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Reform and Liberation Movements 'No Match': Iran Kurdish Leader Speaks | 1


24 Jul 2011 03:35Comments

'Federalism is not a recipe for disintegration,' declares DPIK chief Mostafa Hejri.

kak_mistafa_nawroz2706_2.bmp[ feature ] As one of the oldest Kurdish political parties in the Middle East, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPIK, also known as PDKI, KDPI, and PDK-I) has experienced challenges of the sort that have crushed much larger political entities. Born in the throes of the superpowers' Cold War rivalry after World War II, it was able to establish an indigenous Kurdish government -- known as the Mahabad Republic -- for a brief period in the northwest corner of Iran. While the party became a model for Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (its founder, Mustafa Barzani, pictured on homepage, was defense minister in the Mahabad Republic) and several other successful offshoots, with the violent defeat of its forces and ensuing mass reprisals against its followers in 1946, the DPIK led a largely underground existence until the 1979 Revolution. Then, within days of the fall of monarchy, the party was able to quickly assert control over large swaths of Iranian Kurdistan. Most observers credited the memories of the Mahabad Republic for the party's widespread popularity in the region.

However, the DPIK's David was no match for the Islamic government's Goliath. By the mid-1980s, thousands of members and sympathizers had been imprisoned, executed, or driven into exile. The bloody civil war -- with atrocities committed on both sides -- left deep scars. Neither the DPIK nor the Iranian Kurds as a whole have recovered fully from their defeat. Almost three decades later, Iranian Kurdistan remains a virtual armed camp. There are no signs of investment from the central government, every administrative appointment comes from outside Kurdistan, and even Kurdish entrepreneurs prefer to spend their capital in other regions.

Another major loss was the assassination of party leader Abdul Rahman Ghasemlou in a Viennese hotel room in 1988 while he was conducting negotiations with government representatives. This was followed in 1992 with the assassination of Ghasemlou's successor, Sadegh Sharafkandi, in a Berlin restaurant.

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not affect DPIK as it did most other secular left groups in the Middle East. Even in exile in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, party leader Ghasemlou had angered the authorities by siding with the brief Prague Spring in 1968. By the 1970s, the party had all but shed its entire Marxist Leninist ideology.

September 11 was a watershed event for Iranian and Iraqi Kurds alike. That was the beginning of the end for Saddam's regime and the virtual end of the armed struggle for the DPIK leadership. By renouncing armed struggle, the party wisely put the ball in the regime's court while disassociating itself from the charges of terrorism frequently thrown at it by Tehran. Since then, the party has tried, not always successfully, to navigate a difficult course between getting support from pro-regime-change forces in Washington -- and, some believe, in Tel Aviv -- and maintaining its image as an independent beacon of hope for Iran's suffering Kurds.

Despite and perhaps by virtue of these difficulties, any traveler to Iranian Kurdistan could attest that the party would easily win a fair and free election. Still, the future may prove to be no less convulsive than the past. Like the rest of Iran, Kurdish society has undergone monumental changes in the last 15 years. As in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a new sociopolitical movement has come into being, social forces are emerging in Iranian Kurdistan that challenge old assumptions and verities. And although the DPIK -- unlike its Iraqi counterparts -- has never been based on traditional structures and institutions like tribe and clan, it is facing a new generation dissatisfied with old, formulaic solutions and clamoring for fundamental change. This is visible in the growth of mass acts of civil disobedience in Iranian Kurdistan, which in some ways are more advanced than the pro-democratic protests in Tehran. Will the DPIK succeed in its seventh decade to surmount its many challenges? Only time will tell. But in a June 10 Skype interview, party leader Mostafa Hejri, pictured above, was quite upbeat about his party's prospects.


You have just celebrated the 66th anniversary of your party -- the DPIK. That makes it one of the oldest parties in Iran today. In these 66 years, many organizations and parties have come and gone, but the DPIK has survived. What in your opinion accounts for the longevity of your party?

Of course, there is much that can be said here. If I were to summarize it in a few words, I would say that the durability of the DPIK is linked with the support it has enjoyed among the Kurdish population, which in turn is a product of Kurdish history. As you know, in 1945, a short while after the start of the Second World War, the party filled the vacuum left behind by the monarchical regime in an area stretching from Azerbaijan to Kurdistan up to and including Saghez.

