The Kurdish Struggle in Iran: A Lost Cause?

The Kurds’ ongoing struggle for more cultural and political rights in Iran is more isolated and fragile than ever before, with countless splits occurring in the Iranian Kurdish parties and often ferocious in-fighting.

Due to bans imposed on these political groups by the Islamic Republic of Iran, they are mostly now officially stationed well within the borders of the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, as political refugees hosted by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

To this day, the groups are still armed – not adequately enough to counter Iran’s military might, but with more than enough firepower to fight each other, as some of them did in recent years, when several party splits led to inter-party armed conflict.

With sectarianism now seemingly more important among these exiled Iranian Kurds than the struggle for their rights, the unity of the Kurdish resistance is weakening in Iran, and there is the ever-present possibility of further armed conflict or even civil war among the groups, which would further weaken the Kurdish cause in Iran.

Currently, five major Iranian Kurdish political groups outlawed by Iran have their bases within Iraqi Kurdistan. The groups, co-existing in an ideologically uneasy relationship, comprise the Democratic Party of Kurdistan-Iran (PDKI), the Komala-Communist Party of Iran (Komala-CPI), and their splinter parties.

Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government allowed the groups to be in Iraq after the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, due to their opposition to a common enemy: the Iranian government.

During the Kurdish uprising against Hussein in 1991, the groups were allowed to establish bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, and they have been here ever since. The KRG supplies them with power, water and land.

Iran claims the Kurdish groups are terrorists, although the groups themselves renounced armed struggle in 2003, as the Iraqi Constitution does not allow armed political activities to be operated from Iraqi soil. The groups do not allow Iraqi Kurds as members, so as to avoid upsetting the KRG’s foreign relations.

Rudaw recently visited the two most prominent camps of these Iranian Kurdish parties and observed the daily life of their peshmarga fighters, which is no longer limited to military duties alone. With their guns put to one side, Rudaw saw both male and female peshmargas – still in their military fatigues – building, planting trees and armed with microphones and computer keyboards in their media studios, from where they broadcast to Iran and the rest of the world, via television, radio and the internet.

“We support civil struggle, and cultural and political representation of the Kurdish nation, and we also believe in a political solution for the Kurdish question in Iran,” said Mohammad Nazifi, member of the PDKI’s Secretariat, at the democratic party’s camp nestled under the Haibasultan Mountains, just 10 minutes’ drive from the town center of Koya in Erbil province.

Hassan Rahmanpanah, spokesman and Central Committee member of the Komala-CPI, said the communist group did not believe in armed struggle, but that it still had weapons and military camps to defend itself from “the Islamic regime’s attacks.”

“If we did not have our guns we couldn’t have our media, our publications and the [clandestine] civil struggle we are operating in Iran against the Islamic regime,” he told Rudaw at the Komala-CPI camp in the craggy mountains of Zirgwez, about 45 minutes’ drive south from Sulaimani city.

During the 1990s, prominent members of both groups were often assassinated by Iranian secret service members when they were en route to and from their camps and while in Iraqi Kurdish towns. Although there have not been any deadly attacks since security increased in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003, the groups remain ever-vigilant.

The roots of the political tension

Historically, there have always been political differences between Komala-CPI and the PDKI. These differences reached their highest level in the early 1980s, when, in the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains, a bloody six-year civil war erupted between the two groups, who were both heavily armed at that time.

Komala-CPI, founded in 1967 in the Kurdish region of Iran, is a Marxist organization, which now “fights to destroy capitalism in the longer run, but its immediate demand is to form a democratic state with all the other Iranian political forces included,” according to Komala-CPI’s Rahmanpanah.

He said any democratic government in Iran “must guarantee the democratic rights of the Kurdish nation, even if they want to secede.”

“Our socialist demands are similar to those of the Communist Party of Iran [which includes both Kurds and Iranian Persians, and is also based in the Zirgwez camp], but because of the extent of the national oppression in [Iranian] Kurdistan, ending this oppression is one of our prime goals,” added Rahmanpanah. “We have agreed to fight for the people’s judicial representation in Iran at our latest congress.”

