Iran awaits ‘Kurdish Spring’

After gains for Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, Iran appears to have bucked the trend.

PKK Militants
Kurdish people in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey say they are putting aside regional differences [Reuters]

Erbil, Iraq – Armanj Berxwedan fidgets anxiously in a plastic chair at the centre of a rebel camp in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. A Kalashnikov rifle leans on the tent that doubles as the camp’s library and dining hall. The pimply faced, 18-year-old guerrilla from Iran is a member of the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), and thinks he could soon be back on the frontlines. It is only a matter of time, he says, until the “Kurdish Spring” reaches his country.

After a century of political exclusion, Kurds are making landmark advances across the Middle East. The Kurds of Syria have built a de-facto autonomous zone in parts of the country’s north since the Assad administration pulled back its forces last summer. Talks between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) edge towards a settlement to the bloody conflict there. The Kurds of Iraq boast a federal region that enjoys a semblance of democracy and prosperity.

So far, Iran has bucked the regional trend towards empowerment of the Kurds. Kurdish political activism there is harshly suppressed. Kurds and other nationalities “face multifaceted discrimination, and their legitimate freedoms and rights are frequently transgressed”, the UN reports. But gains by their brethren elsewhere in the region are feeding Iranian Kurds’ bitterness at their own lack of political status. At the same time, Iranian Kurdish parties see these developments as a landmark opportunity to carve out a new standing for their people.

PKK fighters set up camp in Northen Iraq

“We’re hopeful that Iran will be forced to give us our rights, too. Let it be like Syrian Kurdistan. They’re ruling themselves with their own will,” Berxwedan told Al Jazeera. “Why shouldn’t it be the same in Iran? This is our expectation. We don’t want to fight, but we will if we have to in order to defend Kurdish rights.”

Iranian Kurds’ most recent chance for freedom came after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Both the liberal nationalist Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and the Marxist-oriented group Komala backed the uprising against the Shah, taking over swaths of the Kurdish region in the uprising. Tehran regained control following abortive talks and years of bitter fighting. PDKI and Komala fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they remain today.

PJAK is now the only Iranian Kurdish group involved in armed struggle against the Islamic Republic. Founded in 2004, it is connected to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella body that includes the PKK. Its bases in the Qandil Mountains on the Iraq-Iran border are next to the PKK’s. PJAK claims to also control an area spanning 2,200 sq km inside Iran.

Azad Awraz, a member of the PJAK coordination committee, told Al Jazeera changes in the regional order bode well for his organisation’s goal of a “democratic Iran and confederal Kurdistan”.

“North, south, and west Kurdistan are falling like dominoes. The Kurdish issue is being solved everywhere. Iran has no choice but to do the same,” he says.

PJAK welcomed the Turkey-PKK detente as a way to isolate Iran. In 2004, Ankara and Tehran softened their centuries-old rivalry for regional pre-eminence to join forces against PJAK and the PKK. They shared intelligence on rebel movements and coordinated their military operations. Ankara’s peace process with the PKK therefore leaves Iran lonely and exposed on the Kurdish front.

“The Iran-Turkey alliance was an obstacle to us. They made war on us a few times,” Awraz said. “Now, that won’t happen.”

PJAK’s side of Qandil has been mostly quiet since 2011, when Iraqi Kurdish authorities negotiated a ceasefire with Iran following intense clashes. At a PJAK camp an hour down a dirt road from a village in Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah province, fighters spend much of their time reading. Several works by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan sit on a stuffed bookshelf alongside a Turkish-language copy of The Kurds and Kurdistan by former PDKI president Abdulrahman Qasimlu. Most of the rebels are in their 20s, and about half are women. They come from Iran and Turkey.

On the offensive

The rebels may be tempted to go on the offensive as Iran is strained by the loss of its military alliance with Turkey, its increasingly active involvement in Syria, and domestic troubles exacerbated by harsh international sanctions.

Iran has recently built up its military presence along the borders with Iraq and Turkey, according to Awraz. PJAK foreign affairs spokesman Shamal Bishir told Al Jazeera that that the Kurds had responded in kind: “We will and have increased our [armed] forces inside Iranian Kurdistan. Increasing forces in villages and cities is one of our major goals.”

We think it's best for the ceasefire between PJAK and the Iranian state to continue.

by Murat Karayilan, KCK executive council chairman

Bishir quickly added that PJAK sought a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue and prioritised political agitation. Part of this doubtlessly has to do with the fact that the PKK wants to avoid any turmoil that could disrupt its ongoing withdrawal from Turkey as part of the peace process.

“We think it’s best for the ceasefire between PJAK and the Iranian state to continue,” KCK executive council chairman Murat Karayilan told Al Jazeera. “The Middle East is in a pre-storm period. There’s a big possibility that a greater storm will start. It would be more correct if Kurds didn’t rush to take up arms against anyone in this period.”

Growing KCK influence in Syria and Turkey also presents new political opportunities for PJAK. The rise of the KCK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria has strengthened the latter’s regional leverage. Meanwhile, the ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – both have recently cozied up to the PKK as a way of boosting their sagging popularity at home.

Bishir says Iraqi Kurdish authorities are also giving PJAK a fresh look as they prepare for possible developments in Iranian Kurdistan. PJAK decided to buy its own safe house in Sulaymaniyah last summer in order to facilitate these contacts. “We’re trying to develop good relations for the coming new period. Soon, eyes will shift from Syria and Turkey to Iran,” he says.

Kurdish coalitions

PJAK and other Iranian Kurdish parties see intra-Kurdish strife as a major threat to their improving prospects. They fear a replay of northern Syria, where the PYD has squared off with parties tied to the KDP. The equivalent in Iran would be a showdown between PJAK and the factions claiming the names PDKI and Komala, both of which have long-running ties with Iraqi Kurdish parties.

The Middle East is going to change. When the Islamic Republic came to power, it was very weak, but the Kurdish groups were not aligned with each other. That's why we're negotiating with each other.

by Mustafa Hejri, PDKI

“If in this atmosphere we go through a time of change and a vacuum, of course, it will be hard to control the situation,” Bishir says. “Our goal has been first to establish dialogue and common understanding of each other.”

The PDKI split in 2006, while five groups claim the name Komala. Today, the larger PDKI faction, headed by Mustafa Hejri, is based in three desolate camps in northern Iraq. Hejri claims the party has 800 peshmerga – Kurdish guerrillas – but the mostly aging, pot-bellied men would be no match for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Hejri’s PDKI signed a cooperation accord with a Komala faction last August. He rejects contacts with PJAK, which he sees as a mere extension of the PKK. PDKI last met with the PKK last year, according to Hejri.

Still, Hejri says intra-Kurdish negotiations have taken on greater urgency in recent months. The lessons of 1979 – when internal discord helped Iranian Kurds miss a landmark opportunity – weigh on his mind.

“The Middle East is going to change. When the Islamic Republic came to power, it was very weak, but the Kurdish groups were not aligned with each other. That’s why we’re negotiating with each other,” Hejri tells Al Jazeera.

“Sometimes change occurs speedily. If we’re not ready, we’ll lose time.”

Source: Al Jazeera