Kurdish separatism in Iran

Separatist dispute

Kurdish separatism in Iran
PJAK fighters.jpg
PJAK fighters in 2012
Date1918 (1918)present
(104 years)[7][8]
(main phase 1943[9]present[10])
Iran, Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border areas


  • Several tribal revolts during 1918–1943
  • 1946 failed attempt to establish the Republic of Mahabad
  • Political crackdown on Kurdish political associations in Iran[11]
  • Ceasefire between Iran and PJAK established in September 2011, but fighting resumed in 2013
  • Renewed clashes between KDPI and Iranian military erupt in 2015

Sublime State of Persia (1918–25)

Shekak tribesmen
Supported by:
 Ottoman Empire[1]
Iran Imperial State of Iran (1925–79)
  • KDPI
    • Republic of Mahabad (1945–46)

Supported by:
 Soviet Union[2]

Interim Government and Council of the Islamic Revolution (1979–80)

Iran Islamic Republic of Iran (1980−)


Supported by:



Supported by:

Commanders and leaders

Ahmad Shah Qajar (1918−25)

Iran Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925−41)
Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941−79)

Iran Ruhollah Khomeini # (1979−89)
Iran Ali Khamenei (1989−present)

Simko Shikak (1918–1930)

Qazi Muhammad Executed
Mustafa Barzani
Jafar Sultan
Ahmed Barzani
Soviet Union Salahuddin Kazimov

Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou
Foad Mostafa Soltani 
Sedigh Kamangar 
Abdullah Mohtadi

Haji Ahmadi (2004–2011)
Majid Kavian 

Hussein Yazdanpanah
Mustafa Hijri
Haji Ahmadi
Casualties and losses
23,000 killed (1979–1996)[12](according to the KDPI) 5,000 killed (1979–1996)[12](according to the KDPI)
30,000 civilians killed (1980–2000)(according to the KDPI)[13]
15,000+ individuals killed (1946–present)[14]
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Kurdish separatism in Iran

Kurdish separatism in Iran[15] or the Kurdish–Iranian conflict[16][17] is an ongoing,[7][10][15][18] long-running, separatist dispute between the Kurdish opposition in Western Iran and the governments of Iran,[15] lasting since the emergence of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1918.[7]

The earliest Kurdish separatist activities in modern times refer to tribal revolts in today's West Azerbaijan Province of the Imperial State of Iran, which began between the two World Wars – the largest of these were led by Simko Shikak, Jafar Sultan and Hama Rashid. Many however, put the starting point of the organized Kurdish political-nationalist separatism at 1943,[10] when Komala (shortly afterwards the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) began their political activities in Iran, aiming to gain partial or complete self-rule in the Kurdish regions. Transformation from tribal to Kurdish political struggle in Iran took place in the aftermath of World War II, with the KDPI establishing the Republic of Mahabad during the 1946 Iran crisis.[10] The USSR-supported attempt to establish a Kurdish state in Western Iran failed.[10][19] More than a decade later, peripheral tribal uprisings,[10] launched with KDPI support through 1966–7. In the most violent episode of the conflict, more than 30,000 Kurds died in the 1979 rebellion and the consequent KDPI insurgency.[13] Though the KDPI's armed struggle ended in late 1996, another Kurdish armed organization emerged in Iran by the early 2000s. The ongoing Iran-PJAK conflict started in 2004.[20]

Iran never employed the same level of brutality against its own Kurdish population, but has always been staunchly opposed to Kurdish separatism.[21]



Tribalism and early nationalism

Simko's first revolt (1918–1922)

