Washington Kurdish Institute
Novemeber 14, 2017
The Kurds of Iran, a people who have been living under the Iranian state for centuries, are a population of about 7-8 million. The majority of Kurds in Iran reside in four major provinces: Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, Ilam, and Kermanshah. Like their fellow Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the Kurds of Iran have been persecuted and repressed by the various ruling parties and dynasties of the Iranian state. For example, thousands of Kurdish political activists remain imprisoned and some are even brutally executed in public.
The Kurds of Iran are divided among several political parties that all share similar goals with neighboring Kurdish political movements: an independent Kurdistan and/or obtaining equal rights for Kurds within the current state structure. Although the Iranian Kurdish parties are divided in their political views, they are united in one respect: their belief that living under the current Iranian regime has been a terrible experience for the Kurds.
In order to silence the Kurdish voice, since its establishment the Iranian government has fought against and banned all Kurdish political parties and jailed their activists. The Iranian regime even extends this oppression with actions across borders, most recently during its role in suppressing the Iraqi Kurds in their bid for independence. Soon after the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum was held on September 25, 2017, the Iranian regime used proxy militia forces in Iraq to collaborate with the Iraqi government to attack the disputed territories between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq and the Iraqi central government. Many Iranian officials were even present in Iraq as “advisers” to the Iraqi militias involved in taking over Kirkuk province — one of the most prominent of these “advisers” was top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani. These actions led to the destruction of hundreds of Kurdish homes and the displacement of thousands of Kurds.
To talk about the current situation of the Iranian Kurds, Iran’s influence in Iraq, and the U.S. strategy against Iran in the region, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) interviewed a Kurdish leader from Iranian Kurdistan, Mr. Khalid Azizi. Mr. Azizi is the former General Secretary of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and is currently living in exile outside of Iran. He has been fighting for Kurdish rights in Iran for decades.
WKI: What is the latest news about the state of Iranian Kurds?
Khalid Azizi: Following the Islamic revolution in 1979, our struggle for ethnic and democratic rights is still continuing in Iranian Kurdistan. The national sentiment among the Kurds in Iran is so high that it could easily be utilized as an opportunity to promote uprisings in Iranian Kurdistan. Many of the Kurds who took to the streets in support of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum were detained and still remain in prison. Despite the pressure and oppressive actions by the regime, civil activist movements in Iranian Kurdistan are strong, with many citizens organizing. I believe the Iranian regime feels more pressure and threats from these activist movements inside Iran than from any aggression coming from outside of the country. In fact, the aggressive speeches and stances by the current U.S. administration under President Donald Trump are often used by the Iranian regime to stoke up Iranian nationalism against alleged threats of Arab nationalism and promote Shi’ism pride over alleged threats from Sunni Muslims. I actually believe Iran is winning in this vocal war against the United States because the United States fails to back up its war of words with any clear plan or policy on how to counter the Iranian regime and its policies.
WKI: So despite the strong statements of President Trump and other US officials against Iran, do you think Iran’s unrestrained utilization of Shia proxy militias in Iraq is an indicator that the U.S. tough talk has not been backed with any substantive on-the-ground action?
Khalid Azizi: As the Kurds witnessed Iran’s clear, deep presence in Iraq, with the organization of Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), in the capture of Kirkuk province, it sent echoes and signals across the region for the question: if the United States knew Iran had such a strong presence in Iraq, why didn’t it react to this aggression? The United States’ inaction in Iraq only benefited Iran. Today the Iranian regime behaves in the U.S. as it pleases, with many people inside Iran believing that the regime has now become a superpower. Iran is effectively outplaying U.S. strategy and policies in the Middle East; the regime is doing a lot to counter democracy and activist movements, including Kurdish groups, in the region. And the U.S. only watches. When the PMUs captured Kirkuk, many asked: why didn’t the U.S. react? The credibility of the United States in the region is very low right now. The Iranian regime is trying to send a message to everyone in the region: “Don’t listen to the Americans. They should not be trusted.” The U.S. needs a new policy in the region towards Iran in order to compensate for the damage to America’s interests and image in the region.
WKI: In this regard, do you think the U.S. has failed diplomatically or military?
