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A conversation with activist Ardalan Bastani about the situation of Kurds in Iran

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[Translate to en:] Kinder als «Kolber» (Lastenträger) in Kurdistan-Iran.
Children as kolberi (couriers) in Kurdistan–Iran. For kolberi, (illegally) transporting goods over the border is often life-threatening.Photo: rojhelat.info

Schluwa Sama: When we think of Kurdistan, often what comes to mind is the political repression of Kurds in Turkey, Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, and the autonomous region in Rojava/north-east Syria. In all of these countries, at various points in time, Kurdish identity has been extremely restricted. Less is known about Iranian Kurdistan. When growing up in Iran, what degree of freedom did you have to express your Kurdish identity?

Ardalan Bastani: In Iran we were allowed to speak Kurdish and wear Kurdish dress. There are also Kurdish media, although they are all run by the Iranian government. There are certain institutes, too, where you can learn and write Kurdish, but you cannot do this in school. Kurdish identity in Iran has to be considered in the context of the politics of the Iranian government, which considers itself to be a representative of God on Earth and the population as an ummet, i.e. a community of believers. So on the face of it your identity as a Kurd is not questioned. Nonetheless, the Kurdish question does of course exist in Iran.

Ardalan Bastani is from Bukan, Iran. The 27-year-old was active in the student movement in Iran until leaving the country in 2014. He has lived in Berlin since 2017 and is involved in the Kiezkommune Kreuzberg.

He spoke with Schluwa Sama, whostudied Middle Eastern and North African politics and economics in Berlin, Marburg, and London, and then worked in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. She is currently writing a doctorate on the political economy of Iraq and Kurdistan at the Centre for Kurdish Studies, University of Exeter. Translated by Marty Hiatt, Marc Hiatt and Wanda Vrasti for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

What shape does the “Kurdish question” take in Iran?

Although Kurdish identity is permitted, as soon as Kurds define themselves as a people, there is bloody repression. Since the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Revolution the Kurdish question has been linked to the question of class. In Iran, Kurds and other minorities are intentionally kept in a state of underdevelopment due to their ethnicity. In addition, the majority of Kurdish people in Iran are working-class, being peasants, day labourers, etc. Only a small minority belong to the bourgeoisie.

Is the Kurdish bourgeoisie in favour of the Iranian regime?

Not always, because the bourgeoisie is linked to different political forces. In addition to Tehran, it is also linked to Iraqi Kurds and groups in Turkey. So there is a range of interests, some are for the Iranian regime and some are against it. Overall, the Kurdish bourgeoisie is wealthy in comparison to the majority of the Kurdistani population. But as the majority of the Iranian Kurdish population belongs to an exploited working class, the question of the repression of the Kurdish people is simultaneously a question of class.

So would you say that the Kurdish question is rather a question of worker self-determination?

At this point, the main priority is better living conditions. There is a lack of basic infrastructure, good roads, electricity, water, and basic services. All of that is lacking in Kurdistan, while Tehran for example has been highly modernized for a long time.

The Iranian regime is indeed repressive and authoritarian for most of the Iranian population. What is the face of the Iranian state like in Kurdistan? Are there significant differences there compared with the rest of the country?

Yes, the repression in Kurdistan is unlike in other parts of Iran. This is linked to the specific political situation there. Different political parties are active in Kurdistan. There is the Kurdistan Democratic Party (which after the Second World War founded the first Kurdish republic in Mahabad). After the Islamic Revolution there was another party, Komala, that later joined forces with other Iranian organizations and founded the Communist Party of Iran in 1985. The newest party is the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK, Kurdistan Free Life Party), which is active in Iran as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There were also some other smaller parties.

Many people are loyal to these parties. The presence of these parties means that it is easier to politically organize in Kurdistan than in other regions of Iran. This also has a history, as we in Kurdistan engaged in a partisan struggle against the Iranian regime for almost ten years. Such struggle needs parties of “Leninist” orientation. With this system we learned that we could immediately organize. Of course, this leads to other kinds of repression from the Iranian regime, as armed struggle is no taboo here unlike in other parts of the country. That means that we in Kurdistan have experienced the Iranian regime speaking only the language of arms. This kind of repression does not exist in other parts of the country. Historically and up until today, Kurdistan has been a region of war operations. For the people living there, this is normal.

The Iranian regime is politically repressive. To what extent is this also felt economically in people’s everyday lives?

The Iranian regime is not only politically repressive; it also engages in economic domination, “domination by hunger”. The problem in Iran is not just that the poor have nothing to eat, but also that those who had something to eat yesterday have nothing to eat today. Figures suggest that around 40 million Iranians are malnourished. In addition there is high inflation. The employment situation has also seriously deteriorated. Since Ahmadinejad, Iran has been downright hounded by IMF projects and so on. They have implemented five IMF projects in Iran. The government was rewarded for each one of these, while they all entailed brutal privatizations.

