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Iran, the Kurds, and Israel

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The population of Iran is only 50% Persian; the rest are Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs, and the government has had to suppress separatist movements among all of these groups.

There are about ten million Kurds in Iran, more than 10% of the population. Iran must worry that any success by Kurds in Syria, Iraq, or Turkey to achieve greater autonomy will only encourage Kurdish separatists in Iran. A few years ago, it seemed that the Kurds in Iraq, having enjoyed autonomy under American protection during the last years of Saddam Hussein’s reign (when American air cover prevented Saddam’s air force from bombing the Kurds), and during the first years after his overthrow, might be moving toward independence, but the regime in Baghdad managed to persuade the Kurds not to leave the state. For the past few years, Erdogan’s military has been suppressing Kurds both in Syria and in northern Iraq; this has discouraged the Kurdish separatists in Iran. But their failure to obtain greater autonomy in Iran has not reconciled the Iranian Kurds to their situation. They are waiting for a more opportune time. Their dissatisfaction with the theocratic Iranian state remains. And the rulers in Tehran remember with dread the last violent uprising by Iranian Kurds in 1979, which was ferociously crushed, with at least 30,000 Kurds killed. Iran has to keep troops in the Kurdish areas, and must continually worry about the sympathies Iran’s Kurds may arouse among Kurds elsewhere, and about the threat of peshmerga volunteers from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, who could choose to make their way to help their Kurdish brothers in Iran.

The Kurds in Iran have a right to be unhappy. The Kurdish region in western Iran has suffered from chronic underinvestment by the central government in its infrastructure, including management of water resources during several years of historic drought. Iranian Kurdistan has been enduring an economic downturn even more profound than that experienced by the rest of the country. Culturally, too, the Kurds are permanently under assault: the Tehran regime does not allow Kurdish to be one of the languages of instruction in state schools, nor even to be taught in those schools; Kurds who want their children to learn Kurdish must enroll them in private academies that meet outside of regular school hours. This attempt at cultural obliteration of the Kurdish language and culture are a source of great discontent.

Recently, Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahadi, visited the country’s Kurdish area to declare a new commitment by the central government to investing in the Kurdish region, and warning of activities by the “Zionists” to win Kurdish favor. A report on his visit is here: “Iran wants to invest in Kurdish region to counter ‘Zionists’ – analysis,” by Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post, November 22, 2021:

“Why do the Zionist regime and the Westerners defend the seemingly pro-Kurdish anti-revolutionary groups,” said Iran’s Interior Minister during a visit to the Kurdish region of Iran, according to Tasnim News.

Iran’s new interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, is wanted by Interpol for murdering 85 people in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. However, now the Minister wants to devote his discussion to the support he will provide the Kurdish region in Iran. He claimed that the Kurdistan region needs prosperity and security and that Kurds had rejected attempts by foreign regimes to undermine Iran’s role in its northwest, where Kurds live.

He stated that the Kurds, along with the people all over the country, have punched the counter-revolution in the mouth with a strong fist in the face of the conspiracies and extravagances of the enemies,” the report said.

The Minister of Interior pointed out: The people of Kurdistan are proud and resilient and it is right to be a model and to learn many lessons from their honor, dignity, resistance and stability,” he said.

“Undoubtedly, Kurdistan and the universities of this province can be an important center for the whole region and the upbringing of Kurds and Kurdish nations abroad, if the doors of our universities are open to them because we have very good relations with the Kurdish nations and the Kurdish region of Iraq,” he said.

This is the usual blague by an Iranian official, claiming “good relations” with Iran’s Kurdish minority, which is flatly untrue. The Kurds are not treated as badly as they were in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who conducted “Operation Anfal” against his own Kurds, massacring 182,000 of them, nor as badly treated as in Turkey, where President Erdogan’s army continues to suppress any sign of separatism by the Kurds in Turkey. The PKK, a militant Kurdish political party in Turkey, is treated as a “terrorist group” and violently suppressed. But if the situation of Iran’s Kurds has never been as bad as it has been for Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, it is still unacceptable.

He [Interior Minister Vahidi] praised the role of Kurds in Iran and recalled the brutalities of the Saddam Hussein regime. “The enemies have made many attempts to divide us and the Kurds of Iraq and Iran, which fortunately were not achieved by the Kurdish people and will never be able to do so.”

It’s true that Iranian Kurds have never been treated as genocidally as the Iraqi Kurds were treated under Saddam Hussein during Operation Anfal. But Vahidi needs to be reminded that the Khomeini regime did massacre 30,000 Kurds in 1979. And he makes no mention of how the Tehran regime continues to suppress the Kurdish language, a matter of great concern to Iran’s Kurds. When Vahidi gloats that “the [unspecified] enemies have made many attempts to divide” the Kurds of Iran and Iraq but have failed to do so, in reality he does not want the Kurds, whether in Iran or Iraq or Syria or Turkey, to come together in an attempt to promote a united and independent Kurdish state.

