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

Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou (1930-1989) was the Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) for 16 years until his assassination in 1989. He had a Ph.D. in Economics and was an Associate Professor in Paris and Prague. Under his leadership, the secular PDKI supported the 1979 revolution. However, the party urged its followers to not take part in the referendum on whether an “Islamic Republic” should be established in Iran. Ghassemlou was elected to the Assembly of the Experts but was not permitted to take his seat. In the early 1980s, Ghassemlou moved to the mountains shared by Iran and Iran that were under Kurdish control and eventually fled to Europe.
In 1989, he agreed to negotiate with representatives of the Islamic Republic in Vienna. The Kurdish delegation also included Abdullah Ghaderi-Azar (a member of the PDKI Central Committee) and Fazel Rassoul (an Iraqi professor who had acted as mediator). Tehran’s delegation included Mohammed Jafar Sahraroudi, Hadji Moustafawi, and Amir Mansur Bozorgian. On the second day of negotiations, the three members of the Kurdish delegation were shot to death. Among the Islamic Republic representatives, only Sahraroudi was slightly injured. The killers have never been prosecuted.

The decline can be attributed to at least two major factors: (1) the century of war, beginning in 1514, between the revived Persian Empire, under the Safavids, and the Ottomans; and (2) the initiation of sea transport at the beginning of the 15th century. The Safavids established a new Persian empire in 1501. Its expansion was challenged by the Ottoman Empire which resulted in a century of war until the Treaty of Zohab was signed in 1639. The Kurdish regions were in the middle of the two warring sides. The Safavids used a “scorched earth” policy in the Kurdish areas, destroying homes and agricultural livelihoods. Both empires forcibly deported huge numbers of Kurds, often to their borders to act as buffers against invasion.10

In addition, once Vasco da Gama sailed across the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, international commerce shifted to the sea, rendering long-standing Kurdish
trade routes and markets irrelevant. This shift caused severe economic decline, not only due to the collapse of markets for Kurdish goods but also to the disintegration of the infrastructure that supported trade including roads and educated bureaucrats. A power vacuum in Persia enabled the Ottomans to annex all of the Kurdish regions in the mid-18th century. Nadir Shah’s challenge to the Ottomans resulted in the further deportation of tribes and destruction of cities and towns. 11

In 1920, Ismail Agha Simko, a tribal chief, called for an independent Kurdistan and took control, to varying degrees, of much of the Iranian Kurdish areas. He surrendered to the army of Reza Khan in 1924 and pledged his allegiance to the man when he became Reza Shah in 1925. Reza Shah’s policy of uniting all the peoples in Iran under a Persian identity led to repression of Kurdish culture, as well as that of other ethnic minorities. The central government did not allow Kurdish languages to be used in education, public speech or publications, closed many Kurdish schools, and imposed European-style dress codes on Kurds (as well as all Iranians). Reza Shah also failed to modernize the Kurdish regions: no new roads or factories were built in the Kurdish regions during his reign.12

Sazman-i  Inqilabiyih Zahmatkishan-i Kurdistan-i Iran (the Organization of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan) or Komala  announced its existence following the 1979 revolution. Led by Kurdish activists including Foad Mostafa Soltani, Abdullah Mohtadi and Sediq Kamangar, Komala was a leftist organization that sought to emulate the Chinese revolution by sending cadres to rural areas to educate the masses. In 1980, party leaders set up operations in the mountain ranges between Iran and Iraq, and eventually found sanctuary in Iraq and Western Europe. In September 1983, Komala joined smaller leftist parties to form the Communist Party of Iran (CPI). However, in 2000, it broke away and is currently based in Soleymaniyeh, Iraq where it is led by Abdullah Mohtadi.

In 1945, Qazi Muhammad transformed the Komala-e Zhian-e Kurdistan (Society for the Resurrection of Kurdistan) known as Komala that had been established in 1942 into the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).13 A new Komala party was created, this time with a strong Marxist-Leninist stance.14 A few months later, in January 1946, KDP (with the support of the Soviet Union which occupied that part of Iran at the time) established a Kurdish Republic in Mahabad, a city in West Azerbaijan Province. Known as the Mahabad Republic, the Republic was disbanded by Iranian troops 11 months later in December 1946. They hung President Qazi Muhammad and many of his aides in Mahabad’s public square. Although short-lived, the Mahabad Republic established a government bureaucracy, restored Kurdish as the official language, and replaced the police with Kurdish fighters (peshmerga).15

The KDP party was forced underground. In the 1950s, it experienced a resurgence and changed its name to the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI or KDPI) in an effort to distinguish itself from the party Mustafa Barzani established in Iraq. The KDPI was considered moderately left-wing and, except for the year when the Mahabad Republic existed, advocated autonomy for Kurdistan “within a democratic Iran.” 16

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Reza Shah’s son who took power in 1941 upon his father’s abdication, continued his father’s efforts to rule the country from Tehran. Persian was the official language in all government matters and all printed media and books.17 Iranian Kurds report being denied the right to wear traditional Kurdish clothes, speak Kurdish, or write and publish Kurdish language literature. The Shah’s government imprisoned many Kurds for their political activities. 18


[10] Id. at 49-51.
[11] Id. at 49-50, 54.
[12] ENTESSAR, supra note 6, at 12-14.
[13] Id. at 16-23.
[14] IZADY, supra note 3, at 211.
[15] Id. at 65; ENTESSAR, supra note 6, at 23. Kurds and others use the term peshmerga to refer to Kurdish fighters.
[16] IZADY, supra note 3, at 209-11.
[17] ENTESSAR, supra note 6, at 28.
[18] See, e.g., IHRDC Interview with Azad Saqqezi (Feb. 1, 2011) (on file with IHRDC) [hereinafter Saqqezi Interview] (explaining how he was expelled from high school for wearing traditional Kurdish dress and relating that at the time of the Islamic Revolution, two of his brothers were political prisoners in Qasr and Evin prisons (one was sentenced to death and the other to eight years in prison), and that he and his sister had case files pending due to their political associations)).

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