Note: This commentary was written with Veli Sirin.
Violent protests by Iranian Kurds have taken the world by surprise, and mainstream reporting on them is sparse. That is doubtless explained by the general absence of decent journalism under the regime of the Islamic Republic, including restrictions on the entry of foreign correspondents. Yet the events in Mahabad, a city of up to 280,000 mainly-Kurdish inhabitants in the Iranian province of Western Azerbaijan, has fascinating aspects to those who follow Kurdish (and Iranian) affairs.
The demographic profile of Iranian Azerbaijan reveals the ethnic diversity of Iran. The country is not entirely Persian, as many outsiders believe. Turkic, Kurdish, and other non-Farsi languages are spoken by large minorities.
The recent turbulence in Mahabad began as such urban troubles often do, with an alleged abuse of power, a death, and rapid communication through the streets. According to the English-language web portal of the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw, which is professional and reliable, in the first week of May a Kurdish woman, Farinaz Khosrawani, aged 25, died after she fell, jumped, or was pushed from the fourth floor of the Tara Hotel in the city. Ostensibly, the victim, while employed at the hotel, sought to escape a rape attempt by an Iranian state official.
The rape and subsequent death of Farinaz Khosrawani early this month touched off the largest anti-government Kurdish demonstrations Iran has seen in years.
Mahabad Kurds reacted by demonstrations on May 8 leading to riots and the burning of the hotel. Local activists claimed between 25 and 50 protestors, and seven police, were injured in the confrontation, and that police attacked the angry crowds with tear gas and firearms. One participant in the uprising, Akam Talaj, a student also aged 25, suffered serious wounds from gunfire and was taken to a hospital named for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in the major city of Urmia.
A Kurdish advocate, Armin Hassanpour, 19, was arrested and his whereabouts remained unknown two weeks later. Iranian authorities warned they would deal harshly with the protestors, but then said they had not detained anybody related to the movement. A suspect in the death of Khosrowani, however, was purportedly held.
Solidarity actions with Mahabad spread to the nearby Iranian Kurdish-majority city of Sardasht, where hundreds of participants chanted "Mahabad is not alone, Sardasht will stand with Mahabad." They were attacked by police, which fired on the people, and at least 30 Kurdish militants were rounded up and jailed. Security forces were rushed to other Iranian Kurdish towns to prevent further anti-government mobilizations, and the internet was shut down in Mahabad.
Similar, if more tranquil, events were seen in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Rojava, the liberated Kurdish zone of Syria, in Turkey, in Germany, home to a large community of Kurds from Turkey, and in Scandinavia, where many Iranian Kurds have gained asylum. They are heartened and proud, obviously, at the manner in which their forces beat the so-called "Islamic State" at Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border in January 2015, after a five-month siege.
The successful defense of Kobane was aided by air strikes coordinated with the U.S.-Arab coalition against ISIS, but the Kurdish liberation movement is overwhelmingly leftist, of a kind that for those who read history appears a revival of a distant past. Most Kurdish combatants at Kobane belonged to the People's Protection Units (known by its Kurdish initials as the YPG), which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S., and other authorities.
Kurdish ultra-leftists may have become a vanguard for real popular sovereignty in their ancient lands.
For years, the PKK and its founder, Abdullah Ӧcalan, hewed to hard-line Marxism-Leninism and were assisted by Turkey's traditional enemy, Greece, along with the brutal and eccentric Communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu. When Ceauşescu was overthrown and executed in 1989 the PKK was among few organizations in the world to mourn him. But Ӧcalan was arrested in Kenya in 1999, having left shelter in the Greek Embassy. Since then, the PKK leader has claimed to have abandoned his former ideology in favor of a voluntaristic, anarchist libertarianism that, truth to tell, might fit better with the history and traditions of the Kurds. Women have been active combatants in the ranks of the Kurdish peshmerga - a word meaning "they who face death" - in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. It is said that ISIS thugs are frightened of "martyrdom" at the hands of women.
Turkey, for its part, has not abandoned its long-held posture of hostility to Kurdish demands for autonomy. When the Kurds battled ISIS at Kobane, the Turkish army stationed tanks on the border with Syria. Turkey was accused of siding with ISIS, since the Turkish authorities consider the assertion of Kurdish identity more dangerous to them.
Iraqi Kurds are gratified that, thanks to the no-fly zone imposed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush after the first Iraq war, in 1991, they could establish a democratic parliament in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and initiate significant economic development. They emphasize that when Saddam Hussein was removed in 2003, no coalition troops lost their lives in the KRG.
Still, foreigners should have no illusions about the Kurds. They are tolerant of religious differences, with Sunni and Shia adherents among them, as well as heterodox metaphysical Sufi groups like the Ahl-e Haqq (People of Truth) in Iran, who are called Shabaks in Iraq, where they are targeted for genocide by ISIS. Of course, many Kurds, as radical leftists, are atheist.
Yet the KRG has serious problems with political corruption, and female genital mutilation (FGM) is an atrocity imposed on young women there. Outside the KRG, the Kurdish struggle is dominated by ideological leftists like the PKK. In Scandinavia, the Komala party, a little-known movement that resembles Trotskyism, is influential among Kurds. Komala joined the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which began as a pro-Soviet party in the mid-1940s and has since evolved toward social democracy, to organize rallies for Mahabad in Sweden. While official sources in Iran smeared Farinaz Khosrawani, the female victim in Mahabad, as pursuing a romantic relationship with her attacker, Komala representative Abdullah Muhtadi said she was an accountant at the hotel, not a maid as widely described, that she had been attacked by a state hotel inspector from Urmia, and that she was bruised and her clothing torn.
In a detail reminiscent of earlier revolutions, KDPI political bureau member Omar Baleki, speaking to Rudaw, called on Iranian troops to refuse orders to suppress their fellow-citizens. He declared, "Members of Iran's armed forces or the security should remember that they are part of that nation and therefore they should not be silent when something like this happens to their people... They must not take the side of the Islamic Republic against their own people... they must protect the people."
History is not linear. The Afghan national struggle against the Russians was turned into an anti-Western jihad after the Russians withdrew and their Stalinist puppets fell. Kurdish ultra-leftists may have become a vanguard for real popular sovereignty in their ancient lands.
Stephen Schwartz, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC.