recalled the heydays after the 1979 Iranian Revolution when Komala and Ghassemlou’s KDPI controlled broad swaths of territory along the Iraqi border. Iran’s newly installed clerical regime was bogged down in a bloody war with Iraq and turned a blind eye.
But history repeated itself. When the war ended, the regime reasserted control. Thousands of Iranian Kurds were killed. Those who survived fled to Iraq. Komala and the KDPI began fighting each other and were forced to retreat to Iraq as well. Today, the parties have become shadows of their former selves with their men no longer counted in the thousands but the hundreds. Bitter internal feuding has led to splits. There are now two Komala parties and two KDPIs.
Khalid Azizi, the leader of one of the KDPI factions, ascribed such differences to “a clash of personalities.” He agrees that to be effective, the Iranian Kurdish groups need to unite. “We are trying,” he told Al-Monitor.
But fellow KDPI officials voice skepticism.
The KDPI’s central command near the Iraqi Kurdish town of Khoya has a surreal feel to it. Young female fighters with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders stroll in lush green gardens. One of the women who identified herself as "Sahra" said she was from Mahabad. She joined the KDPI three months ago. “Women have no rights in Iran. Here I feel free, I live as I choose,” Sahra said.
Mina, 25, arrived four months ago. “I came to fight for an independent Kurdistan,” she said.
Azizi insisted, however, that his party has no such goal and repeated the famous KDPI slogan, “Democracy for Iran, Autonomy for Kurdistan.”
But it remains unclear how effective the group is beyond the boundaries of this compound. “All of these parties are frozen in the past and completely dependent on the Iraqi Kurds,” Vali said. He added, “They made no effort to create a clandestine movement inside Iran, believing that the regime would implode. Their calculation proved to be wrong.”
The political vacuum is being filled by the PJAK and PKK. But Vali believes that their influence remains limited, too. “Any party that prescribes one formula for all the Kurds is not realistic,” he said.