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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Kurds in Iran

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Iran Facts
Area:    1,648,000 sq. km.
Capital:    Tehran
Total Population:    68,960,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Kurds have most of the risk factors for rebellion, including: current rebellion; territorial concentration; high levels of group organization; government repression; and a history of lost autonomy. Although several Kurdish organizations have moved away from violence, low-level rebellion is likely to continue in the near future. With the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 the situation of Kurdish Iranians went from bad to worse. After broken promises by Mohammad Khatami's more moderate presidency from 1997 to 2005, the Kurdish situation, along with other ethnic minorities, has only worsened. The condition of Kurdish Iranians is more precarious than the Bakhtiari (because of their higher numbers and Sunni Muslim faith) or the Baluchis (because of their advocacy of autonomy and intellectual urban bases).


Analytic Summary

Kurds in Iran are concentrated in the north-eastern provinces bordering Iraq and Turkey (GROUPCON = 3). Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims (BELIEF = 1; RELIGS1 = 5), but there is also a large minority of Shi'i Muslim Kurds in Iran, primarily in the western province of Kermanshah. The Kurds (LANG = 1) speak several dialects of the Kurdish language and are divided into many tribes. These tribal divisions and rivalries have often been an impediment to their struggle for autonomy.

The Kurds have a history of valuing their independence and have, whenever possible, resisted domination by outside powers and have occasionally managed to maintain autonomy in parts of the region in which they live. The last time they were able to maintain regional autonomy in Iran for any considerable period of time ended in the mid-19th century due to centralization policies by the Qajar Shahs. However, local tribal leaders continued to maintain armies. They had brief periods of independence from 1918-1922 and in 1946 and engaged in several other uprisings during times when the Iranian government was weak.

In 1979, most Kurds initially supported the Iranian revolution, with the primary exception of certain tribal chiefs that were benefiting from the Shah's regime, in hope of gaining democracy and autonomy. However, when it became clear that the new government had no intention of giving the Kurds either democracy or autonomy, the Kurds rebelled against the government. This rebellion was met with repression by the Iranian government. The Iran-Iraq war was used as an excuse by both sides to repress their own Kurds and support insurrection by their enemy's Kurds.

Like their ethnic brethren in Iraq, Turkey and Syria, the Kurds in Iran have multiple and overlapping demands vis--vis their political future, including desires to achieve greater regional autonomy, to end discrimination against the Kurds and to see a more democratic Iran (POLGR04-06 = 3).

Tribal divisions have led to the formation of several Kurdish political organizations, most notably the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI, currently in exile) and the Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan (Komala). Although Kurdish political parties are banned in Iran, several of these organizations have renounced violence and chosen nonviolent strategies in recent years (GOJPA04-06 = 3). However, militancy remains in the form of PJAK, a highly militant organization with close ties to the Turkish PKK. PJAK has engaged in several acts of open rebellion between 2004 and 2006 (REB04 and 06 = 1, REB05=4). The largest recent Kurdish protest in Iran occurred when the security forces killed and dragged the body of a Kurdish activist throughout Mahabad, resulting in mass demonstrations in July and August, the arrest of hundreds of Kurds and death of at least 17 more Kurdish protestors (PROT05 = 3). In addition, previous efforts by Kurdish members of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis)including the 2002 resignation of all six deputies from Kurdistan province in protest against "discrimination against Kurd and Sunni minorities" (PROT02 = 1; PROT03 = 2) were continued when in 2005 Kurdish MPs wrote to the president-elect, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanding that the rights of Kurds and Sunnis be protected as upheld in the Constitution. Kurds in Iran experience governmental restriction on their observance of Sunni Islam (CULPO104-06 = 2) Restrictions also take exist in the realms of political organizing and the attainment of high office for Kurds (POLDIS04-06 = 4; EXECREP04-06 = 0).



Aghajanian, Akbar. 1983. "Ethnic Inequality in Iran: an Overview." International Journal of Middle East Studies. 15:2. 211-24.

Aguado, Laura D. 1987. "The Kurds in the Middle East: Struggle for National Liberation." Ethnic Studies Report. 5:2. 9-17.

Enders, David. 3/29/2006. "The Iranian government is strong. But not that strong." Mother Jones.

Fathi, Nazila. 8/14/2005. "Unrest in Iran's Kurdish Region Has Left 17 Dead; Hundreds Have Been Wounded." The New York Times.

Helfgott, Leonard M. 1980. 'The Structural Foundations of the National Minority Problem in Revolutionary Iran.' Middle East Studies. 13:1-4.195-213.

Izadi, Mehrdad. 1992. The Kurds: A Concise Handbook. Washington, DC: Crane Russak.

Kerim Yildiz, Tanyel B. Taysi. 2007. The Kurds in Iran: The Past, Present and Future. London: Pluto.

Kreyenbrook, Philip G., and Stephan Sprel, eds. 1992. The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview. New York: Routledge.

Meron, Theodor. 1989. "Iran's Challenge to the International Law of Human Rights." Human Rights Internet Reporter. 13:1. 8-13.

Metz, Helen Chapin. 1987. Iran: a Country Study. 4th ed. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.

Minority Rights Group. State of World's Minorities 2006: Events of 2004-2005.

Richard, Yann. 1989. "The Relevance of 'Nationalism' in Contemporary Iran." Middle East Review. 21:4. 27-36.

Simm, Richard. 1980. "Kurdistan: The Search for Recognition" Conflict Studies. 124:1-9.

Snyder, L.L. 1982. Global Mini-Nationalisms: Autonomy or Independence. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Iran. 2000-2006.

U.S. Department of State. International Religious Freedom Report: Iran. 2001-2006.

Wood, Graeme. 1/28/2006. "The Militant Kurds of Iran." Jane's.


© 2004 - 2021 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006