During the 11 months and a few days that the party was in power, it seized the opportunity to fulfill some of the cherished hopes of the Kurdish population for a better life. For example, in areas it controlled, it made education compulsory for children, it provided Kurdish-language textbooks, it enacted freedom of speech and religious practice, it outlawed discrimination against women, et cetera. In short, it eliminated the remnants of monarchical oppression that the people really abhorred.

Then with the defeat of the "Kurdistan Republic" in Mahabad, the party's leader, Ghazi Mohammad, and some 20 leaders of the party were executed in various cities, despite the fact that they could have escaped before the arrival of the army. In other words, they chose to stay with their people even though they could have gotten away. This too endeared the party to the Kurdish people.

Aside from this, throughout its history, the party has consistently adopted positions and policies in critical junctures for both Iran and Kurdistan that have been sincere and logical. To give an example or two, when the old regime was falling and when there was a referendum on the form of government to follow, most Iranians were taken with the idea of an Islamic Republic. Our party went against the prevailing mood and boycotted that vote. We announced at the time that the new regime would not be able to bring freedom and prosperity to the country.

Or when a group calling itself the "Students of the Imam's Line" stormed the American Embassy and took dozens of hostages, we stated that this was against international law and that the action would cause irreparable damage to the country's interests. At the time, this was an altogether unpopular position to take and it cost our party heavily, since most people didn't yet see the undemocratic nature of the regime and held many illusions about it. The prevailing mood was leftist and such an act was seen as revolutionary. Time has borne out our assessments.

Finally, the DPIK has been consistent in maintaining ongoing dialogue and contact with other political forces for reaching the goal of a democratic and federal Iran.

Are you in contact with foreign governments as well?

Yes, of course. We are in contact with democratic parties and states in Europe and America.

Have you met with U.S. State Department officials?

Yes. A delegation from the State Department composed of representatives from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, as well as from the Office of Iranian Affairs met with our delegation in Washington last May. A range of issues concerning the Iranian regime's harmful policies both inside and outside the country were discussed. We discussed their impact on the influx of refugees, human rights violations, and other related issues of interest.

It appears that beginning with Ghazi Mohammad, out of seven leaders your party has had, three have been killed or executed by Iranian governments. Have you been the target of an assassination attempt yourself and are you concerned about your personal safety?

The lives of all our party activists are in danger.

Even outside Iran?

Yes, even outside Iran. Both Abdul Rahman Ghasemlou and Sadegh Sharafkandi were murdered outside Iran. There was also an attempt on my life in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1990. I was inspecting one of our branches when a landmine set for my vehicle exploded in front of me. It went off when a second car carrying peshmergas who were my guards drove onto the mine, resulting in the injury and martyrdom of several of them. Besides that, there have been many assassination plots against me that we have successfully foiled.

So this is a constant worry?

Yes, it is a worry. We must be constantly vigilant.

Let me move now to an issue that seems to be at the center of much of your activities and pronouncements, namely the issue of federalism.

Since your 13th congress, I believe, you have changed your main slogan from "Democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan" to "Attainment of Kurdish national rights within a democratic and federal Iran." What is the reason for the shift as far its political content?

It is true. There has been a subtle change in our main slogan. The reason is that from the beginning, in the 1940s, up until recently, there wasn't a lot of awareness of the national issue among the other ethnic groups. Not that there was no ethnic oppression, but we didn't see much outward sign of the issue -- of autonomy within a national context -- being debated and discussed extensively among them. Therefore, the DPIK insisted on the national autonomy issue only in the Kurdish context. Of late, the matter has moved to the foreground among the other nationalities. So after much discussion with other groups, we have changed our main slogan. Of course, as you know democracy [in Iran] is a precondition for any form of local autonomy.

In general, what is the connection between democracy and a federalist form of government?

The autonomy we discuss is for nationalities to run their own local affairs within a larger national/geographical framework and for their political engagement within the boundaries of the law. Clearly, this is inconceivable if they are unable to make use of democratic rights.