The PDKI, led by Mustafa Hijri and founded in 1945 in Iranian Kurdistan, has a contrasting position to Komala-CPI’s on the Iranian Kurdish question. The PDKI’s Nazifi said its central aim was “to build a federalist government in Iran that assures the right of the Kurds and the other…nations [ethnic groups] in Iran on an ethnic and geographical basis.”

He added that the PDKI had long believed in a “decentralized federalist government,” similar to the one existing in Iraq today, that “could guarantee the rights of all those nations, settle Iran’s problems peacefully and create good relations in the Middle East and internationally.”

Breaking away from the mother party

Komala-CPI, known to the communists as “the mother party,” has also given birth to two further “Komala” parties which insist on using the term “Komala” (meaning “Group” in Kurdish) in their party names, creating great headaches for outsiders trying to work out the identity of these various groups.

In 2000, the biggest split in Komala-CPI’s history occurred when Abdullah Muhtadi, one of Komala-CPI’s most renowned leaders, decided to break away from the party due to his disenchantment with its communist ideology and his increased embracing of a social-democratic position.

He formed a new faction named the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala-PIK).

“Our faction’s split was the only one that occurred for political reasons in the history of Iranian-Kurdish politics,” said Farwq Wakili, Komala-PIK Central Committee member and the party’s representative in Sulaimani city. “We are still a leftwing organization – left of social democracy. Our Komala fights for federalism in Iran and the rights of the Kurds and other nations on ethnic and geographical grounds.”

Perhaps underscoring a fundamental similarity in purpose among the Iranian Kurdish parties, which is ignored due to their highly politicized internecine fighting, Komala-PIK’s aim, as expressed in Wakili’s statement, appears to be exactly the same as the “democratic” PDKI’s, as expressed in Nazifi’s statement, even though Komala-PIK is led by former staunch communist Muhtadi and uses the name “Komala,” now inextricably associated with communism.

To add even more confusion to the party nomenclature and ideology, the Kurdish-language name of Komala-PIK translates as “Komala-Revolutionary Toilers’ Party of Kurdistan,” with the party name rather shrewdly toned down in its English version for Western and international consumption.

“This is because ‘revolution’ and those kinds of names are not popular outside the country and in the West,” explained Wakili.

Split after split leads to armed conflict

In 2008, the year when the sectarianism and factionalism among the Iranian Kurdish parties peaked, several Komala-PIK Central Committee members decided to further break away from the Komala splinter party, apparently because of personal politics, to form their own organization, called Komala-Kurdistan Toilers’ Party (Komala-KTP), led by Omer Ilkhani Zada.

This separation was not as peaceful as Muhtadi’s split from the Komala-CPI “mother party.” Tension ran so high between these two “social democratic” splinter groups that armed attacks were mounted against each other, and the parties took each others’ cadres as prisoners. This was eventually stopped by the intervention of the Iraqi Kurdish security forces.

The split, and the subsequent violence, had reportedly been simply due to petty personal differences on how to and who should run Komala-PIK, but as a result, instead of fighting their common enemy, the Iranian regime, the refugees had turned their weapons on each other.

“It was a management issue which could have been solved easily, but the consequence was quite unfortunate,” said Komala-PIK’s Wakili, adding that there were no political or ideological differences between the two “social democratic” groups, who both blame each other for sparking off the violence and, to this day, will not engage in mutual dialogue.

“The violence was a result of deviating away from Komala-CPI’s fundamental principles,” said Komala-CPI’s Rahmanpanah, adding that no violence had ever taken place during a split from his own party.

“When [Muhtadi’s Komala-PIK] first split from us, we even provided them with a camp next to us and paid for all their expenses for three months,” he said. The Komala-PIK camp still stands next to the original Komala-CPI camp.