When I was at school, education was free, like many other things. Today it is still free, but the schools attempt to do things like sell their schoolyard. It’s the same with hospitals. In the past, you could be treated in hospital with simple worker’s insurance. But around four years ago, the government also cut the insurance programme. As a working-class person, you can now maybe only afford an aspirin or a single pill. It all began to change rapidly around fifteen years ago.

What role do US sanctions play in this?

Sanctions have made our lives worse, but sanctions alone are not to blame. The main responsibility lies with the Iranian regime. Then come the sanctions, which make conditions even worse. Concretely, the sanctions mean that we can barely afford medication, for example. Of course, the sanctions are an instrument of imperial power, and there is no justification for implementing them. It has nothing to do with human rights or anything like that.

Since 2018 there have repeatedly been protests in Iran for various reasons. Most recently the protests in Kurdistan were also very powerful. How do you explain the dynamic of the protests in general and for Kurdistan in particular?

Let’s go back to the 2018 protests. That was the first wave of protests, those ten days in January 2018 were an important moment within the protest movement. It was a significant event in the period since the Islamic Revolution, because the protests were held in small cities across Iran, in Kurdistan, Ahvaz, Khuzestan, and Azerbaijan, but not in the capital. Apart from a small city near Tehran, there were no protests anywhere else. So they were held in poor, underdeveloped regions, where minorities live. The government’s response in these poor areas was also very brutal. There was a high death toll. There were protests in 80 cities. The catalyst was the failure of the Iranian nuclear deal, which Trump pulled out of. There was a huge amount of propaganda in Iran claiming that this agreement would lead to higher incomes and that the overall economic situation would improve. With the failure of the deal, this never occurred.

In the last fifteen years, capital has been driving privatization, and this development could not simply be reversed with an agreement, as neoliberalism is proceeding apace. Despite massive propaganda, it became clear among the people that in this regard nothing would change. People were feeling hopeless. They saw that the government is no longer interested in furthering equality and they protested. During and after the protests, the significance of three different movements and their links with one another became increasingly clear: the workers’ movement, the student movement, and the women’s movement.

Could you first tell us a little more about the workers’ movement in Iran?

After the 2018 protests, the workers’ movement organized rapidly and powerfully, particularly in three large factories: in a sugar cane factory in Khuzestan, in a steel factory in Khuzestan, and in an agricultural machinery factory in Arak, central Iran. These three factories were decisive for changing the political discourse. Beforehand, the working class for example had demanded bread when the regular payment of their wages was temporarily suspended. But during the protests, they were no longer content with this. For instance they chanted slogans calling for a workers’ council republic/government. These things developed over time, the strike lasted sixty days. It was repressed, and the people eventually returned to work. The movement existed until 2019 with its ups and downs. In 2019, fuel prises rose, which enraged the population. This protest only lasted three days, but it was brutally repressed.

...the student movement?

Another very progressive movement is the student movement. In Iran we have something similar to what in Germany are known as the Allgemeiner Studierendenausschüsse (AStAs, or General Students’ Committees), i.e. student councils. Since 2017–18 we were able to observe these councils moving considerably to the left. On students’ day, 7 December 2018, they organized a demonstration at the University of Tehran. It was a demonstration in solidarity with women protesting the mandatory wearing of the hijab as well as with workers’ strikes in the sugar cane and steel factories. In 2019 they also demonstrated on students’ day, again with the slogan “From Tehran to Chile via Iraq we fight neoliberalism together.”

...the women’s movement?

In 2018 there were also individual protests against the obligation to wear the hijab. They were not mass protests, but they were important for women who had not expressed themselves until then. On International Women’s Day, 8 March, women organized and held a demonstration before the Ministry of Labour. It was a new sign and the movement distinguished itself from liberal feminism, as could be seen in the case of Masih Alinejad (an Iranian political activist from the diaspora, who works for the US Agency for Global Media). It was clear that these women who were organizing in front of the Ministry of Labour did not represent a bourgeois feminism that strives for certain limited women’s rights, but a class-conscious feminism that strives to fight on behalf of all women in Iran, particularly marginalized women who are otherwise given no consideration. So the women’s movement also transformed into a class struggle. The 8 March protest was brutally put down, a number of activists were arrested and given up to ten-year prison sentences. This repression also shows that it is dangerous for the government if the women’s movement joins forces with the workers’ movement.

The position of Kurdish women is a common topic in European discussions, where they are represented as being particularly progressive, which is already an orientalist image. That may also be due to reporting on the political organization of women in Rojava, northeast Syria and in Turkey, north Kurdistan. What is the actual situation of Kurdish women in Iran? How is their organizing going?

I refuse to say that Kurdish women have a better social standing in society than other women. The fact that women carry arms does not mean they occupy a more respected social position. That is a particular kind of orientalism, a white gaze, which is determined to see something else. Overall the social situation of women in Iran is not good. For example there is still a lot of female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and other forms of misogyny such as domestic violence and honour killings. Then there are also more progressive segments of society in cities, where there are women’s organizations standing up for women’s rights, which in part is also reformist. But in this society, these reformist activities are also revolutionary.

Going back to the 2019 protests in Iranian Kurdistan, in your view, did they emerge out of the workers’ movement and not the Kurdish movement?

