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Realism and the non-repetition of history: On the current events in Iran and Rojhilat

Realism and the non-repetition of history: On the current events in Iran and Rojhilat

The history of the Kurds indicates that betrayal and treachery has played an essential role in their domination over at least the last four centuries. In this short paper, I claim that the Kurdish people should reflect on the death of Jîna Emînî (Mahsa Amini), and the current events in Iran, from a political realist perspective so to avoid again falling victim to betrayal. 

What follows is divided into three sections. In the first section, I give a brief, general history of the Kurds. In the second section, I summarize the situation of the Kurdish people in Rojhilat to emphasize that they were betrayed by the clerics during the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Finally, in the third section, I discuss the death of Jîna Emînî and recent events in Iran from a political realist perspective, tying the claims together with the intention of encouraging Kurds to remain politically vigilant with respect to Iran and its possible fate. 

A Short History of the Kurds in Rojhilat

Kurdistan or ‘land of the Kurds’ stretches over a mostly mountainous area of 400,000 to 450,000 square km.[1] While there is no consensus, the Kurds are estimated to be around 45 million people. Yet, they have not been legally or politically recognised as a distinct people. The Ottoman-Safavid battle of Çaldiran in 1514 led to one of the earliest partitions of Kurdistan, which was officially noted in the Treaty of Zuhab in 1639.[2] Another partition of Kurdistan happened as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This treaty led to the emergence of four modern nation-states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Each state received a share of Kurdish land. The territories occupied by these states correspond to the four regions of Kurdistan: Bakûr (Northern Kurdistan), Rojava (Western Kurdistan), Başûr (Southern Kurdistan), and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan), respectively. Since then, the Kurds have been at the receiving end of absolute enmity by the Iranian regime and Persian nationalists. They have been treated as being insufficiently human to count as a distinct political grouping, as friends, worthy of recognition and inclusion in the international order of conventional enmity.

Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) constitutes around 32% of the lands of Kurdistan. It is dominated by the Iranian state.[3] It is estimated that between 7.5 to 12 million Kurdish people live in Rojhilat.[4] As with the other parts of Kurdistan, there is a Kurdish question within Iran. Here, the Kurdish question refers to the question concerning the status of the Kurds within the Iranian state. The Kurds of Rojhilat have been subject to a continuous effort to prevent their potential peoplehood through the crushing of recurring revolts for autonomy. For example, in the 1530s, King Tahmasp I started an ethnic cleansing campaign, razing Kurdish villages and towns, and relocating many Kurds to northern and central Iranian areas.[5] The descendants of those relocated to the northern Khorasan area came to amount to some two million Kurds separated from their lands occupied in the west of Iran. There have been many uprisings and national movements in Rojhilat aiming to end the domination of the Kurds.  

Among these national movements, one can refer to the Shaikh Ubaidollah’s rebellion in 1882 and Semko Shikak’s revolt for creating an independent Kurdistan between 1918-22.[6] This nationalistic movement developed in a cumulative process that led to the establishment of the Republic of Mahabad in 1946, though the Pahlavi absolute monarchical regime crushed the experiment and executed its leader, Qazi Muhammad.

Now, the popular uprising in 1979 replaced the monarchical absolutism of the Pahlavi dynasty with a clerical, theocratic, and authoritarian regime. However, Persian supremacy over Kurdish territory remained unchanged. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IR) started its rule by massacring Rojhilati Kurds. It is a regime that claims to be establishedon the basis of the sovereignty of the commands of God (velāyat-e amr) and so persistent religious leadership (imāmat).[7] It is ruled based on the governance of supposed jurisprudence (velāyat-e faqih). 

The constitution of IR restricts the establishment of any political parties that do not adhere strictly to the velāyat-e faqih. These restrictions hinder the emergence of legal political parties that advocate Kurdish political rights. The Kurdish people – under the influence of the two major Kurdish political parties at the time, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran-(KDPI) and Komala[8] – participated in the 1979 revolution in the hope of obtaining some degree of regional autonomy within Iran.[9] Soon after the 1979 revolution, KDPI took control of almost all the Kurdish territory and demanded autonomy. The Kurdish people even participated in the parliamentary election held in the summer of 1979 and elected candidates from Kurdish political parties, but their elected representatives were never allowed to attend the parliament.[10]

Iran responded to the demands of the Kurds for self-rule by attacking them militarily. What at the start seemed like the real possibility of partnership and recognition between the new Iranian regime and the Kurds quickly turned into the treacherous betrayal of the Kurds by a regime that clearly in retrospect had no intention of ever recognizing any degree of Kurdish autonomy or even existence. 

