From the Mahabad Republic to Independence Referendum: A Visual History of Kurdish Political Movements in Iran

Even if dying of hunger or from poverty

Still I will not serve strangers all my life long,

I have no fear of chains, ropes, rods, or the prison

Should they hack me into pieces, should they kill me

Still I will say: I am a Kurd.

- Mohammad Amin Sheikholeslami, Kurdish poet of Mahabad

The history of the Kurdish people, an ethnic minority group that primarily resides in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, incorporates diverse movements that, at different periods of time, promoted nationalism, armed struggle, nonviolent protest, and separatism. Recently, the Kurdish people have gained increased international attention for the role that their militias or peshmerga have played in fighting forces of the Islamic State. 

Likewise, focus on the Kurdish struggle for political autonomy and the aim to create an official Kurdish nation of Kurdistan primarily highlights developments in Iraq and Turkey, while ignoring Kurdish nationalist sentiments in Iran. This tendency overlooks the history of Kurdish political movements in Iran that greatly contributed to supranational Kurdish identity.  

Regions of Kurdish majority in Iran

This page aims to provide a visual history of the major political movements of Iranian Kurds over the past century. These images not only demonstrate the long-standing attempts by the Kurds to negotiate their ethnic identity with the idea of Iran as a Persian society, but how the treatment of the Kurds by the central Iranian government evolved over time. From carrot and stick policies to military campaigns and mass executions, the changing approaches of the Qajar monarchy, Pahlavi rule, and Islamic Republic towards Kurds and the Kurdistan region reveal prominent tensions at the heart of the Iranian nationalist program. This collection of images also seeks to collapse the past and present by showing the continuity over a century of Kurdish political movements. 

Most scholars believe that Kurds originated from Indo-European tribes who settled in the mountainous regions of Northwestern Iran, but many Kurds claim descent from the Medes, a famed ancient Iranian people who emerged at the end of the 2nd millennium BC in Northwestern Iran. Kurds generally identify themselves through a shared language, culture, and geographic location. The Kurdish language is a member of the Indo-European language family, with different dialects that include Kurmanji, Sorani, Kermanshahi, and Zaza. The use of the Kurdish language in publications and education in Iran has frequently been the target of government suppression. The majority of Kurds identify as Sunni Muslims, while some identify as Shi'a and Yazidi, making most Kurds both ethnic and religious minorities in the majority Persian and Shi'a Iran. An estimated 8 to 12 million Kurds live in Iran, making up about 12 to 15 percent of the nation's population, with most living in the official provinces of Kurdistan, Western Azerbaijan, and Kermanshah (Bakhtaran). 

The Simko Shikak Revolt (1918-22)

One of the earliest instances of Kurdish political movements in Iran developed amid instability along Iran's Northwest frontier and political revolution in Tehran. Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1906 briefly led to the creation of a parliament and constitution, but the central government remained weakened by the power of tribal confederations along the country's borders. One such tribe was the Kurdish Shikak people who lived in the mountains around Lake Urmia. 

The Lake Umria region of Northwestern Iran

The Shikak tribal confederation at this time was the second largest Kurdish tribe. During this period the Shikak tribe was led by a chief named Jafar Agha. Despite attempts to extend its authority to this region, the Qajar government was unable to force Jafar Agha and his Kurdish tribe into submission. 

Jafar Agha 
The provincial Qajar government in 1905 sought to finally resolve its problems with Jafar Agha and the Shikak Kurds. Their course of action was described by the British Consul-General in Tabriz, A.C. Wratislaw, as the following: 

Jaffer Agha, chief of the Kurds of Chari...was...invited to Tabriz to cement the reconciliation under a solemn safe-conduct...For two or three weeks he was hospitably entertained, and all went merry...until...I heard a burst of rifle-fire from the direction of the Government House...It transpired that Nizam es Sultaneh and the higher officials had assembled in the reception-room on the first floor to receive the farewell greetings of Jaffer Agha, and that the latter was introduced alone into the anteroom and told to wait a moment. To him appeared an officer...who discharged a revolver into the chieftain's body, while others performed the same kind for two of his bodyguards who remained outside in the corridor...The authorities made as much capital as they could of the three corpses, having them dragged in triumph through the streets and then hung by the heels, like carcasses in a butcher's shop, from a first-floor balcony overlooking a public square...

