The breakup of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires in Eastern Europe and the Balkans was the result of a series of nationalist agitations that, at the end of the World War I, ushered in new nation-states. In the Middle East, by contrast, the dissolution of Ottoman dominion was the starting point of nationalist movements—Arab, Kurdish and Turkish, among others—that strove to win national territories in the shadow of intervention by the victorious powers of Western Europe and the Soviet heirs of the czars. The success of these new nationalist movements varied greatly. Turkish nationalists, who had the experience of administering a territorial state, managed to consolidate a republic in the heart of Anatolia. Others achieved an apparent, but questionable success. Mesopotamia was patched together into Iraq, but as subsequent history has showed, it inherited a number of fundamental tensions that awaited only the next crisis to erupt once again. Other hopeful populations faced even less certain destinies in that turbulent time. The Assyrians more or less disappeared from the map, while the Armenians were forced to limit their national ambitions to a corner of the Caucasus within the confines of a Soviet republic.

The Kurdish populations of the Ottoman Empire survived the chaos, but they did not achieve any of their demands, either. Their recurrent struggles in Iraq and Turkey, and the spillovers of these struggles among Iranian Kurds, led to the emergence of a “Kurdish question” in the region. [1]  For the mass of ordinary Kurds, the “question” was whether and how they could escape the taxation, conscription and other controlling policies of the centralizing states that had divided the Kurdish-populated lands among themselves. For Kurdish leaders and intellectuals, it was whether and how they could achieve formal autonomy from those states—and, perhaps eventually, independence. For the states, however, the “Kurdish question” was simply how—not whether—the collective political and cultural aspirations of the Kurds living within their boundaries could be rendered moot.

As its neighboring Russian and Ottoman Empires fell apart and a slew of nation-states emerged in their space, Iran remained intact. A continuous historical tradition of statecraft and a sense of national identity allowed Iran to maintain its territorial cohesion and to reinitiate a series of stalled state-building reforms that had begun during the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911). Yet Iran was hardly immune from the tumult of the surrounding countries. Here, as well, the process of state building encountered a “Kurdish question,” whose transnational aspect the state has often tried to exploit and whose domestic core the state has usually chosen to ignore.

Extending the Writ of the State

Diversity is the Iranian Kurds’ main characteristic. The majority of them—about 4.5 million people—live in the Kurdistan province and parts of three adjacent provinces, Western Azerbaijan to the north, and Kermanshah and Ilam to the south. An additional million Kurds reside in scattered communities in the provinces of Mazandaran and Khorasan in the north of the country.

The Kurds of Iran belong to numerous different tribes. Most are Muslims, nearly evenly split between Shi‘a and Sunnis, many of whom are attracted to the Sufi orders of the Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya. A number of Kurdish communities in Kermanshah and Western Azerbaijan are followers of the Ahl-i Haqq sect, which is deeply influenced by pre-Islamic beliefs. Kurdish belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. Apart from Ourami, the main language of the Ouraman tribes in the north of Kermanshah, the various dialects of the Sorani and Kurmanji forms of Kurdish are the most commonly spoken in Iran. [2]

In the aftermath of World War I, a top priority for the Iranian state was to disarm and subdue the multitude of local powers that had gained in strength during the years of war and foreign intervention. The state’s main targets were tribes and tribal confederations, many of them Kurdish, though the thrust of the military campaigns was not anti-Kurdish as such, but rather centralizing. [3]  After the withdrawal of Russian forces from Iran in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, one Kurdish tribal force in particular, under the leadership of Ismail Agha Shekak (Semko), had overrun a large part of western Azerbaijan. It was only after a series of campaigns by the newly established army of Iran that Semko was finally defeated in the summer of 1922 and forced to flee Iran, first to Turkey and later to Iraq.

