March 25, 2008

Iranian Kurdistan

To download the profile for Iranian Kurdistan, click on the image above









Status: Region of north western Iran
Population: 8—10 million, estimated to be 11-15% of the population of Iran
Capital City: Mahabad
Area: 111,705 sq. Kilometres, comprising the four western provinces of  Kermanshah (24,998 sq. Km) Ilam (20,133 sq. Km), West Azerbaijan (37,437 sq. Km) and Kordestan (29,137 sq. Km).
Language: Kurdish
Religion: Sunni Muslims 66%, Shi’a Muslims 27%, Indigenous and Minority  Religions 6% (Yarsan, Yazidis, Qadiriyya and Naqshbandiyya, Ahle Haq, Christians and  Jews)
Ethnic Groups: Kurdish, Azerbaijani Turk and Persian


UNPO REPRESENTATION: Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan

The organization representing the Iranian Kurds within UNPO is the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) founded in Mahabad, Iran in 1945. PDKI replaced the “Komalay Ziyanaway Kurd” (Council of Kurdish Resurrection) with the new aim of establishing a “Republic of Kurdistan.” While there are many different fractions and organizations that are active on behalf of the Iranian Kurdistan population, the PDKI has long been seen as the central organization for Kurdish representation. The PDKI has long withdrawn from its military struggle and has been pursuing a non-violent and diplomatic campaign.  PDKI activities have been hindered as throughout its history many leaders have been threatened and imprisoned.


Iranian Kurdistan also known as East Kurdistan is the unofficial name given to a region in North Western Iran, which is occupied by the Kurds. It reaches from Mount Ararat in the North to the Zagrose Mountains in the South. The region shares borders with Iraq, Turkey and Armenia, all of which are home to indigenous Kurdish populations, and together form a cultural-geographical area called Kurdistan. The area is rich in natural resources, but at least 30 years of economic exploitation has alienated the Kurds from access to these local resources leaving much of the economy reliant on agriculture.

The vast majority of Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims and they have found themselves persecuted, discriminated against and marginalised by a largely Shi’a Muslim population in Iran. Although they initially had hope and support for the Iranian Revolution,  the Iranian Kurds sought autonomous rule as part of a wider Iran, which led to Ayatollah Khomeini declaring a Jihad (Holy War) against the Kurdish people. As a result there has been a sustained military, economic and psychological war waged against the civilian population in the area, which has, according to the Kurdistan Peace and Development Society, lead to a ‘systematic genocidal campaign’. This campaign has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.  The Iranian Kurds have long fought for improved governmental representation and protection of their basic human rights through the creation of a federal state.


The Kurdish language belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. It consists of a continuum of languages/dialects spoken in Kurdistan, an area that covers northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey.
In Iran Kurdish is spoken as a home language. Kurdish was taught in schools in Kurdish areas before the centralizing policies of the state were introduced  in aftermath of the Second World War. It has, however, been outlawed since the beginning of 20th century. The status of Kurdish language was weakened after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, banning all newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts in Kurdish. Most Kurdish Speakers in Iran have been forced to also learned Persian (Farsi).


The region of Iranian Kurdistan is rich in natural resources and provides a significant percentage of water to the rest of Iran. Nonetheless there has been little invested in Kurdish economic development, which is reflected in the wider system of discrimination. In direct contradiction with the Iranian constitution’s Article 48; “There must be no discrimination among the various provinces with regard to the exploitation of natural resources, utilization of public revenues, and distribution of economic activities among the various provinces and regions of the country, thereby ensuring that every region has access to the necessary capital and facilities in accordance with its needs and capacity for growth”, Iranian Kurdistan remains underfunded and exploited. Consequently the Kurdish population has relied on agriculture as a source of revenue, which itself has been affected detrimentally by government policies of laying land mines in agricultural fields and closing borders and land vital for the relocation of livestock for agricultural production in the region.


One of the key factors in the lack of social development in Kurdistan has been the education policy of the government. All school teaching is conducted in Persian and the use of all indigenous languages is forbidden. This is a barrier to the transition of the Kurdish history, language, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literature to future generations.

