Amid Nuclear Talks, The West Can’t Ignore Iran’s Kurdish Question
With a new deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program on the horizon years after the United States left the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Western relations with—and concessions to—Iran are currently on the agenda. Text for a prospective agreement has recently been put forward in Vienna. The United States has offered its response, and the ball is now seemingly in Iran’s court.
In such a climate, the situation of Iran’s Kurdish minority does not appear immediately relevant. But Western governments cannot afford to sideline the issue in the long term. Understanding the tactics that Iran uses to crack down on Kurds—from economic exploitation to transnational repression to the use of militias—will give governments a better picture of how the Iranian state expands its influence and targets those who oppose its rule and will allow them to counter these practices in a manner that promotes stability, good governance and human rights.
Repression of Iranian Kurds
Some eight to ten million Kurds live in Iran, concentrated in the country’s northwest (known as Eastern Kurdistan or Rojhelat in the Kurdish language). Kurds in Iran have played a leading role in the international struggle for Kurdish rights and autonomy, from the establishment of the first Kurdish republic in Mahabad in 1946 until today. In response, both the Iranian monarchy and the Islamic Republic have worked to counter Kurdish ambitions across the region by violent and repressive means, oftentimes going to extremes to target Kurdish groups and leaders. This has destabilized the Middle East and endangered Kurds everywhere.
Like in Turkey today and in Iraq and Syria prior to the establishment of autonomous Kurdish political entities in both countries, the Kurdish identity, language, and culture are suppressed in Iran. Iran’s intelligence services and security forces regularly target Kurds on trumped-up charges or no charges at all. Human rights organizations estimate that, despite making up 13% of the country’s population, Kurds represent nearly half of political prisoners in Iran. In the country’s prison system, Kurds face pervasive torture and are disproportionately likely to be sentenced to death. 48 Kurds were executed in 2021 alone. That same year, 28 kolbars—workers forced to carry goods across the mountainous regions between Iran, Iraq and Turkey to earn a living due as a result of de-development in Iran’s Kurdish provinces—were shot and killed by border guards, and another 112 were injured.
Iran also engages in transnational repression to crush Kurdish dissent beyond its borders. The country’s assassination campaign has reached as far as Europe. In 1989, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was killed while meeting with Iranian representatives for diplomatic talks in Vienna. in 1992, three more senior PDKI officials were shot at a restaurant in Berlin.
Most attacks on Kurdish opposition abroad, however, have taken place in the neighboring Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). One report alleges that 259 people have been killed and 121 injured in Iranian state-sponsored attacks there since 1979. In the 1990s, as the Islamic Republic consolidated power after eight years of war with Iraq and pressure on dissidents increased, Iranian Kurdish activists saw the newly-formed autonomous region as a safe haven. Yet over time, both major Iraqi Kurdish parties maintained ties with the Iranian government at their expense. The degree to which Iran is free to target its opponents on Iraqi Kurdish soil was made evident in 2018, when Iranian rockets targeted the KDP-I offices in Koya, killing 11 high-ranking members of the group and injuring dozens more.
Targeting Kurdish Ambitions in Iraq and Syria
Iranian involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan is not limited to attacks on Iranian Kurdish groups and opposition figures. Iran also has significant military and economic interests in the region, both of which it has pursued at the expense of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy.
During the fight against ISIS, Iran initially assisted Iraqi Kurdish forces with much-needed supplies, cash, and weapons. Yet the military footprint that Iran and Iran-backed Iraqi militias were able to establish at the time later allowed these militias to take control of Kirkuk in 2017, displacing tens of thousands of the city’s Kurdish residents and weakening the Kurdistan Region.
Iran is one of the two most important suppliers of goods to the KRI, alongside Turkey. Both countries flood local markets with low-quality goods at prices with which local businesses cannot compete. Iranian exports to Iraqi Kurdistan also include services and even energy— which, ironically, is often generated from dams that threaten Kurdistan Region’s water supply.
Iraq as a whole is the largest importer of Iranian goods, and Iran benefits from the inability of Iraqi and Kurdish businesses to compete with their products and the unwillingness of the government to help them do so, perpetuating the exploitative relationship and giving Iran significant economic leverage.
Iran has not yet been able to establish a similar foothold in Kurdish-held northeastern Syria, but it presents a threat to Kurdish autonomy there as well—one that will only increase if current trends continue. Around Hasakah and Deiz ez-Zor, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have faced increased challenges from Iran-backed groups aligned with the Syrian regime. Recent clashes between U.S. forces in Syria and these Iran-backed militias harm the prospect for successful negotiations between the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and Damascus, and may lead to escalation that would harm civilians and derail efforts to defeat ISIS and stave off a Turkish incursion.
While Iran has not expressed support for another Turkish invasion of SDF territory, this position is based on concern for its own military presence there and for the impact of Turkish intervention on Damascus. In fact, Turkish-Iranian cooperation is alive and well on other fronts, to the detriment of Kurds everywhere. Shared opposition to Kurdish political power will continue to bring the two countries closer together despite protests from Turkey’s Western allies.
The fortification and militarization of the Turkey-Iran border is a key example of this convergence. The state-owned Turkish Housing and Development Administration (TOKİ), which built the border wall between Turkey and Syria, is now building a wall there. Both Iran and Turkey are stepping up their military presence in the area to counter migration and illegal cross-border trade. In July, Turkish forces killed a child after opening fire on a vehicle carrying migrants in the Kurdish city of Van close to the Iranian border. Turkish and Iranian authorities also work together in gathering intelligence on dissidents, including Kurds, and in deporting Kurdish refugees. With anti-refugee sentiment rising in Turkey, there is great public support for these types of measures.
How Can the U.S. and Europe Respond?
Addressing these challenges does not require an overly securitized approach or an end to talks with Iran altogether. Escalating conflict between Iran and the West in the event of a failed deal would harm Kurds and other minorities the most and would likely play out on Iraqi and Syrian territory—against the wishes of civilians in both countries who have no stake in a fight between larger powers.
Instead, diplomacy must be conducted in a principled and rational manner. States should take advantage of the atmosphere of de-escalation to pursue diplomatic, political, and economic strategies to counter Iranian repression.
Any state seeking to recalibrate its relationship with Iran must commit to defending its citizens and people on its territory from threats posed by Iran or Iran-linked actors. Western governments have historically put up a muted response to high-profile attacks on Iranian dissidents abroad, including Kurds—likely for political and economic reasons. Yet allowing or overlooking this behavior will continue to have deadly consequences, as the recent attack on author Salman Rushdie in the United States made clear. Governments should inform Iran that targeting or inciting violence against civilians within their borders is impermissible and protect those at the highest risk.
The international community must also engage with the individuals and communities that suffer the most from Iranian authoritarianism—in Iran itself and abroad. They should prioritize dialogue with women, ethnic and religious minorities, and others who challenge not only the current government, but also the nationalist and fundamentalist tendencies upon which it is based. At the same time, they should be mindful of opposition factions that oppose the Islamic Republic but share its ethnic and religious prejudices.
The international community should also invest in strengthening Kurdish governance and economic fortitude to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Iran has no interest in letting a second Kurdish autonomous region develop outside of its control. If it can gain the degree of military and political influence over the AANES that it has over the KRI, this will have massive repercussions for governance and security there and across the Middle East. Stabilizing northeastern Syria, preventing new conflicts in the region and working to de-escalate existing ones, and helping Iraqi Kurdistan become more self-sufficient will benefit all parties involved.