Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI)
Ari Goldman, June 27
WKI: Could you tell us about the status of Kurds in Iran?
Arash Saleh: Let’s briefly view some information about Kurds. The majority of Kurds are residing in four western provinces of Iran. Sanandaj, Kermanshah, West Azerbaijan, and Ilam are the main Kurdish populated provinces in Western Iran. Kurds are 12% of Iranian population. Sometimes 14% have been mentioned which tells us that Kurds in Iran could be more than ten million. There are about two million Kurds in other places of Iran, Eastern Iran, Northeastern Iran and Northern Iran. So there have been Kurds that have historically immigrated.They still are following their traditions. This is the geographic status of Kurds in Iran. And demographically, we’re a very diverse society. Different religions. Different dialects in Iranian Kurdistan. Four main dialects and various religions.
WKI: Is there a Kurdish population in Tehran?
Arash Saleh: Yes, there is a Kurdish population in Tehran. The problem with statistics in Iran is the same within all other totalitarian regimes.When there is a dictatorship in, when there is a totalitarian regime in, statistics and digits are threatening for the regime. You cannot have any reliable information on the issue. The status of Kurds in Iran is very dire. It’s a very bad situation. They don’t have basic rights in Iran.
WKI: What is the state of affairs in Iran in general right now both in regards to the Kurdish population and the greater citizenry?
Arash Saleh: Well, basically as you know, economically the situation of Iran has been very bad. Politically, there is a dictatorship there, a totalitarian regime that wants to have control of all aspects of social and individual life of people. Even the way they marry. Even the way that they wear clothes. Even the way that they actually eat stuff. The regime wants to have control over every small aspect of your lifestyle.
WKI: What do you mean by the way they eat?
Arash Saleh: There are some sort of foods that you are not allowed to eat. For example pork. For example some sort of drinks, alcoholic drinks. They want to control your lifestyle, even when you’re eating. Even for example, if you’re eating beef, the beef has to be produced in some specific sort of ways. This is the nature of the Iranian regime. They want to control everything. They are killing diversity inside of Iran and they are killing order outside of Iran in the Middle East. The Iranian regime is a major threat for both diversity inside Iran and order in the region.
WKI: Can you expand a bit on the different kinds of diversity? It seems like you’re saying they’re under attack. I’m referring to natural diversity (skin tones/gender), but also diversity of thought. What’s the status there?
Arash Saleh: Let me start with categories. National diversities, women are suppressed, gays are suppressed. Lesbians are suppressed. Different identities are suppressed. Kurds are suppressed. If you’re a Kurd, you don’t have basic rights. You don’t have the right to participate in [the] political process. If you are Bahai, you don’t even have the right to live in Iran. If you’re a Jew, your situation is really bad. This sort of diversity is suppressed. Even if you are on the Shiite Muslim side in Iran, if you think differently than the political system, you don’t have a place in Iran. You can see a lot of Iranian, Shiite Persians in exile because they don’t have a place inside Iran. They cannot live there because the Iranian regime cannot tolerate any different ways of thinking.
WKI: Can you describe what the goal of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) is?
Arash Saleh: The PDKI’s main strategic goal has been described as our strategic slogan: Democratic Federal Iran. Our basic role is to establish federalism within a democratic Iran which all nationalities have their own basic rights to govern their areas, govern themselves and also participate in the central government in Tehran.
WKI: So it’s not in an absolute case separatist; you’re just advocating for federalism?
Arash Saleh: We are actually advocating for the right for the self determination of people.
WKI: So, calling for a referendum?
Arash Saleh: Yes. But we believe the self determination of people has different outcomes. Independence is one outcome and federalism is another. In this situation, we believe a democratic federal Iran still has a chance. A democratic federal Iran will be in the interest of all nationalities and all the people of Iran. It still has the chance to succeed.
WKI: has it been easier since Ahmadinejad has left office and Rouhani has come into prominence. In regards to that, can you describe the state of civil liberties in Iran?
