Sanandaj is a city of 350.000 people and far more prosperous and modern that the other capitals of Kurdistan -- Suleimania or Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Diyarbekir in Turkish Kurdistan.
From Revolution Square to Liberty Square, an impressive crowd strolls the sidewalks of Ferdowsi Street and the ultra-modern recently opened commercial centres on Pasdaran Avenue, at the end of each day. This crowd includes a lot of young people -- many of whom are soldiers, because Sanandaj is a garrison city -- and scores are students because Sanandaj, with four universities, is the main intellectual centre of the Sunni part of Iranian Kurdistan. Sanandaj is also where most of the recently tolerated Kurdish newspapers are based and where Kurdish students have begun to meet to criticise the role of the historical Kurdish political parties and to dream of their own version of an independent Kurdistan.
"The Kurdish students meet secretly in university clubs in Sanandaj, and elsewhere in Iran, for passionate discussions about the future of Kurdistan", reveals one student. from Sanandaj. Informal and illegal, these discussion groups started up around ten years ago when students gathered spontaneously to commemorate the anniversaries of tragic events which have marred contemporary Kurdish history -- the chemical bombing of Halabja (16 March 1988), and the murder of two leaders of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou (Vienna, 13 July 1989), and Said Charaf Kandi (Berlin, 12 September 1992).
High Hopes of Change
The election of Mohammed Khatami as president of the Islamic republic in 1997 raised high hopes of change in Kurdistan -- as it did in other parts of Iran -- and encouraged Kurdish intellectuals to organise themselves more efficiently. They began meeting regularly for discussions on philosophy and history. "We dont have a Frantz Fanon (the French revolutionary writer of the 1960s), said one of them, but we have Ismail Besikci (a Turkish intellectual who spent over 20 years in Tukish jails for writing books on the Kurdish question). Besikci claims that Kurdistan is an international colony. We think Iran colonises Iranian Kurdistan to exploit its cheap manpower and its hydraulic resources".
Predictably, diverse opinion of the problems of Irans Kurds and how best to deal with them are aired at these clandestine debating shops. Some believe a crisis of identity is looming : many of the younger people have little knowledge or regard for Kurdish culture, poems or traditional music, older participants say. Others argue there has been too much looking back and insist this is a time to look to the future. But despite these differences all agree the legislation passed on the other side of the border, in Iraqi Kurdistan, marks a change in the right direction.
The bombings which claimed 117 Kurdish victims at Erbil last February 1st (2004) were deeply mourned in Sanandaj, where thousands of people attended a silent ceremony held sumbolically at the towns graveyard. But a month later, the promulgation of the Transitory Administrative Law (TAL) in Bagdad provoked further demonstrations in all the cities of Sunni Iranian Kurdistan.
What was so explosive about the TAL was that it sanctioned the existence of a Kurdish regional government, proclaimed the Kurdish language to be one of Iraqs two official languages, and stipulated that the regime would be a federal one. "For the Iraqi Kurds, federalism is not enough, but for us who have nothing, it is something tremendous", explained a Kurdish journalist living in Teheran.
What do the Kurds of Iran want? Iranian Kurds represent about 10 % of the population . It is difficult to assess and analyze their different positions, because most of them remain underground, and the magazines or newspapers they publish -- like "Pirsyar" (Questions) -- are frequently forbidden and difficult to get hold of.
However, one can distinguish a trend made up of "revolutionary" leftist intellectuals who proclaim "federalism must not be a permanent and definitive solution", they want nothing less than independence. "We do not consider ourselves to be citizens of this country", one of them explained. "There is a border between Kurds and Iranians and when Dr Razzani (the new governor of Sanandaj) speaks of "Kurdish sub-culture", we do not accept it. We refuse to accept people who want to impose their culture upon us".
While some Kurdish intellectuals claim that this trend, known as "independentist", is the main one, others claim that the "gradualists" represent the dominant tendency. These more moderate intellectuals say "the thesis of independence is not defendable. t One must be realistic, tune ones dreams with the realities of the Middle East and reach ones goals step by step in a globalised world".
Both the "independentists" and the "gradualists" agree however, th at the means of moving towards the ultimate goal should not include violence; almost all Kurdish groups in Iran reject the idea of armed struggle. Speaking at one undercover debate, one Kurdish intellectual explained : "We do not like weapons We have understood the lessons of history and experience. We want a quiet life". "I have children", says a Kurdish woman active in one of these discussion groups, "I dont want my son or my daughter to kill a Persian and vice versa".
