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Haunted Memories: The Islamic Republic’s Executions of Kurds in 1979

2. The Iranian Kurds

Since the end of World War I, the territory of what is known as Kurdistan – “land of the Kurds” - has been divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the former Soviet Union. It is famously rugged and beautiful mountainous terrain. The Iranian Kurdish regions are located in Northwest Iran on the borders with Iraq and Turkey, and are comprised of Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and parts of Ilam and West Azerbaijan provinces.

While it is difficult to know exactly how many Kurds live in Iran, during the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, Kurds have represented about 12% of Iran’s population.3 About seventy-five percent of Kurds are Sunni-Muslims,4 though the percentage decreases in Iran. It has been reported that about half of Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims. The vast majority of the other half are Shi’a Muslims, the official religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran.5

Kurds have been living in the Persian state for at least 400 years, as the Western border of what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran that was created in 1639 has not changed much. During the Pahlavi regime, over-thrown in the 1979 revolution, the central government in Tehran insisted that the Kurds are an Iranic people, like the Persians. Kurdish languages are subdivisions of the Iranic branch of the Indo-European family of languages, making Persian the closest major language.6 The main language in the Kurdish regions of Iran is South Kurmanji, or Sorani, although a few Kurds speak North Kurmanji, or Bahdinani.7 For the last hundred years, Kurds, like other ethnic minorities in Iran, have experienced high levels of poverty that include lack of education and medical care. In the mid-1970s, about 30% of Kurdish families lived below the poverty line compared to about 21% of families in the central provinces of Iran.8

Iranian Kurds share a long, complex history with the Kurds in other countries that is defined by the use of their lands as battle grounds for territorial, cultural, and resource wars between empires. Much of the early history is unknown and sometimes disputed. However, there is evidence that agriculture was invented in the Kurdish mountains in 10,000 BC, and that the first city-states existed by 8,000 BC. The Indo-European, Iranic culture that defines the Kurds today began with the integration of the first of many invading groups: the Aryans—mostly Medes and Scythians—who invaded in waves between 1500 BC and 300 AD, and used their numerical and martial strength to overwhelm the old Kurdish culture. Invasions continued until the 10th century, when Kurds began emigrating from the Kurdish regions and founded powerful, culturally rich kingdoms throughout the Middle East. However, by the beginning of the 13th century, Turkic nomads were using Kurdistan as a corridor to reach and destroy the Byzantine Empire, and, in the process, decimating Kurdish culture. Kurdish culture steadily declined until the beginning of the 20th century.9


[3] MEHRDAD R. IZADY, THE KURDS: A CONCISE HANDBOOK 117, 119 (1992).
[4] DAVID MCDOWALL, A MODERN HISTORY OF THE KURDS 10 (2005).
[5] IZADY, supra note 3, at 132-33.
[6] Id. at 167, 198; NADER ENTESSAR, KURDISH ETHNONATIONALISM 4 (1992).
[7] IZADY, supra note 3, at 172.
[8] ENTESSAR, supra note 6, at 6-7 (citing Akbar Aghajanian, Ethnic Inequality in Iran: An Overview, INT’L J. OF MIDDLE EAST STUD. 15 (May 1983).
[9] IZADY, supra note 3, at 23-24, 32-34, 41-46.

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