Young Arab Spring Blog

Iran's Kurdish Dilemma

Salih Yasun*

A potential scenario in Iraq seems to be a loosely formed alliance or the breakup into three states, ruled by the Kurds, the Shias, and the Sunnis. Such a scenario would severely limit Iranian influence in the region, and could lead to further demands of autonomy by Iranian Kurds.

Despite having rich natural and water sources, Kurdish regions of Iran were ranked as the least developed provinces in the country (Elling, 2013). The government has not only underinvested in the region, but also has squeezed the agricultural production and forbid education in Kurdish language (Amnesty International, 2008). As a result, the unemployment rate in the region was as high as 50% in 2008 (Iranian Kurdistan, 2008). The mistreatment at home and inspirations of Kurdish struggle coming from Iraq and Turkey led to formation of Kurdish rebel group. According to PJAK, the Iranian wing of Kurdish Political and Military Organization PKK, the hopes of attaining self-rule through peaceful means had exhausted and there was no other opportunity left but to take up arms (Zambelis, 2011). However, the rebellion support in Iranian Kurdistan has not been as strong as the local Kurdish groups received in Turkey and Iraq. One reason for the low levels of support is the mismatch of identities between the Kurdish leadership, most of whom are urban and left oriented, and basic Kurdish Iranian population, most of whom are rural and loyal to their tribes (Smith, 2009). These tribes (ashirets) are dominated by rural elites who have kept a distance with rebel groups (Smith, 2009) and the traditional leadership has often hindered the development of Kurdish nationalism (Kamali, 2003). In addition, there are many Kurdish factions in Iran, making it difficult to form a representative group to be able to negotiate with the Islamic Republic (Bordbar, 2014). As the Islamic Republic continued to be "an island of stability", Kurdish separatist factions have focused their energies on Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, where they have had a higher likelihood of maintaining independence. Therefore, knowing the limits of independence movement in Iran, the reaction of the Iranian government towards Kurdish independence movements in Syria and Iraq has remained cautious and pragmatic. For instance, while declaring its desire to see Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis to return back to their alliance with Shias, Iran supplied arms to peshmerga in their fight against IS (Collard, 2014). In addition, it supported Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and other Kurdish groups that currently oppose independence (Collard, 2014). Iran's pragmatism towards Kurds is evident from its policy goals from the Kurdish Regional government, as it wishes to keep an eye on Iranian elements and Kurds in the KRG, ensure that KRG embraces policies that support Iran's interests, and ensure that leaders in Kurdistan do not form alliance with other groups (Knights and Pollock, 2014).

Yet, while remaining pragmatic Iran also faces serious dilemmas. One the one end of the spectrum, there is the idea that the Kurds in Iran will not be able to achieve the progress achieved by their kinships (Knights and Pollock, 2014). Therefore, Iranian government can increase its cooperation with an autonomous Kurdish region while improving the living standards and democratic participation of its Kurdish population. Overall, the ethnic groups with less access to political and economic power are more likely to rebel against the government (Cederman et al, 2010). The current income equality and land distribution within the Kurdish regions of Iran is also receptive of economic endowments. The land reform of 1962-1966 initiated by the Shah took away the land from tribal leaders, distributed it among peasants and encouraged waged agricultural labor (Kamali, 2003). This led to a more egalitarian society. An economic initiative to the region, such as cutting down taxes on land or providing incentives for agricultural products could benefit the society in equal terms. This would decrease the possibility of horizontal inequality. As evidence shows from India, growing horizontal inequality can produce dissidents, even if it is accompanied by economic growth (Murshed, 2013). On the other hand, the inequality of Kurdistan with other regions of Iran coupled with the egalitarian outlook of the Kurdish population offers a very favorable field for the growth of nationalism. Overall, relative equality of landownership together with overall poverty works against emergence of class cleavages among peasants by producing a "corporate village" pattern (Ozbudun, 1988). The economic endowments toward region could lead to creation of a greater middle class in this "corporate village". As in the case of Singapore, this middle class could seek to have greater autonomy from the central government, especially regarding culture in order to take greater control of their lives (Rodan, 2007).

Overall, opening up the Kurdish regions and cooperating with Kurdish National Government could mean the acceleration of the nationalist movement in Kurdish regions and more internal turmoil. On the other hand, it could lead to a long term solution to the Kurdish problem and deeper integration of Kurdish population to the society. In such case, Iran's portfolio over divided Iraq would be greatly diversified, and Iran would exert much more independent foreign policy.

The previous attempts by reformists to create a more inclusive Iran have faced resistance by conservatives. During the reformist Khatami's term, Kurdish politicians were rejected from ruling for the office (Romano and Gurses, 2014). City council meetings in the Kurdish region were occasionally nullified by the conservatives (Romano and Gurses, 2014). As evidenced, attempts for reforms could receive serious resistance from the military and ruling machine, who would prefer the status quo and even turmoil over a more democratic and open society, as openness could mean the deregulation of their political and military power. As we can recall from the Iran-Iraq War, the ruling elite of Iran is notorious for utilizing existing threats to its national security in order to silence the opposition. Overall, it is ambiguous to figure out what effect a more powerful Iran have on the Kurdish issue. As long the ruling elite stays in power the tilt will be in favor of oppression and a desire to keep the status quo, even though this could mean a greater internal turmoil.

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*PhD Student of Political Science at Sabanci University