Discriminatory state policy has prevented many children from accessing education and is a contributing factor to the extremely high levels illiteracy in Kurdistan. Whereas Article 15 allows the use of minority languages in public, this is not implemented in practice making the government’s actions illegal under Iran’s Constitution.

As well as education, other social indicators of human development in Kurdistan single-out the population, and contribute to low quality of life levels. Compared to the 30 other Iranian provinces, Kurdistan is ranked as one of the worst five regions for: average cost of food, average income, general illiteracy, adult illiteracy, life motivation and poverty. There is also an estimated unemployment rate of around 50%, indicating the impact of discriminatory policy on the civilian Kurdish population. 


Both music and dance play a vital role in Kurdish culture. Using ancient instruments and songs are used to celebrate festivals and pass on traditional stories. Kurdish musicians have been highly successful both in Iran and worldwide and have contributed to the musical heritage of the  region.

Dance similarly plays a large part in the cultural celebrations of the Iranian Kurds. Traditional round dancing is used to celebrate festivals, birthdays and marriages.


The vast majority of Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims whose ancestors converted during the 7th Century Arab conquest. There are also a large number of Shi’a Muslims within the Kurdish population primarily living in the Ilam and Kermanshah provinces of Iranian Kurdistan.

A small minority of the population are also still followers of traditional and indigenous religions worshipped before the proliferation of Islam. These religions are Yazdanism/Yazidism and Ahl-e Haqq, and both have been practiced by the Kurd’s for nearly 2000 years.


The current Kurdish political situation stems from a long history of misrepresentation and discrimination. Under the rule of the Shah in the early 20th century, Kurdish activities within national politics were subdued, and ethnic groups were provided encountered obstacles to political process. A series of political movements emerged mainly between 1918 and 1925, but attempts to create an independent state in Kurdistan failed. The mainly seditious Kurdish political functions were highly suppressed and many key Kurdish political figures were either executed, detained or exiled. Kurdish political ambitious suffered continuous setbacks throughout the 1960’s, including the raiding of campaign offices in 1959 and 1964, and the arrest of over 300 party activists.

Unsurprisingly, the Kurds overwhelmingly welcomed the fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in the winter of 1979, ending the authoritarian rule of the Shah, which had systematically suppressed the national minorities in Iran for decades. Having long fought for regional autonomy and self-governance within a united federal Iran, Iranian Kurds saw participation in the 1979 Revolution as a key opportunity to achieve their goals. In contrast, the regime which emerged failed to address the issues of the Kurdish people, instead discriminating against them on the basis of their different language, culture and traditions and accusing them of being allied with foreign powers. The theocratic regime alienates Kurds from political processes, demonstrating little patience for Kurdish demands and has continuously opted for military approaches in response to unrest.

The Kurds were denied a seat in the post-Revolution assembly of experts, which was responsible for drafting the new constitution, despite the fact that the Kurdish leader Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassmlou had been elected by the majority of the votes in the Kurdish regions. As a result, many Kurds were deprived of rights in the Iranian Constitution, which saw Shia primacy endorsed, which made no provisions for regional autonomy.

1979 had not come to a close before armed conflict broke out and the Iranian government's security forces destroyed entire villages and towns to force Kurds into submission. In a speech Ayatollah Khomeini said that the concept of  an“ethnic minority” is contrary to Islamic doctrines and later declared a Jihad (Holy War) against the Kurdish people. He sentence thousands of men to execution after summary trials.  On 13 July 1989, Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, Secretary-General of the PDKI was assassinated in Austria alongside two of his colleagues, as they were negotiating with Iranian envoys. These discussions for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue in Iran came at the invitation of the Iranian regime. Dr. Ghassemlou's successor, Dr. Sadeq Sharafkandi met with the same fate on 17 September 1992 in Berlin as he participated in the Congress of Socialist International.

The election of Kurdish politicians to positions advising the Guardian Council, governing the Kurdish region and as part of the cabinet have prompted premature optimism. Direct Kurdish parliamentary representation has been limited by the omission of the Kurds from the Constitution and Kurdish participation in political structures has been made extremely difficult. Accordingly the Kurdish population has often abstained completely from participating in national elections in protest.