Unlike other countries in the region that generally have suppressed Kurds and denied their existence, Iran’s regime has a more nuanced view of them. “The Kurdish nation has always been united and their civilization, culture and bravery in defending the system throughout history can be good lessons for others,” the minister said.

The “civilization” and “culture” of the Kurds that Vahidi praises are exactly what his own government has been attempting to suppress. And the last thing in the world the Iranian regime wants is unity among the Kurds of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, strong enough to lead to four separatist groups coalescing to create an independent Kurdistan.

His attempt to sell the regime’s narrative, while slamming “Zionists” may be due to concerns that Kurds in Iran are not pleased with the regime. He said the government should pay more attention to these regions that are further from Tehran and that the government should “address the current problems, problems and shortcomings.”

Vahidi’s rhetoric notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that Iranian Kurds will be impressed by this purely verbal commitment to their well-being.. Among the “current problems and shortcomings” of the regime’s governance of the Kurds, the attempt to suppress the Kurdish language and culture stands out. Does Vahidi hope to reverse that policy? How likely is it that the Iranian regime, that brutally suppressed the Kurdish rebellion in 1979 by slaughtering 30,000 Kurds, will grant Iranian Kurds a degree of political and cultural autonomy within the Iran state that will be sufficient to satisfy them? And even were it inclined to do so (which I doubt), Tehran would have to worry about the effect of greater autonomy granted to the Kurds on the three other large minorities – the Azeris, Arabs, and Balochis – who might then be encouraged to press their own demands for greater autonomy within the Iranian state.

He says the new governor will address the concerns of the people. “Emphasizing that the new governor should do his best to solve the people’s problems, the interior minister added: ‘While identifying the problems, priorities should be determined and steps should be taken in this direction as if we would also support them.’”

Yada, yada. “The Kurds have problems. We – the Iranian government — should solve them, in their order of importance.” But fill in the blanks for us, Minister Vahidi. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

He praised the region for its human capital and culture. He said deprivation would be reduced. “He considered the completion of construction projects, the highway corridor in the west of the country necessary and added: the issue of drinking water in Sanandaj is very important and should be resolved as soon as possible,” according to the report.

Vahidi claimed that there is a lot of trade in the Kurdish region, including billions of dollars in trade possibilities with Iraq. “A strong Kurdistan and Iran will be realized when all people come to the square,” he said.

And how many billions of dollars in trade possibilities could a future Kurdish state have with Israel?

What about that “Zionist threat” in Iranian Kurdistan? The Kurds have historically been pro-Israel, identifying with another small people, the Jews, threatened by the same Arab enemies. In Iraq during Saddam’s reign Israel helped supply the Kurds with both humanitarian aid and enormous amounts of weapons, as well as training for the Kurdish peshmerga, In 2005, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Iraqi Kurdistan had received Israeli-manufactured equipment, and that Motorola Israel and Magal Security Systems trained the Peshmerga, employing former Israeli soldiers. That same year, the President of Kurdistan Region {[in Iraq] Masoud Barzani stated: ““[E]stablishing relations between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime since many Arab countries have ties with the Jewish state.” In 2008, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir stated in 2010 that: “We have no problems with Israel. They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them just because Arabs hate them.”

This past September 300 tribal chiefs and other notables meeting at a conference in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan, issued a declaration calling for a normalization of ties with Israel. This was the first initiative of its kind in Iraq, a historic foe of Israel and where its sworn enemy, Iran, now has a strong influence. Iraqi Kurdistan maintains cordial contacts with Israel. Kurdish leaders in Iraq have taken to calling their autonomous state a “second Israel.”

Some Kurds in Syria have also been supplied by Israel with weapons and humanitarian aid, to help them withstand Erdogan’s Turkish troops, that have established permanent bases in the country’s north. This Israeli aid to Kurds in Syria and, much earlier, to Kurds in Iraq, has been noticed by the Kurds in Iran, who remain well-disposed toward Israel as a result. And it Is this requited sympathy between Israel and Iran’s Kurds that has made the Iranian regime nervous, and propelled Vahidi to make his own promises to Iranian Kurds that Teheran will from now on pay more attention to their problems.

We’ll soon see if Vahidi’s promises are, as I suspect, empty: will there be any amelioration in the economic condition of the ten million Kurds in Iran, or any attempt to allow those Kurds to preserve their language and culture? If past is prologue, nothing will come of this.

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