Kurdish separatism in Iran

Kurdish separatism in Iran[14] or the Kurdish–Iranian conflict[15][16] is an ongoing,[6][9][14][17] long running, separatist dispute between the Kurdish opposition in Western Iran and the governments of Iran,[14] lasting since the emergence of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1918.[6]

Kurdish separatism in Iran
PJAK fighters.jpg
PJAK fighters in 2012
Date1918 (1918)present
(102 years)[6][7]
(main phase 1943[8]-present[9])
Iran, Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border areas


  • Several tribal revolts during 1918–1943
  • 1946 failed attempt to establish the Republic of Mahabad
  • Political crackdown on Kurdish political associations in Iran[10]
  • Ceasefire between Iran and PJAK established in September 2011, but fighting resumed in 2013
  • Renewed clashes between KDPI and Iranian military erupt in 2015
Shekak tribesmen
Iran Imperial State of Iran (1925–79)

Supported by:

 Soviet Union[1]

Interim Government and Council of the Islamic Revolution (1979–80)

Iran Islamic Republic of Iran (1980−)


Supported by:



Supported by:


Commanders and leaders

Ahmad Shah Qajar (1918−25)

Iran Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925−41)
Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941−79)

Iran Ruhollah Khomeini (1979−89)

Iran Ali Khamenei (1989−present)

Simko Shikak (1918–1930)

Qazi Muhammad Executed
Mustafa Barzani
Ahmed Barzani
Soviet Union Salahuddin Kazimov

Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou
Foad Mostafa Soltani 
Sedigh Kamangar 
Abdullah Mohtadi

Haji Ahmadi (2004–2011)
Majid Kavian 

Hussein Yazdanpanah
Mustafa Hijri

Haji Ahmadi
Casualties and losses
23,000 killed (1979–1996)[11](according to the KDPI) 5,000 killed (1979–1996)[11](according to the KDPI)

30,000 civilians killed (1980–2000)(according to the KDPI)[12]
15,000+ individuals killed (1946–present)[13]

Total: 15,000–58,000+ casualties

The earliest Kurdish separatist activities in modern times refer to tribal revolts in today's West Azerbaijan Province of Imperial State of Iran, prompted in between of the two World Wars – the major of those were led by Simko Shikak, Jafar Sultan and Hama Rashid. Many however, put the starting point of the organized Kurdish political-nationalist separatism to 1943,[9] when Komala shortly afterwards KDPI began their political activities in Iran, aiming to gain partial or complete self-rule in Kurdish regions. Transformation from tribal to Kurdish political struggle in Iran took place in the aftermath of World War II, with the bold separatist attempt of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) to establish the Republic of Mahabad during the 1946 Iran crisis.[9] The Soviet supported attempt to establish a Kurdish state in Western Iran failed.[9][18] More than a decade later, peripheral tribal uprisings,[9] launched with KDPI support through 1966–7, Kurdish regions suffered a major blow. In the most violent episode of the conflict, more than 30,000 Kurds died starting with the 1979 rebellion and the consequent KDPI insurgency.[12] Though KDPI's armed struggle ended in late 1996, another Kurdish armed organization emerged in Iran by the early 2000s. Insurrection led by PJAK in Western Iran started in 2004 and is ongoing to this day.[19]

The government of Iran has never employed the same level of brutality against its Kurds as did Turkey or Iraq, but it has always been implacably opposed to any suggestion of Kurdish separatism.[20] Unlike in other Middle Eastern countries with Kurdish populations, Kurdish separatism in Iran has little to no support due to the very strong ethno-linguistical ties and the common history and culture[21] they share with other Iranian peoples.[20][22] Kreyenbroek claims many Kurds in Iran have shown no interest in Kurdish nationalism,[20] especially Shia Kurds, who even vigorously reject the idea of autonomy, preferring direct rule from Tehran.[20][23] The Kurds sharing a common history with the rest of the Iranian peoples is seen as another reason for why even Kurdish leaders in Iran do not want a separate Kurdish state.[24][25][26]