The bodies of Jafar Agha and his two bodyguards hung in the Tabriz public square.

The Tabrizi Qajar government had resorted to an assassination ploy in an attempt to bring the Kurdish Shikak tribe under its rule. Evidently, according to Wratislaw, such tricks were common practices among the Qajars in their treatment of the Kurds: 

The horrible treachery of the thing provoked little or no criticism. It was the time-honoured way of dealing with Kurds, and, in view of the impotence of the [Qajar] Government, practically the only way. The folly of the Kurds in letting themselves be entrapped time after time in this manner is almost unbelievable, but they never seemed to gain wisdom from experience. 

The killing of Jafar Agha by the Qajars ultimately proved to accomplish the opposite of the government's aim, as Jafar Agha's brother, Ismail Agha Simko took up the Kurdish tribe's leadership and struggle for political autonomy after Jafar Agha's assassination. 

Simko Shikak 

Upon his ascension to tribal leadership, Simko aimed to expand his authority through his military prowess. From 1918 to 1920 Simko garnered support among other Kurdish leaders, making contact with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq who had nationalistic aspirations of a Kurdish state. However, Simko lacked a coherent political ideology, and much of his actions taken against the central government reflected a pursuit for vengeance for his brother's killing and what he viewed as a series of injustices against the Kurds. Simko also demonstrated political jockeying, seeking financial and military backing at different points from the Russians, Turkish, British, French and Americans. An American missionary in the region, H. Mackensen, provided a colorful description of Simko:

The chief Simko, or Ismael Agha, is the most picturesque character. His name is true to form, for he has been an outlaw, has played fast and loose with the Russians, Persians, Assyrians, Armenians, and British...In conversation he is magnetic, genial, witty, shrewd, suave, or brutally frank, and always playing a game...He is the typical romantic border desperado, carving out a career with his wits and rifles, and playing with men and lives - a bad game, but the only game he knows, the only game that seems possible to him where political changes are the rule...What he wanted was justice for the murder of his brother, or, rather, revenge...

In 1920 Simko greatly expanded the lands under his rule, defeated Qajar troops, and appointed his followers as governors of the newly conquered territories. By the summer of 1921 Simko had an estimated 4,000 troops, and by this time Kurdish military movements, including alleged massacres of Christian populations and missionary groups, captured the attention of international press. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2, 1921

Simko's forces armed with machine guns

In 1921 Reza Khan, the Qajar minister of war, came to power in a coup d'état aided by the British. Reza Khan quickly sought to modernize a centralized army that could put down internal revolts. By 1922 Simko reportedly had at least 10,000 troops under his command, and for a period was able to stave off attacks by Reza Khan's army.   

The Washington Post, July 19, 1922

Simko with his bodyguards and the Russian consul 

Simko's successes were swiftly halted after his forces suffered a series of heavy defeats by Reza Khan in late 1922. The reforms made to the army by Reza Khan allowed Persian troops to rout the Kurdish forces, with some sources claiming Simko's army was decimated from 10,000 to 1,000 in a single battle. Such losses forced Simko to flee to Turkey and Iraq. 

Simko with his soldiers in Iraq

Forced out of the lands of his Kurdish tribe, Simko found himself exiled with a depleted group of followers. Between 1922 and 1926 Simko attempted to find support among Kurds in Turkey, and made a final attempt to push back into Northwest Iran, but was defeated. In 1930 Simko returned to Iran when Reza Khan, now endowed with the title Reza Shah, offered him a governorship. However, in dramatic fashion, Simko fell victim to similar machinations that brought about his brother's death and his own rise to power. As part of a plot, Simko and his followers were shot and killed while waiting to meet with a Persian general. As with many fabled figures, mystery surrounds the exact nature of Simko's death, but foreign press confirmed and lauded the end of Simko's "brigand" and "bandit" movement. 

A Persian soldier with the alleged corpse of Simko

The London Times, July 22, 1930

The Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1930 

The exact nature of Simko's movement remains a point of debate. Many Kurds view Simko as a true Kurdish nationalist, and point to some of his correspondences as evidence of such a motive in his revolt:

See how the small nations of the world, are not one quarter of the size of the Kurdish tribes, have received autonomy from great governments such as the Germans. If this great Kurdish nation does not get its rights from Persia, it will consider death far better than life and whether the Persian government grants it or not we will make Kurdistan autonomous...

