The recent Kurdish referendum in Iraq may have wide-reaching repercussions that are of great importance when considering the future of the Middle East. Experts have surmised that Iran will be the most affected in the aftermath of this referendum, as Iran has faced something similar before in their own history – the Republic of Mahabad.
Mahabad was a short-lived Kurdish self-governing state, located in present-day Iran that existed from January 22nd to December 15th, 1946. The Republic of Mahabad arose alongside the South Azerbaijan People’s Government, a similarly short-lived state.Ayed al-Shammari, a Researcher on Iranian affairs, has stated that Iran’s present concerns regarding the Kurdish referendum in Iraq are two-fold. Tehran is not only worried about the rising influence of those considered enemies in the region, but Tehran is increasingly fearful of the potential for its ethnic minorities to be successful in their demands for secession. Al-Shammari noted that the recent independence of Kurdistan in Iraq may embolden demands for self-determination from minorities in Iran and fuel cooperation between Kurds and Ahwazi Arabs in Iran.“Iran is very concerned about the independence of Kurdistan because [Iran itself] is a country composed of several different ethnicities – Ahwazi Arabs who number about 8 million, Kurds about 11 million, Turks over 20 million, Turkmen about 1 and a half million, Baluchis around 3 million. Each one of them has an aspiration for independence and separation,” Al-Shammari stated.
In regards to the Ahwazis, they once had their own independent state called the emirate of Ahwaz, which was annexed by Iran in 1925. The current bid for independence from Iraq’s Kurds may prompt their Iranian peers to make similar moves. This is especially likely given that Kurds in Iran already established their own state in Mahabad during the 1940s. However, the Iranian army intervened in the continued existence of this Kurdish state – killing thousands of Kurds and rendering the fledgling state collapsed after 11 months.
After Khomeini took power, he issued a fatwa considering the Kurds as infidels; Iranian air force subsequently took to bombing the Kurdish areas and Tehran ordered the assassination of multiple Kurdish leaders both within and outside Iran’s borders. Considering the actions taken against those who dared achieve independence in the past, it is reasonable to assume that the current Iranian regime will hold much hostility towards any bids from its minorities to achieve their autonomy. Al-Shammari stated the independence of Kurdistan in any form will be the first nail in the coffin for Iran. The issue is further complex for Iran in that a unified Kurdistan would be naturally besieged by 4 countries that potentially would hold great animosity towards it – Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Such a unified Kurdistan would have no geographical extension to waters open for import/export but through the region of Ahwaz.
Ahwazi Arabs and those living in any future unified Kurdistan would be quite likely to cooperate, as each group has a need that only the other can satisfy. The Kurds would need access to the waters of the Arabian Gulf via Ahwaz in the south and south-west of Iran, who in turn would need the Kurds to back them in liberating their region. Since these two groups have intertwined interests that are contingent upon one another, the likelihood of them working together in the future is quite high. This, of course, jeopardizes the stability of the Iranian regime.
Yaqoub Hor Altostari, media office spokesman of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, said that the issue of Kurds’ independence is presently in the limelight because they partook in the battles to retake territory from ISIS and disintegrate the terrorist group’s strongholds. He added that Kurds receive generous support from some parties in the West, noting that the Kurds are much more advanced than some other marginalized groups, especially in regards to their military. Altostari further discussed that the Iranian regime is doing its best to avoid discussing the Ahwazi issue in any constructive or transparent manner. “We, as Ahwazis, bear the brunt of occupation and we support the rights of other peoples to gain independence. The Kurds surely have the right to decide their own fate and we consider this independence will have a positive impact on the Ahwazi plight in the long run,” said Altostari. He added that the Ahwazi movement does, however, have some reservations regarding the referendum, as it claimed some traditionally Arab regions would become occupied by the new Kurdistan. “It is unacceptable for us as Arabs,” Altostari stated.
Regarding the refusal of the Arab World to address the growing threat of Iran, Altostari said, “Throughout history, Ahwaz had been a bulwark for Arabs in the face of Persian expansionism. The silence of Arab nations about crimes the Iranian regime has committed since their occupation of Ahwaz in 1925 – including extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate arrests, and attempts to eradicate the identity of native Arabs – has allowed Iranians to exceed their bounds. They are now occupying four Arab nations – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen – as well as having sleeper cells in Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and Mauritania.”
He concluded, “Until now, Arabs at large still refuse to acknowledge the issue of Ahwazi struggle. However, over the past decade, media in the Gulf, and especially in Saudi Arabia, has taken a more attentive stance regarding the Ahwazi plight. They have started to convey our message to the Arab peoples. There is also some movement within some Arab countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Mauritania – at the informal level – to embrace the Ahwazi cause and support the struggle of its people by all possible means.”
Yasser Assadi, an Ahwazi rights activist based in London said, the right to self-determination in the only way for Ahwazis and the rest of oppressed peoples to protect their existence from more oppression. Under Iranian brutal occupation, many Ahwazi Arab activists have been executed by the Iranian regime simply because they spoke out on behalf of their people. Iran uses execution as a deterrent of dissent. As such, the U.N. has the potential to play a significant role in defending Human Rights by holding Iran accountable for their violations within the occupied land of Ahwaz. The U.N. could accomplish this by devoting teams of experts to assess damages caused by the Iranian regime and inspecting the conditions of prisons within Al Ahwaz. Were Iran to be prevented from continuing their crimes unhindered, Ahwazi Arabs could have a real chance at achieving their goals as a people in time.
He added that Ahwazi activists’ main goal is to put an end to ongoing injustices perpetrated by Iran in the occupied land of Ahwaz. It’s imperative that Ahwazis have allies in this endeavor. Powerful nations such as the United States could really influence things for the future of Ahwaz by lending their support in the struggle against Iranian oppression. He indicated that people of Ahwaz are suffering from displacement, poverty, torture, imprisonment, discrimination, and indiscriminate executions without trial by Iran. Ahwazis face vast challenges in bringing attention to their plight in a world constantly preoccupied with ‘more pressing concerns’. It is also difficult to focus on such advocacy while trying to survive in a region awash in systemic violence.
Yasser concluded that it is disgrace that countries like Turkey and Iran that established their nation-states around 100 years ago keep denying the national rights oppressed peoples – such as Kurds in Turkey or Ahwazis in Iran.
At present, countries such as Turkey and Iran have united in building an alliance against the Kurds to put pressure on them to give up the right to self-determination. Iran and Turkey know well that, despite their best efforts, the use of violence against these oppressed peoples will only empower them further to fight fiercely for their freedom. Had these people intended to surrender beneath the yolk of oppression, they’d have done so long ago.