That time there was a Kurdish state

The reaction to the Iraqi Kurdistan’s September 25th independence referendum was fast, collective and punishing. The remarkable scenes of flag waving and celebration gave way to bitter isolation and sporadic clashes with Iraq’s government forces. The Kurdish leadership, seemingly adrift and alone, has now offered to freeze the referendum results, and politicians in Baghdad are searching for a path to halt the violence and resolve the crisis through dialogue.

Led by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, Iraq’s Kurds are now perhaps most prominently up against Baghdad’s key supporter, Iran. Tehran was instrumental in helping the Iraqi government use force to reclaim the disputed territories that were under control of the Kurdish Peshmerga, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. It is the story of Iran, the Barzani family, the origin of the KRG’s two dominant political parties, and the largely forgotten Mahabad Republic that illustrates the latest failed chapter in the Kurdish quest for self-determination, irredentism and which shaped the personal motivations of its leaders.

Among the Kurds, Barzani and his political party, the populist Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), are the driving forces behind the referendum, and he remains a controversial figure both inside and outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. Previously known for his amicable relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Barzani has been accused of using the referendum and his to monopolize Kurdish politics. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, a leader from the leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the wife of the late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has said the Kurds were now paying the price for Barzani’s stubbornness and recently compared his Supreme Political Council to Saddam’s Baathist Revolutionary Command Council. Opposition parties have called for Barzani to step down.

The gravest threat for further conflict comes from the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Forces, which made good on their threat to use force in order to confront the Kurds over the disputed territories and recapture of Kirkuk. Iran, for its part, mobilized tanks at the Parviz Khan border crossing where they conducted drills with the Iraqi army.

Only 5.5 hours from Erbil in Iraq, the city of Mahabad in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province isn’t a place that stands out in the region today. The jubilation surrounding the referendum was strongly across the border by Iranian Kurds who wish to establish Rojhelat or East Kurdistan and demonstrations broke out in the Iranian Kurdish cities of Baneh, Sanandaj, and Mahabad with Kurdish flags flying and large crowds singing the Kurdish anthem. The anthem, Ey Reqib or O’ Enemy, was in fact first used by the Mahabad Republic before being adopted by the KRG. Even the color scheme of the Mahabad Republic’s flag is remarkably similar to the flag that dominates Iraq’s Kurdistan region, save for the flag’s central sun device juxtaposed with a Soviet-style pen and ears of corn.

Tensions continue to exist in Iran between the government and the country’s ethnic Kurds. The images of Iranian Kurds in Mahabad celebrating the referendum on Twitter were followed days later by videos of Iranian security force vehicles cascading through the city’s center. A cease fire between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Tehran collapsed in recent years and the KDPI, through the course of the referendum campaign, sought to maximize political awareness of its own struggle.

Occurring in the backdrop of World War II, the Kurdish republic emerged after a joint invasion in 1941 of Iran by the British Empire and the Soviet Union. The two allies sought to keep Pahlavi Iran out of the hands of Nazi Germany and secure the land corridor to supply the Soviets. Iran’s Kurdish region quickly received support from the Red Army which in turn cultivated Kurdish nationalism in order to create a new sphere of influence.

Barzani himself was born in Mahabad and some commentators have rightly noted how the former Kurdish republic fueled Barzani’s drive for independence his whole life. Barzani’s father, Mustafa, a leading Kurdish nationalist had led several unsuccessful attempts to free the Kurds from the British-supported regime in Baghdad. Hounded from Iraq, Mustafa Barzani’s troops regrouped in northern Iran. It was in Mahabad where the Barzani tribe made an alliance with the local Kurdish political leader Qazi Muhammad. However, the differences that existed between the two leaders led to long term internal divisions.

David McDowall, author of A Modern History of the Kurds, explained to Raddington, “Barzani was extremely difficult to work with because he would not willingly accept a subordinate position. He was an agha (tribal chieftain) and as such he wanted to be boss. His tribal mentality qualified his concept of the Kurdish nation. Qazi Muhammad, on the other hand, was an urban cleric, so there was a huge cultural gap between them. Muhammad needed the tribesmen faute de mieux but I’m sure he had misgivings about them from the start.”

The Mahabad Republic declared independence in January 1946. Barzani became the Minister of Defense and commander of the Kurdish army in northwestern Iran. Despite the presence of an indigenous communist movement within Iran’s Persian population, Stalin had little regard for Iran’s Communist Tudeh Party, and cast them aside in order to preserve friendly relations with the Shah. During the 1946 Iran Crisis, the United States pressured Stalin to withdraw his forces from Iran. Without the Red Army to protect it, the Mahabad Republic was recaptured by the Iranian army in December 1946. Qazi Muhammad, who had decided to avoid armed confrontation with the government, was hung for treason in March 1947. He lives on as a martyr for Iranian Kurds.

Barzani eventually returning to Iraq to bolster the Iraqi strongman Abdul Karim Qasim whose anti-Arabist outlook depended on an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party and the Kurds. Following a Kurdish revolt in 1961, Qasim allowed for negotiations that gave the Kurds their first experiment with official recognition from Baghdad. Later, after siding with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Mustafa Barzani and the KDP was forced into exile in Iran and he died in 1975 in Washington, DC.

The origin of the PUK is also rooted in the Mahabad Republic. Ibrahim Ahmad, a Kurdish intellectual and the father of Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, favored Qazi Muhammad put him at odds with the faction of the KDP loyal to Barzani’s tribe. Ahmad, along with the rising Kurdish figure Jalal Talabani, eventually split their faction from the KDP and later founded the PUK in the 1970s while in exile in Syria. The inter-Kurdish tensions led to a brief civil in the mid-1990s between the KDP and the PUK. Today the PUK still has a close relationship with Tehran.

It was the United States that helped pull the plug on the Mahabad Republic in order to maintain a unified Iran and combat what it perceived as a spread of communism. Now the region wonders whether Washington will stand by the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Russia, for its part, remains invested in the Kurds, maintaining ties with the YPG in Syria as well as economic development in northern Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shrewdly played to the Kurd political desires and the energy firm Rosneft secured control of the oil flow from Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ultimate legacy of the Barzanis may still be unwritten. Masoud Barzani’s son, Nechirvan Barzani, who yields support from Washington, Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad, is often viewed as more patient and diplomatically calculating than his father. Regional outlets reported Nechirvan said that now is not the right time for a Kurdish state. The saga of the Mahabad Republic illustrates how the Kurdish liberation movements traversed the borders, heeds the call of the world’s powers, and may yet survive the region’s efforts to extinguish it.

This article was originally posted in October 2017 for Raddington Report. As of May 30, 2019, the site appears to be down. If it is revived, I will add the link to the original source here.

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Christopher Solomon

Chris Solomon is a writer and analyst specializing in Middle East history and international politics. He is the author of In Search of Greater Syria.