It feels as though our world has become the scene for a giant game of Risk in which the players have as little care for the results of their actions as they would if it were actually just a board game. What went wrong? How can our intelligent species have thrown up such dreadful leaders? And – crucially – how can we keep alight those sparks of hope that have burst through this madness, and ensure that they are not extinguished?
The hope ignited by Kurdish struggles has been seen across the world, but everywhere is under threat. In this last week alone, the Iranian state has been shooting and rounding up unarmed protestors within its cities, and sending planes across the border to bomb those parts of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, or South Kurdistan, where opposition groups from Rojhelat, or Iranian Kurdistan, are based. Turkey is also bombing South Kurdistan, as well as attacking the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, where the Turkish forces have demonstrated their mission to destroy the fundamental threads of society, by deliberately assassinating civil society leaders. In South Kurdistan itself, which once was seen as a harbinger of Kurdish freedom, the Kurdistan Democratic Party assists Turkey in their attacks and Sulemani has shut down protest against Iran. And, within Turkey’s borders, the Turkish state continues to find more ways to assert its authority and crush dissent.
Meanwhile, beyond that part of the world that is the focus of this column, the conflict in Ukraine is reaching new levels of world-threatening danger, Italy has given Europe another far-right government, a major documentary has exposed how the British Labour Party has used lies and smears to purge its members, the UK is on the verge of economic meltdown, Florida is under water, and major protests in Haiti are attempting to overthrow their corrupt US-backed government and end imperialist intervention.
But, to return to Iran. Despite significant internet blackouts, videos are still coming through of protestors facing up to the regime’s security forces in cities across the country. After two weeks of escalating protests, and with reports of over 300 deaths and over 15,000 detentions, Iran News Wire comments ‘Protesters refuse to stay home despite the regime’s lethal crackdown.’
Fires are being lit on the roads to block the passage of the security forces, and businesses and shops in many cities, including Isfahan and Tehran, are closed in support of the protests. Iran News Wire has shared a picture of a sign on one shuttered shop that reads ‘We’re closed as we’re on vacation on the moon.’ When Kurdish Freedom Movement organisations called for a strike and business closures on 19 September, this was only observed in the Kurdish areas, so this could be an important development. Students have also been going on strike, but, if the uprising is to succeed in making the country truly ungovernable, then the protestors must hope for coordinated strike action by the trade unions. Economic pressures have produced many examples of industrial action in the last year, and there is no lack of militancy, but a coordinated action would be of a different order.
What happens next will depend on which groups manage to influence the form and focus of the uprising, and how different groups manage to work together. While there is a unity of opposition against the Iranian government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, visions for an alternative Iran will be very different. Many may argue that what matters is to focus on ousting the regime and its restrictions on women and democratic rights, but, as history has demonstrated time and again, the future of a revolution is decided in the course of the revolution and not afterwards.
Kurdish areas may be the most receptive to the major social changes implied in the slogan Jin Jiyan Azadi – Women Life Freedom – which comes out of the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan. Kurds have no nostalgia for the shah, who was ousted in 1979, and whose brutal regime supported a violent Persian ethnic nationalism; but some protestors in other places have called for support for the former shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, who lives in exile in the United States and whose leadership dreams are believed to have received support from the CIA. There are also people who argue for a more socialist form of Islam, as there were in 1979. (Tensions between different groups have been apparent in arguments over flags and slogans in some of the international solidarity protests.) It is quite wrong to portray what is happening as an American plot, as some (including the Iranian Government) have tried to do, but it would also be naïve to think that the US won’t try and interfere with the direction the uprising takes.
There are plenty of lessons and warnings for today in Iran’s own history. The 1978-9 Iranian revolution ended the autocratic rule of the shah, who had himself been brought to power in an Anglo-American backed coup in 1953. The movement that was able to cripple the government and force the shah to flee the country got strength from left-wing workers, especially in the oil industry. When the shah fled, support for the left was surging and workers’ strike committees were creating kernels of alternative organisation. But the shah’s going enabled the return of the exiled cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was able to appeal to the more conservative elements, especially small businessmen and the rural, or recently rural poor, while neutralising potential opposition through superficially progressive rhetoric. One by one, Khomeini crushed those opposing him – secular leftists, Islamic leftists, women, groups seeking national autonomy. He had no hesitation in carrying out mass assassinations in order to impose his version of Islamic rule, and impose himself as supreme leader. He was able to do this because he initially had the West’s backing, and because many of the left party leaders failed to understand the threat he posed.
