Washington Kurdish Institute
July 30, 2019
The recent developments about Iranian Kurds.
In light of recent escalation with the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s belligerent conduct has received widespread attention from the media, the foreign policy establishment, and the public at large. Despite this, the human rights situation within Iran almost never finds its way into public debate. Minority groups like the Kurds make up over half of the total Iranian population, they but are frequently and violently persecuted at the hands of the regime. In just the last week, Iranian intelligence officers arrested 15 Kurds on charges of political activism, and Iranian militants murder Kurdish couriers known as Kolbars on a weekly basis.
To learn more about the situation of Kurds in Iran, the Washington Kurdish Institute sat down with Khaled Azizi, the former Secretary General of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, or KDP Iran. Mr. Azizi headed the KDP Iran from 2008 to 2017, and in 2018, he was present when Iranian missiles struck the party headquarters Koya, Iraq, during a meeting of the leadership. The attacks, which killed 18 people in three separate locations, demonstrated that the Iranian regime’s cruelty knows no bounds.
WKI: Thank you for being here. Can you talk a little bit about the Kurdish demographic in Iran? Who the people are, the size of the population, and where they live?
Mr. Azizi: Iranian Kurdistan consists of four provinces, Ilam, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, and Urmia (Note: the Sanadaj and Urmia provinces are today known as Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan, respectively). Many Kurds as well live in the northern part of Khorasan. They were deported there during the Chaldiran between the Safavid at Ottoman empires more than 500 years ago. There are many Kurds living in Tehran, but the areas that we are calling Iranian Kurdistan, as I mentioned, are those four provinces. I would say that there are many different dialects among the Kurds, but Sorani from the Mukerian areas is a written language of the Kurds in Iran since the time of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in 1945. The population of Iranian Kurdistan –I’m not sure exactly– but it’s about 10 million. So Kurds are divided between the two religious groups, Sunni and Shia, so similar, but they have a different way of practicing their religion.
WKI: What are some of the issues facing the Kurdish community in Iran today?
Mr. Azizi: The problem of the Kurds between Iranian Kurdistan and the central government in Tehran is purely an ethnic problem. Kurds have been denied the very basic democratic and ethnic rights, despite the fact that they participated very actively in the Iranian Revolution under Khomeini and despite the new revolutionary government promising the Kurds to give them the opportunity to practice their national and ethnic and democratic rights in their Kurdish areas, but it does not become a reality. And then the Islamic regime forced upon us a civil war. We had resisted the Iranian presence in Kurdistan, and following three months of resistance against the newly established, guards, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Khomeini sent a message to Kurdish people and it was responded to by Dr. [Abdul Rahman] Ghassemlou, and those messages that were exchanged by both sides, resulted in negotiations between Iran and Kurdish political parties. But it didn’t work actually because the central government didn’t believe in finding a peaceful solution to put Kurdish issue. So if you look at the Iranian constitution, probably there is some space discussing Iranian ethnic diversity and ethnic rights of different people. But, at the end, so everything should be interpreted according to the Islamic version of the constitution and Ayatollah Khomeini has the last word. That’s why it’s not possible to find any political solution to the Kurdish issue. So we are demanding our ethnic rights inside Iran. It should be a federalist solution, whether it’s some source of self-governing and autonomy and probably any other solutions.
We have been having some meetings with the Iranian delegation from time to time, but it didn’t result in any specific and concrete solution. So we believe that the Iranian regime has so far considered Kurdistan, the Iranian Kurdistan and Kurdish areas, as a military zone, and they do not permit the same rights in terms of economy, in terms of financing, in terms of education, in terms of ethnic rights, as the fellow Iranian Persian people. So the discrimination is very obvious in Iranian Kurdistan if you are a Kurd. It wouldn’t be so easy for you to come up to a high level of posts in the Iranian political establishment, and there is a lot of concentration, I mean military concentration, in comparison with the other parts of Iran, especially the area between Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan. And the people were very sure the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has a total power, ultimate power, to address people and tell them that you are a [proven member of] the Kurdistan Democratic Party and telling them that you are a threat for the Iranian security. So it’s very easy to, to be put in jail if you are a Kurd just because you are different from those who have the problem in Tehran.
WKI: You said that the regime has ‘total power, ultimate power’ over Rojhelat. How does the Kurdish community respond to that power? Are they able to organize? How can they be active politically?
