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Expert: Turmoil and Repression in Kurdish Iran Exposes Regime’s Fears of Ethnic Separatism

The recently suppressed unrest in the Kudish region of Iran, “is an indication not of the regime’s strength, but of its potential weakness,” Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center, wrote in a column for The Jerusalem Post on Friday.

The suppression of any hint of Kurdish separatism has remained in place ever since. Education in Kurdish remains forbidden; any sign of attempts at political organization is ruthlessly suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards.

The hostility of the Iranian regime to the slightest hint of separatism derives not solely or mainly from ethnic tensions between Persians and Kurds. Even the most modest Kurdish demands for greater local autonomy raise the specter for the regime of ethnic separatism. Iran is a divided society ethnically, with only 49 percent of the population consisting of ethnic Persians; the rest are a mixture of Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds and Arabs.

Thus, the brutal and total repression of Kurdish demands is an indication not of the regime’s strength, but of its potential weakness. Tehran fears that were the demands of one minority ethnicity to be accommodated – even partially – this would risk opening the floodgates for other demands.

Spyer quotes a source who told the Post that the current wave of resentment of the Kurds towards the Iranian regime is likely to “ebb away,” but that the unrest indicates “’vast anti-regime sentiments’ among Iran’s Kurdish population.”

Spyer further quoted a Kurdish journalist who observed that there had been Kurdish revolt in Syria that presaged the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011. The journalist told the Post that the Kurdish revolt, though limited, could send a message to Iran that, “gaining ground in other countries can lead to losing ground at home.”

Expressing pessimism, Spyer asserted that in order to exploit Iran’s internal weakness, “there needs to be a recognition of the urgent necessity of containing and turning back Iranian regional ambitions.” If a nuclear agreement reached with Tehran leads to the relaxation of sanctions, he argues, it will lead to more repression of Iran’s minorities.

The unrest in Mahabad began two weeks ago when word spread that a young woman had fallen or jumped to her death to escape being raped by an Iranian government official. Although there was news last week that the protests had spread, there has been little published on further developments. Reports that Iran had cut phone and internet access to the region are corroborated by a marked lack of news and social media activity from Mahabad, the city at the center of the protests, over the past week.

In Say it Again, Kurdish Independence Now, which was published in the September 2013 issue of The Tower Magazine, while acknowledging that Kurdish governance is “unlikely to resemble US or EU-style democracies any time in the near future,” Spyer wrote:

The moral and strategic case for Kurdish sovereignty is therefore a strong one. Western endorsement of the principle of Kurdish statehood, removal of the PKK from lists of terror organizations, and the development of closer relations with the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish enclaves could help break the current stalemate on the issue.

There is neither benefit nor justice in a situation where the legitimate national aspirations of a largely pro-Western people are subject to the veto of the Islamist prime minister of Turkey. This is particularly the case given that Prime Minister Erdogan is adopting an increasingly problematic stance vis-a-vis the West and more and more repressive domestic policies.

Other opponents of Kurdish statehood include the Maliki government in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and Islamist groups among the Syrian rebels. Maliki and Assad are both clients of Iran, and the former is actively aiding the latter in his fight for survival. The Syrian rebels are Islamists and Arab nationalists who are determined to maintain the unity of the Syrian state. All of these forces are hostile to the West, and acquiescence to their rejection of Kurdish rights makes little or no sense.

The Middle East is in the midst of enormous historic changes, and the Kurds stand to be one of the main beneficiaries. Kurdish sovereignty would mean the establishment of a strong, pro-Western state in Middle East that is likely to be characterized by pragmatism, stable governance, and a pro-Western strategic outlook. It would also possess substantial natural resources and a mobilized populace willing to defend it. A Kurdish state in northern Iraq, moreover, would likely absorb the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria, effectively breaking up Iraq and Syria—two failed states that have been a byword for war, repression, and terrorism for most of the last fifty years.

In order for this to happen, however, the US must adopt Kurdish sovereignty as a strategic goal. At the moment, caution, timidity, and the desire to withdraw from the region make this unlikely. The last of these is probably the most difficult to overcome. After all, if the US and other Western nations do not want to be involved in the Middle East, then there is no point in supporting the emergence of a pro-Western ally in the region. But recent events in Syria and Egypt have shown what happens when the West fails to cultivate allies or abandons reliable clients in the region: Chaos.

Moreover, the forces ready and willing to replace the US as the region’s strategic hegemon—above all, Iran and Russia—do not intend to manage it as custodians of order and stability. Their interest is in the promotion of movements and regimes aligned with them and hostile to the West. At the same time, the rise of the anti-Western Sunni Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists with the support of Turkey and Qatar is leading to war and disorder across the eastern Mediterranean.

A sovereign Kurdish state could be a powerful bulwark against such disorder and a solid, pro-Western ally in this most troubled of regions. It would also realize the Kurds’ desire for long-delayed historic justice. It is an idea whose time has come.

[Photo: omid hassanzadeh / YouTube ]