UNPO strongly condemns the policies and actions taken by the Iranian Government against the Kurdish population in Iran, particularly since 1979. Specifically, UNPO condemns the military struggle facing the Iranian Kurd’s which has claimed almost 10,000 lives, the catalogue of civilian human rights abuses, systematic discrimination in employment, education and housing and their continued exclusion from political participation.

Minority representation in politics and society is vital for a strong democratic leadership and UNPO believes that Iranian Kurds require a more substantial role in deciding their own future. The issue of federalism in Iran has long been a neglected issue and democratic decentralization means the distribution of central government power, allowing marginalized groups to participate more effectively in local affairs.

For almost two decades UNPO has been working to promote this and other solutions to the institutional and administrative discrimination facing marginalised societal groups. By working in conjunction with the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran, PDKI and other active representatives of Iranian civil society, commitments have been made to publicising both the desire of Iranians for new thinking in their domestic governance and a peaceful consensus. 


The PDKI seeks a democratic, independent and federalised Iran. They believe that the peoples of Iran have the right to self determination and seek regional autonomy in a federalised context and as a means of distributing central power to allow the Kurdish population participation in government activities that directly affect their lives. They are also determined to provide equality in education, housing, economic access and specifically workers social and economic demands.

Socially, the PDKI also requests the equality of men and women in society and within the context of the family as a mean of implementing cultural change and tackling issues such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and domestic violence. The PDKI calls for a separation of religion and the state, consequently establishing the creation of a secular system of government as an instrument for ensuring the end of religious discrimination and marginalisation.

During the 20th Congress of the Socialist International held in the in New York 1996 the PDKI was given the UN  observer status observer  which was elevated in 2005, to ECOSOC consultative status. The leadership body of PDKI is its Central Committee, which is usually composed of 21 permanent and 10 substitute members. The Central Committee also elects about 7 of its members as the Political Bureau, which also includes the Secretary-General. Since establishment, PDKI has held thirteen congresses. 

PDKI campaigns for a federal democratic and independent Iran, the right of the peoples of Iran to self-determination, the realization of worker's social and economic demands, equality of men and women in society and within the family and separation of religion and State .



The Kurdish nation has experienced a long and bloody history. From the 10th century to 12th century AD, two Kurdish dynasties emerged in Iran. The Hasanwayid Dynasty ruled from 959-1015 and the Ayyarids ruled from 990-117. In the 12th century, Sultan Sanjar established a province centered at Bahar and called it “Kurdistan.” The later Ardalan state was established in the early 14th century controlling the territories of Ardalan, Karadagh, Khanaqin, Kirkuk, Kifri, and Hawraman, a dynasty which ruled Kurdistan until the Qajar Monarch Nassar-al-Din Shah in 1867.

The Safavid dynasty hailed from Iranian Kurdistan before moving to Azerbaijan and finally settled in Ardabil in the 11th century. During their rule, the government tried to extend its control over Kurdish inhabited areas of western Iran.

At this time there were a number of semi-independent Kurdish Emirates: Mukriyan, Ardalan, Shikak tribes of Lake Urmiye and northwest Iran, but in trying to maintain  self-rule, the Kurds tried to resist their policies. After a series of bloody conflicts in the 15-16th century, the Kurds were defeated. In response, the Safavids, under the reign of the Safavid King Tahmasp I, implemented a program of forced relocation and deportation to punish Kurds for the rebellions, of the Kurds.  

After the battle of 1514 which ended the first Ottoman-Safavid War, Kurdistan was practically partitioned between these two empires. Between 1534 and 1535, Tahmasp I began to systematically destroy archaic Kurdish cities and deported the Kurds in the area to the Alborz Mountains and Khorasan, as well as to the heights of the Central Iranian Plateau. The Khurasani Kurds made up a community of nearly 1.7 million people deported from western Kurdistan to North Khorasan, (northeastern Iran) by Persia during the 16th to 18th centuries. In an attempt to change the demographic composition of the region, these indigenous Kurds were replaced by 8,000 Afshari Turks.