After Semko’s defeat, the army’s tribal suppression efforts were mainly directed against Lurs and Arabs in the south and Turkmen in the northeast, but the army managed to extend its writ over the southern parts of Kurdistan, as well. By the mid-1920s, the tribal leaders of this region had either been vanquished or coerced into cooperation with the state through political intrigue. [4] It was time to tackle the tribes of central Kurdistan. But, owing to the inaccessible, mountainous terrain and political upheavals in Tehran, such as the dynastic transition from Qajar to Pahlavi, the decade was almost out before the central government finally mustered an adequate force to bring the Kurdish chieftains of Baneh, Marivan, Dezli and Ouraman to heel. [5]

During this decade of almost perpetual armed skirmishes with the state, no unified ethno-nationalist discourse emerged to challenge the main tenets of Iranian nationalism among the Kurds of Iran, in contrast to what was going on in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and, to some extent, Turkey. In some borderlands, the discourse of the neighboring Kurds reverberated to a degree. During Semko’s revolt, for example, a figure named Seyyid Taha Nihri from the Turkish side of the border attempted to introduce a measure of Kurdish nationalism into the ferment, and a journal called Kurd was also briefly published in Western Azerbaijan. [6] Sheikh Mahmoud Barzinji, who had briefly declared an independent Kurdish princedom in Suleimaniya in May 1919 and battled with the British overlords of Iraq ever since, spread his ideas during his frequent retreats to the Dezli and Ouraman regions across the Iranian border. [7] But, by and large, the rebelliousness of the Kurds of Iran remained tribal in nature.

Far Off

As a result, and with some justification, the Iranian central government viewed the “Kurdish question” as either a far-off phenomenon or an importation tangential to Iranian imperatives, such as the endeavor to establish a modern and centralized state. In particular, Tehran considered the encouragement of nationalist sentiment among Kurds to be a British game, pointing to London’s hand in the short-lived clause of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that promised the Kurds a state in the former Ottoman Empire, the initial policy of the British administration in Iraq to form a distinct Kurdish region there or the British manipulation of Kurdish nationalism to thwart Turkish claims on Mosul in the mid-1920s.

This conviction had two main consequences. First and foremost, it led to neglect of the internal dimensions of Kurdish grievances, which were falsely ascribed to foreign meddling. Second, it fostered the idea that these grievances could only be quieted through diplomatic understandings with the great powers and neighboring countries. In 1919, for example, Semko was apparently induced to accept a ceasefire through the good offices of the British, who had been contacted by the Anglophile premier, Vosuq-o-Dowleh in 1919. [8] Two years later, the Iranian government became convinced that Semko could not be defeated unless Kemalist Turkey ceased its material and military support for him, and so Tehran moved to establish diplomatic relations with Ankara. [9] The regular movement of tribal forces across the Iranian-Iraqi frontier, in particular the activities of Sheikh Barzinji, was a main topic in the diplomatic correspondence of the 1920s between Tehran and Baghdad. [10]

The revolt of Kurds under the leadership of Sheikh Said against the young republic of Turkey in February 1925 prompted the Iranian state to reconsider its dismissive attitude toward the “Kurdish question.” The fighting was too distant from Iran to embroil the Iranian Kurds, but Tehran perceived that in the long run it could foment tremendous political change. The most important cause of Sheikh Said’s rebellion was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s decision to abolish the caliphate and replace it with a secular republic. In one stroke, Atatürk had severed the cord that had tied the mainly Sunni Kurds to the Sublime Porte against its historic foe, Shi‘i Iran. Not only had the Turks lost one of their major assets in any future geopolitical contest with Iran, but this asset had turned into a major liability in the new form it acquired—the “Kurdish question.” A number of the leading civilian and military personalities of Iran noted the significance of this turn of events and the openings it could bring for the promotion of Iran’s regional policy.

A Tiny Iranian State

In the mid-1920s, a number of Kurdish nationalists began to consider Iran the natural ally of the Kurds against the “alien” Arabs and Turks, emphasizing the linguistic similarities between Kurdish and Persian, as well as purported historical and racial links. At the same time, in a move that can be described as the foundation of “pan-Iranism,” some Iranian nationalists welcomed the formation of a Kurdish entity—“a tiny Iranian state”—in the Kurdish areas of the Ottoman Empire as a counterbalance against the pan-Turkism of the north and the pan-Arabism of the south.

