US sanctions have caused a crisis for Iranian Kurds

An economic recession and a brutal government crackdown have put the people of Rojhilat in a precarious situation, writes Douglas Gerrard

December 12, 2018 · 6 min read
Kurdish YPG fighters. Photo by Kurdishstruggle (Flickr)

Of the four countries into which Kurdistan is divided, the region spanning Iran is the least prominent in western consciousness. Rojava is well known amongst leftists due to their ongoing experiment in radical democracy, and along with Iraqi Kurdistan is given periodic attention in the national press, in large part because of their central importance to the future of the Middle East. Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhilat in Kurdish), by contrast, attracts comparatively little curiosity or coverage, even from within the Kurdish media.

Like the other Kurdish regions, Rojhilat is incredibly diverse, a crucible of richly layered ethnic, religious and linguistic difference. Iranian Kurds, who number around 12 million, live amongst Assyrians, Azeris, Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians. Their demand, as in Turkey, is not for statehood, but for some form of self-determination, which would probably be expressed through an autonomous Kurdish confederation. Any future Kurdish entity in Rojhilat would likely function according to the Rojavan principles of Democratic Confederalism, since the Kurds there – in contrast to neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan – have a long and storied history of leftism, and are represented by a host of leftist parties.

Violence in Rojhilat has in recent years been mostly limited to periodic eruptions along the Iraqi border. But now, with the cautious hope engendered by Obama’s Iran deal having been extinguished by Trump’s withdrawal from it, and with new U.S. sanctions (and Trump’s all-caps tweeting at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani) sparking dark murmurings of an impending US/Iranian war, the situation there has worsened considerably. “There has always been violence against Kurds in Iran”, Mirai Rezai tells me when I ask her about the current situation, “The difference now is the sanctions.”

Rezai is an Iranian Kurd, and a member of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), the main umbrella organisation for Kurdish groups in the diaspora. She argues that the past few months have constituted a significant escalation, with a host of incidents recorded across the region. In attributing this to the sanctions, Rezai means that the economic crisis they have caused – tens of thousands of workers are currently on strike across Iran in protest against unpaid wages – has created a corresponding political crisis, which the government have sought to alleviate through increased violence and repression in the Kurdish northwest.

On August 25th, four Kurdish environmentalists were killed in suspicious circumstances while trying to extinguish a forest fire in the Mariwan region of Rojhilat. The exact cause of their deaths is unclear, but the fire had been started by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) launching artillery attacks on Peshmerga positions, and Kurdish sources insist that the activists were their real targets.

This attack was followed, on September 7th, by the IRGC murder of three members of KODAR (East Kurdistan Free and Democratic Society) near the city of Sine. A day after their deaths, three Kurdish political prisoners were executed in a prison west of Tehran, a case that attracted a measure of international attention due to the flagrant injustice involved in their trial. The men were arrested after an IRGC attack on Komala, a Kurdish communist party; their official charge was “waging war against God”, but they were never accused of anything more serious than membership of Komala, and no evidence of intentional killing (the threshold for imposing the death penalty under international law) was presented during the trial. One of the men, Ramin Hossein-Panahi, spent 200 days in solitary confinement before being executed, during which time a confession was extracted from him, almost certainly via torture. His co-defendants, Zanyar and Luqman Muradi, were executed later the same day.  

September 8th also saw another major incident, as Iran fired several missiles across the border at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP-I) while a meeting of the party’s central committee was in session. Five committee members were killed, prompting the Iranian Kurdish parties to issue a unified call for a national general strike; this in turn led to the arrest of five Kurdish activists by the security forces. These are only a notable handful of outbursts.

The current violence, though in part prompted by the sanctions, also has an older and more complex precedent. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a Jihad on the Kurds, accusing them of wanting to establish their own state. Ever since then, Iranian governments have used the spectre of separatism as a pretext for the brutal suppression of any Kurdish self-determination. Violence meted out towards the Kurds, the largest and most vociferous minority group in Iran, also functions as a warning to other political factions: this is what awaits you if you protest.

As for how the Kurdish question will resolve itself in the long run, Rezai sees three possible scenarios presenting themselves. The first is an American military invasion, which has been the white whale of many in the American foreign policy establishment for the past half-century. Amongst other things, it is very difficult to imagine what would happen to the Kurds in this situation. “There would be chaos”, Rezai says. “No one wins”.

A more likely consequence is that the sanctions precipitate a historic western turn by Iran, if Rouhani comes to see making significant concessions to the U.S. as the only way to alleviate the mounting economic crisis and avoid further unrest. This would be a disaster from the Kurdish perspective, since it would act as a green light from the U.S. for an emboldened Iranian government to crush all and any dissent. In this scenario, Kurds would have no power to force even modest reforms, no chance to carve out their own autonomous territory, and economic uplift in the rest of the country would weaken solidarity between them and other minority groups, reducing the likelihood of a broader revolutionary politics taking hold. As well as being the worst of the possible outcomes for the Kurds, Rezai also thinks it the most likely, given the deleterious effect the sanctions are already having.

However, if the American conditions for lifting the sanctions involve trammelling the Revolutionary Guard (as they very likely would), or even bringing them to be tried before Iranian courts, it is eminently possible that IRGC resistance to government concessions could result in a civil war. In the event of such a war, the Kurds, who have a Peshmerga numbering thousands of fighters, could use the uncertainty to carve out a self-governing territory. Whether they would be able to hold such a territory is unclear, but Rojava and the circumstances surrounding its inception provide a lesson that the Kurdish people are ready and willing to defend themselves.

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