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A year since Mahsa Amini’s killing, Iran’s Kurds brace for renewed crackdown

The Kurdish twist to Iran's grassroots civic uprising cutting across ethnic, sectarian and gender lines served the regime well in its crackdown.
Iranian refugees and Iranians living in Greece wave a Kurdish flag while singing the Iranian protest song of Shervin Hajipour during a demonstration to commemorate 40 days from the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini while in police custody in Iran, in central Athens on Oct. 29, 2022.

The woman whose death in police custody sparked nationwide protests across Iran a year ago was an ethnic Kurd. Her real name was Jina, but her parents were forced to officially name her Mahsa because of bans on Kurdish-language names, just one of the many strictures faced by Iran’s estimated seven million Kurds. The 22-year-old, who was beaten to death for failing to cover her hair adequately, has since come to symbolize the demonstrations — the most threatening to Iran’s clerical regime in recent history. "Jin, Jiyan, Azadi," Kurdish for “Women, Life, Freedom,” the protesters’ rallying call, continues to resonate across the globe.

This Kurdish twist to a grassroots civic uprising cutting across ethnic, confessional and gender lines served the regime well. It deftly spun a narrative of Kurdish separatism fomented by malign foreign forces as the root cause of the unrest.

Iran’s clerical leaders continue to tout that line, and with the first anniversary of Amini’s death on Sept. 16 approaching, Iranian authorities are doubling down. Rights monitors say that the regime has been deploying thousands of forces together with tanks and heavy weapons to the Kurdish-majority provinces of Iran as much to deter protests as for a swift and bloody suppression in case they emerge. The Oslo-based Hengaw Organization for Human Rights reported that these include thousands of Revolutionary Guards who were dispatched to Amini’s hometown of Saqqez.

Shler Bapiri, a member of Hengaw’s executive board, told Al-Monitor that the repression of Kurds inside Iran had sharply increased in the wake of the protests, which — under the regime’s ferocious crackdown — petered out by the start of this year. “Therefore, unfortunately, the majority of those executed, demonstrators killed and activists arrested in Iran are Kurds,” Bapiri said. “The ‘Jina Revolution’ showed the world that the Islamic Republic always regarded Kurdistan as a security case and militarized zone, so it beat demonstrators with batons in Tehran and shot demonstrators with weapons in Kurdistan,” Bapiri added.

According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, another advocacy group, Amini’s father, Amjad, was interrogated by Iranian intelligence four times over the past week about the family’s plans to commemorate their daughter’s death. Her parents remain unswayed by such intimidation, declaring in an Instagram post that “like any other grieving family, we will gather at the grave of our beloved daughter Jina (Mahsa) Amini on the anniversary of her martyrdom to hold traditional and religious ceremonies.”

To be sure, Kurdish national demands did play a role with multiple videos recording slogans of explicitly nationalist content being chanted in various cities during the funerals of those killed in the protests, noted Kamran Matin, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex.

Protests unite Iran's minorities

Yet, as Walter Posch, a faculty member of the National Defense Academy in Vienna who specializes in Iran, observed, “Jina was a victim of triple discrimination: as a woman, as a Kurd and as a Sunni.” Posch told Al-Monitor, “The core message of the protests was ‘enough discrimination.'"

What was especially unnerving for the regime, he added, was the solidarity that emerged between Iran’s other systematically oppressed ethnic minority, the majority Sunni Baluchis in southwestern Iran. Prominent Sheikh al-Islam Moulana Abdolhamid Esmailzahi from Zahedan in Baluchistan cited Amini’s case as an example of police violence during a sermon and was the first to condole her family.

“Perhaps auguring change in the political philosophy of radical Sunni Islam, [the sheikh] based his critique of the Islamic Republic on the secular ground of human rights and citizens’ rights. Women’s rights, denominational rights and ethnic rights were combined into one civic argument: framing the problem as police brutality and institutionalized discrimination, not as secularism or religion,” Posch wrote in a recent essay for Chatham House. 

Fortuitously for the regime, there is no geographic contiguity between the Baluchi and Kurdish majority regions. 

Indeed, by most accounts, the regime has been successful in playing to Persian nationalist sentiments with its systematic propaganda that Iranian Kurdish “terrorist” groups are not only instigating these protests but seeking to divide Iran. “Given how the notion of territorial integrity has been instilled into the consciousness of so many Iranians, especially those of Persian cultural background, this strategy served the purpose of dividing the protesters, with a considerable section of the Iranian opposition groups, especially the royalists, repeating this line of argument,” Matin said.

Arzu Yilmaz, an Erbil-based academic specializing in Kurdish affairs, concurred. “The protests took place with the participation of all of Iran’s ethnic groups, yet the regime succeeded in pinning them on the Kurds and portraying them as an ethnic rebellion. It succeeded in rendering the feminist aspect of the protest that had little to do with ethnic politics in the beginning, ethnic as well,” Yilmaz told Al-Monitor.

Renewed threats

Drawing on such claims, Iran is threatening to launch fresh attacks against armed Iranian Kurdish opposition groups inside neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. It has set a Sept. 19 deadline for Iraqi authorities to disarm and move them to camps outside the Kurdish zone, or else face Iran’s wrath. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein announced in a news conference with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein  Amir-Abdollahian, in Tehran Wednesday that several groups of Iranian Kurdish opposition fighters had already been disarmed and moved to camps in an undisclosed area, and that the remaining groups would be disarmed within the “next two days.”

These are mainly fighters who were based along the Iran-Iraq border where they levied “taxes” on smugglers carrying cigarettes and alcohol into the Islamic Republic.

It’s a well-established fact that the main Iranian Kurdish parties, namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), and two rival left-wing groups, both called Komala, pose no threat to speak of, as they are unable to operate inside Iran and are closely monitored by the Iraqi Kurdish hosts on whose benevolence they depend. The same applies for a smaller group known as the Kurdistan Freedom Party. The sole exception is the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is linked to another Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is fighting Turkey. PJAK is widely acknowledged to be the most active of these groups inside Iran. The others allege that both PJAK and the PKK have secret ties to the regime. Both deny the claims, recalling that Iran cooperates with Turkey against the PKK and has targeted PJAK in the past. PJAK was among the Kurdish opposition groups that called for a general strike inside Iranian Kurdistan to mark the anniversary of Amini’s death.

Either way, Iraqi Kurdish authorities take Iran’s threats very seriously not least because they have acted on them, most recently in the fall of 2022 when it struck the groups inside Iraqi Kurdistan with ballistic missiles and suicide drones (PJAK was not targeted). According to Hengaw, at least 21 people, including two women and an infant, perished in those strikes.

KDPI sources speaking not for attribution insisted that their forces had not yet been disarmed and that they would resist any attempt for their weapons to be taken away from them. “We need them to defend ourselves,” one of the sources said. PJAK publicly declared that handing over its weapons was “out of the question.” In any case, both PKK and PJAK forces are high up in the Qandil Mountains bordering Iran, well out of reach of Iraqi forces.

Matin reckons that should protests erupt anew, the likelihood of a military strike by the regime against Iraqi Kurdistan “is very high.” The Sept. 19 deadline for disarming the Kurdish opposition groups — which is three days after the anniversary of Amini's death — needs to be assessed in this light, Matin explained.

“Bottom line: For Iran’s Kurds, little has changed,” Yimaz said.

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