The Simko Shikak revolt was an armed Ottoman-backed[22][23] tribal Kurdish uprising against the Qajar dynasty of Persia (Iran) from 1918 to 1922, led by Kurdish chieftain Simko Shikak. This tribal rebellion is sometimes regarded as the first major bid for establishing an independent Kurdish state in Persia,[24] but scholars view the revolt as an attempt by a powerful tribal chief to establish his personal authority vis-à-vis the central government throughout the region.[25] While elements of Kurdish nationalism were present in this movement, historians agree these were hardly articulate enough to justify a claim that recognition of Kurdish identity was a major issue in Simko's movement, and he had to rely heavily on conventional tribal motives.[25] It lacked any kind of administrative organization and Simko was primarily interested in plunder.[24] Government forces and non-Kurds were not the only ones to suffer in the attacks, as the Kurdish population was also robbed and assaulted.[25] Simko's men don't appear to have felt any sense of unity or solidarity with fellow Kurds.[25] Historian Ervand Abrahamian describes Simko as "notorious" for massacring thousands of Assyrians and "harassing" democrats.[26] Still, some Kurds today revere Simko as a hero of the independence movement.[18]

1926 Simko rebellion in Persia

By 1926, Simko had regained control of his tribe and begun another outright rebellion against the state.[27] When the army engaged him, half of his troops defected to the tribe's previous leader and Simqu fled to Iraq.[27]

Jafar Sultan revolt

Jafar Sultan of Hewraman region took control of the region between Marivan and north of Halabja and remained independent until 1925. After four years under Persian rule, the tribal leader revolted in 1929, but was effectively crushed.

Hama Rashid revolt

Hama Rashid revolt refers to a tribal uprising in Pahlavi Iran, during the Second World War, following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.[28] The tribal revolt erupted in the general atmosphere of anarchy throughout Iran and its main faction was led by Muhammed Rashid, lasting from late 1941 until April 1942 and then re-erupted in 1944, resulting in Rashid's defeat. It is considered one of the factors to lead to the establishment of the Kurdish political independence movement in 1945–6.

Political separatism

Mahabad crisis

Qazi Muhammad and Mustafa Barzani during the 1946 events

The danger of fragmentation in modern Iran became evident shortly after Second World War when Soviet Union's refused to relinquish occupied North Western Iranian territory.[21] Iran crisis of 1946 included a separatist attempt of KDP-I and communist groups[29] to establish the Soviet puppet government,[30][31][32] and declare the Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan (today's southern part of West Azerbaijan Province). It arose along with Azerbaijan People's Government, another Soviet puppet state.[21][33] The state itself encompassed a very small territory, including Mahabad and the adjacent cities, unable to incorporate the southern Iranian Kurdistan, which fell inside the Anglo-American zone, and unable to attract the tribes outside Mahabad itself to the nationalist cause.[21] As a result, when the Soviets withdrew from Iran in December 1946, government forces were able to enter Mahabad unopposed.[21] Some 1,000 died during the crisis.[10]

Iran crisis of 1946 included an attempt of the KDPI to establish an independent Kurdish-dominated Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan.[10] Though later several Marxist insurgencies continued for decades, led by KDP-I and Komala, but those two organization have never advocated a separate Kurdish state or greater Kurdistan as did the PKK in Turkey.[34][25][35][36]

1967 Kurdish revolt

In mid-1960s a series of Kurdish tribal disturbances erupted in Western Iran, fed up by the revival of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I).[7] In 1967-8 Iranian government troops suppressed a Kurdish revolt in Western Iran,[10] consolidating the previous Kurdish uprisings in Mahabad-Urumiya region.

1979 rebellion

1979 Kurdish rebellion in Iran was an insurrection led by the KDPI and Komala in Iranian Kurdistan, which became the most serious rebellion against the new Iranian regime, following the Islamic Revolution. The rebellion ended in December 1982, with 10,000 killed and 200,000 displaced.[10]

KDPI insurgency

Insurrection by the KDPI took place in Iranian Kurdistan through early and mid-90s, initiated by assassination of its leader in exile in July 1989. The KDPI insurrection ended in 1996, following a successful Iranian campaign of targeted assassinations of KDPI leaders and crackdown on its support bases in Western Iran. In 1996, KDPI announced a unilateral cease fire, and has since acted at low profile before renewed clashes in 2015.[37]

PJAK insurrection

Iran–PJAK conflict is an ongoing rebellion of PJAK in which hundreds Kurdish militants and Iranian forces as well as civilians have died, officially lasting since April 2004.[10] PJAK is based in the border area with Iraqi Kurdistan and is affiliated with the Marxist PKK from Turkey,[38] though PJAK themselves tend to neglect this alleged relation. Although sometimes described as organization demanding more human rights for Kurds in Iran, it is regarded as separatist by Iranian media and various Western analysts.[15][38][39] The PJAK goal is an establishment of a Kurdish autonomy and according to Habeeb they do not pose any serious threat to the regime of the Islamic Republic.[15]

