Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a visit to the country's Kordestan province. Photo: ISNA
Perhaps overshadowed by events in Iraq, Syria and Turkey's Kurdish regions 2015 has so far proven to be a notable year for Iran's Kurdish region.
From angry riots in the Kurdish city of Mahabad after an apparent rape attempt on a young female Kurdish hotel worker by a government official that led her to jump to her death from a window earlier this year, to the Iranian president visiting Iranian Kurdistan and promising reform, we see just how volatile it can be. What turn it will take in the near future could be highly informative.
“Iranian Kurds have had legitimate complaints – from limits on the use of their language and prejudice against their Sunni Muslims by Shiite authorities to receiving historically a smaller share of government expenditure. Only a more democratic Iran can alleviate these concerns and diminish the temptation to cede. I hope Mr Rouhani can deliver his promises,” Stanford Professor of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani told Rudaw.
As with the other Kurdish regions in the Middle East Iranian Kurds have mounted insurgencies against their central government. However their leaders (the most famous doubtlessly being the late Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou) have also reconciled themselves to the prospect of autonomy within a democratic state that recognizes and upholds their cultural and political rights.
“The situation in Iranian Kurdistan is vastly different from what we have experienced in Syria, Turkey and Iraq in recent decades. In Iran, the Kurdish condition has its own internal driving force. I would say that Iranian Kurdistan is fluid and very much tied with internal political developments in Iran,” Dr. Nader Entessar of University of South Alabama explained.
Following the alleged rape attempt in Mahabad angry Iranian Kurds instantly took to the streets. Riots ensued and the hotel from which the young woman fell to her death was torched. While those riots quickly died down, the clear anger and widespread belief that the regime would do such a thing underscored the discontentment many Iranian Kurds have with Tehran.
However in the few intervening months we have seen that the visit of Iran's president to the country’s often overlooked Kurdish region and his promises of reforms have led to the introduction of Kurdish language studies to universities in Iran. Many Iranian Kurds have in the past traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to study in their native language since they were unable to do so in their own country.
Despite this, many Iranian Kurds are still reluctant to show optimism about these reforms fearing that they will not amount to much in the long-term and that they are superficial face-saving measures on the part of Tehran.
“Rouhani's emphasis during his first two years has been on the nuclear deal and getting it through the maze of Iran's contentious political divide. Although Rouhani has appointed a top liaison for nationalities affairs, and he himself has made trips to Iran's provinces, there has been little concrete action on his part. This partly explains the lukewarm attitude of many Kurds towards the Rouhani administration. Many people in Iran are waiting to see if Rouhani can deliver on most of his pre-election sociopolitical promises,” Dr. Entessar explained.
In her history of the PKK Aliza Marcus lucidly described how, back in the 1960's and 1970's, when the Turkish state tried to foster a strong feeling of Turkish identity in young Turkish Kurds, by taking them out of their rural communities and putting them into boarding schools, Ankara, unintentionally, led many young Kurds to soul-search about their identity and indeed demonstrated to them that they were indeed different in many respects, especially culturally, from their Turkish counterparts.
Similarly with reforms in Iranian Kurdistan locals may be wary about trusting Tehran or believing that these reforms will bear fruit. However if momentum for change is generated from the promises of the president this could in the long-term lead Iran's Kurds to question how far they could go and push for greater cultural and political rights. In doing so when they hit obstacles as a community they may seek to overcome them and if the state tries to suppress them they will only demand more rights and fundamental change to a status quo that has long been inequitable to them.