The Political, Cultural, and Military Re-Awakening of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iran

By Ahmadzadeh, Hashem; Stansfield, Gareth | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Political, Cultural, and Military Re-Awakening of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iran


Ahmadzadeh, Hashem, Stansfield, Gareth, The Middle East Journal


This article aims to shed light on the modern history of the Kurds in Iran, with particular reference made to the main Kurdish political and social movements of the 20th century following World War I and the establishment of an Iranian nation-state. The modernization and centralization of the new state deprived the non-Persian ethnic groups, including the Kurds, of democratically expressing their national aspirations. The consequences of this policy and the struggle of the Kurds against it throughout the remainder of the century and up to the present are the main issues discussed in this article.

Kurdish political developments have become more prominent in recent years, as exemplified by the steadily increasing numbers of books on the subject, articles appearing in major global newspapers, and the international community's clearly greater awareness of the existence of a set of Kurdish issues that need to be addressed. However, a review of materials on the Kurds suggests that interest in Kurdish affairs tends to be heavily skewed, with the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey receiving the most attention as compared to analyses that focus upon the status of the Kurds in Iran or Syria.

It is to the Kurds of Iran that we turn our attention in this article. From being the intellectual center of the Kurdish nationalist movement in the mid-20th century, the Kurds of Iran slipped from the gaze of international observers as the Iranian state began to project its power more effectively across its territory following the end of World War II. Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the attention paid to Iran's Kurds has become largely negligible save for a small number of academic works and the occasional filing of copy from intrepid journalists.1 It is now of critical importance, however, for attention to be paid to the situation of the Kurds of Iran due to the heightened prominence of the Kurds in Middle East politics in general, and of Iranian affairs in particular.

The ambition of successive Iranian authorities to establish a nation-state that aimed to assimilate the non-Persian ethnic groups into a wider Iranian narrative has been largely unsuccessful and it is this failure of the Iranian national project and the resilience of a Kurdish agenda that is the focus of this article. In it, we attempt to shed light on the Kurdish experience in Iran since the formation of the modern state in the 1920s, with a focus on the last three decades that followed the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

THE KURDS AND THE FORMATION OF THE IRANIAN NATION-STATE

Faced with the threat posed by industrializing European states, both Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire pursued a policy of extensive modernization throughout the second half of the 19th century. A key element of this policy was to promote the centralization of authority and administrative organization at the expense of the autonomy built up by groups living in provincial areas. As a result, the semi-independent Kurdish emirates were practically eliminated as meaningful entities. However, the Ottoman and Qajar central governments were still far from strong enough to exercise control over vast territories. In Iran, the dominant feudal social structure was manifest in the form of local tribal leadership which governed areas deemed to be within their geographic sphere of control.2 Iranian Kurdistan, especially in its northern parts, was strongly characterized by this form of governance.

This political structure proved to be an enduring feature of the Iranian political scene - and one that is largely overlooked by many historians focusing on the early years of the Iranian state. Indeed, even the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11, despite its significant achievements, failed to establish a democratic political system in Iran inclusive of these largely tribal regions; moreover, the years following World War I in Iran were characterized by a degree of anarchy in the government which facilitated the consolidation of Kurdish tribal authority. …

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