However, compared to the Azerbaijani democratic movement of Mohammad Khiabani and the Jangali movement of Mirza Kuchek Khan that occurred during this time, Simko's Kurdish rebellion espoused a far less nationalistic tone. After Simko's death, Reza Shah expanded his policy of weakening the power of tribal confederations and forcing them to submit to the central government in an attempt to forge a sense of national Iranian identity. The removal of Reza Shah from power in 1941 and the end of World War II in 1945 helped precipitate the next major phase of Kurdish political movements in Iran. 

The Mahabad Republic 

In 1941 British and Russian forces invaded Iran and forced the abdication of Reza Shah, who exhibited German sympathies. Russian forces occupied the northern part of the country, while the British took control of the south, leaving the central lands as a neutral corridor. 
Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1941

Soviet tank enters Tabriz 

Allied vehicles enter Iran
Russian occupation in Iran's northern lands weakened the central authority over local tribes that Reza Shah had created. In this vacuum of power, urban, middle-class Kurds centered in the city of Mahabad began to organize underground political organizations. The first and most significant of these organizations in Kurdistan was the "Komala J.K." founded in 1942. Created by Kurdish teachers and civil servants in Mahabad, this organization produced Kurdish publications on the people's history and culture, and made contact with Iraqi Kurdish groups. In August 1945 the Komala J.K. was disbanded and its members created the larger Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP). The formation of the KDP was a watershed moment in Kurdish nationalism in Iran, as it became the central organ of Kurdish political activities in Iran. The KDP's charismatic leader was Qazi Muhammad, a judge who hailed from an established family in Mahabad. 

Qazi Muhammad with a map of Kurdistan

Qazi Muhammad 

Two months after the creation of the KDP, Qazi Muhammad published a declaration in Kurdish and Persian on the party's aims:

We, the Kurds who live in Persia and who have fought for years and even for centuries in order to preserve our national and local rights, have sacrificed many lives to this end. Unfortunately, the despotic Persian authorities have never been ready to listen to our arguments, reasonable though they are...After all we are also human beings. We have a history and a language, we too have customs and traditions in the upkeep of which we are greatly interested...
Dear Countrymen, it should be pointed out that rights are not given but taken. We must fight for our rights. For this unity, organization and leaders are required. It is for this sacred aim that the Kurdish Democratic Party has been established in Mahabad....
The Kurds are to be free and independent in the management of their local affairs and to receive Kurdish independence within the borders of Persia. 

Qazi Muhammad's declaration caught the attention of the weakened central government. After a meeting with Qazi Muhammad, the leader of the Iranian army, General Hassan Arfa, remarked that the Kurdish leader was "a persistent person who will definitely be the cause of problems for us in the future." Meanwhile, the Soviet Union began to supply political and military support to the Kurds 

After Kurds occupied the government buildings in Mahabad, on January 22, 1946, the people of Mahabad gathered in the city's square to hear an address by Qazi Muhammad. Flanked by his fellow KDP officials and tribal leaders, Qazi Muhammad announced the creation of an independent Republic of Kurdistan. 

Qazi Muhammad's address announcing the creation of the Republic of Kurdistan 

The same image as above included in a 1947 report from the popular weekly magazine Tehran Mosavar

In his address Qazi Muhammad both thanked the Soviet Union for its support towards the KDP, and also congratulated the Azerbaijani People's Republic, another Soviet-affiliated independent state created following the Allied invasion of Iran. Following the speech 300 rifles shot rounds of celebratory gunfire and Kurds filled the streets of Mahabad. Music and dancing marked the occasion, and the Persian flag was replaced with a new Kurdish flag on government buildings. 

Kurds raise the Kurdish flag on the Ministry of Justice building in Mahabad 

Qazi Muhammad was proclaimed president of the Republic of Kurdistan, and leading members of the KDP filled important ministry positions. 

The Republic of Kurdistan's cabinet members, with Qazi Muhammad seated in front

One of the most important members of the republic's leadership was an Iraqi Kurd named Mulla Mustafa Barzani. 
Mulla Mustafa Barzani 

Barzani had achieved much renown for his multiple Kurdish insurrections against the Iraqi government, and was ultimately forced to flee to Iran with his followers. Aligning with Qazi Muhammad and the Kurds of Mahabad, he became involved in the republic's formation and became chief of the army's military. 

