Fuel hike protests in Iran and the Kurds

The Kurds in Iran face intersectional oppression in that they are systematically disadvantaged and targeted by the Islamic regime’s security apparatus.

THE BORDER between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Iran. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE BORDER between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Iran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In light of the US ending sanctions waivers and the growing anti-Iran resentment from protesters in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran’s Supreme Council of Economic Coordination announced a hike in fuel prices, sparking the largest protests in the country since the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah and brought the mullahs to power.
In response to the protests, the government in Iran shut down the Internet across the country and top officials vowed to crack down on protesters whom they referred to as “thugs” and “rioters.” Regime figures kept to tradition and blamed foreign powers like the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protests, as they always do when confronted with opposition.
The office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner expressed great concern, calling protests of this magnitude “an indication of deep-rooted and often well-founded grievances that cannot simply be brushed aside.”
At least 143 protesters have been confirmed killed thus far by Amnesty International, but this figure is likely to be much higher given that Iranians have had no way of communicating with the outside world while the Internet was completely shut down.
Kurdish human rights organizations have verified the death of about 55 Kurdish protesters by Iran’s security forces to date. The reports highlight a disproportionate number of Kurdish protesters killed, which has many observers wondering why the government response has been so severe in Kurdish cities.
The answer is threefold:
The Kurds are viewed as a national security threat.
The Kurds in Iran who live in a region known in Kurdish as Rojhelat (East Kurdistan), have been viewed by the Islamic regime and past governments in Iran as a threat to national security and territorial integrity.
The Kurds have been politically active as far back as the formation of the modern state of Iran. They opposed the Islamic regime from its inception, knowing that it would only bring more tyranny to Iran and Rojhelat.
In fact, the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, was created in response to rebellions in Rojhelat after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, refused Kurdish demands for autonomy and declared jihad against the Kurds, and made killing them a religious duty.
The Kurds lost two of their most prominent leaders (Abdul Rehman Qassemou and Saddiq Sharafkandi) and the lives of more than 10,000 Kurds who opposed the regime. Yet they continue their struggle.
The Kurds are a distinct nation demanding their national rights
While the Kurds are widely accepted as of Indo-European origin, this does not imply that they are by default Persian or Fars. Regardless of what the state or majority of Persians would find more comforting, Kurds consider themselves distinct, and their culture, language and dialects along with over a century of struggle for their rights is evidence of this fact.
However, the agenda of the Iranian state has for a century been to assimilate and make insignificant Kurdish identity by denying Kurds the social, political and cultural rights outlined in the UDHR, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and most importantly Iran’s own constitution.
ANY FORM of Kurdish political, social and cultural expression or activism in Iran is automatically surveilled and deemed by the state and a large segment of Persian society to be an attempt at separatism, and thus met with extremely harsh punitive measures such as imprisonment, torture and capital punishment.
Iran is second only to China in its rate of political executions. Out of the 253 individuals it executed in 2018, 75 were Kurds. Despite being 10% of Iran’s population, 29% of the total number of those executed were Kurds, charged with national security-related crimes like spreading propaganda against the political system, gathering and colluding against national security, “corruption on earth” and “enmity against God.”
Most Kurds in Iran are not adherents of the state religion.
Accurate data are often hard to obtain for a region as militarized and censored as Rojhelat, but the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, or UNPO, reports that 66% of Kurds in Iran are Sunni, 27% are Shia, and 7% are Yarsan, Christian, Jewish or other.
While the religious factor has not always been the most salient element in the Kurdish struggle for national rights, being predominantly Sunni and to a smaller degree Yarasani, has not helped reduce state-sanctioned violence on Kurdish lives.
The Kurds in Iran face intersectional oppression in that they are systematically disadvantaged and targeted by the Islamic regime’s security apparatus for not only their ethnic but also their religious identity.
Sunni Kurds are often prevented from building mosques and imprisoned for religious activities. Similarly, the Yarsani Kurds are regarded by the government as a “misguided cult” and are subjected to arbitrary arrest, harassment and detention based on national security-related charges.
Furthermore, it is a common practice of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to force confessions from prisoners. The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reports forced false confessions of 40 detained Sunni Kurdish activists were recorded for broadcast in a propaganda documentary on Iran’s PressTV.
What does it all mean?
The Kurdish region of Iran is one of the poorest, second only to Baluchistan. The region reports the highest rate of suicide due to unemployment. In the aftermath of the fuel hike and skyrocketing costs of goods and food, anger and anti-government sentiment in Rojhelat and the rest of Iran is only likely to increase, especially given the growing corruption and discontent with Iran’s involvement in the region.
When it comes to Iran’s ethnic nationalities (Kurds, Azeri, Baluch and Ahwaz) the fear of the broader Persian population is the same as that of the Islamic regime. They fear that the ethnic groups which make Iran a mosaic seek to partition the country and take the vital resources in their respective regions.
They fail to mention how the Iranian state’s century of assimilationist policies and repressive measures have driven such groups to this point. Nevertheless, major ethnic organizations have all committed themselves to the goal of a secular, democratic Iran in the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran.
If Iran is to stay united, it must adopt a democratic and equitable system that guarantees social, cultural and political rights, and provides for institutional representation of its ethnic nationalities, instead of dooming them to poverty, militarization and cultural genocide that has led many to resort to armed struggle.
The author is an English teacher, freelance writer and PR graduate who has written as a contributor for Kurdistan24, Rudaw and other Kurdish news organizations.