Anti-regime protests in Iran continue to rage across the country on their 40th day. Facing their biggest political challenge in years, Iran’s religious and military leaders singled out and blamed the Iraqi Kurdistan based Iranian Kurdish groups, the US and Israel for organising the unrest.
As the protests began, Brigadier-General Abbas Nilforoushan, the IRGC Deputy Commander for Operations, said that “Counter-revolutionaries from across our northwestern borders [Iraqi Kurdistan] have attacked and infiltrated our country to create unrest and insecurity.”
Nilforoushan also said that the headquarters of the Komala Party, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (IKDP) and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) in Iraqi Kurdistan were targeted by Iran because they “played the biggest role in the recent disturbances.” He then gave the example of Syria, where following the Syrian crisis, the Kurds were able to establish an administration that now has limited US-backing.
It’s difficult to determine whether the Iranian leaders believe their own rhetoric about protest sources existing outside of Iran or if the U.S. would try and assist Kurds in revolting against the current regime. However, if they do believe, they would be mistaken. Although the Iranian Kurds have been struggling against the Iranian regime for years, successive U.S. administrations have not considered supporting them.
The U.S.’s policy towards the Kurds, especially Iranian Kurds, is often misconstrued as supportive when it is actually not quite the case. Consequently, Tehran can rest assured that no Western support would come to assist the Kurds.
The Kurds and the protests
The protests that have engulfed the country since Sept. 17 were sparked by the death in custody of Jîna Mahsa Amini, 22. She had been arrested and later killed by Iran’s morality police accused of not appropriately wearing a headscarf.
Amini was Kurdish and her death has been felt particularly in Iran’s Kurdish region, where demonstrations began at her funeral the day after her death.
The protests, which are in their 40th day today, defy a crackdown by security forces and are regarded as the biggest challenge to Iran’s clerical rulers in years. The day 40th after death is observed in Islam along with the seventh day.
Nationwide protests led mostly by women have been at their most intense in the northwestern areas where the majority of the country’s 10 million Kurds live.
It is also worth mentioning that while Iranian leadership wants to portray the protests as Kurdish-oriented to dissuade others from joining in, the Iranian activist community inside and outside Iran and their left-leaning supporters usually do the opposite and try to underestimate the Kurdish role in the protests.
The U.S. policy towards Iranian Kurds
The US policy towards the Iranian Kurds has been consistently negative. In November of 2018, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote a comprehensive piece on Trump’s administration’s Iran policy for Foreign Affairs. The article is illustrative of Washington’s view.
In the four thousand word article ‘Confronting Iran’, despite the long running crackdown on them by Iranian security services, the former secretary of state doesn’t even mention the word ‘Kurdish’ once. In one passage he says, “The regime also regularly arrests religious or ethnic minorities, including Bahais, Christians, and Gonabadi dervishes, when they speak out in support of their right.”
This exclusion of Kurds as one of the persecuted minorities is significant, particularly since they form Iran’s second largest minority group after the Azeris.
The current administration has paid little attention to the Iranian Kurds and they have almost never featured in the messages of the Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
The Iranian Kurds were brought to the attention of President Barack Obama’s administration only when, in February 2009, they declared the Iranian Kurdish group Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) a terrorist organization.
Some may use the U.S.’ relations with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as counter examples to this argument. In the case of the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. Military only decided to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), after every other option failed. After Syrian rebel groups’ train and equip programmes failed miserably and there were no longer any local partners, the U.S decided to back the SDF. Although the U.S. military supported Kurdish-led groups, this never translated to political endorsements of Syrian Kurdish administrations.The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) was never invited to any international platform that discuss the political future of Syria. Therefore, when the U.S. partnered with the Syrian Kurds, the engagement was strictly military and focused on one and only one aim, enduring defeat of IS.
The United States policy towards Iraqi Kurds has also been inconsistent. In 1972, Washington only extended military support to the Kurds in Iraq after President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were asked by Mohammad Reza Shah of Iran to arm and finance an insurrection of the Iraqi Kurds as a favour to Iran.
Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) , was at the time quoted as saying that if his cause succeeded, he was ready for Kurdistan to “become the U.S.’ 51st state.” However, the U.S. did not reciprocate Barzani’s feelings. A 1976 report by the House Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, chaired by Congressman Otis Pike, later found that “Documents in the Committee’s possession clearly show that the President, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah] hoped that our clients [the Kurds] would not prevail.”
That patchy U.S. support to the Iraqi Kurds ended abruptly when the Iranian Shah came to an agreement with Baghdad settling his border dispute. Later, Henry Kissinger described the operation to support the Kurds, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Although the Kurds are one of America’s main allies in Iraq, their hopes for independence see very little support from politicians in Washington.
In regards to the Kurdish groups in Turkey, the U.S.’s stance is clearer. The Kurdish militant group, PKK was declared a foreign terrorist organization by Washington on 8 September 1997 when the U.S. launched its terrorism list under then Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Turkish sources often underestimate the effects of the U.S. designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization, but this is actually the number one reason why the group can’t raise funds, operate internationally and procure sophisticated weapons. When leaders of the PKK were put on a U.S. bounty list their communication with the external world became severely curtailed. The main slogan of the current Iranian protests – “Women, Life and Freedom” was formulated by the women’s wing of PKK. This is based on the ideology formulated by Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured and handed over to Turkey following a US-led operation across several countries.
The Iranian regime should be aware by now that the West doesn’t support the Kurds against them. However, they must also see that Kurds, as well as all women across Iran, are among the biggest dangers for the regime’s survival in the long term.