In one of the first actions of the Obama administration, PJAK was declared a "terrorist organization".[38][39] PJAK and Iranian government agreed on cease-fire, following the 2011 Iranian offensive on PJAK bases. After the cease fire agreement, a number of clashes between PJAK and IRGC took place in 2012,[18] and by mid-2013, the fighting resumed in sporadic incidents, escalating in 2016.

Renewed tensions 2014–present

Escalation and unrest

PDKI fighters.

In January 2014, Iranian forces killed a KDPI party member, while he was disseminating leaflets.[40]

In September 2014, in a number of clashes, the KDPI engaged Iranian security for the first time in many years, killing at least 6 Iranian soldiers.[41] It was unclear whether this was a result of change of policy by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (which evaded violence since 1996) or an isolated sequence of incidents.

In May 2015, a suspected Iranian attack (allegedly disguised as PKK fighters) on PJAK force on Iranian–Iraqi Kurdistan border resulted in 6 killed—2 KDPI and 4 PKK[42] (or allegedly Iranian agents).

On 7 May 2015, ethnic Kurds rioted in Mahabad, Iran, following the unexplained death on 4 May 2015 of Farinaz Khosravani, a 25-year-old Kurdish hotel chambermaid. Unrest and violence spread to other Kurdish cities in Iran, such as Sardasht, where police clashed with hundreds of protesters on 9 May 2015.[43] One protester has been reportedly killed in the clashes, and that additionally, Kurdish insurgent group PJAK had attacked an Iranian checkpoint killing two Iranian personnel, according to PJAK.[44] According to ARA sources, as of May 11, the death toll climbed to 6 protesters killed.[45] The incidents prompted harsh responses also from other Kurdish opposition parties, including the Kurdistan Freedom Party and the PDKI.

In June 2015, a KDPI attack on Revolutionary Guard forces reportedly left 6 people killed.[46]

Low-level insurgency (2016–present)

Military clashes in West Iran[47] refers to the ongoing military clashes between Kurdish insurgent party Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which began in April 2016. Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) and Komalah expressed their support to the Kurdish cause of PDKI as well, with both clashing with Iranian security forces in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In parallel, a leftist Iranian Kurdish rebel group PJAK resumed military activities against Iran in 2016, following a long period of stalemate.

The 2016 clashes came following a background of what PDKI described as "growing discontent in Rojhelat".[48] The commander of the PAK military wing described their engagement and declaration of hostilities against the Iranian government were due to the fact that "the situation in eastern Kurdistan (Iranian Kurdistan) has become unbearable, especially with the daily arbitrary executions against the Kurds [in Iran]".[49]