Mr. Azizi: There is no democratic space for a possible movement against this regime, but despite this reality, we have been witnessing the widespread civilian movement in connection with the special days in Iranian Kurdistan could have stolen, uh, for example, in connection with the Nowruz (Iranian New Year) and even sometimes with the, when the Kurdistan Democratic Party and other parties send messages to people that should celebrate those days, should remember those days. So sometimes, actually, we see that there is a resistance, a civilian resistance in Iranian Kurdistan. But the central government is trying to identify the Kurdish issue as purely related to their political parties, not to the masses, not to the people of Iranian Kurdistan and a mass movement inside Iranian Kurdistan has shown this reality, that the image from the central government is not true because there have been movements with participation of thousands and thousands of people, as I mentioned, in connection with these special days in Iranian Kurdistan, or in connection with the possible messages that are being sent by different parties to them to, to react act against this regime.
WKI: So, you talked about how there’s a variety of linguistic dialects spoken among Kurds of Iranian Kurdistan. We know Kurds there practice both Sunni and Shia Islam, and it’s also a large geographic area. Do you think these differences and distances complicate the formation of a unified front against the regime?
Mr. Azizi: So far, it has not been a big problem because when we speak about Kurdishness, it actually has become a common identity for Kurds regardless. They are Yarsanis, they are Shias, they are Sunnis, but a central government, they have been trying to use these differences among the Kurds and tell them that this Shia Kurds probably are [affiliated with the] government, and the Sunni Kurds are Sunni Kurds, but it’s not reality. So because a part of Iranian Kurdistan are Shia, probably you find people who on some level are related to the government organizations in their regions, but as a whole, they feel that they have been discriminated [against], and they do not have the same opportunities because they are Kurds, regardless if they are Shias or Sunnis. So, I believe so far we have managed to overcome these differences in favor of Kurdish nationalism against the Islamic regime of Iran.
WKI: Iran is roughly 50% ethnic minority groups. Do you believe that the struggle for Kurdish liberty is linked to the struggle of other minority groups in Iran?
Mr. Azizi: We as the Kurdistan Democratic Party define Iran as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious entity, and those different groups have not been given the opportunity to participate in uniting political establishment, so the problems will remain as it has been for 400 years. So our party believes in a federalist solution. We believe in federalism; according to the values of federalism, Iran should be governed by all those different ethnic groups? And we believe that Persians, as well, they are as well part of this, this reality. So we are trying to send the message to Iranian people that decentralization is the solution. Once you have decentralized Iran, and through that solution have given opportunity to different ethnic groups to participate in the administration in different levels, then you will not face, we will not face, an Iran, which is centralized and with a lot of discrimination.
So the idea of federalism is actually a good idea, and it’s good for Iran because of its ethnic and religious diversity. But the discussion, so far, has not become a general solution. It has not been accepted by all different political parties. I mean even those who are against the Islamic regime of Iran, you know, and even those who are active inside Iran according to their liberal ideas, or according to their conservative values, against the hardliners. So it takes actually time until the solution, until federalism will become a solution that will be accepted as a whole by different political parties. So, the acceptance has not been so far has not become a reality, but we are working on that. And even right now, people inside Iran who are working there, and they are part of this system, they are as well. We’re talking about federalism and decentralization of either, so it looks like that it will become a discussion about how to govern Iran. And the decentralization of power in Iran –federalism– is a good solution.
WKI: You were Secretary General of KDP Iran for about nine years, and I’m sure you have dealt with plenty of foreign governments. What’s your call to the international community with regards to dealing with Iran?
Mr. Azizi: The problem with the international community and even the United States is that they are preoccupied with the case of the Iranian enrichment of uranium and the Iranian atomic project. During the time of President Obama, there was an agreement between Iran and the international community regarding the Iranian nuclear project. So at the end, this problem, I think, looked like it had actually an end, but when Mr. Trump took office, he didn’t respect that agreement. So once again, the nuclear issue and the BARJAM agreement (Persian acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) have become a central issue between the international community, especially when they just stuff and let it go. The problem with this definition of the problem of Iran is that you don’t see the Iranian people, the situation in Iran, inside this project. So the things is about an agreement regarding the nuclear project, an agreement regarding BARJAM, and then unfortunately, the Iranian people don’t find a place for themselves in the international community’s conflict with Tehran.