The New Generation
"The new generation believes in dialogue. Kurds living abroad criticize us for this approach. Meanwhile, the government is convinced we are separatists, so we are criticised by them, by everybody", says the editor of a Kurdish journal, with a shrug. But he goes on, "the events in Iraqi Kurdistan have had a positive influence on the Iranian government, which has realised it must adapt to the new context, to the new world order". A young disillusioned Kurd disagreed, "There is no democracy in the Middle East", he interjected, "dialogue will not solve anything".
For the time being this effervescence is not dangerous for Tehran because it is not organised, in spite of the existence of two Kurdish political parties, both with long experience of politics and armed struggle : the KDPI and Komala. The first one, still popular among young rural Kurds, was drastically weakened by the murder of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and Said Charafkandi, and has since become discredited among intellectuals.
However, many students blame both parties for not being radical enough. "These parties consider the Kurds are Iranians. The Kurdish students do not consider themselves Iranians, we are Kurds", one young man asserts forcefully. The students also complain these parties are led by "old" people who spout 20-year old slogans: they accuse them of speaking of autonomy when they should be speaking of federalism and they blame them for not being active enough, for not creating a satellite television to keep Kurds in touch with each other
Komala, torned by internecine ideological quarrels on the ways and means of socialist revolution, is the target of still more bitter critics. In fact, Kurdish students blame both parties for "knowing neither how to wage war, nor engage in diplomacy".
These progressive Kurdish students easily acknowledge that all their compatriots are not revolutionary minded. They admit that there is in Kurdistan an important sunni fundamentalist trend which was able to mobilize crowds after the death of two Sunni religious leaders, Ahmed Muftizadeh, the Friday Imam of Sanandaj, who was tortured to death by the regime in 1993, and shaikh Mohammed Rabii, the Sunni Friday Imam of Kermanchah (a largely shiah city), assassinated in 1996. Today, these people are at the same time fundamentalist and pro-Saddam. "People here are poorly informed", explains a Kurdish journalist in Sanandaj, "There are people living here who do not know what happened in Halabja and others who choose to ignore the extent of Saddam Husseins crimes".
The Kurdish press is limited to half a dozen weeklies -- of more or less regular publication -- founded at the beginning of this decade, and whose circulation varies between 10.000 and 20.000. All are bilingual, as required by law, but the Persian version is not the exact translation of the Kurdish text. Kurdish journalists acknowledge that self-censorhip is a daily routine. "There are many "red lines", we cannot speak much about the Kurds, and still less about the Iranian Kurds", explains a journalist of Ashti, founded in February 2004, suspended during the summer and which has only recently managed to resume publication. "The authorities have asked us not to speak too much of federalism, but we do. We publish articles about countries where federalism is implemented, about the various types of federalism", says a journalist of "Roj Halat", whose first issue was published on 18 January 2004. "We cannot write directly about the problems of the Iranian Kurds, so we speak of the problems of the other Kurds". "The press law allows us to write roughly 20% of what we think", concludes a journalist of Ashti, who desrcibes himself as a "revolutionary". "We walk on the back of a scorpion".
The American card
"Since president Khatami came to power, we have been ordered to solve the Kurdish problem by dialogue", claims a highly placed official at the Iranian Ministry of Interior. Meetings took place last year in Suleimania, at the offices of Jelal Talabanis Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), between representatives of the Iranian government and of Komalas Abdullah Mottahadis trend.
KDPI, quoting "the trap of Vienna" (the murder of Ghassemlou in 1989), did not attend the meeting but has put forward a number of conditions the Iranian authorities dismiss as "unacceptable" : KDPI wants any eventual negotiations to be publicly announced, and to take place in Europe in the presence of European observers.
The Iranian authorities are convinced the Kurdish political parties will now play the American card : "These Kurdish parties hope the US will send their soldiers to attack Iran, and that they will then be able to play the same sort of role as Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani", an Iranian official told TME.
"They told the Americans : "We can arm tens of thousands of men and liberate Kurdistan", but the Americans do not want to provoke Iran, they know we can exert a big influence on the events in Iraq".
( The Middle East magazine, January 2005; Le Nouvel Observateur, N° 2085, 21-27 0ctobre 2004; Internazionale, 12-18 Novembre 2004 )
Umm Qasr, Iraq
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2005