Tribalism and early nationalismEdit

Simko's first revolt (1918–1922)Edit

Simko Shikak revolt refers to an armed Ottoman-backed[27][28] tribal Kurdish uprising against the Qajar dynasty of Iran from 1918–1922, led by Kurdish chieftain Simko Shikak from Turcophone Shekak tribe.[29] This tribal rebellion is sometimes regarded as first major bid for establishing independent Kurdistan in Iran,[30] but scholars see revolt as attempt by a powerful tribal chief to establish his personal authority vis-à-vis the central government throughout the region.[31] Although elements of Kurdish nationalism were present in this movement, historians agree these were hardly articulate enough to justify a claim that recognition of Kurdish identity was a major issue in Simko's movement, and he had to rely heavily on conventional tribal motives.[31] It lacked any kind of administrative organization and Simko was primarily interested in plunder.[30] Government forces and non-Kurds were not the only ones to suffer in the attacks, the Kurdish population was also robbed and assaulted.[31] Simko's men do not appear to have felt any sense of unity or solidarity with fellow Kurds.[31] Historian Ervand Abrahamian calls Simko as "notorious" for allegedly massacring thousands Assyrians and supposedly "harassing" democrats,[32] and Mehrdad Izady holds him responsible for killing Alevite Kurds.[33] Still, Kurdish ethnicists today revere Simko as a hero of independence.[17]

1926 Simko rebellion in IranEdit

By 1926, Simko had regained control of his tribe and begun another outright rebellion against the state.[34] When the army engaged him, half of his troops defected to the tribe’s previous leader and Simqu fled to Iraq.[34]

Jafar Sultan revoltEdit

Jafar Sultan of Hewraman region took control of the region between Marivan and north of Halabja and remained independent until 1925. Despite the attempts to subdue him under the central rule, the tribal leader revolted in 1929, but was effectively crushed.

Hama Rashid revoltEdit

Hama Rashid revolt refers to a tribal uprising in Pahlavi Iran, during the Second World War, following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.[35] The tribal revolt erupted in the general atmosphere of anarchy throughout Iran and its main faction was led by Muhammed Rashid, lasting from late 1941 until April 1942 and then re-erupted in 1944, resulting in Rashid's defeat. It is considered one of the factors to lead to the establishment of the Kurdish political independence movement in 1945-6.

Political separatismEdit

Mahabad crisisEdit

Qazi Muhammad and Mustafa Barzani during the 1946 events

The danger of fragmentation in modern Iran became evident shortly after Second World War when Soviet Union's refused to relinquish occupied North Western Iranian territory.[20] Iran crisis of 1946 included a separatist attempt of KDP-I and communist groups[36] to establish the Soviet puppet government,[37][38][39] and declare the Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan (today's southern part of West Azerbaijan Province). It arose along with Azerbaijan People's Government, another Soviet puppet state.[20][40] The state itself encompassed a very small territory, including Mahabad and the adjacent cities, unable to incorporate the southern Iranian Kurdistan, which fell inside the Anglo-American zone, and unable to attract the tribes outside Mahabad itself to the nationalist cause.[20] As a result, when the Soviets withdrew from Iran in December 1946, government forces were able to enter Mahabad unopposed.[20] Some 1,000 died during the crisis.[9]

Iran crisis of 1946 included an attempt of the KDPI to establish an independent Kurdish-dominated Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan.[9] Though later several Marxist insurgencies continued for decades, led by KDP-I and Komala, but those two organization have never advocated a separate Kurdish state or greater Kurdistan as did the PKK in Turkey.[23][31][41][42]

1967 Kurdish revoltEdit

In mid-1960s a series of Kurdish tribal disturbances erupted in Western Iran, fed up by the revival of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I).[6] In 1967-8 Iranian government troops suppressed a Kurdish revolt in Western Iran,[9] consolidating the previous Kurdish uprisings in Mahabad-Urumiya region.

