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Kurds living in Iran have long been restive. Kurdish resistance to Tehran’s centralized control dates back almost a century. In the 1920s and 1930s, Reza Shah—the father of the Iranian monarch ousted in 1979—brutally crushed tribal resistance to the central government. In 1946, Kurds (including the father of Masoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, or IKR) briefly claimed an independent state in and around Mahabad, in northwestern Iran, but the Iranian army pacified it within a year. The 1979 Islamic Revolution compounded the disenfranchisement many Iranian Kurds felt: Not only were they ethnically different from many Persians but because Kurds are predominantly Sunni, they found themselves discriminated against twice over—ethnically and religiously—by a government which based itself on Ayatollah Khomeini’s exegesis of Shi’ite theology and political philosophy. Against this backdrop, violence in Iranian Kurdistan has never been far below the surface. The Iranian military and security forces deploy a disproportionate number of troops to keep order in the mountainous region, and the Iranian judiciary imprisons and often executes Iranian Kurds it suspects of joining Kurdish cultural or nationalist groups.
Still, Iranian repression of its Kurds—perhaps eight percent of its total population—has not placated the region. With Iraqi Kurds headed to a referendum, the decades-long understanding between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Kurdish dissident groups appears to be breaking down. Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) and Komala, historically the Iranian Kurdish communist party, have long maintained camps in Iraqi Kurdish territory. Both understood that they would remain unmolested by Iranian forces so long as they did not attack Iran from this territory. However, reports—referenced here—of Iranian artillery fire directed at KDP-I and Komala camps in Iraqi territory suggest that the Iranian military is now operating under altered rules of engagement. The assassination of Komala’s representative in the IKR reported in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated Raja News and excerpted here likewise suggests that Iranian aggression toward the Kurds will no longer know borders.
Such Iranian actions are not occurring in a vacuum, however. The Iranian government remains fiercely opposed to the forthcoming referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence. Iranian officials fear that the IKR could create a precedent which could inspire Iranian Kurds to demand autonomy or even independence. The Iranian government—and many Iranian intellectuals outside of government—believe that Kurdish moves toward autonomy or independence could reverberate far beyond Iran’s Kurdish population: Iran, after all, is a multi-ethnic country with a history of separatist movements among not only Kurds but also Azeris, Baluch, Arabs, and Gilakis. Nor is the Iranian government being blindly paranoid. The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has engaged in an insurgency inside Iran. The interception of weaponry along Iran’s mountainous border—reported in Tasnim, an outlet close to the security services and the IRGC and excerpted here, likely raises concern in Tehran about the possibility that the Kurds’ long low-grade insurgency might increase in intensity. Certainly, Iranian authorities may worry that despite the successful interception of contraband, more might have evaded Iran’s security net. If that is the case, Iran may be looking at additional terrorist attacks inside the country. Either way, it seems that the border region between Iran and the IKR may soon grow hotter.
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