Speech Mr. Abdulla Mohtadi at the House of Commons Public Forum
Kurds in Iran have a long history of fighting for their rights. The first contemporary nationalist Kurdish revolt in 1880 with Sheikh Ubeydullah as its leader, took place mostly in modern-day Iranian Kurdistan before it was suppressed by the Qajar dynasty.
I would like to begin by thanking the UNPO, my dear friend Mr. Nasser Boladai, the Centre for Kurdish Progress, of course the honourable members of the British Parliament, in particular Mrs. Emma Reynolds, and dear friend of the Kurds Mr. Gary Kent, as well as all others who helped to organise this timely and important forum. The Kurdish issue has long been one of the region’s unresolved political questions, each section of greater Kurdistan with its own history and struggle. There was a time, not so long ago, when Kurds where relatively unknown to the world and their plight was largely ignored. However, decades of suffering and resistance were not in vain and finally bore fruit. Recent events, especially the vital role Kurds are playing in fighting the Islamic State terrorist group or Daesh, with the help of global media, has contributed to change that. Kurds, for the first time, are being shown as heroes rather than victims and as fighters of terrorism and advocates of democracy – a nation surrounded by enemies yet a beacon of hope amid the most chaotic region in the world. With a population of roughly ten million spreading across at least four provinces in North and North-Western Iran, Iranian Kurds outnumber Iraqi and Syrian Kurds put together. However, the current spotlight on the Kurds has not been directed at Iranian Kurdistan whose Kurds have mostly remained unnoticed.
Kurds in Iran have a long history of fighting for their rights. The first contemporary nationalist Kurdish revolt in 1880 with Sheikh Ubeydullah as its leader, took place mostly in modern-day Iranian Kurdistan before it was suppressed by the Qajar dynasty. The first Kurdish political party, Komala JK, which literally translates to ‘Society for the Kurdish Revival’, was established by Iranian Kurdish activists in the year of 1942. Later, it was transformed into the ‘Democratic Party of Kurdistan’ which established the first Kurdish Republic headed by Qazi Mohammed in 1946. After only 11 months, that too was suppressed, this time by the Shah and Qazi Mohammed was publicly hanged in his hometown of Mahabad where the Republic had been based.
By the time of the demonstrations against the Shah in 1978-79, Kurds once again mobilized by participating in the democratic movement against dictatorship in Iran whilst demanding their own rights. But the movements in Kurdistan and Tehran were distinctively different from the outset. Unlike Tehran, and most other parts of the country, the Kurdish movement was not a religious one nor was it inspired or led by ayatollahs or the clergy. Far from it, it was a secular, democratic movement aspiring for political freedoms in Iran and Kurdish rights. Demonstrations in Kurdistan, unlike the ones under the Ayatollahs in Tehran and other areas, never targeted cinemas, bars, Baha’is’ homes, never forced women to wear scarves, never shouted Allah u Akbar as a political slogan and never welcomed an Islamic regime into power. In this sense, crucially, the Islamic Revolution never took place in Kurdistan. This divergence turned out to be pivotal in the years that followed.
When Khomeini and his followers came to power in February 1979, having marginalized everybody else, they organized the notorious referendum in April of the same year. Kurds, suspicious of Khomeini’s intentions, protesting against the ambiguity of the term ‘Islamic Republic’ and with no mention of Kurdish rights, boycotted the referendum. Their suspicions were justified as Khomeini ordered an unprovoked onslaught against the Kurds in August 1979. However, the government forces were defeated after three months and the regime was forced into negotiations with the Kurds at which point a unified Kurdish delegation was formed. The ceasefire lasted until the spring of 1980 when the regime reorganized its forces and attacked Kurdistan again leading to almost a decade of armed resistance.
It is important to know that in the decades following the establishment of the Islamic regime, even after the deportation of the headquarters of the main Kurdish political parties into exile to Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds in Iran have not remained silent. In fact, they have remained politically astute and at the forefront of many movements. Despite extremely harsh conditions, Kurds have waged many mass protests and demonstrations in recent years. I will mention just a few for those not familiar in order to get a better understanding of the political climate in Iranian Kurdistan and also an idea of the treatment of Kurds by the Iranian regime.
Within a month of Ahmadinejad’s election as President in 2005 the case of Shwana Seyid Qader spurred on mass protests across Kurdish cities. The young man was brutally killed by Iranian police and his body was dragged along the streets of his hometown by the police car that killed him. Despite brutal suppressions and indiscriminate shootings, mass protests spread across many cities and lasted for a month and eventually ended with a successful general strike.
In 2010 another general strike was carried out by Kurds following the execution of Farzad Kamangar, a popular school teacher, along with four others. The general strike, which took place during the Green Movement in Iran, was welcomed and admired by many Iranians as a sign of the Kurdish people’s resoluteness and organization. It was hugely successful and brought the entire region of Iranian Kurdistan to an almost complete standstill.
More recently, hotel worker Farinaz Khosravani plummeted to her death as she threw herself off the balcony where she worked to avoid being raped by a member of the Iranian police last year. This also lead to mass protests with many openly chanting anti-regime slogans.