Khalid Azizi: I am not an expert on military affairs but Iran’s high level of presence in the region, and when you look at pro-Iranian militants having a presence from south-east of Kirkuk Province Khanaqin all the way to the Turkish borders by Shingal and the Syrian border, what does that mean for the American military and the U.S. strategy? I don’t know what to call that. Iran is constantly disparaging America and saying that the regime can control American influence in the region and even manage against the “threat of the creation of a second Israel,” as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly described a potential independent Iraqi Kurdistan state. Iran right now feels like it has the upper hand and has managed to defeat the U.S. in Iraq. The Iranian leadership feels that the U.S. defeat of ISIS in the region means more Iranian influence in the region, especially without the U.S. doing anything to counter Iranian influence. As far as US diplomacy is concerned, I don’t know what the clear purpose of that is. Is it about putting pressure on Iran in connection with democracy and human rights or just the nuclear issue? These two issues are totally different and require different aspects and agendas. Anyway the U.S. has a big role to play, as many powers in the region await President Trump’s policies against Iran. People are wondering: will U.S. statements against Iran by the U.S. translate into action? Does it mean anything? Or will the policies remain the same as the former U.S. administration?
WKI: What does the lack of U.S. support for its allies in the region against Iran tell you?
Khalid Azizi: The current discussions among the Kurdish political parties and politicians are about how disappointed they are with the U.S. reaction against Iran. Some are considering a new era with a closer relationship with Russia if the US continues to remain silent about Iran’s actions. Why should Kurds be at the front line against Iran? Why shouldn’t we revise our policies towards Tehran? Tehran would probably welcome a new relationship with the Iraqi Kurds. I believe the Iranian regime is playing a lot of cards including opening up to certain Kurdish parties. If Kurds open up to Iran, it’s not because of any love for the regime, but rather it would be out of a calculated risk, and as a result of how recent events unfolded in Iraqi Kurdistan. Without Iran’s involvement in attacking Kirkuk, the Iraqi PMUs would never have been as successful as they were. Peshmerga forces would have resisted the Iraqi aggression for a while, which most likely would have led the international community to intervene. Then the Kurds would have been in a better situation. The attacks on Kirkuk were an Iranian project implemented by the pro-Iranian militias of the PMU.
WKI: If it’s a matter of survival for your people, do you think you are ready to negotiate with Iran, especially with the lack of US support against Iranian aggression?
Khalid Azizi: Our struggle for Kurdish ethnic and democratic rights in Iran has never been overshadowed by ongoing conflicts between the US and Arab world with Iran. Of course, we are following these developments very closely. We have our own strategy regardless of the American policy. I prefer negotiation and dialogue and peaceful means to solve the Kurdish issue in Iran. A couple of years ago I was in negotiations with the Iranian regime’s national security representatives, but it did not work. As I explained earlier, the Iranian government has many wildcards to play in the region and Iraq. Iran has already expressed it several times that they have the ability to dictate almost all policies by the Iraqi government and even to tell Baghdad to start negotiations with the Kurds. I believe the Iranians influence in Iraq is so much that they can convince Baghdad to talk with the Kurds in order to resolve these disputes — if they have to do that, of course.
WKI: Do the Iranian Kurds have any cards to play against the regime?
Khalid Azizi: As far as the Kurdish ethnic rights in Iran are neglected and ignored, of course we have a variety of cards to play. But the mobilization of people for the civil rights and civic activist movements inside Iranian Kurdistan is our highest priority. What I mean by this is that we tell the Kurdish people in Iran to use every means possible to obtain their rights. For example, when there is an election in Iran we tell our people don’t boycott the elections but enter the process and do what is possible to send people who are reliable to carry your voice in the government. Also, there is a conflict in Tehran between the reformists and hardliners in both the major Islamic movements. We try to tell our people to get involved in this dispute. For us, the reformist movement might be the better option to deal with than the hardliners. We are working on a project to unite the Iranian opposition groups as well as engaging the international community to put pressure on Iran to respect human rights especially the Kurdish people’s ethnic rights.
We also tell the Iranian Kurds to be united. The Iranian regime is using discriminatory policies against the Kurdish population. We encourage our people not to be neutral and to go out and voice their opinions. Despite the fact that we believe that armed struggle is not the solution to the Kurdish case in Iran, we have Peshmerga soldiers that we can use against Iran when it is needed. The regime has destroyed many Kurdish villages whenever there has been armed activity by Kurdish groups. Therefore, we have ceased such activities for now, for the safety of the Kurdish villages and cities. Some people think that Iran and the U.S. will get into a military conflict. Since this conflict does not have anything with to do with Iranian Kurds we will not necessarily be enthusiastic participants in this conflict.