Qazi Muhammad (left) and Mulla Mustafa Barzani (right)

In March 1946, military advisers from the Soviet Union traveled to Mahabad and helped the Kurds establish a national army. At its height the army had around 70 active officers, 40 assistant officers, and 1,200 privates. These numbers do not include the Iraqi "Barzanis," fighters who had arrived with Mulla Mustafa Barzani. The republic's army had its soldiers dress in Russian-style uniforms and defensive fronts were established in Mahabad. 

New York Times, April 4, 1946

Members of the Republic of Kurdistan's army

The Kurdistan Republic in Mahabad published a variety of Kurdish language publications, including newspapers, literary magazines, and women's magazines. 
Cover of 1946 edition of Kurdistan, a literary magazine published in the Mahabad Republic

As the Mahabad Republic continued to construct administrative and military apparatuses throughout the spring of 1946, Qazi Muhammad made some attempts to negotiate with the central government for political autonomy. However, these negotiations were quickly stalled, and rapidly evolving international affairs after the end of World War II would greatly alter the political situation of the Kurdish state. The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw all its troops from Iran by May of that year in accordance with the Yalta Conference, leaving the Mahabad Republic without its primary supporter. In the summer of 1946 Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his ministers agreed to send troops to bring the Mahabad Republic under control of the central government. 

A report entitled "What has happened in Kurdistan?" in a November 1946 issue of Tehran Mosavar
noted that Iranian forces had engaged Kurdish "rebels" with air power and heavy artillery. 

Kurdish troops 

By November 1946 Iranian forces had set out to Tabriz, and the Kurds of Mahabad, recognizing that their army could not compete with a full-on assault by the Shah's troops, asked for dire support from the Soviet Union. The Kurdish request for assistance fell on deaf ears as Iranian soldiers marched toward Mahabad. Some Kurdish tribal chiefs began to flee Mahabad and surrendered to the government's troops. On December 14, Barzani and his followers gathered up supplies and arms and prepared to flee to the Soviet Union. He begged Qazi Muhammad to flee Mahabad with him before the Iranian forces arrived, but the president refused to leave the Kurds of Mahabad. The following day the Shah's army occupied the capital of the Republic of Kurdistan with little resistance. 

The Atlanta Constitution, December 16, 1946

New York Times, December 16, 1946

Qazi Muhammad and Kurdish officials of the republic were quickly taken into custody. In January 1947 a military court held a 72 hour trial behind closed doors for Qazi Muhammad, his brother, Sadr-i Qazi, and his cousin Seif-i Qazi, who served as the republic's minister of war, and all three Qazis were sentenced to death. In the middle of the night on March 31, 1947 the Qazi Muhammad was hung in the same square in Mahabad where 14 months earlier he had declared the creation of the Republic of Kurdistan. His body, along with that of his brother and cousin remained in the square for the public to see.  

The execution of Qazi Muhammad 

The death of Qazi Muhammad marked the end of the Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad, as the Iranian government reestablished control of the region and either arrested or executed Kurdish officials who had been involved in the separatist state. Even after the republic's collapse, it continued to gain attention in the Persian press, as Iran Mosavar included multiple-page exposés on the short-lived Kurdish state:

 Tehran Mosavar, April 18, 1947

While the collapse of the Mahabad Republic marked a significant development in Kurdish political movements, it did not see the end of Kurdish nationalist sentiment. Barzani and his followers, after fleeing Mahabad, had various skirmishes with both Iranian and Iraqi forces in 1947. Barzani's military movements between Iran and Iraq became the subject of international attention:
The Washington Post, January 29, 1947

A report in Tehran Mosavar on March 15, 1947 that states that the flight of the 
Barzanis from Iran may signify the end of the Republic of Mahabad 

In June of 1947 Barzani and his soldiers withstood attacks from hostile Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi troops.

The Washington Post, June 5, 1947

New York Times, June 16, 1947

Barzani Kurdish soldiers

Ultimately Barzani and his followers escaped to the Soviet Union, the only nation in the region willing to allow the Kurdish fighters entry into its borders. 

The Washington Post, June 20, 1947 

Barzani Kurdish forces

New York Times, June 20, 1947

The Iranian press also continued to bring attention to the Barzanis, their clashes with the Shah's troops, and their flight to the Soviet Union.