Consequently, dictatorial regimes are intrinsically incapable of bringing this about for their people. The Islamic Republic is one such example.

But in recent years the issue of ethnic discrimination and ethnic oppression in areas as diverse as Baluchistan, Azerbaijan, and Khuzestan has come squarely to the fore. These nationalities have been at the forefront of discussion about autonomy themselves. That's why we have generalized it to all the other regions.

Have you been in consultation with them as well?

Yes. In 2005, after some preliminary work lasting about one year, we formed unity around the issue of a democratic and federalist Iran.

There were 16 groups in total, encompassing all ethnic nationalities from the Baluchs to the Azeris and Arabs and Kurds, that came together for that purpose.

Was [the Baluch armed group] Jundallah one of these?


What about PJAK [an armed Kurdish nationalist group operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan]?


I am now going to ask you a question that some of your detractors, particularly among the Persian-speaking groups, have been raising now and then. It may be a good moment to respond to that. It has to do with the claim made by Persian ultra-nationalists that your model of national autonomy is a recipe for secession and separatism. A second group that also opposes the federalist model are those that point to the experiences of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia where this model for multinational countries hasn't worked and led to fratricide, civil wars, and the breakup of these countries.

First, federalism is not a form that we have invented. It has been around in many democratic countries with very positive outcomes. It has allowed nationalities to stay and cohabit together and not feel as if they are being discriminated against.

Second, those countries that have been broken up have not been federative. Their people were disenchanted with their systems or with their central government's oppressiveness and that's why they chose to go their own ways. We see in Switzerland or in Canada or India where federalism is working well. Where democracy and federalism exist, the people might see no need for secession.

You also notice that in the last few centuries, whenever we've had chunks of the country splitting off [from Iran], this has been invariably a direct result of state policies and not the struggle of the nationalities for independence. In our opinion, not only is federalism not a recipe for disintegration, it actually cements national unity since the people living in a national framework see the country as their own. If you get the rights of a people trampled upon, you get the threat of secession too. That's why in our opinion the best guarantor of national unity, contrary to what some of our compatriots suggest, is creating local governments and allowing the local people to participate in running their own affairs.

This is like an insurance policy against separatist tendencies.

Another issue raised by your detractors has to do with your alleged ties with U.S. neo-con circles. They point to the message of congratulation you sent to George Bush after his reelection -- in contrast with Barack Obama -- as proof of your willingness to cooperate with anyone, perhaps even Israel, that works against the regime or for the breakup of the country. Are you in principle willing to work with anyone opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran...?

First, I also sent President Obama a letter of congratulation upon his victory. The difference was that President George Bush responded directly and immediately while Mr. Obama's response was broad. In general, we send letters to most European and American heads of state on important occasions. We believe that it is necessary to secure the support of democratic countries in order to reach the goal of a free and federal Iran. We need their support in the face of a violent and undemocratic regime and we seek it in our meetings with them. We welcome this kind of support if it leads to the establishment of democracy and federalism in Iran.

Let's look at the two Iraqi Kurdish parties that jointly run the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government]. Many people believe there wouldn't be a KRG today without the support of NATO and U.S. forces. Is this the sort of model you favor for Iranian Kurdistan?

The KRG came about because the local population wanted it and fought for it. It is different from a case of foreign invasion or intervention. When we seek foreign assistance, it is not just military assistance.

But military assistance could be part of it?

No. We think if Western governments helped, say, in the area of media, or in promoting our party and other democracy-seeking forces, and in uniting them, or other such activities, I think the Iranian people could free themselves on their own.

Let's look at a case where, for example, the U.S. military sends troops to Iranian Kurdistan or a no-flight zone is set up in Iranian Kurdistan. What would be your party's reaction to such a move?

I could not pass a judgment on this. Political situations are such that we could not predict what the future holds or what the international situation will be like or what the U.S.'s intentions with such a move would be. There are many unknowns and we can not pass a judgment on these right now.

We don't want to discuss the modality of such a move but to look at it hypothetically. Let's say it has occurred today. Would you condone it, condemn it, or stay neutral?

As I said, it doesn't make sense to speak of a development such as this without knowing all the parameters involved in creating it.

End of Part 1 | Part 2

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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