Arash Saleh: Basically, Iran’s structure and ideology does not allow for civil liberties. Ironically, the situation after Ahmadenajad has been worsening. There is a very delicate reality here that we should notice. What people are feeling [seeing] in the West is not the reality in Iran. It’s depicted by media that was trying to prop up the Iran [nuclear] deal. Any sort of labels like moderate are all a product of media with the political intentions here in the west. There is not much difference between Ahmadenajad and Rouhani. I should emphasize the fact that during Rouhani’s first term, the executions in Iran were soaring. They were going up very dramatically. The situation of the Kurds was even worse than when Ahmadenajad was in office. When you’re there, you can feel it; there’s not much difference. The totality of the regime sees you as Kurds, so it’s doesn’t make a difference whether it’s Ahmadenajad or Rouhani.
WKI: When Ahmadenajad was in office, did you find natural alliance internally with people who were upset with his regime?
Arash Saleh: There are always sympathies with Kurds inside and abroad. It’s not Kurds versus the rest of Iran. There are Kurds. There are Turks. There are Beluch. There are Arabs. These different nationalities have reached their national consciousness and have reached national awareness. So, it often like different nationalities inside Iran versus the regime. So, whether it’s Ahmadenajad or Rouhani, there is this kind of national alliance between nationalities inside Iran against the regime. It’s against this system that suppresses this sort of diversity.
WKI: Has there been an effort on behalf of the PDKI to work with any other non Kurdish opposition party?
Arash Saleh: Yes. There is a coalition. There is an umbrella organization we call the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CNFI). The CNFI consists of 14 different organizations from different nationalities with inside Iran. There are organizations from Beluch. There are organizations from Arab people. There are organizations from Turk people, Turkmen people, and Kurds in this umbrella organization. We all have the same goal which is a democratic, federal Iran. So, this organization provides us with mechanisms to work with each other and it is the main opposition coalition.
WKI: What is the personal aim of the PDKI? Going back to the question of federalism, we see the comparison now in Iraqi Kurdistan (Bashur) , is there a similar aim to have an independence referendum?
Arash Saleh: The very near goal is to change the regime because this regime is the main obstacle to democratization and the way to self determination of different peoples in Iran. The very near goal is to establish a democratic and federal Iran in which everyone can have their rights. It all depends on the relations of domination inside Iran. If we can reach our goals of self determination within a federal Iran. A federal Iran would be a good answer for that.
WKI: I have heard and seen from newscasts that there are a lot of moderate young Persians. Is that a group you can work with in the future?
Arash Saleh: There are a lot of groups we can work in the future with. There isn’t any strict red line here for us. If the first goal is to overturn the regime, there is a lot of Persian fractions that agree with us. We can always talk and sort things out.
WKI: Are there ethnic Persians you’d be willing to work with?
Arash Saleh: Yes. Definitely. We believe we have no choice, but to work with each other. There are organizations, groups and especially there are young people raised from the base of the student movement. There was a large kind of student movement in Iran. Like 10, 12 years ago, there was a very strong student movement in Iran and these young people are very open to our ideas. The young generation is open to a federalism in Iran.
WKI: Can you tell us about the political prisoners in Iran and what kind of fate they’re facing?
Arash Saleh: Basically, there are different kinds of political prisoners in Iran. We can categorize them in different ways. We can look at their nationalities. Kurds, Beluch, and Azeris are the majority of them [nationalist prisoners]. There are political prisoners on death row, there are those facing long interrogations. There are those have life sentences.
WKI: What is the threat of execution or capital punishment for these political prisoners?
Arash Saleh: There is always a threat. As I mentioned, the executions have been going up recently, especially after the second term of Rouhani started. There were lots of executions in the prisons of Iran, especially in Tehran and Urmia. There are still a lot of political prisoners on death row…
WKI: Now, when we’re talking about political prisoners, how many are we saying there are? I understand it must be hard to get an exact number. What’s the range that we’re talking about?
Arash Saleh: We’re talking about thousands of political prisoners in Iran. It is really hard to have a number. The main reason is based on Iranian law, there is no such thing as a political prisoner. It hasn’t been defined or conceptualized in Iranian laws. The Iranian regime tries to put political prisoners under different titles… like drug related crimes, because they want to blur the situation there.
WKI: What’s your impression on the Iran nuclear deal? Do you think it was a wise decision? What has the impact been on the ethnically Kurdish population in Iran?