A report in Tehran Mosavar on June 27, 1947 entitled "The Position of the Barzanis," that answered 
questions on the Barzanis, including "What happened that caused the Barzanis to return to Iran?"

 Post-Mahabad Republic Kurdistan

Following the fall of the Mahabad Republic, the weakened KDP adopted a leftist platform and occasionally found common ground with Iran's communist Tudeh party. In 1949 and 1950 the U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the longest serving justice to date, traveled throughout Iran and documented his observations in a travelogue entitled, Strange Lands and Friendly People. In his travels through Mahabad and the Kurdistan region, Douglas remarked on the state of the Kurds and importance of Qazi Mohammad and the republic in their collective memory:

The streets of Mahabad were practically bare except for grinning boys, ten or twelve years old, who sold sticky, brown-colored candy...The lot of the average Kurd is misery...A young Kurd and his wife came down the shaded road. He rode a donkey; she walked proudly by his side. We exchanged greetings..."We are Kurds," he said. "We are making a pilgrimage. We come to pray at the grave of Qazi Mohammad." There was a note of defiance in his voice; and his eyes, as well as the dagger in his belt, conveyed a resolution to meet any challenge to his mission. The grave of Qazi Mohammad is indeed a shrine; hundreds of Kurds flock there each week to worship. The hanging of this Kurdish hero killed only the man, not the idea of Kurdish independence. His death in fact gave the idea new impetus. In the eyes of the simple peasants who walk hundred of miles to pay homage to his memory, Qazi Mohammad was a good man who gave his life that their dream might come true.

Mahabad Market (1961)

Kurdish women in Mahabad 

Theological students in Mahabad (1961)

Mahabad (1961)

The Mahabad police station with a portrait of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

While Barzani continued to lead the KDP, Iranian Kurds who remained in Mahabad coalesced around the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI). The Kurds of the KDPI were influenced by Barzani's KDP at this time, but also sought to redefine itself. In 1967-1968 the KDPI faced internal fighting over Barzani's occasional collaboration with the Shah. Many scholars also note that the Kurds of Iran had more in common with other ethnic minorities of Iran than with Barzani's Kurds in Iraq.  Ultimately the majority of the KDPI came together under the leadership of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou. 
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou

Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou 

Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou

An Iranian Kurd, Ghassemlou witnessed the rise and fall of the Mahabad Republic as a teenager, and subsequently traveled to Europe for his education. Returning to Iran in the 1950s, Ghassemlou gained support among Iranian Kurds who called for an autonomous state. In the lead up to the 1979 Revolution, the Shah's police and army had little to no presence in Mahabad, and in January of that year Kurds captured the city's government buildings. The KDPI, like the vast majority of the population of Iran, supported the overthrow of the Shah. Many Kurds believed a post-Pahlavi Iranian government would be amenable to granting Kurds more freedoms.  Then, in March 1979, the Kurds of Mahabad again called for autonomy. 

The Washington Post, March 2, 1979

Along with Ghassemlou, the most prominent figure in this movement for Kurdish autonomy at this time was a 60-year old religious leader named Sheikh Ezzedin Hosseini. 

Sheikh Ezzedin Hosseini

In public declarations and press, Hosseini called for Kurdish autonomy within the Iranian state:

We are not separatists, we are Iranians. We want a federal republic. Iran will not break up if the Kurds, Turks and Baluchis get autonomy, on the contrary, the country will be happier and more united.  

Āyandigān, one of the most widely read newspapers during this time, featured an interview with Hosseini on March 3, 1979. 

In this interview with Āyandigān, when asked "What do the Iranian Kurds seek?", Hosseini replied, 
"The legitimate right of one's own people and tribe. We are one people and in the framework of one united Iran we seek autonomy" 

In April 1979, the KDPI presented their plan for autonomy to Iran's new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, in Qom. Despite the plan's emphasis on autonomy and not independence, it met quick opposition from the new Islamic government. 

A headline in the magazine Javānān-i imrūz (Today's Youth) on Monday March 4, 1979 entitled 
"Okay to the Kurdish People, but Never a Kurdish nation!"

The KDPI and Khomeini's government quickly came to see each other as opposing forces, and clashes between government soldiers and the Kurdish Peshmerga marked a new phase in the Iranian Kurdish political movement. 

