Kurdistan: Kurdish ‘Intifada’ in Iran

Oppressed workers and poor resist regime

There has been serious and violent unrest for over a month now in the predominantly Kurdish inhabited region of the Iranian state. This uprising has been largely ignored by the western media.

According to Human Rights Watch, 17 people have been killed during protests in recent weeks. Iran Focus (11/08/05) reports the deaths as follows: “Three anti-government protesters shot dead in Oshnavieh on July 26, two killed in Baneh on July 30, one shot dead in Sardasht on August 2, and 11 killed in Saqqez on August 3.” Given the lack of any independent media in Iran it is impossible to verify any of this – the numbers killed are likely to be much higher. Kurdish organisations have issued a statement that claims 50 deaths.

Demonstrations in many towns and cities were reported – with youths and political opponents chanting anti-government slogans and fighting running battles with the Iranian police. In retaliation for the police killings and repression, government buildings were attacked. The police and paramilitary forces are reported to have fired indiscriminately into crowds – wounding hundreds as a consequence. This was the case in Saqqez on the 3rd August. Some organisations claim that helicopter gun-ships also fired onto the crowds.

The Iranian state forces have massively increased their presence in the region and this is adding to the tension. Reportedly, 100,000 troops were deployed, as well as ‘special forces’ and helicopter gun-ships. The Kurdish region is now effectively under martial law. Some Kurds are reportedly fleeing the region and, if the violence escalates, a flow of refugees out of the region can be expected.

On August 9th there was a commercial shutdown across the region in response to the state killings and repression. Numerous journalists, political, human rights, women’s rights and labour activists were arrested. No doubt there are hundreds of prisoners, especially from amongst the young people, resisting state repression, who now find themselves in the regime’s notorious dungeons and torture chambers. The authorities have also closed down two Kurdish language newspapers.

The spark for this month long ‘intifada’ was the brutal murder of political activist Shivan Quederi, on July 9th. Iranian state forces shot him three times, and then tied him to a military vehicle and drove around the city of Mahabad.

There are, of course, other contributing factors to this uprising – not least the long time national oppression of the Kurds within the Iranian state. The economic situation remains dire – the Kurdish region is badly underdeveloped and unemployment is high. This underdevelopment is a deliberate political weapon used by the regime. A UN report states that “regions historically occupied by Kurds …seem to suffer disproportionate inadequacy of services such as water and electricity and unsatisfactory reconstruction efforts”. (Reuters, 30/07/05)

Iraq and Turkey

Events in Iraq and Turkey are also having a knock on effect. In northern Iraq, Kurds have had autonomy for over a decade now. Despite the in-fighting between rival Kurdish factions in the mid-90s, the population were at least free from Saddam Hussein’s rule, and, as a result, they enjoyed relative peace and prosperity under the protection of US/UK imperialism. (During Saddam’s brutal rule, some reactionary leaders of the main Kurdish organisations also collaborated with Saddam). The Kurds are now seemingly progressing towards their place in a new ‘Federal Democratic Iraq’.

The nationalist and pro-capitalist Kurdish leaders in Iraq are currently in favour with imperialism, but this will not necessarily remain the case. What the extent of their autonomy actually amounts to in the future Iraq is yet to be seen. There are disputed issues, including the city of Kirkuk (and its oil fields) which is potentially explosive. Nonetheless, to the Kurds inside the Iranian state who continue to suffer under the brutal Iranian dictatorship, the situation for Kurds in Iraq appears to be much better.

In Turkey there is also some movement on the Kurdish question. According to an interview with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Commander, Murat Karayilan, (AFP, 12/08/05), the PKK is ready to lay down arms if the Turkish army ends the crackdown on its militants and if Ankara guarantees the rights of the Kurds. Meanwhile, whilst rejecting any possible let up in the military campaign against the PKK, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently pledged that the Kurdish conflict would be resolved with "more democracy". The Kurdish people can have no illusions in the Turkish ruling elite, which has oppressed them for decades. But to the Kurds in Iran, the situation in Turkey may look like progress. They must feel somewhat left behind and forgotten about compared to their brothers and sisters in the Turkish and Iraqi states.

"It is tragically ironic that while the United States now supports Kurds in Iraq who are embracing democratic principles and institutions deemed critical to Iraq’s future, Kurds in Iran, Syria and Turkey, striving for similar rights and freedoms, are marginalized and left at the mercy of repressive regimes" so says the Washington Kurdish Institute (09/08/05). The lack of consistency in the US’s mission to ‘spread democracy’ throughout the Middle East is thus picked up on, even by a nationalist, pro-capitalist institution such as this.

In reality, the US only wishes to ‘spread democracy’ when this is directly in accordance with its interests (such as in the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine and the ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia. As the majority of people in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere in the neo-colonial world are all too aware the US is certainly not a consistent proponent of democracy. It has in the past supported the most ruthless and bloody of regimes, (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq being such an example), and it continues to support the likes of Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, the tiny country that the US and its allies ‘liberated’ in the first Gulf War, only extended the vote to women this year! Despite the lively rhetoric of President George W. Bush, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, about ‘spreading democracy’, US imperialism has not all of a sudden been transformed into a tool of liberation for the oppressed peoples of the world. The economic and military-strategic interests of US capitalism remain the determining factor in its foreign policy.

