Globe: Iran's Internal Threat
The independence referendum in Kurdistan went about as expected. After a landslide election in favor of independence that was preceded by international opposition, there has been relative silence by Kurdistan. It almost as if Kurdistan held a referendum just to do it, as if one wanted to run a marathon “just to do it.” There has been little political maneuvering following the referendum, and Kurdistan has almost been completely overlooked by the equally symbolic and meaningless independence referendum in the (at least for now) Spanish state of Catalonia.
Though there has been quiet in Iraqi Kurdistan, the story is much different in Iranian Kurdistan – much to the Iranian regime’s distress. Following the referendum in Iraq, multiple Kurdish cities in Iran erupted with celebration for two days. The Iranian government responded in force, with military vehicles patrolling Kurdish cities and mass arrests. Still, the celebrations persisted. Like much of the Kurdish territory in the Middle East, independence has long been an aspiration to Iran’s Kurdish population.
Many Iranian Kurds desire for the establishment of and independent East Kurdistan referred to as Rojhelat. The referendum has resurrected hopes of freedom from Iranian rule, seeing the “yes” vote in Iraq as inspiration for secession from Iran, which is pejoratively referred to Ajamastan.
Predictably, the regime in Tehran has viewed the new wave of independence sentiment unfavorably. The ruling clerics in Iran have not withheld their rhetoric when speaking on the issue of Kurdish independence. Expressing outrage of the Kurdish referendum in Iraq, the Iranian regime has threatened to crush Kurdish rule in Iraq.
Iranian leaders have threatened to besiege and impoverish Iraqi Kurdistan; Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to the Iranian supreme leader, has sated Iran will “remove this stain of disgrace from the Muslim word” when speaking of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran has crushed Kurdish attempts at independence in the past; in 1946, Iran destroyed the Republic of Mahabad, a short-lived Kurdish state in a matter of months. After the overthrow of the Shah and the Iranian Revolution 0f 1979, the new Islamic Republic brutally suppressed a Kurdish rebellion that resulted in around 10,000 dead.
The Iranian regime has a multitude of reason to fear the new wave of independence sentiment. For one, there is the geopolitics of the region factor into the Iran’s fear of a Kurdish secessionism. Iran fears that Israel and Saudi Arabia, the former of which supports Kurdish secessionism, would capitalize on the new Kurdish state to advance anti-Iranian interests in the region.
Ironically, Iran is attempting to avoid what it has already done in Lebanon; use a smaller state as a launching pad for Iranian interests in the Levant. Iran is able to use Iraq as a buffer to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Kurdistan would jeopardize that geographic wall.
Another fear is the internal conflict that Kurdish secessionism might spark. In much of the way that rebellious nature of the Iraqi Kurds have transferred to their Iranian counterparts, there is anxiety that talks on independence for Kurds in Iran would inspire nationalist sentiment within other ethnic groups in Iran. Iran is not an ethnically homogenous state; though there is a Persian majority that controls the levers of power, the Persian population makes up about a third of the Islamic Republic. Aside from the Kurds, Iran’s minorities include Arabs, Azeri Turks, and Baluchis, amongst others. The demographics of Iran has proven to be one of the Ayatollah’s greatest threats.
Internally, separatists from the minority groups have fought as insurrectionist within Iran. Recent attacks include an incident in April in which ten Iranian border guards were killed by a Baluchi separatist group, an attack on a police station by Arab militants, and an attack on the Iranian parliament, which Jihadist Iranian Kurds are suspected to have carried out.
Externally, demographic tensions could be used to the advantage of regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom view Iran as their most prominent threat to national security. Saddam Hussein attempted to capitalize on the diversity or Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, though the Iraqi dictator’s attempt failed to materialize.
When the Kurdish population of Iraq voted to secede from that country, they did so to a nation devastated by years of war. While American influence in Iraq has weakened following the American withdrawal of troops in 2011, there is still enough pressure to prevent the democratic Iraqi government established following the US invasion from acting rash in a way similar to the genocidal government of Saddam Hussein. The Iranian Kurds will not have that luxury.
Iran has proven on numerous occasions that they will not be withdrawn when crushing a Kurdish rebellion, and Ayatollah will have no remorse in living up to Iran’s status as one the world’s greatest abuser of human rights. Unlike Iraq, Iran is not a weak power struggling to recover from years of conflict. As of late, Iran’s power and influence is only growing, and the ultimate goal of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is becoming less of a fantasy.
When the world fantasizes of an independent Kurdistan in Iran, as well as Iraq, it should be noted that Iran is a nation that puts an ideological check on their “democracy.” No act that doesn’t somehow align with the vision of the Ayatollah is permitted.
It should also be noted that the regime of the Ayatollah is the same regime that was voiced its desire to obliterate Israel, which they have acted on via Iran’s proxy forces. Internal strife would be a gift to nations such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all of which want to see the regime in Iran collapse. Independence sentiment is counter to the interests of Iranian power in the region, and Iran will stop at nothing to achieve it.