Very shortly, this new concept underwent a serious test with the outbreak of a new Kurdish rebellion against the Turks under the leadership of Ehsan Nouri Pasha, himself a Kurdish nationalist with an affinity for Iran. The insurgency was centered in the Ararat range along the far northern stretch of the Turkish-Iranian border. As the rebels considered Iran a secure base of operation, Iranian officials thought they had found a rather useful lever in their tortuous negotiations with the Turks over the demarcation of borders, among other outstanding issues. But tensions between Iran and Turkey soon escalated to the point that Tehran discarded the “pan-Iranian” approach in favor of cooperation with the Turks. A corridor was opened through Iranian territory for the military forces of Turkey to enter and beat the Kurds into submission. [11]

This sequence underscored for Iran that the “Kurdish question” was a double-edged sword. It also laid the foundation of a relatively durable understanding among Iran, Iraq and Turkey—the three nations most affected—that each would refrain from inciting the Kurds against the other.

Wars Hot and Cold

The 1930s were a quiet decade in Kurdistan, with the notable exception of the swiftly and brutally suppressed uprising in the Dersim region of Turkey in 1938. But the tranquility did not last long.

With the outbreak of World War II, Russian and British forces occupied Iran in 1941, leading to the collapse of Reza Shah’s absolute rule. The Kurdish tribes of Iran, like the other tribes of Iran, though they had been greatly reduced by the harsh military campaigns of previous decades, tried to resume their previous way of life. Heavily armed with the weapons abandoned by the disintegrated Iranian army and unencumbered by central authority, the tribes regulated the comings and goings in their own domains, including no small amount of extortion and highway robbery. In this period, other than a short spell of chaos among the Kurds of Western Azerbaijan, conflict between the Kurds and remnants of the state was confined to Baneh and its environs, a no man’s land between the British zone of occupation in the south and the Soviet zone in the north. The main Kurdish actor was Hamah Rashid, a local tribal leader who had returned from a lengthy exile in Iraq. Again, there was ethno-nationalist agitation, mostly conducted by Iraqi Kurds, and again it was limited in scope and success. But the entire picture changed with the entry of Soviet Union into this field toward the close of the war.

In the autumn of 1945, Soviet authorities, in an attempt to secure their influence in the Red Army’s zone of occupation, launched two separatist movements, one among the Kurds and the other among the Turkish-speaking population of Azerbaijan. By the winter, there were two autonomous governments in Mahabad and Tabriz. The Soviets subsequently abandoned the separatist projects for a number of reasons, including the firm stand of the United States against Soviet expansionism and Iran’s wise policy of appeasement toward Moscow, replete with a proposal to grant an oil concession in the north. In the winter of 1946, both mini-states collapsed, but the Soviet intervention had totally changed the prevailing perception about the nature of the “Kurdish question” in Iran. Whereas, up to that point, the Iranian elite had tended to see a “British” scheme to promote London’s interests in the region, now, and in the framework of the incipient Cold War, the scheme took on a “Soviet” coloration. The later transformation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI)—the remnant of the Mahabad Republic—into an appendage of the communist Tudeh Party and the emergence of a definite Leninist discourse on the “right of nations to self-determination” among Kurdish activists reinforced this perception.

The Barzanis

A decade later, as a result of the 1958 military coup in Baghdad, the seemingly dormant “Kurdish question” once again acquired a new lease on life. The new government of Iraq wanted quiet on the Kurdish front as well as closer links with the Eastern Bloc. Accordingly, it asked Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the preeminent leader among the Kurds of Iraq, to return home from the Soviet Union, where he had fled after the collapse of the Mahabad Republic. Barzani accepted the invitation. [12] In Tehran, his return was marked with growing concern about the probable prominence of the Kurdish factor in the regional policies of the Soviet Union. The consequence was the gradual dissolution of the entente among Iran, Iraq and Turkey vis-à-vis the Kurdish card.

The rapprochement between Barzani and Baghdad was not to endure. With Iran’s relations with Iraq deteriorating over a number of issues, including a border dispute, Tehran decided to back Barzani and his clans in their struggle against the Iraqi republican regime. This backing was to continue, with some interruptions, through the next three regimes to seize power in Baghdad, the last of which was the Baathist clique that included Saddam Hussein.

Though the Iraqis, too, attempted to incite Iranian Kurds against Tehran, Iran had the upper hand. First of all, with the active cooperation of the Barzanis, Mohammad Reza Shah managed to keep the discontented elements among the Iranian Kurds in check. At the same time, by virtue of its abundant military and material support for the Barzanis, Iran finally forced the Iraqis to accept its terms in the border dispute. As in the late 1920s, there was rhetoric in Tehran justifying support for “Iranian” Kurds against the “Arabs,” [13] but again geopolitical realities dictated that the “pan-Iranian” moment be fleeting. With the signature of the Algiers Agreement between Mohammad Reza Shah and Saddam Hussein in 1975, the Barzani rebellion was cut off by Tehran. It rapidly collapsed, and thousands of Iraqi Kurds had to take refuge in Iran. Meanwhile, the stage was set for the “Kurdish question” to come home to Iran in a serious way at last.

War and Revolution

When the Pahlavi monarchy fell amidst the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the equation familiar from years past was abruptly reversed. If, previously, Kurdish nationalism abroad had found echoes in Iran, this time it was the emergence of an ethno-nationalist movement among certain segments of the Iranian Kurds that prompted a new round of activism in the wider region.

Even though the tribal nature of Kurdish politics had been undermined by socioeconomic changes like land reform, higher literacy and urbanization, Kurdish society was as diverse as ever in terms of identity. The locus of Kurdish ethnic and political activities was the central swath of the Kurdish-populated areas of Iran, and here armed struggle against the new Islamic regime emerged; the Kermanshah and Ilam provinces did not witness any significant developments of this type. The mainly Shi‘i regions of Bijar and Qorveh in the east, in fact, formed a solid base of support for the emerging Islamic regime in Tehran. Tensions that erupted in the narrow band of Kurdish-populated areas of Western Azerbaijan along the Turkish-Iranian frontier took the form of conflict between the Turkish-speaking, Shi‘i Azeris and the mostly Sunni Kurds, thus assuming an “inter-ethnic” rather than an “anti-center” character. The KDPI, still the most important Kurdish party in Iran, had Mahabad and environs in its grip. The host of other political tendencies, from Maoist to Islamist, that had sprung up and begun to bear arms had to confine their activities to other towns. One was Sanandaj, seat of the Kurdistan province, which was, in any event, less susceptible to the radical politics of these groups than the rather “tribal” Mahabad due to its urban tradition. [14]

The tensions of Kurdistan in the early years of the revolution thus took two parallel courses—a limited, but persistent confrontation between rival Kurdish groups, on one track, and almost open war between Kurds and the central government, on the other. Then the outbreak of a major regional conflict eclipsed everything else.

The onslaught of the Iraqi army in the late summer of 1980 generated nationalistic feeling among Iranians, and the revolutionary process of state building that had initially encountered a measure of opposition experienced a sudden surge. One consequence was that, with relative ease, the Islamic Republic’s security forces were able to restore central control over those areas of Kurdistan that were overrun by the Kurdish opposition groups in the early months of the revolution. [15] A second consequence was the start of a proxy war between Iran and Iraq using Kurdish groups.

In the early days of the revolution, the Iranian government took the initiative to renew its old ties with the Barzanis, and these ties were activated as Baghdad started to support the Kurdish groups that were opposing Tehran. From this point forward, the forces of the Islamic Republic (and their allied Kurds of Iran) had the effective backing of the remnants of Barzani’s guerrillas in their attempts to defeat the opposing Kurds. [16] This proxy war became a third front in the Iran-Iraq war. With the success, by 1982, of Iranian forces in throwing back the Iraqis from territory they had occupied, the northern front, too, experienced a transformation. Not only were the Iraq-backed Kurdish groups effectively quashed, but Iranian soldiers also had a major base of operation in the Kurdish areas of Iraq for the duration of the war.

With the stabilization of the Islamic Republic, the Iran-centered chapter of the “Kurdish question” came to a conclusion and an interlude of relative peace followed. This calm was the product of bloodshed, of course, in many ways. The Kurdish uprisings in Iran had been put down, and catastrophe soon befell the Kurds of the neighboring states. Increasingly open warfare between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army turned the southeast of Turkey into a bloody battleground. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein initiated a campaign of mass killing and deportation of Kurds in 1987 that amounted to genocide. The reluctance of the Kurds of Iran to become entangled was quite understandable, perhaps particularly in light of Tehran’s ongoing support for the Iraqi Kurds. It was alleged that Iran was providing logistical assistance to the PKK as well. [17]

Back to Business

It was only after the end of the Iran-Iraq war that the frozen politics of the Kurdish issue in Iran began to thaw. Modest openings occurred during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989-1997), and during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2004), the reforms gathered speed. A number of locally oriented publications began to appear, including weeklies in Kurdish and Persian such as Sirvan, Rozhelat and Piam-e Kurdistan, irregular bulletins at the universities that evaded the censors and books devoted to the history and culture of the Kurds. These publications played an important role in the development of a certain sense of ethnicity among the educated strata of the Iranian Kurds. In this period, the state also granted the Kurdish areas a measure of “home rule”—a greater share in local administration—addressing one of their activists’ important demands. Under Khatami, the process of devolution accelerated, so that today Kurds control more that 80 percent of the relevant local administrations, and censorship slackened. Khatami gestured at broadening Kurdish representation in central government as well, appointing a Kurd to be spokesman of his cabinet. But the distrust of Sunnis in the upper echelons of the clerical state and such institutions as the armed forces has proven too deep-seated for such measures to advance very far. [18]

Another marker of the post-war era is the emergence of a new approach to the “Kurdish question” and ethnic issues in general. Whereas, before the Islamic Revolution, Iranian nationalists tried to prove the irrelevance of ethnic identity by invoking a range of historical, racial and cultural bonds among the myriad Iranian linguistic and ethnic groups—the “pan-Iranian” school of thought—the discourse is now coated in an Islamic veneer. All Muslims, whatever language they speak or nationality they belong to, are said to be equal before God. This pan-Islamism allows the state to draw almost the same conclusions as their “pan-Iranian” forebears did about ethnic difference.

And what of events in Kurdish regions outside Iran? Most notably, of course, the institution of a “safe haven” in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war laid the groundwork for the formation of a de facto autonomous Kurdish region there. This development had no immediate impact on the Iranian Kurds, given the instability of the Iraq containment system and, more to the point, the bloody conflicts that occasionally erupted between the Barzanis and their Talebani rivals. It was only after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the emergence of a relatively stable Kurdistan to emulate, that the full impact of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy was felt. The semi-independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq increasingly acts to galvanize Kurdish nationalism elsewhere.

It is more than a decade since the latest episode of ethnic activism commenced among the Kurds of Iran. In contrast to the past, when it coincided with or was actually prompted by major turmoil, the burst of activity has taken a mild and civil form, for the most part. Nevertheless, its future course is very difficult to predict. Though the “Kurdish question” in Iran is bound to be influenced by external events, it still possesses a number of distinguishing traits.

It appears that the Iranian state has not altered its basic approach to the question of the Kurds, but the continued effectiveness of this strategy is very much in doubt. For the moment, there is no recourse to fashioning a policy of containment of Kurdish nationalism in collaboration with the Iraqis and the Turks, because Baghdad lacks a strong central government. At the same time, the original response of the Islamic Republic to the question of ethnicity—the equality of all Muslims irrespective of nationality and language—has lost much of its rhetorical potency. Iranian nationalism is undergoing a revival, and some have even aimed to rekindle the old “pan-Iranian” fire. It was Khatami himself who declared, during a presidential tour of Kurdistan in the summer of 2000: “Nobody has the right to claim to be more Iranian than the Kurds.” But even in its heyday, this line of argument never overcame its inherent contradictions: One cannot be depicted as more Iranian than other Iranians and simultaneously be deprived of the right to be educated in one’s native language. One cannot feel untrammeled loyalty to the Shi‘i-identified nation-state when facing discrimination against the Sunni creed. The well-trodden paths of the past may now lead to threats to the territorial integrity of Iran. Democracy in Iran means finding a new path out of containment and cooptation, and toward genuine inclusion of the Kurds of the country.


[1] David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996), pp. 115-150.
[2] Farideh Koohi-Kamali, The Political Development of the Kurds in Iran (New York: Palgrave, 2003), pp. 24-43.
[3] Kaveh Bayat, “Reza Shah and the Tribes: An Overview” in Stephanie Cronin, ed., The Making of Modern Iran: State and Society Under Riza Shah, 1921-1941 (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 213-219.
[4] For details, see Mohammad Ali Soltani, Joghrafia-ie Tarikhi va Tarikh-e Mofasal-e Kermanshahan, vols. 2-3 (Tehran, 2000).
[5] Ibid.
[6] On the journal, see Mohammad Tamadon, Oza’e Iran dar Jang-e avval va Tarikh-e Reza’ieh (Tehran, 1971), p. 371.
[7] See the introduction to Hajali Razmara, Amaliat-e Ouraman (Tehran, 2008).
[8] Ahmad Kasravi, Tarikh-e Hejhdah Salei-e Azarbaijan, vol. 2 (Tehran, 1979), pp. 851-857.
[9] Kaveh Bayat, “Ismael Aqa Semitqu,” in Farhang-e Namavaran-e Mo’aser Iran, vol. 1 (Tehran, 2002), pp. 578-580.
[10] See the “Annual Reports of the British Embassy in Tehran for the Years 1921-1926” in R. M. Burrell, ed., Iran Political Diaries, 1881-1965 (London: Archives Editions, 1997).
[11] Kaveh Bayat, Shouresh-e Kordha-ye Turkieh va Ta’sir an bar Ravabet-e Khareji-e Iran (Tehran: Nashr-e Tarikh-e Iran, 1985), pp. 54-98, 124-160.
[12] Edmund Ghareeb, The Kurdish Question in Iraq (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), pp. 37-44.
[13] For a number of documents in this respect, see Shahla Bakhtiari, ed., Hezb-e Pan Iranist be Ravayat-e Asnad (Tehran: Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, 2006), pp. 209, 238, 255-259.
[14] See McDowall, pp. 61-74 and Koohi-Kamali, pp. 171-192. For a recent debate on the issue of Kurdistan in the early years of the revolution, see the two special issues of Cheshmandaz-e Iran, published in spring 2001 and autumn 2003.
[15] Published Iranian sources on this subject are few, but the chronicles published by the Center for War Studies contain some useful information. Roozshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Araq (Tehran: Markaz-e Tahqiqat va Motale’at Jang, 1996-1997).
[16] Alireza Sheikh Attar, Kordha va Qodratha-ye Mantaqe-ie (Tehran: Markaz-e Tahqiqat-e Strategic, 2003), pp. 176-180.
[17] Michael Gunter, The Kurds in Turkey: A Political Dilemma (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990), pp. 97-98, 100.
[18]  See Khaled Tavakoli, “Kurdestan va Vaqe’e-ie Dovom-e Khordad,” F. Haji Mirzaee and A. Rahimi “Matbo’at-e Kurdistan” and Kaveh Bayat “Ketab-e Kurdistan,” all appearing in Goftegu 40 (October 2002).


How to cite this article:

Kaveh Bayat "Iran and the “Kurdish Question”," Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).

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