Last Sunday, on the eve of the independence referendum by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, Iranian Kurds began celebrating. The next day, as people went to the polls across the border in Sulaimaniya, Erbil and other cities, Kurds in Iran celebrated en masse. In Baneh, Mahabad and Sanandaj, Iran, videos showed thousands in the streets, many of them with Kurdish flags.Three days later, black-clad police rolled into towns and Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia began detaining dozens, accusing them of organizing the demonstrations.The swelling of popular excitement about voting in the Kurdish region of Iraq is particularly important to Kurds in Iran because they have been deprived of many civil rights for decades.“There has been a greater impact in eastern Kurdistan [aka Rojhelet, in Iran] because we called on the people to support the referendum,” says Mustafa Hijri, leader of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI). “This provided the opportunity for people to oppose the regime and express discontent with its oppressive policies.”In 2015, the KDPI launched a new phase of what it terms struggle against the Iranian regime. “It consists of linking the struggle of Peshmerga [armed Kurdish forces] with civil resistance in the cities.The strategy of the party among the population is to encourage resistance.”There have been clashes between the Peshmerga and Iranian forces, and Iran fears provoking a larger rebellion by suppressing the Kurds more. Seeing masses on the streets with Kurdish flags is exactly what it has feared.In the aftermath of the Kurdistan referendum, Baghdad banned flights to the region in retaliation. On Friday, at 5 in the afternoon, the last two flights from Erbil International Airport, belonging to Zagrosjet and Turkish Airlines, left their gates. Iran had already banned flights starting last Sunday. The next day, it closed the Kurdish TV channel, Kurdistan24. Iran banned oil exports from the Kurdistan Regional Government on Tuesday.
Hijri says that throughout the year they have witnessed an increasing Iranian “militarization” of the border area with Iraq.“Iran has massed troops and paramilitary and security in Kurdish cities,” he said. Iranian intelligence is keeping a close eye on any dissent.Kurds celebrated the New Year, called Newroz, raucously in March. The KDPI leader says its deployment of Peshmerga to support resistance is paying off. “Aside from civil resistance we witnessed assassination and killing of Iranian intelligence agents.”The Kurds accuse Iranian intelligence of dealing drugs as part of a campaign to weaken the population.“Our strategy has been launched based on 38 years of resistance against the regime... the ultimate goal is for the struggle to coalesce into a popular uprising,” he said.The Kurds’ fight against Tehran, said Hijri, is not just a local issue, but affects the region. “It [Iran] has created proxies such as Hezbollah by funding and arming [them], but also we witnessed the creation of the Hashd al-Shaabi [Shi’a militias in Iraq], and the regime has a role in Syria and Bahrain,” he said.Part of Tehran’s grand strategy, he added, also involves opposing a Kurdish state emerging in Iraq. The KDPI wants to up the struggle against Iran along with other minority groups such as Arabs, Azeris and Baloch. Hijri said, however, that when they reached out to the new administration in Washington, “the message conveyed is that, at the moment, the US priority is defeating ISIS in the region.”But the regime is vulnerable.“[President Hassan] Rouhani promised after the Iran [nuclear] deal there would be economic improvements and oil revenue would increase, but inflation is higher now than under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he said.Marginalized regions, such as the Kurdish area, are particularly hard hit by economic difficulties. “If we want peace and enduring stability we must face the fact that Iran is a major destabilizing factor in the region.”Hussein Yazdanpanah, a leader of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, which is made up of Iranian Kurdish exiles who have been fighting ISIS in northern Iraq, said Iran is a “terror state.”Two days before the referendum he said Kurds should prepare themselves to come onto the streets in Rojhelet, eastern Kurdistan.“We don’t acknowledge the rule over Kurdish areas or the regime, you can see Kurdish villages in [Iran] are occupied by foreign fighters who threaten our people,” said.Iran, he said, is taking the resources of the Kurdish region, and like Hijri, he said Iran’s influence in Iraq is a danger. “If Iran thinks about attacking, let us send our sons and relative to rise up against Iran.”In the post-referendum period, Iran’s pressure on Kurds in Iraq will be influential. Tehran has recently patched up relations with Ankara and has great influence in Baghdad. Along with its overall strategy in the region, Iran’s policies are guided by its fears that Kurdish aspirations in Iraq will affect its own minorities.
An Israeli flag enters Erbil, Iraq, on the day of the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017