The silence of imperialism and the media over the recent events in the predominantly Kurdish inhabited region of Iran can be partly explained by US imperialism’s fear of yet more instability in the Middle East. Reporting on the Kurds plight in Iran could threaten to spread the uprising elsewhere – to destabilise the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Anything that could be interpreted as US imperialism encouraging the Kurds in their struggle could ignite a massive and uncontrollable fire. The repercussions would threaten the interests of American and European capitalism in the region – this, in turn, would impact on the world economy. The current nation states in this region could be split apart – the major powers of Iran and Turkey could in these circumstances be forced to enter the conflicts in a desperate attempt to gain control of the situation. This is a situation that US imperialism would understandably rather avoid.

Having said this, it is not ruled out that US imperialism is presently meddling in the explosive situation in Kurdish areas of Iran, for its own class ends, of course. As we know from the situation in Iraq, prior to imperialism’s overthrow of Saddam, and in the ensuing chaos since, US imperialism will lean on different peoples in the region, including the oppressed Kurds, to further its class interests and often playing a ‘divide and rule’ game.

Unfortunately, the main political organisations in the Kurdish region of the Iranian state look towards imperialism in its different guises (the US, EU and the UN) to resolve the Kurdish national question. Whilst an alliance of convenience is possible between imperialism and the Kurds in Iran, this will be short lived, and it will be imperialism that calls all the shots.

History has shown, time and again, that the Kurds can have no trust in imperialism. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, ‘The Treaty of Sevres’, in 1920, promised the Kurdish people their own independent state. Imperialism did not deliver on this and the Kurds were betrayed. The Kurdish people were divided up between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. Imperialism has created the modern Kurdish national question and it is unable to resolve it.

‘Mahabad Soviet’

Not only has Western imperialism betrayed the Kurds. The ruling bureaucratic caste of the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, left them to be crushed in 1947. The so-called ‘Mahabad Soviet’ was a mini-Kurdish state, established in 1946, with its capital in Mahabad (a city now in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan, but which is predominantly Kurdish). This Kurdish republic was established following World War Two when part of Iran was still occupied by the Red Army. However, the Stalinist elite in Moscow abandoned support for the new independent Kurdish state in 1947 after signing a deal with the Shah of Iran to grant them access to oil and gas. After the Soviet Union withdrew its support the ‘Mahabad Soviet’ was soon invaded by the Iranian military and its leaders were hung.

More recently, Western imperialism backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war – including supplying the Ba’athist regime with chemical weapons, which were subsequently used against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, killing over 5000.

The Kurds in northern Iraq rose up against Saddam’s regime in the first Gulf War of 1991, after the US said it would support them. The US then did a deal with Saddam, allowing his forces to massacre thousands of Kurds. The same happened to the Shia who had risen up in the south of Iraq. After forcing Saddam out of Kuwait, US imperialism decided to call a halt. It preferred a much weaker unitary Iraq under Saddam’s continued brutal rule than the destabilisation of the entire region. In particular, imperialism feared the repercussions in Turkey, a NATO member and important strategic and economic ally. The Kurds in Turkey would have been greatly spurred on by the Kurds in Iraq if they had gained independence.

The Kurdish people have shown a massive willingness to struggle. They refuse to lie down and be defeated. The Kurds within the Iranian state fought like tigers in the revolution against the Shah. After the Islamic (counter) revolution in 1979 they prevented Ayotollah Khomeini’s troops from invading the region until 1982. There are countless other examples of heroic uprisings and brave guerrilla fighters who have died in the struggle. Unfortunately, willingness to struggle, bravery and self-sacrifice are not enough. The necessary political leadership, with the correct programme and tactics to bring about victory, has always been lacking.

Instead of looking towards imperialism, the Kurdish people must instead look to the working class and poor masses of the region and the entire world for support. To smash the theocratic dictatorship the Kurds need the support of the powerful Iranian working class and student movement. Likewise, for the Iranian workers to succeed, they need to win over the oppressed national minorities within the current Iranian state firmly to their side. This means that they must rally to the defence of national minorities and support their just demand for self-determination. The working class movement, not imperialism, is the natural ally of oppressed peoples.

A socialist programme, which includes the right of nations to self-determination, can win support from across all the peoples of the Middle East. A socialist programme aim would win support for a democratically planned economy to dramatically raise living standards, and would also aim to win support for democratic and national rights – which can only be won and secured under socialism.

A mass uprising against capitalism – against dictatorship, against national oppression and against women’s oppression, could spread socialist revolution across the region and beyond. The success of the socialist revolution requires the building of mass parties of the working class, armed with a correct Marxist programme. This is the crucial task that socialists are faced with – to start the construction of such parties today.

  • Down with the theocratic dictatorship!
  • For a mass revolutionary struggle that unites the working class, poor masses, students and oppressed peoples across the Iranian state!
  • Self-determination for the Kurdish people!
  • For a socialist confederation of the Middle East!

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September 2005