See also


  1. ^ Bruinessen, Martin (2006). "Chapter 5: A Kurdish warlord on the Turkish-Persian frontier in the early Twentieth century: Isma'il Aqa Simko". In Atabaki, Touraj (ed.). Iran and the First World War: Battleground of the Great Powers. Library of modern Middle East studies, 43. London; New York: I.B. Tauris. pp. 18–21. ISBN 9781860649646. OCLC 56455579.
  2. ^ a b Belgin San-Akca (2016). States in Disguise: Causes of State Support for Rebel. Oxford University Press. p. 95. ISBN 9780190250904.
  3. ^ Entessar, Nader (2010). Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. Lanham: Lexington Books. p. 48. ISBN 9780739140390. OCLC 430736528.
  4. ^ Shireen Hunter (2010). Iran's Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order. ABC-CLIO. p. 276. ISBN 9780313381942.
  5. ^ "Iranian Kurds Return to Arms". Stratfor. 29 July 2016. Archived from the original on 30 July 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  6. ^ Reese Erlich, Robert Scheer (2016). Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis. Routledge. p. 133. ISBN 978-1317257370. Morteza Esfandiari, the KDPI representative in the U.S., told me that KDPI had applied to get some of the 85 million dollars allocated to "promote democracy" in Iran in order to improve its satellite TV station. "We are friends with the United States. What other friends can we find in the world, other than the United States?"
  7. ^ a b c d Smith, Benjamin, "The Kurds of Iran: Opportunistic and Failed Resistance, 1918‐" (PDF), Land and Rebellion: Kurdish Separatism in Comparative Perspective, Cornell, p. 10, archived from the original (PDF) on 15 June 2012
  8. ^ AYLIN ÜNVER NOI. The Arab Spring – its effects on the Kurds and the approaches of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq on the Kurdish issue. Gloria Center. 1 July 2012. "There is a long history of tension between the Kurds and the government in Iran. This began with Reza Shah Pahlavi recapturing the lands that Kurdish leaders had gained control of between 1918 and 1922."; "Iran fears that the creation of a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq might motivate its own Kurdish minority to press for greater independence. However, Iran’s concern about Kurdish separatism does not approach the level of Turkey’s concern. Still, there have been repeated clashes between Kurds and Iranian security forces" [1] Archived 17 September 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Database - Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)". Archived from the original on 19 July 2014. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k University of Arkansas. Political Science department. Iran/Kurds (1943–present). Retrieved 9 September 2012. [2] Archived 25 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Iran: Freedom of Expression and Association in the Kurdish Regions. 2009. "This 42 page report documents how Iranian authorities use security laws, press laws, and other legislation to arrest and prosecute Iranian Kurds solely for trying to exercise their right to freedom of expression and association. The use of these laws to suppress basic rights, while not new, has greatly intensified since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in August 2005." [3] Archived 26 August 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ a b "KDPI leadership urges support for 'mountain struggle'". Rudaw. Archived from the original on 7 October 2016. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  13. ^ a b Hicks, Neil (April 2000), The human rights of Kurds in the Islamic Republic of Iran (PDF), American, archived from the original (PDF) on 7 August 2011
  14. ^ "Iran/Kurds (1943–present)". Archived from the original on 25 January 2016. Retrieved 23 January 2016.
  15. ^ a b c d e Habeeb, William Mark; Frankel, Rafael D.; Al-Oraibi, Mina (2012). The Middle East in Turmoil: Conflict, Revolution, and Change. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-313-33914-1. OCLC 753913763. Archived from the original on 1 January 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2016.
  16. ^ Bhutani, Surendra (1980), Contemporary Gulf, Academic Press, p. 32
  17. ^ Near East, North Africa report, 1994
  18. ^ a b c Elling, Rasmus Christian (2013). Minorities in Iran: Nationalism and Ethnicity after Khomeini. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 312. ISBN 978-0-230-11584-2. OCLC 714725127.
  19. ^ The Kurdish Warrior Tradition and the Importance of the Peshmerga (PDF), pp. 27–28, archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2013
  20. ^ Shifrinson, Itzkowitz JR, The Kurds and Regional Security: An Evaluation of Developments since the Iraq War (PDF), MIT, archived (PDF) from the original on 12 May 2013, retrieved 5 March 2014, More indicative of the PKK’s growing power was its 2004 establishment of the Party for a Free Life in Iranian Kurdistan (PEJAK or PJAK) as a sister organization with the goal of fomenting Kurdish separatism in Iran by fostering Kurdish nationalism therein.
  21. ^ a b c d e Kreyenbroek, Philip G.; Sperl, Stefan (1992). The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview. London; New York: Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-415-07265-6. OCLC 24247652.