The Kurdish democrat’s PDKI did not escape the epidemic of sectarianism either. In that same year, just after the PDKI’s 13th congress, a splinter group left the party to form the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), not to be confused with Iraqi Kurdistan’s own Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is one of the region’s current ruling parties.

The PDK claimed they had had issues with the original party’s “internal democratic structure,” while the PDKI claimed the faction had broken away because their demands had not been met in the congress.

Both “democratic” parties have similar manifestos, exasperatingly similar names and even celebrate similar party anniversaries. The lack of fundamental political and ideological differences between them mirrors the relationship of Muhtadi’s Komala-PIK with its offshoot, Zada’s Komala-KTP.

The ‘Iraqi Kurdistan solution’ for Iran’s Kurds

Apart from communist Komala-CPI, all the Iranian Kurdish parties view the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent formation of the KRG, as the solution to the Kurdish question in Iraq. Komala-CPI is the only one of these groups demanding “the right of the Kurdish nation to self determination.”

In contrast to the communist party’s separatist views, the PDKI’s Nazifi told Rudaw that, “to put into practice our federalism, all the regions of the indigenous nations must be part of Iran,” adding that his party envisioned a semiautonomous Kurdish region within an “Iranian federalist state,” echoing the status of the Kurdish semiautonomous region in Iraq.

However, Komala-CPI remains staunchly opposed to federalism.

“Federalism is unable to answer the Kurdish question and guarantee the democratic rights of the Kurds,” said Komala-CPI’s Rahmanpanah, adding that federalist-type governments had been equally unsuccessful in addressing such issues in the rest of the world as well.

“The experiences of Palestine, India and Iraqi Kurdistan show that federalism has not offered a solution for the different ethnic minority groups,” he said.

Other peoples join the Kurds’ struggle

The Iranian Kurdish movement has, on the whole, also fought for the rights of all the major ethnic minorities in Iran, namely the Arabs, Azeri, Baluchis and Turks.

In turn, members of these minorities have joined the Kurds’ ranks.

Rudaw met peshmargas in their early twenties from these various nationalities at both the Komala-CPI and PDKI camps, many of them speaking in broken Kurdish.

“We pick up each other’s languages, because we struggle together and we are also living here together,” said a 21-year-old communist peshmarga, adding that the peshmargas of other ethnicities usually picked up the Kurdish language after being in the camp for a couple of months.

At the PDKI camp there was a cemetery which, as well as having graves and memorials for Kurds, included those for Arab and Turkish party martyrs, killed while fighting the Iranian military forces or assassinated by the Iranian secret service.

A united front or lost cause?

As a member of both Socialist International (SI) and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), the PDKI is substantially more internationally recognized than the other Iranian Kurdish parties.

In 2004, Komala-PIK also requested to become a SI member, but was refused because SI’s policy only allows for the membership of one democratic, including social democratic, party per country.

Despite this, Komala-PIK’s Wakili says his party is the most influential Iranian Kurdish party.

“You can see the important position our party holds in the international media, which means we are progressing politically and more recognized than the [other parties],” he said.

The other two splinter groups, the PDK and Komala-KTP, as yet have no great influence nationally or internationally, especially when compared to the PDKI and Komala-CPI, possibly due to the recentness of their formations. Only time will tell whether these groups will become substantial enough to rival the two mother parties, or whether they will simply sink into oblivion like dozens of other parties in the turbulent history of Iranian politics.

All the Iranian Kurdish parties mentioned here told Rudaw, and indeed have often grandly proclaimed to the rest of the world’s press, that their aim is to form a united front against their common enemy, Iran. On the surface, this would seem the obvious and most simple solution, but in practice, appears to be a far cry from reality, due to the violent, but often petty and pointless, ideological disputes and personal politics among the groups.

The Kurdish struggle in Iran appears to be a lost cause, stagnating amid the factionalism and sectarianism that is bogging down the Iranian Kurds’ simple hope to secure their rights and freedom.

 

Rozh Ahmad

Rudaw

March 6, 2011

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