SHAFAQNA – Vafa, an Iranian Kurd, was born in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj just as Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution erupted. He spent the first years of his life witnessing the turmoil as young Kurds rose up to fight for independence from the new Islamic regime.
More than a decade of fighting between Kurdish separatists and central government forces followed and is believed to have cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides, although official figures have never been made public.
Vafa and his generation have learnt from this bloody episode. They now say fighting for an independent Kurdish state is unrealistic; instead they are quietly lobbying for equal rights. They hope they can eventually establish a federal relationship with Tehran, similar to that achieved by the Kurdistan Regional Government in neighbouring Iraq.
“I can coexist with any state and rulers who give me my rights as a citizen,” says Vafa, sitting in the bookstore he owns in Sanandaj, the capital city of Kurdistan province in northwestern Iran. “But I will not accept to be treated as a second-rate citizen.”
There are 8m Kurds in Iran, spread over the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam. An ancient community that has have lived in the region for centuries, it has been treated as a security risk by the government in Tehran in the aftermath of the failed fight for independence, fuelling resentment. Many Kurds are also Sunni Muslims, and feel doubly discriminated against under the Shia regime.
Recent developments in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey and Syria, where the Kurdish cause has strengthened – or at least caught global attention – have compounded their frustration at being politically “frozen”. “We feel we have lagged behind and fallen from first position [among Kurds] to the fourth,” says one Kurdish activist.
Most Kurds acknowledge that belonging to the Islamic Republic brings some benefits, not least being shielded from the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, the militant group that has swept through Syria and Iraq.
The government’s investment in education has pushed literacy rates in Kurdistan province from 28 per cent in 1979 to 80 per cent today. There are 90,000 university graduates and 65,000 university students. Kurds also stress that they share deep cultural bonds with other Iranians.
But the desire of many to be recognised as a nation with its own language, history and culture, rather than simply as an ethnicity, remains strong. Among their demands are the right to hold senior positions in the government, for the Kurdish language to be taught in schools and for action to promote economic development in Kurdish provinces.
Activists are engaged in a non-violent campaign to promote their message, standing in elections, publishing books and using social media and Kurdish television. They have also undertaken civil disobedience – for example, many closed their shops in a one-day protest three years ago when five Kurds were hanged on charges of acting against national security.
However, Tehran is unlikely to accept any form of Kurdish self-rule in a country where half the population is composed of non-Persian minorities, including Azeris, Arabs and Baluchis as well as Kurds, for fear of encouraging other breakaway movements.
“Federalism is a real demand of Kurds, but we know that the chance under the Islamic Republic is next to zero,” says one activist, who asked not to be named. “We may have to wait at least a decade to achieve only some of our demands for equal rights.”
Iranian analysts say the Islamic regime fears the revival of Kurdish separatism but is divided on how to address the threat.
The centrist government of president Hassan Rouhani appears to favour bolstering the region’s economy and increasing freedoms, and it recently embarked on negotiations with Iranian Kurdish opposition leaders based outside the country.
However, the hardline Revolutionary Guards, the elite force responsible for defending the Islamic revolution – insists on maintaining a tough security-led policy, justifying it, according to analysts, by citing violence by Pejak, a marginal Iranian Kurdish group allied to Turkey’s PKK and operating in the northwestern mountains.
Mr Rouhani received 72 per cent of the vote in the province in last year’s election and Kurds say they are disappointed that he has yet to fulfil their expectations – notably by failing to appoint a Sunni Kurd as the governor.
They also complain that the government is not investing in the province, which has little industry and struggles with unemployment of about 28 per cent. However, this is partly because the state’s budget has been hit by international sanctions over the nuclear programme.
“The era [of armed struggled] is history,” says Hossein Firouzi, a reform-minded deputy governor. “Now people expect good governance.”
Despite the frustration, many Kurds see grounds for optimism. “The level of repression under Rouhani is probably a quarter of what we faced in the previous years,” says Ejlal Ghavami, a human rights activist who has been publicising the plight of about 250 Kurdish prisoners.
To the surprise of activists such as Mr Ghavami, the government in October permitted Kurds to hold a peaceful rally in Sanandaj – the first since 1979 – in solidarity with Syrian Kurds in the besieged town of Kobani. An estimated 10,000 people participated.
Mr Rouhani’s government has also eased curbs on cultural activities, sparking a rise in the number of events, according to Omid Varzandeh, head of the Kurdish Studies Centre at Azad University, which was established three months ago and is the first such department in Iran.
This approach may offer the regime the best chance of quelling separatist sentiment. “Even federalism can gradually wane if people see a fair distribution of power and wealth,” says Mr Varzandeh. “Kurds are not Persians but are Iranians. The view that Iran belongs to us is gaining strength.”