After the Afghan invasion of Safavid in the early 18th Century, the Kurds saw an opportunity to expand - conquering Hamadan and penetrating a southern area near Isfahan. During this period Nader Shah, tried continuously to suppress the Kurdish rebellion, before being assassinated in 1774. After Nader’s death a power vacuum opened and the Kurds attempted to exploit the situation and captured parts of Fars. The liberation struggle of Sheikh Obidolla Nahri (1883) was the birth of the Kurdish national struggle for an independent Kurdistan.  By the early 19th Century Qajar Kings had taken control of Persia (Iran) and marked the emergence of numerous Kurdish resistance movements and uprisings against the government.


During the First World War,  the Persian Government demonstrated many weaknesses and the resulting chaotic situation in the country provided great encouragement for Kurdish leaders, who where determined to try once again to set up an independent Kurdish State. The early 20th century witnessed a burgeoning national liberation and Kurdish political movements. Simko Shikak, chief of the Shikak tribe, fought to establish his authority in the area west of Lake Urmia from 1918 to 1922. Jaafar Sultan, leader of the Hewraman  region took control of the region between Marivan and north of Halabia which remained independent until 1925. This changed when Reza Khan who was leader of Iran at the time responded with violent resistance and re-established control over the area.   He was proclaimed Shah of Iran in 1925 and began implementing a campaign of persecution against the Kurds, including the confiscation of land, deportation and forced exile of hundreds of Kurds; a campaign that was continued by his son Reza Shah.

Deportation of Kurds continued until the outbreak of the Second World War. Although Iran had declared it self to be neutral, it was occupied by Allied forces in September 1941. The Persian Army was quickly dissolved and their ammunition was seized by the Kurds.  This offered opportunity for Kurdish leaders to escape exile in Tehran as they sought to re-establish control once again in the Kurdish regions.  Hama Rashid, a Kurdish leader from Baneh took control of Sardasht, Baneh and Mariwan in western Iran, before being driven out of the region by the Persian Army at the end of 1944.

A Kurdish state was created with support from the Soviet Union in the city of Mahabad in 1946 by the Kurdish Movement Komeley Jiyaneway Kurd, under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad.  This move failed to win support of all Iranian Kurds and Kurds abroad since this new entity was limited to small cities of Mahabad, Bukan, Nagado and Oshnaviyeh. Coupled with the withdrawal of the occupying Soviet forces at the end of the war, the so-called Republic of Mahabad only lasted for less than a year and Kurdistan once again was part of Iran.

The rule of the Pahlavi Dynasty before 1979 saw further exploitation and discrimination of the Kurdish people and in the winter a wave of nationalism engulfed eastern Kurdistan.  During the 1979 Revolution, Kurdish political organisations were enthusiastic supporters of regime change and they had high expectations about the future.  The Kurds, with their different language and traditions and their cross-border alliances, were seen as vulnerable to exploitation by foreign powers who wished to destabilize the young republic and consequently a Jihad (Holy War) was instigated the new Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini against the Kurds as a mechanism for controlling them. The crisis further deepened after Kurds were denied seats in the assembly of experts gathering in 1979, which were responsible for writing the new Constitution and Dr. Ghassemlou, the elected representative of the region, was prevented from participating in the Assembly’s first meeting. As Kurds were deprived of their political rights they were dramatically excluded from  provisions of the resulting new Iranian Constitution, Whereas the majority of Kurds belong to the Sunni branch of Islam,  the resulting Constitution institutionalised Shia primacy, meanwhile making no provision for regional autonomy, a key demand of the Kurds.

Armed conflict broke out later that year between and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fought to reestablish government control in the Kurdish regions. As a result several thousand Kurds were killed. Over the past 40 years, there has been continual confrontations between the Kurds and the Iranian government, in light of wide spread exploitation and discrimination.  Ayatollah Khomeini, in a view shared by many of the clerical leadership, famously called the concept of ethnic minority contrary to Islamic doctrines.