There was what could best be described as a war between the regime of Iran and the Kurdish forces in Rojhilat from 1980 to 1983. As a result of this war, 10,000 Kurdish people, including civilians, lost their lives.[11] The war resulted in the banishment of the KDPI and Komala from Rojhilat. Since then, the KDPI and Komala continued their political activism from inside Iraq under the influences of the two major Kurdish political parties in Başûr, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). 

The regime of Iran persists in its annihilationist policies against the Kurds. It has continuously pursued a murderous campaign against the politically active Kurds inside and outside Iran. It assassinated the leader of the KDPI, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, in Vienna in July 1989. Also in 1989, a senior Komala leader was assassinated in Larnaca, Cyprus. Two senior leaders and the secretary general, Sadegh Sharafkandi, of KDPI were assassinated in Berlin in September 1992.[12] The KDPI and Komala continued their occasional military activity within Rojhilat until 1996. 

In 2004, the Kurdistan Free life Party (PJAK), under the philosophical leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, was established to liberate the Kurdish people in Rojhilat. PJAK is demanding ‘democratic autonomy’ for the Kurds within the existing state boundaries in the Middle East. Komala and KDPI also adopted a roughly similar approach to the PJAK, which would accommodate Kurdish rights. Indeed, all Kurdish parties have called for federalism in Iran. This to say that most Kurds in Rojhilat have abandoned the idea of forming an independent Kurdish state in favour of creating a thoroughly democratized and federated Iranian state. However, despite a significant shift in the ideology of Kurdish political parties and their approach to the Kurdish question, the regime of Iran intensified its campaign against the Rojhilati people inside and outside of Iran. 

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched multiple, mostly unsuccessful, attacks against PJAK, along with targeting the headquarters of the KDPI and Komala in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The Iranian regime still regards the Kurds as inherently interested in separatism even if they have changed their stated aims to being that of democratization and federation, and the regime thus uses this presumption as a pretext for suppressing and ultimately crushing the political will of the Kurds. 

Realism Regarding the Death of Jîna Eminî (Mahsa Amini) and the Current Protests in Iran

The post-revolutionary politics in Iran provides a strong example in favour of realist theory. From a realist point of view, there is no permanent friendship or alliance in politics, but only permanent interests. In other words, today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend and vice versa.[13] The Persian nationalists during 1979 used other ethnic groups (Kurds, Azaris, Baluch, etc.) by deceiving them with promises of legal protections and autonomy in order to pursue their nationalistic interests. It would be in the best interest of these groups, especially Kurds, to not repeat this mistake in either the present or the future. History should not repeat itself. In fact, it would be wise of the Kurds of Rojhilat to recognize that anything resembling political friendship is impossible with the Persians running the present regime. Political realists have long noted that political reality is not a universe, but a multiverse of competing peoples. Realists have also emphasized that most political orders are characterized by a series of overlapping forms of domination. 

The regime of Iran has created a society based on a hierarchy of overlapping dominations. The Rojhilati people suffer from many of these forms of domination. For example, political, national, cultural, economic, and sexual forms of domination have been inflicted upon the Kurds. However, at the most fundamental level, what explains the situation of the Rojhilti Kurds is what Dockstader and Mûkrîyan (2021) call ‘existential domination.’ They argue that the Kurdish people are existentially dominated. Existential domination is a form of political domination. The primary intention of existential domination is to obliterate the possibility of a people to become unified enough to form a distinct political entity. It occurs in the contexts of absolute enmity. Absolute enmity is kind of enmity where there is no recognition of the status of one’s enemies as being politically or legally real. Thus, existential domination, which is in fact applied absolute enmity, requires an intentional use of overwhelming force or uncontrolled power for the sake of preventing the emergence of a truly distinct political people. 

It is a treatment of one group of humans as inhuman or subhuman so that they will be either annihilated or rendered permanently fragmented, forever left unable to unify and to exist as a genuine distinct political entity, as a people. The most obvious extreme expression of absolute enmity is genocide.[14] The point here is to say that the Persians consider the Kurds as enemies to such an extent that they aim to prevent their conventional existence as an independent people. This realist approach to different kinds of political enmity thus teaches Kurds to never repeat the historical mistake of presuming the Iranian regime will ever recognize their humanity or existence as a people.  

