Abdulrahman Qassemlu is secretary-general of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Iran. He is the author of Kurdistan and the Kurds (7965) and Problems of Economic Growth in the Developing Countries (1969). From 1960 to 1975 he taught at the Ecole Superieure d’Economie in Prague. He met with Fred Halliday in Europe in February 1981 for this interview.
The Islamic authorities now ruling Iran insist that they, and they alone, made the revolution which overthrew the Shah. What role, in your view, did the Kurdish people of Iran play in the revolution of 1978-1979?
The Iranian revolution was made by all peoples and all political groups in the country. During the revolution the town of Mahabad was the scene of many clashes in which dozens of people were killed. And the Kurds did not just take part in demonstrations in their own area: they helped the people of Azerbaijan and played a big part in the demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere. What we are now faced with is a situation in which the Shi‘i clergy have monopolized power and have confiscated the revolution that we all helped to make.
The revolution is now two years old. Can you say what, in general terms, it has brought for the Kurdish people?
We are talking not just as Kurds but also as Iranians. The people wanted four things. First, an independent country, with a new economic and political orientation, and in particular with no ties or dependence to the US. Secondly, a society of freedom and democracy for all who had genuinely fought against the Shah. Thirdly, that the working class should play a leading role and realize its major demands. Fourthly, since 60 percent of the Iranian population are not Persians, that the non-Persian nationalities should receive their national rights. After a few months, however, the mullahs confiscated power and imposed their monopoly. Political liberties were suppressed. There was a lot of talk about the mostazafin, but nothing was done. The nationalities received nothing either. The movements among the Turkomans and the Azerbaijanis were crushed in blood. A year ago the religious leader of the Arabs, Ayatollah Khaqani, was arrested and taken away. The only area where the nationality was able to resist was Kurdistan, and here there has been war. As for the struggle against the US, this too has won us nothing. All we have done by taking the hostages is to lose a lot of friends. World opinion has been mobilized against us and the people of the US have rallied behind their government. In the economic sphere we did not get back any of the Shah’s money. Of the $11 billion that Iran had, we have not even got back $3 billion. The KDP condemned the taking of the hostages from the start. What we wanted to see was a real uprooting of the US influence in our country.
What exactly is it that you want from the central government?
Let me make one thing clear: No political force in Iranian Kurdistan wants to secede from Iran. Our demands are framed within the context of the Iranian state. First, we want the four provinces into which Kurdistan is now divided to be unified into one. We then want this autonomous unified Kurdish region to have local elections, and for the government to have clear powers of local administration. The central government should retain control over long term planning, the armed forces, foreign policy and the monetary system, but we insist on control over our internal affairs. The Kurdish language must be the official language, alongside Persian, in schools, courts and the administration. Internal security should be in the hands not of the pasdaran but of the peshmergas, the Kurdish fighters. We live in a world where many peoples of under one million have states of their own. We are 6 million Kurds in Iran and we are denied even regional autonomy.
What has been your experience in negotiating with the central government in Tehran?
From August to November 1979 we had war with the central government. At the end of this period we forced them to negotiate with us. These talks went on for six months. Some ayatollahs came to Kurdistan and agreed with our demands, but this did not lead to anything. We didn’t know who we were dealing with. There was no central authority in Tehran. Added to this was the problem that Shi‘i theory does not accept the concept of nationality — we are all supposed to be united as Muslims. And they are very stubborn: they will accept nothing if they are not forced to. Eshraqi, the son-in-law of Khomeini, Ayatollah Kermani and Ayatollah Yahya Alameh Nuri seemed to accept our demands, and at one point I was negotiating with a religious leader over what term to use for autonomy. He would not accept the Persian word khodmokhtari (self-choice) — I proposed that we use the European word autonomia, but that was rejected because it was foreign. I then suggested the Arabic term hukm al-dhat (self-rule). But that was no good, and in the end he proposed “Islamic khodmokhtari.” I willingly accepted. But there were others who were preparing a fresh offensive, and in the end their hardliners won out. The central government insisted that the Kurds hand in their arms. If we had done so, they would have massacred us. lt was a demand we could not accept. So, in March 1980, hostilities restarted, and we voluntarily withdrew from the larger towns to avoid causing destruction to the economic life of the people. The Komeleh group are our allies, but they were mistaken in their attempt to hold onto the town of Sanandaj. lt enabled the central government to attack it and cause a lot of damage.
Are you fighting the regular Iranian army or the pasdaran?
Both, but the pasdaran predominate, because the regular soldiers are on the front against Iraq.
What is the KDP’s relation to Sheikh Izzaddin Hosseini, the spiritual leader of the Kurds?
After the first fighting, in 1979, we set up a delegation to negotiate. The KDP was represented on it, and the Fedayi and the Komeleh had their representatives. Hosseini was the head of that delegation. He is now much closer to our party, but while the Fedayi and Komeleh regard him as a leader we do not accept this. We are against a cult of the personality. On his side Hosseini has accepted the leading role of our party. The situation has changed and he does not now have the same influence as before.
What are your relations with other left-wing forces in Iran?
We had a common front with the Fedayi until June 1980, when their organization split into the majority and minority factions. The majority Fedayi, who are the only ones who really counted, then left Kurdistan and laid down their arms. As a result many peshmergas who had supported them no longer did so. The Fedayi leadership were now under the influence of the Tudeh Party, and for that reason they no longer have any following in Kurdistan. The minority is much weaker and they might play a certain role in the future. The only real allies on the left in Kurdistan are the Komeleh. They are fighting for the cause of Kurdistan and we have no conflicts with them. I would say that about 5 percent of the population supports them.
