Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, 5 May 2015 **** Front Page
By Bruno Jäntti
Media attention to various Kurdish political processes within the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi areas of Kurdistan has increased sharply with the rise of IS (Islamic State). But despite the West's growing interest in Kurdish politics, a key part of the wider Kurdistan area still remains outside the media spotlight — Rojhelat, as eastern or Iranian Kurdistan is known, which is home to the second largest Kurdish population.
Compared with their counterparts in other parts of Kurdistan, Iranian Kurdish progressive forces and their organisational structures have suffered the most harshly and face the toughest challenges.
Rojava, the Kurdish area in northern Syria, is undergoing (and possibly cementing) a revolution; Iraqi Kurdistan is manoeuvring towards more tangible autonomy; and the Turkish government has been compelled to commence dialogue with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) mainly on the organisation's terms. In these areas, an element of the hoped-for Arab Spring is still in the air and prospects for a breakthrough towards Kurdish self-determination are real. But in Rojhelat, Iran's Islamic regime has presided over a 30-year winter that shows little signs of vanishing.
In the 1940s, Iranian Kurdish nationalist factions secured a degree of independence from the country's central government, if for a short period of time. The predominantly Kurdish city of Mahabad in northwestern Iran became the country's main stage for Kurdish separatism. After World War II, and with Soviet backing, a short-lived Republic of Mahabad was declared, though the fledgling republic encompassed only a portion of Iranian Kurdistan. Partly due to British and American pressure, the Soviet Union fully withdrew from Iran in 1946. With its withdrawal, and with only limited support from Iranian Kurds, Tehran re-established full control of Mahabad and the separatist project was crushed.
In 1979, when 2,500 years of Persian monarchy came to an end with the ousting of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a different form of authoritarianism descended upon Iran. Once the Iranian revolution became irreversibly Islamic, the new regime consolidated its power throughout the vast country.
At the same time, large segments of Iran's Kurdish population began what became the largest of the country's many uprisings. The popular-based and largely socialist-leaning Kurdish rebellion, which could have led to radical societal improvements in the post-shah era, was met with one of the most meticulously executed and ferocious counter-insurgencies in post-WWII history. The Islamic regime brought in the Revolutionary Guard and air force and systematically tore down the political structures heading the uprising.
The Republic of Mahabad experiment in the 1940s had failed to mobilize large-scale popular involvement; hence it was eliminated by the central government without massacres. However, the socialist-oriented uprising of Iranian Kurds following the ousting of the Shah was a broad grassroots movement: the regime was only able to put it down by using vicious state violence. The city of Sanandaj was a prominent centre of Kurdish socialist organization, and was among the main targets of the immense counterinsurgency operation. In 1979-82 alone, it is estimated that approximately 10,000 Iranian Kurds — a substantial portion of them political activists and civilians — were killed by government forces.
Little appears to be known about these events outside Iran and Kurdistan; barely anything has been published in Europe or the US, and the near total annihilation of Iranian Kurdish progressive movements seems largely unknown territory for western leftists, particularly the younger generations.
The promising political structures of Rojava, and the war waged by Syrian Kurdish forces and the PKK against IS, deserve visibility in the western world. Greater outside support for political aspirations in Rojhelat, too, would benefit this less well-known front in leftist Kurdish politics.
The archive: Bruno Jäntti, Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Syria
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