Since the Revolution, religious exclusion has been prominent in Iran. Whilst the vast majority of Shia religious institutions are encouraged, most Sunni institutions are prevented from societal participation. This is exemplified in Tehran, where despite a Sunni population of over one million people there is no Mosque in the capital to serve the religious needs of the community and planning permission has been continually refused. This is following the destruction of a newly constructed Sunni mosque in Sanadaj in 1993. This level of discrimination has plagued the relationship between the Kurds and the government since 1979, which has resulted in consistent unrest, exacerbated by public incidents that have ignited simmering tensions.

In 1996, the death of a prominent Sunni clergy, Mulla Mohammed Rabiei in Kermanshah  led to violent clashes between Sunni Kurds and the security forces. Protests lasting three days engulfed the entire region.

During certain periods, relations between the Iranian government and the Kurds did improve, most notably during the rule of Mohammad Khatami, elected in 1997 as the fifth President of Iran, Khatami and his supporters used the Kurdish support for his campaign against hard liners. This led to the appointment of Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, the first Shia Kurdish Governor of the Iranian Province of Kurdistan. President Khatami also appointed several Sunni and Shia Kurds as cabinet advisors as well as two Kurdish cabinet members.

Kurdish inclusion in central government increased which created some optimism over Kurdish expectations of self governing autonomy and the saw the creation of a 21 - member parliamentary faction representing the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Kurdistan, and Kermanshah. However, this period of amicable relations was short lived and by 1999, protests in the streets of Kurdish cities such as Mahabad and Urmia broke out. After the murder of Kurdish activist Shivan Qaderi by Iranian security forces in Mahabad in 2005, six weeks of riots and protests erupted across Kurdistan, which  resulted in the deaths and arbitrary detention of hundreds of people and the closure of several major Kurdish newspapers. The relationship between the Kurds and the Government remains highly fractious, as the Kurds still seek, legitimate representation, religious equality and some level of self autonomy. 


1. Execution of Kurds

According to statistics published by International human rights organisations, Iran executed at least 94 people in 2005, 117 in 2006, 317 in 2007 and up to 370 in 2008. Many of these executions are public, and often sentences are handed down in the absence of legitimate court proceedings. For example in November 2009, Ehsan Fattahian was executed having been accused of associating with the  illegal organization Komala and the following January 2010, a political prisoner called Fasih Yasamani was also executed. Both underwent a exposure to torture in attempts to extract confessions and denied a fair trial.

As of May 2010 at least 16 political prisoners of Kurdish ethnicity were awaiting death sentence in Iran, none of whom had been given access to a fair trial and the execution of four Kurdish political activists, Farhad Kemanger, Farhad Vakili, Shirin Alam Holi and Ali Heidarian aroused international outrage.  The authorities carried out their sentence without prior notice or warning and without notifying the families or lawyers of the political prisoners. Iranian authorities refused to return the bodies of those executed to their families

There also remains grave concern as to the execution of minors in the state and a large proportion of the child executions that take place are of Kurdish minors. As a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child Iran has agreed that “sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age”. Iran however is the only country in the world know to publicly execute minors, with an estimated 134 minors currently on death row. There have also been several high-profile cases of juvenile execution in Kurdish areas, including the execution of Mohammedreza Haddadi, a Kurd,  for crimes allegedly committed when he was 15.

2. Detention, torture and arbitrary killing

Thousands of Iranian Kurds have been detained for lengthy sentences in the absence of fair trails under charges of subversion, membership to illegal organizations or “enmity against God.” There are widespread reports of torture taking place in Iran’s prisons and in in 2008, a hundred prisoners across Kurdish prisons staged a 47 day long hunger strike in an attempt to draw attention to their suffering and protest at their brutal treatment.

In July 2005, Shivan Qaderi—a Kurdish opposition activist was shot dead in Mahabad by Iranian security forces alongside two other Kurdish men. Eye witnesses said security forces then dragged Qaderi’s body through the streets tied to the back of a car. In the resulting protests in Kurdish towns over the following 6 weeks, scores were killed or injured while others were arrested without charge.