Now, civil unrest and mass demonstrations have frequently taken place in Rojhilat as a response to the anti-Kurdish sentiments of the regime. A more immediately recent example are the protests that have emerged as a response to the killing of Jîna Eminî (Mahsa Amini). She was a young Kurdish woman from Saqqez, a Kurdish town in Rojhilat. Jîna was with her family in Tehran for a visit. She was with her brother in a metro station when the morality police or Guidance Patrol of the Islamic Republic of Iran arrested her because of her “improper” hijab.

The police deny any use of physical violence against Jîna. However, other documents such as a CT scan of Jîna’s head and some eyewitnesses reveal the fact that she was brutally beaten by the Iranian morality police. As a result of these injuries, Jîna fell into a coma in custody in Tehran and lost her life on September 16, 2020.

The Iranian compulsory hijab law was re-intensified after Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-core Islamist, took power in Iran in August 2021. Since then, many women in Iran have faced jail and prosecution because of resistance to compulsory hijab standards. Iran demands women to hide all their hair and body with loose clothing. But Jîna, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from a small town, became the first woman to lose her life because she supposedly did not meet the hijab standards that the Iranian regime demands. 

For Iran, killing Jîna was a way for them to kill two birds with one stone. First, it sent a strong message to all women in Iran that the regime is willing and ready to massacre all the women in Iran if they do not comply with compulsory hijab law. Secondly, targeting a young woman from an ethnic minority would cause no harm to the regime of Iran, but it would bring more fear and obedience among the people, especially the ethnic minorities. 

For the regime, Jîna was disposable. It is hard to believe there was not at least a degree of pre-meditation in her murder. Despite all the efforts of the Iranian regime to divide and rule the people by using tools such as creating ethnic hierarchy, the unfolding reports and videos from inside Iran prove the opposite. The videos published on Instagram and Telegram indicate that ‘woman, life, freedom’ became a uniting and leading slogan among all the protestors across all of Iran. 

‘Woman, life, freedom’ is the leading slogan of the Kurdish freedom movements. It is a slogan that gave a new meaning to the struggle of the Kurdish people. It is the slogan that originated from the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, who thought that society will never be free of its many overlapping forms of domination without the freedom of women. The wide-spread anti-government protests have been ongoing for four weeks now. The regime responded by shooting the protestors. The IRGC even targeted the headquarters of the KDPI and Komala in Başûr on the 28 of September 2022, killing 13 people and injuring 53.[15] These two political parties had no intervention in the current protests in Iran. Yet, they were clearly chosen as easy targets insofar as they at least aim to resist the existential domination of Rojhilati Kurds.

Observing the emergence of inter-communal solidarity between different ethnic groups in Iran is promising and constructive. Yet, the Kurds must reflect on the issue more realistically. One reason for this is the absolute enmity implicit in the Persian nationalism that characterizes the regime. Kurds should also be wary of co-option of the recent protest movement by Persians unwilling to see the tragedy of Jîna as another example of the existential domination of the Kurds, for there are numerous cases in Western capitals of protests by Iranian ex-pats aiming to silence Kurdish participants. In general, Iranian nationalists want this protest movement to be about the hijab issue alone, when it is clearly a matter of Kurdish rights more so. The reports and videos on twitter from the Global Action Day in solidarity with the protesters in Iran on 1st October 2022 indicated that the Persian nationalists have zero tolerance toward the Kurdish language, Kurdish colours, and Kurdish flags. The Kurds and other ethnic minorities should not be utilised to serve this Persian nationalism. Moreover, the Kurds should remain realistic and clear-eyed about who their enemies are and not repeat the mistakes of their past.

Rojin Mukriyan

Author’s Bio:

Rojin Mukriyan is a PhD candidate in the department of Government and Politics at University College Cork, Ireland. Her main research areas are in political theory and Middle Eastern politics, especially Kurdish politics. She has published articles in the Journal of International Political Theory, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and Theoria. Her research has thus far focused on the areas of Kurdish liberty, Kurdish statehood, and Kurdish political friendship. 

Bibliography:

Ahmadzadeh, H., and Stansfield, G. (2010). ‘The Political, Cultural, and Military Re-awakening of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iran.’ Middle East Journal, 64(1), pp.11–27.