  22. ^ Bruinessen, Martin (2006). "Chapter 5: A Kurdish warlord on the Turkish-Persian frontier in the early Twentieth century: Isma'il Aqa Simko". In Atabaki, Touraj (ed.). Iran and the First World War: Battleground of the Great Powers. Library of modern Middle East studies, 43. London; New York: I.B. Tauris. pp. 18–21. ISBN 978-1-86064-964-6. OCLC 56455579.
  23. ^ Allen, William Edward David; Muratoff, Paul (1953). Caucasian battlefields: A History of the Wars on the Turco-Caucasian border, 1828–1921. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 296. OCLC 1102813.
  24. ^ a b Entessar, Nader (2010). Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. Lanham: Lexington Books. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-7391-4039-0. OCLC 430736528.
  25. ^ a b c d e Kreyenbroek, Philip G.; Sperl, Stefan (1992). The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview. London; New York: Routledge. pp. 138–141. ISBN 978-0-415-07265-6. OCLC 24247652.
  26. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand (1982). Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-691-05342-4. OCLC 7975938.
  27. ^ a b Smith B. Land and Rebellion: Kurdish Separatism in Comparative Perspective. [4]
  28. ^ Jwaideh, W. The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development.:p.245.
  29. ^ Zabih, Sepehr (December 15, 1992). Communism ii. Archived 4 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine. in Encyclopædia Iranica. New York: Columbia University
  30. ^ Romano, David (2006). The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Identity. Cambridge Middle East studies, 22. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-521-85041-4. OCLC 61425259.
  31. ^ Chelkowski, Peter J.; Pranger, Robert J. (1988). Ideology and Power in the Middle East: Studies in Honor of George Lenczowski. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 399. ISBN 978-0-8223-0781-5. OCLC 16923212.
  32. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand (1982). Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 217–218. ISBN 978-0-691-05342-4. OCLC 7975938.
  33. ^ Chubin, Shahram; Zabih, Sepehr (1974). The Foreign Relations of Iran: A Developing State in a Zone of Great-Power Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 39–41, 178. ISBN 978-0-520-02683-4. OCLC 1219525.
  34. ^ Romano, David (2006). The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Identity. Cambridge Middle East studies, 22. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-521-85041-4. OCLC 61425259.
  35. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand (1982). Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 453. ISBN 978-0-691-05342-4. OCLC 7975938.
  36. ^ Yodfat, Aryeh (1984). The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Iran. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-74910-1. OCLC 9282694.
  37. ^ "A bold move: KDPI Peshmerga enter Iranian Kurdish city, group says". 17 September 2015. Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 23 January 2016.
  38. ^ a b c Katzman, Kenneth (2009). Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security. New York: Nova Science Publishers. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-61470-116-3. OCLC 756496931.
  39. ^ a b Lovelace, Douglas C. (2009). Terrorism: Documents of International and Local Control. Vol. 110. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 445. ISBN 978-0-19-539815-1. OCLC 693185463.
  40. ^ "Iranian Kurdistan News in brief. January 21, 2014". Archived from the original on 4 June 2016. Retrieved 1 May 2016.
  41. ^ "Intense Clashes Rage Between Peshmerga and Iranian Army | BAS NEWS". Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  42. ^ Piri Medya (25 May 2015). "PKK and KDPI clashes erupt on Iran-Iraq border, killing 6". Yeni Şafak. Archived from the original on 26 May 2015. Retrieved 1 May 2016.
  43. ^ "Iranian police attack pro-Mahabad protest in Sardasht". Rudaw. 10 May 2015. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 12 May 2016.
  44. ^ "Behind the lines: A tremor is felt in Iranian Kurdistan". Archived from the original on 14 February 2017. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  45. ^ "Iranian forces suppress Kurdish protesters, kill and arrest dozens – ARA News". 11 May 2015. Archived from the original on 18 March 2017. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  46. ^ "PDKI's Kurdish forces kill six Iranian Revolutionary Guards - ARA News". ARA News. Archived from the original on 12 June 2015. Retrieved 1 May 2016.
  47. ^ [5] Archived 23 July 2018 at the Wayback Machine "in recent months, state media has reported that the north-west has been hit by a string of clashes between regime forces and Kurdish separatists and Isis militants"
  48. ^ Florian Neuhof (4 May 2016). "Iran's forgotten Kurds plot a comeback". Middle East Eye. Archived from the original on 8 May 2016. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
  49. ^ "Kurdish rebels attack Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Sardasht". ARA News. 5 May 2016. Archived from the original on 10 May 2016. Retrieved 29 January 2017.

External links

  • PJAK website (in Persian, Sorani and English)
  • Extract from article about Kurdish Iranian militants 28 June 2006.
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