The Kurds and the future of Iran

Last August Iranian Army tanks seemingly crushed the Kurdish rebellion, but this spring found Army troops again confined to garrisons and the Kurds once more in control of their cities. The Iranian government, fearful that the revolution will spread to other minority groups, may soon begin a new offensive against the Kurds (though plans could change overnight if war with Iraq breaks out in the same region). The outcome of a second matchup of conscripts with deteriorating equipment and morale versus partisans fighting for their homes is less predictable than was the first battle last year. And should the Army fail, the central government could collapse.

After living for a year in Sanandaj, the capital of the Iranian province of Kurdistan, I can readily understand, even sympathize with, the Kurds. The conditions of Iranian rule under which they lived were every bit as frustrating as those that provoked black militancy in the United States, even if the Kurds are generally lighter in color than the Persians and often have blue eyes. When I was at a private dinner with the SAVAK general in charge of Kurdistan (probably to check me out), he explained how shiftless and irresponsible were the Kurds. It may not have been entirely coincidental that his attitude towards the Kurds reminded me of racial stereotypes in America, because the general had had parachute training in Georgia (where I also had lived for a while in the 1960s).

Kurdish language and culture were major targets in the Shah's attempt to unify Iran. Children were forbidden to speak Kurdish in the schools, and it was barely possible for a professor at Tehran University to undertake some carefully circumscribed research in the language -- as long as he called it either a dialect of Farsi (Persian) or an ancient and dead language: anything but a living alternative to Farsi. No research in the Kurdish language was done in Kurdistan.

Religion obviously is a fighting matter in Iran, and it is well to remember that the Kurds are not Shia Muslims. Friends of a young woman studying in Tehran were horrified to hear that she intended to teach in Sanandaj. Their ultimate objection was that "the people there are Sunnites." Her friends were even more shocked at the reply that she too was a Sunni Muslim. In fact, her grandfather was a religious leader in Sanandaj. Religious differences can only become more important and a greater source of instability in Kurdistan as Iran becomes a strict Islamic republic under Khomeini and Shia doctrine. Already the central government has removed Sunni Muslims from government posts in Kurdistan.

Many of Sanandaj's Kurds lived in mud hovels in little villages of their own on the edges of the city. Often all they had was a single room whose mud roof was likely to collapse if it were a wet winter. The toilet was outside, and the only water from a spigot in the shared courtyard. Bedding was rolled up during the day, and there was no furniture. Floors were covered with rugs, the quality corresponding to the owner's wealth and often constituting his entire wealth.

This was the big city. I did have the opportunity to stay for several days in a typical village, reached by walking for more than an hour from the highway and crossing a river by an overhanging tree limb. My host actually was quite well-to-do, with a house in a major city where his brother managed one of the best hotels, and another brother living in the United States. But in the village there was no electricity and water was pumped from a well by hand. He sowed his field by hand and had a donkey for plowing. The family livestock -- the donkey, a cow, and a few chickens -- occupied the courtyard of the two-room house. Buttermilk was churned in an animal skin and meals were cooked outside over a fire.

The Kurds are but one of several significant ethnic minorities in Iran. What has kept the Kurds under Persian rule has been primarily their own lack of unity. There was in 1946 a short-lived Kurdish Republic centered at Mahabad, north of Sanandaj. But when the threat of Russian assistance retreated, Iranian army troops moved in virtually unopposed and hanged the local leader in the town square. Kurds in Sanandaj and elsewhere offered no help to Mahabad.

There is still a schism between Mahabad and Sanandaj. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP), attracting the middle class and landowners, rules in Mahabad. In Sanandaj intellectuals, students, and technocrats favor the Revolutionary Organization of Kurdish Toilers. The Iranian government tries to preserve the split by holding talks with the KDP, but those talks recently broke down.

Revolution in Kurdistan would present a difficult choice for American foreign policy and sympathies. The revolution's success very likely would initiate the dissolution of modern Iran into tribal groups. Yet the continued subjection of the Kurds violates human and political rights.Probably the issue will pass in America by default, because Iran is no more likely to request new military supplies and advisers from the United States than is the US to supply them. It may be for the best that the issue be decided strictly within Iran, where the Kurds to gain independence must prove they are ready for it by creating a new unity among their various factions.

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