Bois, T. H., Minsorsky, V. and MacKenzie, D.N., (2012) ‘Kurds, Kurdistān’, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. (eds.).

Bokani, K. (2016) Social Communication and Kurdish Political Mobilization in Turkey. LAMBERT, Republic of Moldova.

Bova, R. (2012) How the World Works: A Brief Survey of International Relations. 2nd edn. Longman, US, p.15.

Dockstader, J., and Mûkrîyan, R. (2021) ‘The domination of the Kurds’, Theoria, 169(68), pp.57-84. doi:10.3167/th.2021.6816903 • ISSN 0040-5817

Gunes, C. (2019) The Kurds in the Middle East: The Changing Geopolitics of a Regional Conflict, Palgrave, Macmillan, Switzerland, p.86.

McDowall, D. 2004. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I.B. Tauris, p.24-36.

Paoan-Matin, F. (2014) ‘The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, (1989 edition)’ Iranian Studies, 47(1), pp. 159-200.

Vali, A. (2011) Kurds and the State in Iran: The Making of Kurdish Identity, I.B. Tauris, New York.

Vali, A. (2016). ‘Reflections on Kurdish Society and Politics in Rojhelat’,  In M. Gunter (Ed.), Kurdish Issues: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Olson, Costa Mesa, Mazda Publishers, CA, pp. 283– 314. 

Wintour, P. (2022) “Iran Launches airstrike against Kurdish group in northern Iraq,”   theGuardian.com, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/28/iran-launches-airstrike-against-kurdish-group-northern-iraq-mahsa-amini-protests (retrieved on 4 October 2022).


[1] Bokani, K. (2016) Social Communication and Kurdish Political Mobilization in Turkey. Lambert, Republic of Moldova, p.41.

[2] Bokani, K. (2016) Social Communication and Kurdish Political Mobilization in Turkey. Lambert, Republic of Moldova, p.56.

[3] Bois, TH., Minsorsky, V. and MacKenzie, D.N., (2012) ‘Kurds, Kurdistān’, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. (eds.).

[4] Vali, A. (2016). ‘Reflections on Kurdish Society and Politics in Rojhelat’, in M. Gunter (Ed.), Kurdish Issues: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Olson, Costa Mesa, Mazda Publishers, CA, pp. 283– 314.  

[5] McDowall, D. 2004. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I.B. Tauris, p.24-36.

[6] Vali, A. (2011) Kurds and The State in Iran: The Making of Kurdish Identity, I.B. TAURIS, New York.

[7] Paoan-Matin, F. (2014) ‘The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, (1989 edition)’ Iranian Studies, 47(1), pp. 159-200.

[8] Komalay Jiyanaway Kurdistan founded in 1942 transformed into the KDPI in 1945 demanding autonomy for the Kurdish people. Komalay Shorishgeri Zahmatkeshani Kurdistani Iran (Komala) is a Marxist-Leninist organization with Maoist orientation founded in 1979. For more information see: Vali, A. (2011) Kurds and The State in Iran: The Making of Kurdish Identity, I.B. Tauris, New York.

[9] Gunes, C. (2019) The Kurds in the Middle East: The Changing Geopolitics of a Regional Conflict, Palgrave, Macmillan, Switzerland, p.86.

[10] Ahmadzadeh, H., and Stansfield, G. (2010). ‘The Political, Cultural, and Military Re-awakening of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iran.’ Middle East Journal, 64(1), pp.11–27.

[11] McDowall, D. 2004. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I.B. Tauris, p.262.

[12] Gunes, C. (2019) The Kurds in the Middle East: The Changing Geopolitics of a Regional Conflict, Palgrave, Macmillan, Switzerland, p.86.

[13] Bova, R. (2012) How the World Works: A Brief Survey of International Relations. 2nd edn. Longman, US, p.15.  

[14] Dockstader, J., and Mûkrîyan, R. (2021) ‘The Domination of the Kurds’, Theoria, 169(68), pp.57-84. doi:10.3167/th.2021.6816903 • ISSN 0040-5817

[15] Wintour, P. (2022) “Iran Launches airstrike against Kurdish group in northern Iraq,”   theGuardian.com available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/28/iran-launches-airstrike-against-kurdish-group-northern-iraq-mahsa-amini-protests (retrieved on 4th of October 20220.