For the past two years, I have had the opportunity to engage in countless, thorough discussions about the history of socialist political organizing in Iran with members of the relevant movements. My conversations have been with Kurdish and Persian Iranians.
Compared to their counterparts in Kurdistan’s Southern, Northern and Western regions, the organizational structures of Iranian Kurdish socialists have endured the harshest fate. Furthermore, the toughest challenges faced by Kurdish socialism lie in Rojhelat (Kurdish for “East,” refers to Eastern Kurdistan or Iranian Kurdistan).
Rojava is undergoing and cementing a revolution; Iraqi Kurdistan is maneuvering towards independence and the reluctant Turkish government has ultimately been compelled to commence dialogue with the PKK largely on the PKK’s terms. There may have been flashes of spring in parts of the Arab world and the prospects for breakthroughs for the realization of Kurdish self-determination in many corners of Kurdistan are real. But the Islamic regime of Iran has solidified in Rojhelat over a thirty-year long winter that shows little signs of vanishing.
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When a period of 2,500 years of continuous Persian monarchy came to an end with the ousting of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, a different form of authoritarianism descended upon Tehran. After the Iranian revolution had irreversibly become the Islamic revolution, the new regime began a consolidation of its power throughout the vast country.
Simultaneously, large segments of Iran’s Kurdish population embarked on what emerged as the largest of the state’s many uprisings. The promising, popular-based and, to a large extent, socialist-leaning Kurdish rebellion was, however, met with one of the most meticulously executed and ferocious counterinsurgencies in post-WWII history.
What could have led to radical societal improvements in the post-Shah era was smashed by Shia triumphalists. The Islamic regime brought in the Revolutionary Guard and air force and systematically, piece by piece, tore down the political structures heading the uprising.
Conversations with Iranian Kurdish and Iranian Persian socialist diaspora have made it clear that they have taken notice how the left in Western countries has not made any of this a priority. Indeed, the near total annihilation of Iranian Kurdish socialism by Tehran is unknown territory for Western leftists, particularly for the younger generations.
Not too much is apparently known about these events outside of Iran and Kurdistan. Barely anything has been published on the topic in Europe or the US. Currently, a Helsinki-based political activist and investigative journalist Airin Bahmani is in the midst of compiling one of the first (non-Farsi and non-Kurdish language) accounts of this period.
Bahmani, herself of Iranian Kurdish descent, has researched the history of the Kurdish left and Iranian external relations both under the Shah and under the Shia regime. In her Helsinki Times article titled Obliteration of democratic process sold as ‘democracy promotion’: the US and Iran, Bahmani points out that
Statements such as: “[t]he denial of human dignity in Iran is an outrage that deserves the condemnation of all who speak out for freedom and justice” by Hillary Clinton have bittersweet connotations for pro-democracy forces in Iran. During the love affair of the US and Shah’s Iran, His Imperial Majesty was praised by then-US President Jimmy Carter. Carter asserted that under Shah’s rule, Iran was “an island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world”, adding that “there is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more.”
Keeping these formulations by Clinton and Carter in mind, Bahmani goes on to present the findings publicized by the human rights group Amnesty International:
Amnesty International dubbed the Shah regime one of the “worst human rights violators in the world”. Amnesty described in its briefing from 1976 SAVAK’s standard torturing methods the following way: “whipping and beating, electric shocks, the extraction of nails and teeth, boiling water pumped into the rectum, heavy weights hung on the testicles, tying the prisoner to a metal table heated to white heat, inserting a broken bottle into the anus, and rape.”
“An island of stability,” indeed. However, unmasking the relentless efforts by the American intelligentsia to brand Washington’s unsavory realpolitik as an ever-altruistic quest for democratization is but one of the many tasks ahead. Bahmani has emphasized that what is lacking, yet desperately needed, is a broad, credible movement that pushes for revolutionary politics in Iran.
The promising political structures of Rojava as well as Rojava’s war against the Islamic State deserve more attention. But greater outside support of and attention to the political aspirations in Rojhelat – holding a Kurdish population more than twice the size of that in Rojava – would undoubtedly benefit this most difficult front in leftist Kurdish politics.