1979 Kurdistan Uprising

The spring and summer of 1979 witnessed a large uprising of Kurds against the Islamic Republic's forces. In August, the Kurds captured the city of Paveh along the Iraqi border. The following weeks included heavy violence between Kurdish forces and the Islamic government's revolutionary guard. 

An issue of Javānān-i imrūz (Today's Youth) on August 27, 1979 included a photo essay on the fighting in 
Paveh entitled "Film of the Bloody and Bitter Events of Paveh" 

Amidst the fighting in Paveh, Khomeini issued a fatwa against the Kurdish fighters, banned all Kurdish political organizations, declared Hosseini and Ghassemlou as enemies of the state, and named the KDPI as the "party of Satan." To bring about an end to the fighting in Paveh, Khomeini called on a massive military force. 

The Washington Post, August 19, 1979

As supreme commander of the armed forces, I direct the chief of staff to order all state police units and the army to the Paveh area and the government to provide transport for Revolutionary Guards...If within 24 hours something positive is not achieved, I will hold the Army chief and head of the state police responsible. - Ayatollah Khomeini

We were not the ones who started the fight in Paveh. It was started by Revolutionary Guards sent there from another area and the residents of the town were forced to leave when attacked by them." - Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou

Heavy fighting also took place between Kurds and government forces in the city of Sanandaj.

Recovered bodies in Sanandaj 

Kurdish fighters in Sanandaj

A misspelled banner in Sanandaj meant to read "We want federative [government]," calling for Kurdish autonomy

By the end of August the revolutionary guard had retaken Paveh, and the government instituted revolutionary courts, in which Kurds were tried for no more than a few minutes and sentenced to death by firing squad. These extrajudicial killings against the Kurds gained much international attention due to the photographs of the Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi. Razmi captured images of the execution of Kurds outside of the Sanandaj airport, and anonymously published one of the photographs in Ettela'at, one of Iran's oldest newspapers. 

Razmi's photograph of an execution of Kurds 

Razmi's photograph in Ettela'at, August 28, 1979

A day following the publication of Razmi's photograph, the story and image were picked up by major international publications. 

Razmi's photograph on the front page of The New York Times, August 29, 1979

Razmi's photograph of the execution of the Kurds became so famous that in 1980 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. However, it was not until 2002 when Razmi revealed himself to be the photographer of the image.
Razmi with the Pulitzer Prize-winning image

As the fighting between the Kurds and the government continued, Khomeini sought to strike a deal, offering the Kurds one day's oil revenues, an estimated worth of $75 million, in return for ending hostilities and giving up aims for autonomy. 

An issue of Javānān-i imrūz (Today's Youth) on Monday 27, August 1979 with the headline,
 "The Income of One Day's Oil Would be Sent to Kurdistan"

Towards the end of 1979, a series of negotiations between Tehran and Kurdistan led by Hosseini failed to resolve the fighting. The Islamic Republic refused to grant the Kurds autonomy, and the Kurds refused to agree to anything less than political and cultural autonomy. Thus, clashes continued into the end of the year. 

An issue of Javānān-i imrūz (Today's Youth) on December 3, 1979, featuring a photo essay entitled, "One Hour in Kurdistan"

Post 1979 Iranian Kurdistan 

Intermittent fighting between Kurds and the Islamic Republic continued throughout the 1980s amidst the Iran-Iraq War. Following the war, the Iranian government continued to target Kurdish political organizations and their leaders. On July 13, 1989, Ghassemlou and two other Kurds were assassinated while in Vienna by suspected agents of the Iranian government, although it denied involvement. 

The Guardian, July 17, 1989

Ghassemlou's deputy, Sadegh Sharafkandi took over the PDKI's leadership following the assassination. 

Sadegh Sharafkandi

However, Sharafkandi met a similar fate to that of Ghassemlou. On September 17, 1992, Sharafkandi, two other PDKI, and their translator, were assassinated in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin, Germany. 

The Guardian, September 19, 1992

New York Times, September 19, 1992

Aftermath of the assassination 

This assassination campaign helped to drastically weaken the PDKI and by 1996 it had declared a ceasefire with the Iranian government. As the power of the PDKI weakened, other Kurdish political organizations emerged. One such organization is the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), that waged an insurgency against the Iranian government from 2004 to 2011. In 2016 the PDKI, with renewed strength, launched a new offensive against the Iranian government. 

