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Iran: Country Faces Agitated Kurdish Population

Iraqi President Talabani's election served to galvanize Kurds around the region Unrest among Kurds living in western Iran, which has been continuing for several weeks, has prompted a government investigation that began on 20 July. This comes on the heels of low levels of Kurdish participation in the June presidential election, which may be indicative of their sense of exclusion from the country's politics. The Kurds are not promoting separatism, and the central government may find that meeting their demands will be more effective than arrests and violence in settling the unrest.

The most recent incident occurred when Kurds living in Mahabad, West Azerbaijan Province, clashed with police after a local activist was reported killed by state security agents, Radio Farda reported on 12 July, quoting local journalist Masud Kurdpur. Kurdpur told Radio Farda that "security agents" killed activist Seyyed Kamal Seyyed Qader (known as Shavaneh and identified elsewhere as Seyyed Kamal Astam), whose death provoked clashes on 11 July between police and Mahabad residents.

Kurdpur told Radio Farda that Qader was arrested for unspecified political activities and the violent police response to the subsequent protest shows that the Iranian government is hardening its attitude to protests. "Unfortunately, now that the elections are over and [President Hojatoleslam Mohammad] Khatami's government is coming to an end, this is a new type of approach that has led to deaths," Kurdpur said. "Most gatherings so far were tolerated." reported on 15 July that Shavaneh was a member of the Revolutionary Union of Kurdistan (Yeketi Shorishgerani Kurdistan).

Kurdpur told Radio Farda on 14 July that local Kurds' angry reaction to the killing of Shavaneh is continuing. Kurdpur said that the authorities asked storekeepers to reopen their businesses, but they have yet to comply with this request. Kurdpur said this is a particularly sensitive time because it coincides with the anniversary of the assassination of Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Qassemlu (13 July 1989) by Iranian agents.
Kurds' dissatisfaction with and alienation from the central government was apparent in the Iranian presidential election. reported on 15 July that the unrest was continuing and the authorities arrested two people, Hussein Amanullah and Kamal Perwyiziyane (Parvizian), in the city of Bukan. A total of about 15 arrests were made. The authorities in Marivan reportedly instructed local telephone call centers, from which people make international calls, to provide them with names of everyone who calls overseas.

Seyyed Maruf Samadi, the governor of Mahabad, said the problems there began when the man known as Shavaneh resisted police, "Iran" reported on 19 July. They therefore shot him. Samadi said people who protested this incident were arrested, but he has no information on them. A police officer was stabbed to death, according to Samadi. Government offices, banks, and some homes were damaged, too.

Samadi acknowledged that these incidents have upset locals, and he said the Interior Ministry has agreed to his request to send a team to look into these events.

Regional Spillover

Federalism in Iraq has had an effect on Iran's Kurdish population, particularly the election of Masud Barzani as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the election of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq's president.

The unrest in Mahabad is the latest in a string of incidents focused on local Kurds' ethnic identity. In mid-June, security forces in Mahabad clashed with Kurds who were celebrating the election of Masud Barzani. On 6 June, joyful young Kurds in Mahabad and Piranshahr celebrated the election of Talabani as Iraq's president by setting off fireworks and displaying Kurdish flags. Fifteen police officers were injured in resulting clashes, and 40 demonstrators were arrested. According to unconfirmed reports from exile opposition groups, demonstrations and clashes also occurred in Baneh, Marivan, Saqez, and Sanandaj.

Kurds make up some 7 percent of Iran's population of 68 million, and have militated for greater attention from the central government, citing provincial underdevelopment, inadequate political representation, and inattention to their cultural needs. Before the June presidential election, Kurdish political activists' demands prompted threats from the Guardians Council. During the campaign, reformist candidates paid particular attention to the demands of Kurds and other minorities.

Tehran University's Professor Hamid Ahmadi accused the reformists of using ethnic issues as a campaign device, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 7 July. He warned that doing this would not work.

Nevertheless, Kurds' dissatisfaction with and alienation from the central government was apparent in the Iranian presidential election. Second-round turnout in the predominantly Kurdish cities of West Azerbaijan was very low: Bukan (12 percent), Mahabad (15 percent), Piranshahr (15 percent), and Sardasht (16 percent). Turnout in Kurdistan Province was quite low -- about 25 percent -- compared to the national average of almost 60 percent. Turnout in some municipalities was remarkably bad: Baneh (17 percent), Divandareh (20 percent), Sarvabad (17 percent), Saqez (16 percent), and Sanandaj (20 percent).

Iran is not the only country dealing with a restive Kurdish population. Recent terrorist incidents in Turkey have been attributed to offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK or Kongra-Gel), and the Turkish military is active in the eastern parts of the country. Turkey even proposed at a 19 July meeting in Istanbul of foreign ministers from Iran, Syria, and Iraq that they join forces against the PKK. For the most part, the Kurds in Iran are not promoting separatism. Tehran might well find that meeting the Kurdish minority's demands -- which are based on its constitutional rights -- will have greater long-term success than repression.

See also:

Turkey Proposes Cross-Border Action To Rein In Kurdish Fighters