1979 rebellionEdit

1979 Kurdish rebellion in Iran was an insurrection led by the KDPI and Komala in Iranian Kurdistan, which became the most serious rebellion against the new Iranian regime, following the Islamic Revolution. The rebellion ended in December 1982, with 10,000 killed and 200,000 displaced.[9]

KDPI insurgencyEdit

Insurrection by the KDPI took place in Iranian Kurdistan through early and mid-90s, initiated by assassination of its leader in exile in July 1989. The KDPI insurrection ended in 1996, following a successful Iranian campaign of targeted assassinations of KDPI leaders and crackdown on its support bases in Western Iran. In 1996, KDPI announced a unilateral cease fire, and has since acted at low profile before renewed clashes in 2015.[43]

PJAK insurrectionEdit

Iran–PJAK conflict is an ongoing rebellion of PJAK in which hundreds Kurdish militants and Iranian forces as well as civilians have died, officially lasting since April 2004.[9] PJAK is based in the border area with Iraqi Kurdistan and is affiliated with the Marxist PKK from Turkey,[44] though PJAK themselves tend to neglect this alleged relation. Although sometimes described as organization demanding more human rights for Kurds in Iran, it is regarded as separatist by Iranian media and various Western analysts.[14][44][45] The PJAK goal is an establishment of a Kurdish autonomy and according to Habeeb they do not pose any serious threat to the regime of the Islamic Republic.[14]

In one of the first actions of the Obama administration, PJAK was declared a "terrorist organization".[44][45] PJAK and Iranian government agreed on cease-fire, following the 2011 Iranian offensive on PJAK bases. After the cease fire agreement, a number of clashes between PJAK and IRGC took place in 2012,[17] and by mid-2013, the fighting resumed in sporadic incidents, escalating in 2016.

Renewed tensions 2014-presentEdit

Escalation and unrestEdit

PDKI fighters.

On January 2014, Iranian forces killed a KDPI party member, while he was disseminating leaflets.[46]

In September 2014, in a number of clashes, the KDPI engaged Iranian security for the first time in many years, killing at least 6 Iranian soldiers.[47] It was unclear whether this was a result of change of policy by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (which evaded violence since 1996) or an isolated sequence of incidents.

In May 2015, a suspected Iranian attack (allegedly disguised as PKK fighters) on PJAK force on Iranian–Iraqi Kurdistan border resulted in 6 killed—2 KDPI and 4 PKK[48] (or allegedly Iranian agents).

On 7 May 2015, ethnic Kurds rioted in Mahabad, Iran, following the unexplained death on 4 May 2015 of Farinaz Khosravani, a 25-year-old Kurdish hotel chambermaid. Unrest and violence spread to other Kurdish cities in Iran, such as Sardasht, where police clashed with hundreds of protesters on 9 May 2015.[49] One protester has been reportedly killed in the clashes, and that additionally, Kurdish insurgent group PJAK had attacked an Iranian checkpoint killing two Iranian personnel, according to PJAK.[50] According to ARA sources, as of May 11, the death toll climbed to 6 protesters killed.[51] The incidents prompted harsh responses also from other Kurdish opposition parties, including the Kurdistan Freedom Party and the PDKI.

In June 2015, a KDPI attack on Revolutionary Guard forces reportedly left 6 people killed.[52]

Low-level insurgency (2016-present)Edit

Military clashes in West Iran[53] refers to the ongoing military clashes between Kurdish insurgent party Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which began in April 2016. Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) and Komalah expressed their support to the Kurdish cause of PDKI as well, with both clashing with Iranian security forces in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In parallel, a leftist Iranian Kurdish rebel group PJAK resumed military activities against Iran in 2016, following a long period of stalemate.

The 2016 clashes came following a background of what PDKI described as "growing discontent in Rojhelat".[54] The commander of the PAK military wing described their engagement and declaration of hostilities against the Iranian government were due to the fact that "the situation in eastern Kurdistan (Iranian Kurdistan) has become unbearable, especially with the daily arbitrary executions against the Kurds [in Iran]".[55]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit