In an attempt to decolonize Kurdistan, at least discursively, Kurds refer to the Kurdish region of Iran as Rojhelat, instead of Iranian Kurdistan. Rojhelat, meaning “the place where the sun rises,” refers to the eastern portion of Kurdistan—the Kurdish homeland that stretches across four countries. This terminology has been encouraged since the late 1990s by the expansion of Kurdish media—and especially Kurdish satellite television stations—that use Rojhelat in programming that addresses Kurds around the world. The name reflects the understanding that the Kurdish region of western and northwestern Iran is part of a broader set of Kurdish lands, societies and economies that includes Rojava (northern and northeastern Syria), Bakur (eastern and southeastern Turkey) and Başur (northern Iraq).[1] The change in nomenclature reflects new patterns and modes of struggle in the political life of Kurds living under the Iranian state.

An Iranian Sunni Kurd couple sit near their relatives at a recreational area in Marivan, Kurdistan province, 2011. Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

The struggles for Kurdish autonomy are more than ever conditioned by the specific historical circumstances of each country where Kurds reside and by the borders that have divided the Kurdish homeland. In Iraq and Syria, a modicum of Kurdish autonomy has been established, though with different characteristics and conditions, while in Turkey and Iran Kurdish insurgency remains active. In Turkey, although the Kurdish movement has found some space for political engagement with the state, repression has been increasing in recent years. The politics of Kurdish autonomy in the twenty-first century is also directly affected by the two dominant political tendencies in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey: unitary nationalism in the case of the Kurdistan Democratic Parties and a radical left paradigm of Democratic Confederalism in the case of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Öcalan and its affiliated organizations. There are alternative projects represented by other political parties, but they have been marginalized in recent years. For example, the Marxist-Leninist branch of the Komala party proposes a leftist revolutionary solution for Iran and Kurdistan.

The Kurds of Iran revived their historical struggle for self-determination during the 1979 Iranian revolution when they demanded cultural and administrative autonomy for the Kurdish region. Kurds in Iran are estimated to number between 10 to 12 million, comprising 12 to 15 percent of the total population of Iran. After Persians and Azeri Turks, Kurds are the third largest national group in Iran. During the early months of the revolution, Kurds successfully set up city councils in many urban centers under their control while grassroots organizations—such as labor unions, women’s organizations and cultural centers—also began to flourish.[2] This limited liberation did not last long, however. The newly established Islamic Republic deployed armed groups, resulting in scores of killings, the outlawing of political parties and the blocking of representation in the emerging new government. Since then, the Kurdish region has been under the highly militarized and securitized control of the central state.

An independent homeland may live in the Kurdish collective imaginary, but it is autonomy and not independence that has been the dominant demand of the Kurdish movement in all four regions of Kurdistan.
An independent homeland may live in the Kurdish collective imaginary, but it is autonomy and not independence that has been the dominant demand of the Kurdish movement in all four regions of Kurdistan. In Rojhelat, after more than 40 years, the demand for Kurdish autonomy persists, but most Kurdish political parties have merged this demand into proposals for a federal system within Iran. The Kurdish movement has arguably been the most sustained political project among the minoritized groups in the country, although ethnic and religious oppression in Iran is not solely experienced by Kurds. The multi-ethnic and multi-religious fabric of Iran demands a solution that encompasses all identity groups and their grievances. The political strategy of federalism supported by the Kurds and others is a response to this need.


Opposition and Repression in Rojhelat


Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Rojhelat has been a center for an oppositional revolutionary polity that rejects the regime. Although the Islamic Republic added Shi’i Islam to the pre-existing ethno-national features of the Pahlavi state that privileged Persian identity, Kurdish resistance to the newly politicized religious identity was not based on the fact that half the Kurdish population was Sunni Muslim (other Kurds adhere to Shi’i Islam and the Yarsan faith, or Ahl-e Haqq). The religious identity of Kurds is not the primary driver of their political demands and most Kurdish political parties in Iran adhere to secularism. Their rejection of the Islamic nature of the new regime was rather the manifestation of a secular-religious divide. Even during the first year of the Iranian revolution, a well-known Kurdish Sunni cleric and leader in Mahabad, Sheikh Ezzedin Hosseini, promoted secularism and leftist politics. Nonetheless, the government successfully used sectarianism to drive a wedge among Kurds. Most of the Shi’i Kurds living in Kermanshah and Ilam provinces proved less active in the revolt against the Islamic Republic at its founding moment. In subsequent years, Sunni Kurds became doubly excluded. The newly written constitution stated that only Shi’i men could be elected to key political positions, and most importantly, to the presidency. Although religious-based discrimination has made the life of Sunni citizens more difficult, for the majority of people in Iran and Rojhelat the struggle is against religious domination in everyday life regardless of sectarian doctrine.

While the economy of the Kurdish region of Iran was traditionally based on agriculture and animal husbandry in rural areas and commerce in the urban centers, the limited number of industrial sites and their locations along the outer edge of Kurdish provinces speaks to long-term policies of de-development in Rojhelat by the central state and an economy based on Iran’s security and military. Young Kurdish workers often migrate to different parts of the country to work in harsh conditions—for example as laborers in brick factories, agricultural markets in bigger cities and the oil industry in southern Iran—in order to provide for their families back home. The proximity of some cities of Rojhelat to Başur (Iraqi Kurdistan), however, has led local residents to develop a border market in those areas. Since 2009 the Iranian government has lifted some restrictions against the border trade, resulting in a commercial boom where many shopping malls have popped up specializing in goods brought to the country both legally and illegally. Such border markets also allow the Iranian state to bypass economic sanctions. Despite the limited prosperity brought by cross-border trade, the majority of the region’s poor have only grown further marginalized since they are the cheap labor force used to smuggle the goods. The new form of labor that emerged out of the border market is called Kolberi. A kolber, or porter, is someone who carries goods on their back across the mountainous borderland. While it is not always illegal to engage in this trade, porters are sometimes killed by mines left over from the Iran-Iraq war, are regularly shot dead by Iranian border guards or fall to their deaths from the steep cliffs. The economy of Rojhelat reflects an everyday survival situation that some scholars characterize as an “apartheid economy.”[3]

An active security and penal system also aids the Iranian state’s ongoing repression of the Kurdish people.
An active security and penal system also aids the Iranian state’s ongoing repression of the Kurdish people. According to a July 2019 report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, nearly half of Iran’s political prisoners are ethnic Kurds and they “constitute a disproportionality high number of those that receive the death penalty and are executed.” According to the report, 828 Kurdish citizens in Iran were arrested in 2018 because of their political activism or membership in banned Kurdish political parties, and most of them later faced long-term imprisonment. Zahra Mohammadi, a 27-year old Kurdish teacher and social activist who was involved in several Rojhelat non-governmental organizations, is one of those arrested. She is among many Kurdish activists who defy the Iranian regime by actively working in many areas of civic engagement, such as demanding education in Kurdish, championing Kurdish culture and pushing for environmental protections.


The Continuation of a Historical Struggle


For the Kurds in Iran, the struggle for self-determination has a longer history, extending decades before the Islamic Republic came to power. From 1905 to 1911 the constitutional revolution of Iran kicked off a century of political upheaval. The Iranian constitution was approved in 1906 and was the first attempt to impose a sovereign identity for the modern Iranian nation-state, which included declaring Persian the official language. In 1925, Reza Khan Mirpanj, a military commander, overthrew the last king of the Qajar dynasty with Britain’s assistance and declared himself the Shah of Iran. Reza Khan, who became Reza Shah Pahlavi, based his rule on the three pillars of centralization, westernization and Persianization of the country.[4] In Kurdistan, this meant a campaign of assimilation, including a ban on Kurdish language and publications.[5] In 1946, with the direct help of the Soviet Union, both Kurds and Azeri Turks established their own autonomous republics, centered in the city of Mahabad and in the province of Azerbaijan.[6] Although the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad only lasted 11 months, it became a shining example of Kurds successfully ruling themselves and “marks the advent of modern nationalism in Kurdistan.”[7] In 1947, the Soviet Union abandoned the two republics and left them to the mercy of the newly restructured Iranian state under the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the successor and son of Reza Shah, who had been ousted in 1941. Soon, the Iranian army attacked both Azerbaijan and Kurdistan and managed to take them over. Qazi Mohammad, the leader of the Kurdish republic, was executed along with his companions.

In the period from 1947 to 1979, some Kurdish guerrilla movements rose up—especially in 1967–1968—but they did not become significant threats to the government. The reign of Mohammad Reza Shah was secured through mass arrests and repression of any political dissent, along with a regime of torture and surveillance under the Shah’s notorious intelligence agency SAVAK. There was, however, one important event that has not received much attention—the peasants’ uprising of 1952 in the Mukriyan region of Kurdistan, which took place during the governance of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.[8] It was suppressed months after it began by Kurdish landlords and village chiefs, while Mosaddegh, who had shown support for peasants and land reform, was overthrown by a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953.

The peasants’ uprising of 1952 exposed deep class divisions in Kurdish society that were later reflected in Kurdish politics.
The peasants’ uprising of 1952 exposed deep class divisions in Kurdish society that were later reflected in Kurdish politics. In 1979, the first communist party in Rojhelat, the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan, commonly referred to as Komala, was born. In the early years after the revolution, the Komala party was one of the primary protagonists of the leftist movement in Iran and Kurdistan and it redefined Kurdish autonomy along a revolutionary class-based politics.

After the 1979 revolution, Kurds boycotted the constitutional referendum. Talks between the liberal pragmatist elements of the central government and Kurdish opposition groups did take place, but they ultimately failed. The Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared jihad against the Kurds and ordered the army to “cleanse” the Kurdish region. Kurdish political organizations and some Iranian leftist groups that had moved to the area launched armed resistance. While the Iranian army was in the process of restructuring, the newly established Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took the leading role in suppressing resistance. Kurdish opposition groups fled from the cities to the mountains and the armed struggle continued until the early 1990s. In the 1980s, during the war with Iraq (1980–1988) and in the midst of establishing an Islamic system in all aspects of social, cultural and political life, the regime massacred political prisoners in Iran: According to some reports more than 30,000 prisoners were executed.[9]

The regime of terror continued and expanded beyond Iran’s borders. In July 1989, Iranian state operatives assassinated Abdolrahman Qasemloo, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), in Vienna. Three years after Qasemloo’s assassination, in September 1992, Iranian operatives assassinated his successor, Sadegh Sharafkandi, in Berlin. After the German judicial system took a stronger position against the regime, the terror machine of the Islamic Republic temporarily paused. When European countries decided to suspend their diplomatic relationships with Iran, the Iranian regime apparently agreed to cease assassinations in Europe. Iranian agents continue to assassinate Kurdish politicians and activists, however, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan: In September 2018 the IRGC carried out a missile attack against the KDPI headquarters in Koya, Iraq, that killed at least 15 of their leaders and members and wounded 50 more.


Kurdish Politics Beyond the Mountains and the Camps


When President Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997 at the beginning of the reformist movement, a political opening, albeit very restricted, allowed Kurdish activists and journalists to become actively and visibly involved in the social and cultural life of Iran and Rojhelat. Many bilingual Kurdish-Farsi magazines and journals emerged, such as Abidar, Mahabad, Peyam-e Kurdistan, Peyam-e Mardom, Rojhelat, Sirwan, Zaribar and a number of periodicals by Kurdish students in different universities of Iran, such as Ruwange. Associations and student activist groups sprang up around issues of environmentalism, social welfare, culture and language. One exceptional example was the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization, a very active group founded in 2005. Kurds continued to support reformist candidates in elections, sometimes despite what Kurdish political parties advised.

With the coming to power of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a young conservative hardliner, in 2005, and increasing social and political tensions both inside Iran and internationally, hopes for a reformist path to change in Iran diminished. But the Khatemi era (1997-2005) had given rise to another group of actors in Rojhelat—a class of educated and middle-class men and women, some of whom held administrative ties to the government.

The Khatemi era (1997-2005) had given rise to another group of actors in Rojhelat—a class of educated and middle-class men and women, some of whom held administrative ties to the government.
They promoted a politics of change regarding the Kurds that was based on reforms and civic engagement with the Iranian government. For the most part they were successful at keeping their distance from the Kurdish opposition parties. Nonetheless, ongoing government repression, the particular social base of these activists and the uncertain conditions they found themselves in prevented them from forming a powerful political bloc. Most Kurds in Rojhelat did not participate actively in the 2009 Green Movement or subsequent protests, which mainly took place in Tehran and some central cities of Iran. Kurdish activists, however, bore the government’s violent response against the people and in May 2010 four Kurdish activists, including a Kurdish teacher, writer and poet named Farzad Kamagar, were executed.

By the late 1990s, the two main Kurdish political parties—the KDPI and Komala—had stopped their guerrilla movements and settled in different camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. They had been weakened by internal conflicts and fragmentation. The parties struggled to connect with the new wave of Kurdish politics emerging inside Iran that was mostly independent of the historical parties, who were now headquartered in Iraq. In addition to the Kurdish reformist activists inside Iran, a new political actor was about to emerge in Rojhelat. The PKK, with its powerful argument of unifying Kurdistan as an anti-colonial struggle, and boasting a strong media presence, started to expand its activities into Rojhelat. Demonstrations in February 1999 in many cities of Rojhelat and around Iran protested the abduction of PKK leader Öcalan, who has since remained imprisoned on İmralı, an island in the Sea of Marmara in Turkey.