So, it hasn’t been the policy of the international community and even the United States since the Iranian Revolution, so when they see a problem with Iran and when they defined the problems in Iran, it’s just about that Iran does not fulfill responsibilities in the region according to the international charters in terms of security in the region that Iran does not comply with the agreement regarding the nuclear project, and the ordinary people don’t care about things like that because it’s far from their daily life. So I believe, probably, that I can interfere in the strategy of the United States regarding Iran and their policy regarding Iran. But as I mentioned, most of the Iranian society and international community looks like that they are very occupied with this issue. So, I am afraid that the Iranian people still are not part of this scenario.
If you actually would like to get rid of the problems created by Tehran, like the nuclear project, the best idea is to have a democratic government in Tehran which is accountable to its own people according to free elections and where everybody is part of the political establishment. Then when you have such a government, you get rid of those problems that you have been experiencing since the Iranian Revolution, and unfortunately, we don’t see any agenda by the international community or the United States because, as you see, this conflict has been going on from year to years, decades and we haven’t seen any initiative by international community or United States that they will support the Iranian position or position of parties, especially the Kurdish movement against this regime. So, when you talk about about the those guys who are running things in Iran that they have to change their behavior, they are not changing their behavior.
Why should you not open another chapter and give the Iranian opposition groups and parties some space, some ideas, some support? They don’t send this message to Iranian people that when the people are demonstrating against this regime and telling this regime you have to go, they should know who are, who will place the regime. So their problem is still that is there is no alternative, no address to this regime if it has to go. So the people of Iran, and I think as well the Iranian oppositional parties, they are confused, actually confused, what will happen? And Iran has become the center of problems for international community, for the region, for the United States, and the United States, when talking about Iran, is just concentrating on a couple of issues, which I consider as macro-politics at very high level that does not have any relation with the people’s needs in their daily lives.
So that’s why what I’m asking is that they put the Iranian people and the future of Iran into consideration [when creating policy on] Iran. So we are absent. We have been ignored. So how you’re going to to to reshape politics in Tehran, or have some level of changes, or force this system to respect international charters? And when it does not work, they don’t do that. So you have the people, you have to put pressure on them, and when you don’t have any strategy, any agenda, for these people, then you are alone when you are alone. I’m in United States. So the Islamic regime of Iran uses pan-Iranism, uses nationalism and religious sentiment against the United States. So it was because of Obama. We respected the international community, we reached an agreement with them, but it’s United States which has come out from this agreement. So, I’m trying to say that the conflict did purely become a very high level of macro-politics, macro-security issues between Washington and Iran, between some guys in Washington and in Iran. So that’s why I’m afraid that we will never see an end to this ongoing scenario, which has been ongoing for many years.
WKI: In 2018, Iran launched missile strikes at two Iranian Kurdish party headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan. Just this year, the regime has arrested over 200 Kurdish activists. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps frequently terrorizes Kolbars, the Kurdish cross-border couriers. There’s severe political disenfranchisement. In the face of all this oppression, how do you think the Kurds maintain the strength to continue the struggle?
We have been actually maintaining these struggles since the Iranian Revolution. On September 9th, , our headquarters was targeted by the Iranian missiles while we holding our central committee meeting, and I was injured as well that day, we sent a message to Iranian Kurdish people and told them that you have to show your strength against this regime by staying at home about three, four days after the incident. And it did actually work. People protested the Islamic regime and its act against the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party by staying at home. Even in many other places, people have been trying to show their strength, their nationalism against this regime and have been actually trying to send this message against the Islamic regime that if you send a missile to the headquarters of a Kurdish party, you are facing a people’s protest against yourself. So, the struggle is going on because it’s a matter of millions of people, it’s not the matter of a single political party. Regarding the Kolbars, who are carrying goods across the Iranian-Iraqi Kurdistan border, they are in very hard days. They are experiencing a very, very tough days. The Islamic regime does not respect them, despite that the issue has it been discussed in Tehran among themselves, but it looks like that in Iranian Kurdistan, the security philosophy of the Iranian [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] against the Kurdish people in Iranian Kurdistan it’s not a priority of the government. They do not respect the daily situation of those people, and what we are trying to do is put a lot of attention to their situation and try to inform the international community about the situation of those Kolbars. So far, their situation has not been improved, so it’s continuing. There are many well-educated people among them because of huge unemployment in Iranian Kurdistan, they have to go to be Kolbars, carrying things on their shoulders for their life. So it’s still going on.
WKI: Thank you so much
Mr. Azizi: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.