Are differences between Sunni and Shi‘i Kurds a significant factor?
In the initial stages there were differences. The resistance in such places as Kermanshah and Bukan was much weaker than in the northern, more Sunni, parts of Kurdistan. But this has all changed and even in Kermanshah there is now significant resistance.
The one Iranian organization that does seem to be giving you support is the Mojahedin-e Khalq.
Yes. We have had relations with them for years, and since the revolution we have had many meetings with them. They were not able to help us directly when the central government attacked us — they are a Shi‘i organization and are in a difficult situation themselves, lt would not be true to say that we have a united front with them, but they do support the Kurdish people. Their paper, Mojahed, although circulating underground, has the largest circulation of any newspaper in Iran, around 200,000 copies. We supported Mojahedin leader Rajavi in the presidential elections of January 1980, and we support the 12-point program he advanced at that time. We hope relations will continue and that we can form a united front in the future. We agree in all the main points including the struggle for autonomy, the emancipation of women, the struggle against US imperialism.
It does not appear as if there is much cooperation between Kurds and Azerbaijanis. If anything, there appears to be as much historical animosity between the two as there is toward the Persians. There have been quite a number of clashes between Kurds and Azerbaijanis in West Azerbaijan in the town of Naghadeh, for example, where there is a mixed population.
Naghadeh is a special case. Sectarian differences were stirred up there by some mullahs and they committed many atrocities. In general, however, we make a special appeal to the Azerbaijanis. Our radio, the Voice of Kurdistan, broadcasts for two hours every day — 45 minutes in Kurdish, 45 in Persian and 30 in Azerbaijani. It is well received in Azerbaijan, as indeed it is all over Iran. The situation in West Azerbaijan is not so bad: when I was elected to the Council of Experts in 1979, I stood in a West Azerbaijan constituency. lt is the people atthe top who want to profit from the situation.
The central government in Tehran charges that the KDP is receiving aid from Iraq.
We are not receiving any material aid from any government. The Kurds in Iran are in fact encircled by three hostile governments — in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. These accusations about us working for a foreign power are nothing new. Every time the Kurdish people have tried to raise demands they have been accused of being enemy agents. As far as we are concerned, the war began in March 1980, when the central government attacked us. In September we said that we would fight with them against Iraq if the government pulled out the pasdaran and accepted our demands. Instead the government attacked again. We did nothing for two months but then we saw that their policies were the same as before. If anything they have acted more ferociously against us. Once, when we captured a pasdar chief, we asked him, “Why are you fighting us and not the Iraqis?” He told us that in Tehran he had been given the impression that the government was more keen to destroy the Kurds than to fight the Iraqis. Ayatollah Hassani, the governor of Western Azerbaijan, said the same thing: that the Kurds were the greater enemy because they had been fighting the Kurds for two years and the Iraqis for only two months. Let them give us our autonomy and then they will see if we are enemy agents or not. Once we have our rights, we are quite prepared to join in the fight against the Iraqis.
In 1946 the Soviet Union helped the KDP to establish the autonomous republic of Mahabad, but did little to assist it in consolidating itself and soon abandoned it to its fate. In the first clashes of 1979, the Soviet press did report sympathetically on your struggle. But this seems no longer to be the case.
That is correct. The Soviet Union’s position seems to be one of neutrality and we regret this. They have neither said anything in favor of us nor anything against us. We are, however, prepared to accept this. Our struggle is against US imperialism. The USSR is a major power in our region, and a friend.
What about Afghanistan? In 1979 the Hafizullah Amin government in Kabul was outspoken in its support for the Kurds, but the Babrak Karmal government has tried to keep the door open for negotiations with Tehran and has not endorsed your struggle.
Afghanistan is far away from us. In principle, we are against all foreign interference in the affairs of other countries. We have, however, been attacked by a number of Afghan rebel organizations inside Iran and this may be connected to the help which these organizations are receiving from Khomeini. He has, it is said, given them over $100 million in aid. The situation in our region is so confused these days. During the Vietnam war the situation was clear: Vietnam was fighting the US. It was clear who your friends were.
You have been accused of receiving aid from Israel.
Israel is helping the Iranian government! They have nothing to do with us. Just listen to Israeli radio and see who they’re supporting. And the Tehran government has bought arms from Israel, either through Maj. Saad Haddad or through the southern Lebanese Shi‘i organization Amal.
Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers claim that Islam can provide the basis for a revolutionary transformation of Iranian society politics. What is the potential for this?
The majority of our people are Muslims, and we are not an irreligious party. But religion must be separated from politics and freedom of religious belief must be respected. The ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini cannot be revolutionary or emancipatory because it does not allow political liberty. There were no such political liberties under the Shah, but even the individual liberties that existed in his time have now been abolished. What Khomeini has established is a sectarian state. There is also discrimination against women, and the universities have been closed. All the schools in Kurdistan have been closed too. But if one takes Islam not as Khomeini interprets it but as the Mojahedin understand it, then it is acceptable and could bring real benefits to the people.
What do you think is going to happen in Iran?
It is impossible to predict; so many factors are involved. But one factor not to forget is Khomeini himself. He seems to be ill and if he goes, matters may change very rapidly. One possibility is that the democratic and progressive forces will unite and create a progressive regime. If they cannot prevail, there will be civil war with catastrophic effects. A third possibility is a US intervention. If they are quick about it, they could do something, and they have allies inside the country.