First of all, the protests since 2018 have been taking place all over Iran. It may be that the people protesting have different interests and that for the Kurds protesting, their identity is important to them. Yet we should also keep in mind that there have been no protests like those we have seen since 2018 in the last twenty years, although Kurdish identity did not just spring up yesterday. This means then that Kurdish identity contributed to these protests against social injustice, but it was not the primary cause of people’s anger. The protests in Kurdistan must certainly be seen as part of the broader workers’ movement in the whole of Iran.

Are there alliances in the form of concrete organization or symbolic solidarity between different regions in Iran?

In the context of these protests there is a great deal of solidarity between Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and various cities in Iran. We cannot define solidarity to mean that people in Bukan take to the streets in order to chant the people in Tehran’s slogans for them. Solidarity is when people in Kurdistan take to the streets at the same time as people in other Iranian cities to oppose the repressive apparatus. Because in Iran the police are sent from one city to another. So if there are protests in all cities, the police apparatus will stop working. So there was a lot of solidarity shown in Kurdistan during the protests, just as all the other cities stood in solidarity with Kurdistan. Although many Kurdish political organizations with nationalist inclinations are working to ensure that Kurdistan feels separate from other populations and cities in Iran, I am hopeful that they will not succeed.

Who are the Kurdish nationalists and how strong do you think they are in Iran?

Kurdish nationalists are organized in a variety of Kurdish parties: the DKP–Iran (Democratic Party Kurdistan–Iran), the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), and the PJAK (which is part of the PKK). These parties are pro-bourgeoisie, in a way. One exception is the Komala Party, which as a left-wing party has the interest of the working class in view. They were particularly strong before 2018 and in their propaganda. But they lost their legitimacy during the protests, because they were unable to offer people much change. It was also clear in the symbolism of the protests that this is not a movement that focuses on identity, but one that stands against social oppression, for bread and equality. In Mariwan, for example, many people are kolberi, people who work as couriers smuggling goods across the border. This winter (2019–20), a young, 14-year-old kolbar disappeared in the snow and died. Afterwards, 10,000 people went into the streets for his funeral. Interestingly, people brought bread with them and displayed it. That is in itself a significant sign of what the protest movement in Kurdistan is about.

As you know, the Kurdish question is often linked to the question of Kurdish autonomy relative to a given central state, or with the idea of a Kurdish state. Which tendencies do you see in the Kurdish population in Iran?

There are indeed some who prefer the idea of a Kurdish state. The Kurdish elite is among them. For the working class, it is different, and this also has to do with their daily work. Some of them, for example, work in Kurdistan in summer and in more industrial areas near Tehran in winter. Kurdish students also live in cities outside Kurdistan for much of their time at university. These encounters as part of a shared everyday life also lead to the development of social ties between diverse groups. What I mean by that is that in Iran, you live in a big country together with many other population groups. Nonetheless, there are Kurds who are very well organized inside parties and who want to establish their own state or at least federalism. I think that in this situation, there is a need for a well-organized left. The nationalists would then have fewer opportunities. I don’t think that as Kurds we lack the right to found our own country, but in my opinion an Iran with equality and a progressive, left-wing regime is a thousand times better than a country in which we live under the rule of our own bourgeoisie, and Kurdish workers are separated from other workers.

How do you see transnational Kurdish ties? How are Kurds in Iran connected with their Kurdish neighbours in Iraq and Turkey?

There are two different dimensions to this. One is the connection between our parties, which has a long history going back to the 1970s. The KDP, the party led by Barzani in Iraq, has a bad reputation in Iran today, because around 1967–68 they killed Soleyman Moeini, the leader of the revolutionary committee of the KDP–Iran (Kurdistan Democratic Party–Iran), and sent the corpse to the Shah. This history is known to most Kurds in Iran. So today the majority of KDP people are viewed as traitors. In Iraq, too, they participated in various killings, for example, when together with the Turkish secret service they killed members of the PUK in the region of Hakkari.

The Iranian Kurdish parties were on particularly friendly terms with the PUK because they were in the Qandil mountains together as partisans, and fought in solidarity with one another. At some point this relation changed, especially since one side (in Iraq) came to power and the other (in Iran) found itself in opposition—where it remains to this day. The politics of the PJAK are formulated and implemented by the PKK. Although the PJAK has carried out a few operations and has some political prisoners, they do not play a large role in Iranian society as a whole. In Iran they are rather the opposite of what the PYD is today in north-eastern Syria. It is difficult to understand what they want in Iran. Because at a time when the Iranian people is taking to the streets, they are writing about democratization, etc., in Iran. They also talk about those things with the regime. The regime itself knows that there is not going to be any democratization, but the PJAK acts as if that were possible. The only language of the Iranian regime is the language of oppression.

There is one other connection between people themselves, particularly between the Kurds in Iran and Iraq, because we speak the same language and are united by one culture. So our ties are much stronger than with Turkey. Kurds in Turkey speak a different dialect of Turkish and their traditions tend to be different. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that that is where the border between the Ottoman and the Persian Empires used to run.