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Responding to the Rouhani Administration’s Executions of Ethnic Minority Prisoners

BY Frieda Afary, (The article was originally written for Iranian Progressives in Translation and republished with permission.)

In October and November 2013, three Kurdish political prisoners,  Shirkoo Moarefi, Habibolah Golpariopur and Reza Ismaili were executed on charges of “acting against national security” in Kurdistan.   Sixteen Baluchi prisoners were also speedily executed in  Baluchistan.  In all cases, the victims’ attorneys had not even been notified of the planned executions.

In a recent analysis,  Shahed Alavi,  a Kurdish political analyst,  has criticized  large sections of the Iranian democratic opposition movement for not taking  a strong stance against these executions and in some cases agreeing with the regime’s designation of ethnic political prisoners as “terrorists”  or “separatists.” 1

On the other hand, an analysis by Kamran Matin,  lecturer in  international relations at the University of Sussex in Britain, has strongly condemned the recent executions of Kurdish political prisoners and has emphasized that Iranian Kurdistan has borne the brunt of the regime’s violent repression because of “the radical, deeply secular, organized, democratic and egalitarian movement of the people of Kurdistan.”2

Matin claims that the recent executions of Kurdish political prisoners reveal a “specific plan which is directly related to the Islamic Republic’s new approach in the nuclear negotiations.”  He argues that in anticipating the wave of democratic opposition that might flower after a rapprochement between Iran and the West, the regime is creating new conflagrations in Kurdistan to stir up Persian nationalism and turn attention away from any genuine democratic protests against itself.

Unfortunately, within the opposition Green Movement, many do have strong Persian nationalist sentiments that dismiss the struggles of Iran’s national minorities for equality and self-determination.  For instance, a recent statement by   Muhammad Sahimi, an Iran analyst, religious reformist and university professor in the United States,  argues that the Kurdish rebellion that arose immediately after the 1979 revolution and  was brutally crushed by the post-revolutionary Iranian government,  was a tool of Saddam Hussein’s territorial ambitions at the time.3

Sahimi’s statement was written as an open letter to Mohammad Reza Nikfar, an Iranian philosopher in Germany, who had recently published a highly critical assessment of the Iranian regime and had argued that in 1979 “the Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Baluchis had a right to promote their demands.  The regime however was completely unjustified in repressing them.”4

Instead of citing those specific demands and offering facts from a variety of points of view concerning the actual events that took place from March of 1979 to the Fall of 1980 when the rebellion was completely crushed, Sahimi suffices himself to quotes from two memoirs by two Kurdish leaders at the time and two articles which reveal differences within the Kurdish leadership concerning their relationship to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.  In fact, his selective historiography and faulty argumentation have already been strongly challenged by Behnam Amini, a young Iranian Kurdish sociology scholar.5

At a time when Iran’s democratic opposition needs to pay more attention to the demands of Iran’s national minorities, Sahimi’s approach is not only selective but can also lead to separatist sentiments.

In contrast, we need to address a memorandum which was issued last year by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan which had made it clear that they seek not separatism but a federalist Iran.  They called for a constitution based on the United Nations Human Rights Charter, the complete equality of women and men, freedom of thought and religion and freedom to establish civil rights organizations and unions for workers and others.6

Whether a federalist Iran is possible is a very contentious question on which there are different points of view.   While many dissidents equate federalism with separatism, representatives of Iran’s national minorities argue that federalism is a system that guarantees self-determination and does not advocate separatism7

There is also a more nuanced view which argues that federalism in Iran can only be possible when there is peace in the entire Middle East region.8 

There is now enough literature on this topic to allow for a rational and thoughtful discussion.

With the latest nuclear agreement between the Iranian government and six world powers which reduces the threat of foreign military intervention and  lightens severe sanctions,  Iranians can now focus on their country’s internal problems. At the same time, the Rouhani administration’s latest executions of ethnic minority prisoners reveal that the regime wishes to stir up hatred against national minorities to deflect attention from Iran’s deep class, gender and ethnic inequities.

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