3. Curtailed Freedom of Expression and Religion

Since becoming President in 2005, Ahmadinejad’s policy of promoting Islamic identity has served to subvert regional identity with an obvious reluctance to promote participation and regional autonomy.

In the recent elections in 2009, Sanandaj was reportedly amongst  Kurdish cities, to boycott the elections, as explained by an anonymous source who said, “It is not an election or choice to choose between bad and worse. We want a regime change.”  Various foreign media outlets were prevented from covering the events unfolding and there have been curtailments on Kurdish newspapers including the arrest of editors and reporters.

Iran’s international and constitutional obligations require them to allow “religious or linguistic minorities…to enjoy their own culture (and have the right) to profess and practice their own religion”. However, in reality this is seldom the case and in present-day Iran, Sunni institutions are blocked while Shia presides.  Many Kurdish  Sunnis living in Tehran cannot openly practice their religion since no Sunni mosque exists. A policy of Gozinesh discriminates against Sunni Kurds. It means “selection” and involves an ideological test requiring candidates for some government jobs to demonstrate allegiance to Shia Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran including the concept of Vilayat-e Faghih (Governance of Religious Jurist), a concept not adhered to by Sunnis. Candidates for some private sector jobs and applicants to universities are also subjected to Gozinesh. 


1. Why do the Kurdish Minority seek a Federal Iran?

Historically the creation of a democratic federal state has been used to unify different regions, provinces and ethnicities under a single national identity. Federal states are theoretically characterized by a union of partially independent regions or states united through a central federal government. The idea of creating a federal state specifically in Iran has consistently been recommended as a long term solution to promote inclusion of minority issues and accommodate diverse ethnic groups who live within Iran.   

Decentralizing Iran, through a revised constitution, would provide semi-autonomous rule for the Kurdish population, and would contribute to safeguarding the peaceful coexistence of all its religions and ethnic minorities while contributing to upholding human rights values and respecting state territorial integrity. Influence in the decisions which affect minorities and increased ownership over the management of resources will provide increased long-term stability throughout Iran. 
Iran's unity will be most convincingly preserved in the context of pluralist diversity within a federal ruling system under a revised system which facilitates democracy and social justice. Federalism need not weaken the ‘united Islamic nation,’ in contrast it can it serve as a reinforcement of Iranian national unity.

2. Who are the Khorasani Kurds?

Whereas the Kurds represented by UNPO are located in the northwest of Iran, the  Khorasani Kurds are ethnic Kurds, thought to make up a population of about 1.5 million living in the northeastern region of Khorasan, Iran. The Khorasani Kurdish region is found within the current north-eastern borders of Iran and the southern borders of Turkmenistan, in the northern sector of what has historically been known as the Province of Khorasan.  Their history in this small region dates back to the seventeenth century during the Safavian Dynasty. Tribes were forcibly moved to Khorasan during this period  as the result of war waged between the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Their move was enforced as a result of lost land in the Kurdish region and the political will of the Shah at the time. As well as the Ottoman threat, the Safavian Dynasty was concerned with the Uzbek threat posed from the North East.

In modern day Iran, the Khorasani Kurdish represent about 70 % of the population in the area. While traditionally they are of Kurdish ancestry, the customs practiced resemble that of the Turkish Kurds more closely than that of the Iranian Kurds. Most of them talk in a Kurdish dialect. The area of Khorasan suffers from poverty, illiteracy and destitution. Over the past 50 years the area has been undeveloped with no opportunities for prosperity, and its people have suffered economic, cultural and political persecution. This is highlighted by a 23% rate of illiteracy - a result of government policy to only educate in the Persian language in Iranian schools. Their culture is further neglected through regressive state policies and there are no institutes dedicated to political, cultural or economical progression for the population. Leaders and intellects, who petition for equality and inclusion, are consistently prosecuted, insulted, oppressed and jailed. 


The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan

Global Security: Kurdistan– Iran

Cultural and civil society of Khorasani Kurds

 Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran-Geneva(KMMK-G):

Kurdish Human Rights Project