2017 Independence Referendum in Iraq

In June 2017, the President of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and KDP leader Masoud Barzani called for a an independence referendum. The son of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, Masoud Barzani was born in the Mahabad Republic.  
Masoud Barzani 

The United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom were among the many countries that viewed the non-binding referendum as a threat to the region's stability. The Iraqi government refused to recognize the vote and officials across the Iranian government condemned the referendum and labeled it as completely illegitimate

As far as we are concerned, Iraq is one single country. We do not accept any geographical changes...The plant to split Iraq is a "foreign sectarian plot." - President Hassan Rouhani

The U.S. and foreign powers are unreliable and seek to create a new Israel in the region. - Ayatollah Khamenei 

We believe that was a very serious mistake, and we believe that as people who are friends of the Kurds - we will remain eternal friends of the Kurds - we beleive that was a major strategic mistake. - Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemn the Kurdish referendum

However, after the referendum passed with approximately 93 percent of the vote, celebrations erupted in the regions of the Iranian Kurds. Kurds filled the streets of Sanandaj and Mahabad, and sang the anthem of the Republic of Mahabad, revealing the importance of the short-lived republic for Kurds. 

Celebrations in Sanandaj  and Bukan following the Kurdish referendum

While the referendum sparked celebration in Iranian Kurdistan, it did not provoke a massive increased call among Iranian Kurds for their own independence from the Iranian government. Governments feared that the referendum would create a new wave of Kurdish nationalistic sentiment that could threaten regional stability. However, the vote did not ignite such a push for independence on the part of the Iranian Kurds, and most observers viewed the vote as a miscalculation on Barzani's part. Despite almost universal objection, Barzani pushed ahead with the referendum, resulting in reduced negotiating power for the Kurds. 

Recent Protests 

In addition to continued armed conflict with the Iranian government, Kurds routinely stage peaceful protests against the Islamic Republic's treatment towards the country's Kurdish population. As recently as April 2018 hundreds of Iranian Kurds protested against policies that closed off trade paths from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran. 
Iranian Kurds protest in Baneh, Iran 

The Future of Iranian Kurdistan 

As evident through this collection of images, the history of Kurdish political movements in Iran is highly multifaceted, evolving over time to address a changing notion of the Iranian state. As Iran developed through the stages of Qajar rule and Pahalavi monarchy to the current Islamic Republic, Kurds have been forced to constantly reevaluate how their ethnic and cultural identities fit into the idea of Iran. The future of Iranian Kurdistan and the Kurds' quest for political autonomy is unclear, but, as these images have demonstrated, such movements have a storied past to build upon in Iran. 

A 2006 protest in Vienna in remembrance of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou's assassination 

Sources and References

"200-Mile Fight Takes Iraq Tribe to Red Territory." The Washington Post (1923-1954), Jun 20, 1947.

Amnesty International, Iran: Human Rights Abuses Against the Kurdish Minority (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2008). 

"August 4, 1930 (Page 8 of 20)." Detroit Free Press (1923-1999), Aug 04, 1930, General edition.

Āyandigān. Access provided by The University of Manchester Library.

"BARZANI TRIBE IN RUSSIA." New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 20, 1947.

De Kretser, Chris. "Khomeini, as Military Chief, Orders Kurdish Revolt Crushed." The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Aug 19, 1979.

"December 2, 1921 (Page 14 of 28)." Philadelphia Inquirer (1860-1934), Dec 02, 1921.

"DENIES VICTORY BY BANDITS." The Washington Post (1877-1922), Jul 19, 1922.

Eagleton Jr., William. The Kurdish Republic of 1946. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.


"Iran Troops Dispatched Against Barzani Rebels." The Washington Post (1923-1954), Jun 05, 1947.

"Iranian Forces Enter Mahabad, Chief Declares." The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Dec 16, 1946.

"IRANIANS ENCIRCLE BARZANI TRIBESMEN." New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 16, 1947.

"IRANIANS EXECUTE 20 IN KURDISH UPRISING." New York Times (1923-Current File), Aug 29, 1979.

Javanmardi, Ali and Michael Lipin. "Hundreds of Iranian Kurds Join Anti-Government Rally." Voice of America News. April 26, 2018.

Javānān-i imrūz. Access provided by The University of Manchester Library. 

Jwaideh, Wadie. The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development. 1st ed. Contemporary Issues in the Middle East. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

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