One should mention other notable protest movements such as the recent well-organized and persistent teacher’s protests. Frequent workers’, students’, women’s and environmental movements have also become more prominent in Kurdistan in recent years, as have open Newroz celebrations highlighting the Iranian and Kurdish new year. Widespread celebrations of Newroz with the participation of tens of thousands of people, including women, in Kurdish dress are more frequently being held in public to assert Kurdish culture and identity much to the distress of the Iranian regime which deems it un-Islamic. Newroz celebrations, with the participations of almost all towns and villages, have become a symbol of defiance against the authorities as people are openly ordered not to do so and many young Newroz activists are threatened in advance and later summoned by the security police.
So how exactly are Kurds in Iran discriminated against?
Firs of all, Iranian Kurds are deprived of their basic political and human rights. Lack of any degree of self rule in Kurdistan guarantees that they are kept out of the political system. To give you an example, there is no single Kurdish governor in any of the Kurdish provinces, they are all appointed non-Kurds.
Secondly, Kurds are denied education in their mother tongue; the judiciary and administration also operate in Farsi instead of Kurdish. Despite the Iranian constitution stating that minority languages can be taught in schools as a subject this has never been implemented. The closest Kurds have come to achieving this right was a promise made by President Hassan Rouhani last year that a university in the city of Sanandaj would start teaching Kurdish as a subject module.
Thirdly, Kurdish areas are disproportionately deprived of budget allocation for development projects resulting in deliberate underdevelopment leading to higher rates of unemployment and poverty. Industrial projects and resources are predominantly reserved for central towns and cities disregarding the peripheries of the country where ethnic minorities live.
Moreover, Kurds are denied access to high-ranking positions and Kurdish students are constantly and unjustifiably rejected into higher education in many cases by the notorious ‘selection’ process. The fact that the majority of Kurds in Iran are Sunni Muslims also means that they are subject to double the discrimination, on the basis of both ethnicity and religion.
Also, Kurds are subject to the harshest violations of human rights. The Kurdistan region of Iran in general is under severe scrutiny and harsher security measures than many other parts of the country. This is apparent in the brutal state violence and in the disproportionate rates of Kurdish political executions and prisoners. By the way, proportionately Iran has the highest rate of executions in the world.
Derogatory and discriminatory depictions of Kurds in Iranian state-backed media propaganda and openly inciting hatred on television shows and film is still a common method of demeaning the Kurdish population.
Despite the violations of their basic rights, however, the Kurdish movement in Iran has remained a democratic, secular, and pluralist movement and has not succumbed to extremism, fundamentalism or terrorism and blind violence.
The role that the Kurds in Iran can play becomes more important when we put it against the backdrop of the recent upheaval in the Middle East. At a time when the whole region is submerged in turmoil and violence, Iranian Kurds should not be neglected once more. Kurds themselves should also learn lessons from the past.
The recent ascendancy of the Kurds in the region, the constructive role they are playing and the gains they have made, makes the current system of deprivation, discrimination and suppression of Kurds in Iran all the more difficult to sustain.
The idea of a non-centralist, federal state structure in Iran and an end to discriminatory laws and patterns of government is what mainstream Kurdish politics demand. This idea is no longer unthinkable; it is gaining more and more support among the political elite in Iran. Acknowledgement of the legitimate aspirations of the Kurds and other minorities in Iran and safeguarding their rights should find its way into any future constitution of the country.
Let it be known that the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is especially and clearly discriminatory against national, ethnic and religious minorities and against women and does not have the capacity nor the potential or will to become a vehicle of democratic change. It is imbued with medieval notions of the divine rule of the clergy, eternalizing a certain branch of Islam as its official religion, blocking any meaningful change through a labyrinth of bodies and mechanisms such as the guardian council, expediency council and assembly of experts, with the unelected all-powerful supreme leader at the top.
Iranian Kurds and their political parties have always stressed the need for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question in Iran and have been ready to engage in negotiations. Today it is important to raise awareness of their plight and not allow them to be forgotten in the eyes of the world as the West warms up to Iran.
The nuclear issue was not and is not the only problem with Iran. It was an unnecessary and wasteful programme and it’s alright that a commitment has been made to stop that. But it is important not to forget that the Iranian regime also has a terrible record of human rights violations, repressive domestic policies and expansionist regional policies to destabilize its neighbors. Now that the nuclear deal is being implemented, its time to focus on other issues and the international community must not reward the Iranian government by turning a blind eye to its despicable human rights record.
Let me finish by saying that we all agree that in Iran, as in every society, genuine change should come from within. And let’s not make the concept of democratic change in Iran unthinkable. There is no reason why we should support democratic change in Myanmar or Tunisia, but hesitate to do so when it comes to Iran.
We strive for a democratic, pluralist and federal Iran, where the rights of Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities are safe-guarded in the constitution and respected by the government. That is why we are for a Kurdish front in Iran that allows for the cooperation of all political parties. We are also for the constructive engagement and partaking of the Kurds in a broad democratic coalition in Iran, providing their basic rights are acknowledged.
Kurds are a vital and indispensable element in any democratic change in Iran now and in the future. They have been politically very active and outspoken in Iran since the Islamic regime came to power in 1979. With well-established and hugely popular political parties, a rich history of political movements, the capacity for mass mobilization, close ties with other nationalities and ethnic group as well as Iran’s democratic opposition, Iranian Kurds have become a vital ingredient of any democratic change in Iran.