The new protagonists consist primarily of leftist Kurdish students, activists and intellectuals inside Iran who were critical of KDPI and Komala politics and were searching for an alternative. They were eventually organized into a political party called the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in 2004, which is affiliated with the PKK and follows Öcalan’s teachings. Based in the strategic mountainous areas of Kurdistan along the Iran-Iraq border, PJAK has become very active in Rojhelat in building grassroots capacity, distributing party literature and recruiting members. Since its inception, PJAK fighters and the Iranian security forces have repeatedly clashed. The successful experience of the Kurds in Rojava since 2012 in implementing a social and political system based on Öcalan’s paradigm of Democratic Confederalism along with the principals of grassroots democracy, coexistence of different ethnic and religious communities, gender liberation, a cooperative economy and the protection of ecology, led the PJAK to propose a similar road map for Rojhelat and Iran.

Kurdish politics in Iran is thus divided between the different political tendencies represented by political parties that are either situated in the mountains in Iran (such as PJAK) or in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan (such as KDPI).

The demand for Kurdish autonomy within a democratic and federal political structure of a future Iran is shared by both the parties in the mountains and in the camps.
The demand for Kurdish autonomy within a democratic and federal political structure of a future Iran is shared by both the parties in the mountains and in the camps. But the specific approach to Kurdish autonomy is contentious between these parties and is divided between Kurdish nationalism and a more inclusive leftist politics.

On the other hand, Kurdish civic activism inside Iran is a significant factor that could prove detrimental to any possibility of major change in Rojhelat. The Kurds in Iran are among those who have suffered from unemployment, cuts in social welfare and a lack of public and private investment as the Iranian economy declines. Many cities of Rojhelat, among others around the country, protested in the fall of 2019 with demands for solutions to economic issues. Unlike previous protests in the central regions of Iran, which made more political demands, this time it was the periphery that had come to the streets to demand economic justice and political freedoms. An increasingly neoliberalized economy in the hands of a military and religious oligarchy, mass corruption and the crushing international sanctions against Iran has made the economy the primary sphere for the struggle against the regime.

Kurds in Iran, as well as the other non-Persian communities, follow a different political agenda than the center where the sovereign Shi’i Persian identity is in the majority. Identity-based demands by the non-Persian communities in Iran have become louder and any future political change in Iran cannot ignore them much longer. Violence, repression and divisive politics have allowed the Iranian state to maintain a fragile balance within and between social groups in Iran. On the regional and international levels, the situation is even more dire. The Iranian regime’s direct and indirect interventions in many parts of the Middle East are among the reasons that the region is in turmoil. Iran’s escalating tension with the West, and especially the United States, because of its nuclear program, has made the possibility of a disastrous war in the region loom larger than ever. The future for all Iranians is dependent on the ways the state will respond to grievances inside, and expectations outside, Iran. The outlook is not promising.


[Sardar Saadi is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Toronto and the host and producer of the Kurdish Edition Podcast.]





[1] These names were first employed politically in the propaganda of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) when its agenda was to liberate Kurdistan and create an independent Kurdish nation-state. These terms were, however, also used later by other parties and organizations. For example, there was a Kurdish satellite television station called Rojhelat TV run by one of the branches of the Iranian Kurdish party Komala that started broadcasting in the mid 2000s. And one of the main slogans in the protests of 1999 in Iran against the abduction of Öcalan was Bakur, Başur, Rojhelat, Yek Welat u Yek Xebat (North, South, East, One Homeland and One Struggle), which was the first time that these terms were widely spread in Rojhelat. For more information on Kurdish media see Jaffer Sheyholislami, Kurdish Identity, Discourse, and New Media (New York: Springer, 2011).

[2] Allan Hassaniyan, “Non-Violent Resistance in Iranian Kurdistan After 1979,” Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies 6/3 (2019).

[3] Kamal Soleimani and Ahmad Mohammadpour, “Life and labor on the internal colonial edge: Political economy of kolberi in Rojhelat,” The British Journal of Sociology (February 2020).

[4] For an in-depth discussion of modernity and nation-state building in Iran, see Kamran Matin, Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[5] Amir Hassanpour, Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan, 1918-1985 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).

[6] Amir Hassanpour, “The Nationalist Movements in Azarbaijan and Kurdistan, 1941-46,” A Century of Revolution. Social Movements in Iran (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

[7] Abbas Vali, Kurds and the State in Iran: The Making of Kurdish Identity (London: IB Tauris, 2011) p. 2.

[8] A forthcoming book by the late professor Amir Hassanpour in Persian specifically addresses this uprising and its implications for the Kurdish nationalist movement.

[9] Amnesty International.


How to cite this article:

Sardar Saadi "The New Wave of Politics in the Struggle for Self-Determination in Rojhelat," Middle East Report 295 (Summer 2020).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This