Arash Saleh: Well, if the intention of this deal is to stop [the] Iranian nuclear program for a short time, I can say it’s successful, but it doesn’t have any long term success at all. It’s not going to have any positive implications on the ground. We have seen lots of reports on how Iranians have used the money that [was] gained from this deal to prop up their meddling in Syria, their meddling in Yemen and other places. [It’s used] to prop up their terrorist activities here and there. We have talked about this a lot here in Washington, D.C. and I know other capitals in Europe did the same. We know that the Iranian regime is going to use the money they received from this deal to invest it in Syria to kill more people there and worsen the situation. And, I believe Iranians are not quitting on their ambitions to get nuclear weapons. They are going to continue that. I think if this deal is not accompanied with some measures to contain Iran, to change the regime inside Iran, the results will be disastrous.
WKI: Do you think there’s going to be an effort inside Iran to continue with the nuclear program?
Arash Saleh: I think so. I believe so. These ambitions started with the war with Iraq, generals in Iran and the regime started to think about nuclear weapons. It is obviously there in the memoirs of former Iranian general and the former foreign minister, [Ali Akbar] Velayati. Also, if you look at the IRGC, Revolutionary Guards’ slogan, you can see a saying of Quran there: ““wa aedo lahom ma astattaom min qowa”Use whatever you can reach to conquer your enemies.” It’s in their ideology. It’s in their ambitions to have nuclear weapons. They are going to continue.
WKI: Do you think there’s a shift in the Persian populace to support foreign military efforts?
Arash Saleh: Citizens of Iran are really angry with the policies of this regime. In the last Green Movement in Iran, one of the major slogans was “Stop supporting Gaza. Stop supporting Palestine. Think about your people inside Iran.” It was one of the major slogans of the people back then. The majority of the Iranian people are really angry with these policies. They don’t want their resources to be consumed in Syria. They don’t want their resources to be part of [the] massacre in Syria or [the] massacre in Yemen or the situation in Lebanon. Iranian people are against these decisions and against these policies.
WKI: We’ve heard mixed reports about the voter turnout of the past election. On one hand, there have been reports that Kurdish turnout was low and on the other that total turnout was high. Can you tell us more about that?
Arash Saleh: Well, in large cities like Tehran and Esfahan, the turnout was higher than in Kurdistan. Based on our understanding, it should be a little bit more than 50%. In Iranian Kurdistan, the turnout was really low. The main reason is there is a strong opposition in Iranian Kurdistan is that people can rely on and people can hope for real change. I think the main reason thee turnout in the cities was a little bit high was the Iranian regime used different techniques to force people to participate. Both hard techniques like forcing them physically by saying if you do not participate, you are going to lose this privilege or that privilege. Or by soft power by inculcating this idea in their minds “if you do not participate in elections, there is going to be a worse situation with other candidates.” Unfortunately, not only Iranian media helped this, also medias like BBC Persian. I believe, it’s because this major Persian mass media abroad is under the control of one faction of the Iranian regime. They’re using them [foreign Persian media] to support their faction, not democracy in Iran. For example, the influence that so called reformist in Iran have on BBC Persian is used to support their faction inside the Iranian regime, not to support democratic values. The same story with VOA.
WKI: Was it your calls to boycott that led to a low turnout in the Kurdish areas?
Arash Saleh: Yes. That’s correct. The turnout was really low. Iranian Kurdish parties unanimously boycotted this.
WKI: What message would you have on behalf of the PDKI to the American people and what message would you have to the US administration?
Arash Saleh: Our message is that Iran has been a threat for American interests for a long time now. Iran is playing a very bad role in the Middle East. It is also a dictatorship inside who kills its people, who actually hangs its people in public squares. People are tired of this regime. The world is tired of this regime. American interests tell us that the American Administration should do something with this regime and support regime change in Iran. At the same time, there is this understanding that they [America] doesn’t want to put boots on the ground in the Middle East anymore. I believe a middle way is to support Iranian people, Iranian organizations, especially those who belong to nationalities like Kurds, like Arabs, like Beluch to help them to change the regime there by themselves. Help them to bring democracy to Iran by themselves. A democratic federal Iran will be in the interests of the United States. It will be in the interest of its allies in the Middle East. It will be in the interest of European security. It will be in the interests of the West. I believe if the United States wants to do something about Iran while sticking to their [moral] lines, they should help Iranians and especially Kurds.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributes do not necessary reflect those on the WKI.