Iran’s Ethno-Religious Minorities Under Siege

Iran’s Ethno-Religious Minorities Under Siege

Capitol Hill, May 23, 2011

The recent wave of protests in the Middle East is reminiscent of the successive Kurdish rebellions in Iran throughout the 20th century. These revolts were scarcely recorded or commented upon by the international community and media. Journalists that ventured into Kurdistan during the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 brought us stories of brutal repression: images of Kurdish civilians shot at point blank, entire villages shelled and destroyed leaving populations homeless.

In 1985, I visited Kurdistan to film a documentary on their struggle against the Iranian regime.  I saw their plight firsthand.  Many were living in tents at the Iranian-Iraqi border without basic needs such as clean water or food.  Some showed me photo albums depicting a happier life in their now destroyed homes.  Despite the suffering they have endured, the Kurds continue to sacrifice their lives for one single cause:  to secure their freedom.

For decades, the Kurds have paid a heavy price. The essence of Kurdish identity has been under constant attack, not only in Iran, but also in other countries where they live.  It’s true that the entire Iranian population has been subjected to brutal treatment, but the Kurds have been specifically targeted.

When I visited their camps in the mountains of Kurdistan, I heard stories of how the pasdaran, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, had pursued the Kurdish fighters deep into the rugged terrain.  At the beginning of the revolution, the Kurds controlled and administered the Kurdish areas, but Khomeini ordered the Iranian pasdaran to invade Kurdistan and crush the resistance movement. The relative peace and freedom the Kurds had gained during those first months of the Iranian revolution were destroyed.

Today many of the Kurdish bases have been moved to the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.  I visited these bases in recent years, and the fear of reprisal and attack by the pasdaran still resonate in the activists there.

The Kurds in Iran experienced a relatively organized resistance against the Shah and the current regime.  This led successive Tehran regimes to violently crush any freedom movements seeking greater rights for the Kurds. The prudent leadership and ongoing resistance by these people continue to threaten the Iranian central government.

One outstanding leader that I met during my journalistic career was Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the Secretary General of the PDKI:

His message was direct and simple: Democracy for Iran, Autonomy for Kurdistan.

Ghassemlou was an inspired leader who gave his national movement a clear direction. He successfully mobilized the resistance against a powerful regime.  Early on, he understood that the mullahs would hijack the revolution and turn it into a clerical dictatorship. Under the iron grip of the ayatollahs, there could be no democratic progress in the country. 

Even though Ghassemlou’s party was forced to lead an armed struggle against Iran, the PDKI was perhaps the only third world revolutionary movement that was opposed to any terrorist actions that could threaten the lives and security of civilians.

Ghassemlou believed that the resolution of the Kurdish issue in Iran could not be achieved through violence.  His determination to peacefully solve this political miasma became his undoing. He himself fell into the trap of the Iranian regime, when Tehran sent terrorists to Vienna in 1989 and he was murdered while sitting at the negotiation table.

Tellingly, in August of 1979, Khomeini condemned Ghassemlou on nationwide TV.  He banned the PDKI as “the party of Satan, corrupt and the agent of foreigners.” His fatwa had been issued.  It took ten years for the regime to execute it.

The Iranian culprits of Ghassemlou’s murder were identified.  Two of them were detained.  The Austrian authorities feared reprisal from the Iranian regime. Also there was commercial involvement between the two countries. In the end, the Austrian officials freed the emissaries.

Twenty-two years later, no one has been brought to justice for the murder.  Neither have the Austrian authorities released the evidence.

A second Kurdish leader, Ghassemlou’s successor Sadegh Saharafkandi, was also murdered with three associates at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin three years later. This time the German Federal Prosecutor went ahead with an investigation and German intelligence agencies were forced to open up their classified files.

The Mykonos trial revealed that the Islamic Republic of Iran had led a ferocious, state-sponsored campaign of political assassinations abroad. From 1979 to 1992 high level Iranian officials were linked to 162 extrajudicial killings of key political opponents around the globe, especially in European cities. With the discreet tolerance of the respective governments, no justice was served. Many had commercial interests with Iran.  This is another prime example of the rights of Iranian citizens being sidelined.

The German judiciary did not bow down to the Iranian threat. On the contrary, its resolute decision to fight terrorism and punish the culprits is an example to the world. It is also true that those detained who received life sentences, were released fifteen years later, suggesting a secret deal between Berlin and Tehran.

This is the crucial point here: had Europe and the world spoken against the earlier crimes of political dissidents, Iran’s terror machine may not have developed as it has in the years following the revolution.

This trial became the first sign that oppressed Iranians were not dispensable and that justice would be rendered.

Back to Ghassemlou for a moment. He had developed close ties and relations with politicians, journalists and academics in Europe. Ghassemlou’s outstanding diplomatic capacity was viewed as a direct threat by the Iranian regime.

The lobbying he extended to the United States was about to bear fruit.  Ghassemlou received an invitation from members of Senate and the House of Representatives to meet with them in August 1989. One month prior to this trip, he was killed.

Ghassemlou had been enthusiastically preparing his trip, knowing that this visit would possibly open up the Kurd’s cause in Iran.

Had that visit taken place, who knows what could have come of those meetings between the United States and the Iranian Kurds?

His influence in the politics of Iran could have been profound, for he was a well-respected, knowledgeable and sophisticated leader. His people loved him and his agenda for the Kurds was forward thinking. Notably his ideas for human rights reform for all Iranians comprised the forefront of his political agenda.

Today the USA and the world have been focusing primarily on the nuclear threat Iran poses.  Human rights of the Iranians have fallen to the wayside.

In our gathering here today, Kurds and other minorities are advocating their cause, as Ghassemlou did giving his life more than two decades before. 

The Kurds are an essential part of the Iranian mosaic due to their tenacity and courage.  For decades and against great odds, they have resisted the tyranny of the Iranian regime.  Even today, they continue to be a primary moving force.

The Kurds have relentlessly borne the torch for a democratic Iran.

I have seen firsthand the bravery of the Kurds in Iran against this regime.  They continue to decry its brutal repression.  Their presence today alongside other minorities is a testimony of their dogged spirit.

Surely the people of Iran deserve international support to topple this regime, bringing peace to the Iranian people and this resource rich and politically viable region.  If nothing else captures the attention of the international community, the vast reserves of oil, water and natural gas in the area should do just that.  Meanwhile, the lives of millions of Kurds hang in the balance.

Iran's Ethno-Religious Minorities under Siege

Iran's Ethno-Religious Minorities under Siege hosted by Kurdish Human Rights Watch, Inc. (KHRW) and Leadership Council for Human Rights (LC4HR)


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