WKI: How will other regional powers move in to fill the vacuum created after U.S. influence in the region has diminished? For example, Russia and Turkey? Have you interacted with them at all?
Khalid Azizi: Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a religious Sunni Muslim and a very pragmatic Turkish politician. In his policies, it’s very easy for him to have good relations with Iran today, but tomorrow he will shift it to somewhere else. He is playing politics well. While the relationship between Iran and Turkey was not good recently, I think the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has now brought these countries closer. How long will this good relationship continue? We don’t know. Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran don’t have a lot in common except for their opposition to the American presence in this region. Both countries are dreaming of becoming regional superpowers.
In regards to Russia, the crisis in Syria has created a better opportunity for Russia to be a key player in the region. And with the Kurdish referendum, they had a softer position than the rest [of the world powers]. With this, Russia may be able to tell Kurds not to trust America anymore.
As Iranian Kurds and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, we do not have any problem with Russia and Turkey, but we expect that Russia is putting pressure on Iran to respect the Kurdish ethnic and democratic rights.
WKI: Do you think there are any facts and factors on the ground in the region that the U.S. is missing? Perhaps the U.S. is basing its actions on limited knowledge.
Khalid Azizi: In politics, knowledge and information are power. The U.S. is missing a lot. From the very beginning prior to the invasion of Iraq, the United States did not have enough information on Iraq. In Iraq, the U.S. did the job and paid for it, but Iran collected the fruits. I have a feeling that the American establishment is still not aware of certain things that are taking place on the ground. To be informed on the issues, it requires more US presence in the region. But I remain confused, because from the American points of view, I do not know who is who. I can’t really tell what the U.S. strategy in the region is, or its goals. The signals aren’t clear for what the U.S. is trying to achieve, especially their policies towards Iran. This has created a dilemma. It’s hard for me to identify what the U.S. is missing. The question is: what are they looking for?
WKI: Some of the US lawmakers expressed strong support for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum. Do you think that helps the Kurds, especially when Iran and Russia see it?
Khalid Azizi: Promoting conspiracy theories is part of the agendas of Kurdistan’s neighboring countries in the region. So regardless of what U.S. lawmakers in the United States are saying about Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdistan’s neighboring countries have their own agendas. You know there are so many conflicts, problems, and crises in the Middle East where Kurds are deniable facts. In such a scenario, of course, Russia, Iran and, other regional powers have their own interests and agendas. The question is: what does the future hold? How should America deal with Iran and its influence in the region? I see Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan, the rest of Iraq, and other places. How should the U.S. deal with the fact that Iraq now behaves like a province of Iran? The main problem for Iran was Iraqi Kurdistan and how it had opposed Iranian power in the region. Therefore, the Iranians made sure that the Iraqi Kurdistan region was punished. Iran will now encourage the Kurds to be anti-American in exchange for good relations with Iran and regional stability.
WKI: Do you think it’s wise for the Kurds to embrace a more anti-American rhetoric in order to win some sort of guarantees from Iran? Especially considering the close relationship that officially developed between the U.S. and the Kurdistan region since 1991.
Khalid Azizi: Iraqi Kurds considered the U.S. as a friend and ally, but following the collapse of Kirkuk they are so disappointed and helpless. I do not think it will result in anti-Americanism, but probably raise a lot of questions among Kurds on how to deal with the U.S. in the future in the region. The case is different between Iraqi Kurds and Iranian Kurds. Iran considers Iranian Kurdistan as a security zone, so everything is overshadowed by this policy. The Kurds in Iran are mostly distracted with their daily lives and problems. Since Kurds in Iran have no rights to enjoy their ethnic and democratic rights, they had lots of hope for the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. They thought the U.S. would support such a project. Thousands came out in the streets of Kurdish cities and towns on the day of the referendum to celebrate the achievement. But that all changed when Kurds in Iran saw the collapse of Kirkuk. Today they are very disappointed, especially when they see that Iran is controlling Iraq, and American weapons are being used by Iranian allies against Iraqi Kurdistan. I believe that the United States should put all these facts into consideration and show respect for and act morally based on what the Kurds did as a true ally in Iraq and Syria against ISIS.