Western leaders and western media outlets, such as the BBC, were much more comfortable with the idea of clerical leadership than that of a socialist Iran with ties to the Soviet Union, and they helped to boost Khomeini’s profile as the prime leader of the resistance. Meanwhile, left party leaders with Soviet links argued, in line with Stalin’s stages theory, that a socialist revolution would have to be preceded by a separate bourgeois democratic revolution for which they must work alongside “progressive bourgeois”. They cast Ayatollah Khomeini as a “progressive bourgeois” and believed they could work with him rather than oppose him.
Longest to hold out against Khomeini’s Islamic republic were the Kurdish provinces, which had fought for autonomy, not to replace one autocratic centralised regime with another. The Kurdish resistance was largely led by the leftist Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and also Komola, the Society of the Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan. In August 1980, Khomeini declared a jihad against the “infidel” Kurds, so licensing extreme brutality by the Regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The conflict became enmeshed in the Iran Iraq War, but by the end of 1981, Kurdish resistance was largely defeated, with small-scale fighting continuing into 1983.
The Islamic Republic proved to be every bit as racist towards non-Persians as its predecessor, as well as prejudiced against Sunnis, which most Kurds are. Rather than attempt to win Kurdish support, the government kept control over the Kurdish regions through economic deprivation, and massive and pervasive securitisation. Kurds make up 12-15% of Iran’s population, but almost half of Iran’s political prisoners. Among the political prisoners in Iran who have started a hunger strike as their contribution to the protests, is Zara Mohammadi, who is serving a five-year sentence for teaching children Kurdish. The young woman whose murder by Iran’s “morality police” precipitated the current uprisings was officially known as Mahsa because her Kurdish name, Jina, was not legally permitted; and the extreme brutality of her treatment may well have been a response to her ethnicity.
Overt political opposition of any kind has been impossible in Iran, where even campaigning on ecological issues can land you in prison, and the remnants of the KDPI and Komola moved across the border, with their families, to refugee camps in Iraq. There they have been joined by the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), founded in 1991, and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). PJAK was founded in 2004 to propagate the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, but Öcalan’s influence in Rojhelat was already strong, as demonstrated by the mass protests at the time of his capture in 1999.
The Rojhelati opposition organisations based in Iraq have all carried out guerrilla actions against the Iranian regime in the past, but they have not intervened militarily in the current uprisings, where protestors have been unarmed. Their response to Jina Amina’s death was to call for a general strike the following Monday. However, the Iranian government, unable to subdue the uprising within their borders, has launched missiles and drones against the opposition bases and adjacent refugee camps in Iraq, in a military operation they have codenamed “Prophet of God”. The Kurdish health ministry has reported that these have left at least 13 dead and 50 wounded. Many women and children have been among the casualties, and one missile destroyed a school classroom, though it was thankfully empty at the time There have been words of concern from foreign statesmen at this violation of Iraqi sovereignty, but as the South Kurdistan news service, Rudaw, observed, “US forces stationed in Erbil watched as about 73 missiles and dozens of suicide drones passed through Iraqi airspace. They did not take any action except when one drone was spotted heading to Erbil, where the American forces are based.” As I write this on Friday, Iran is shelling Iraq for the seventh day in a row.
Komala responded to the attacks with a call for another general strike today, and this has been supported by “3 major Iranian opposition coalitions”; confusingly, the KDPI have put out a call for strikes starting next Saturday. If the protestors on the streets are serious when they say they won’t go home until they have finished what they have started, then they will need to make sure that strikes affect the whole of Iran and last for more than one day. The coordinated role of organised left forces will be essential to ensure that this revolutionary movement doesn’t get diverted into another reactionary dead end and can begin to address the many layers of oppression suffered by people in Iran. And leaders will need to learn from the past to ensure that the need for mass support is not used to submerge more radical demands.
In Iraq and Syria
Turkey has also been attacking Iraq – as they have been doing for a long time – with no response from international powers. They claim to be carrying out “anti-terrorist” actions against PKK guerrillas, but North Press Agency has reported that “The Turkish bombardment destroyed a vital bridge and cut off power to 20 villages”, as well as causing material damage to village properties. Turkish attacks have emptied hundreds of villages and enabled Turkey to establish a vast network of military bases in South Kurdistan’s northern mountains, bringing closer President Erdoğan’s dream of a Turkish-controlled strip all along the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Nevertheless, they have not achieved the victory that Erdoğan craves, and that he needs to boost his electoral support. Instead, there are reports that the Turkish government has been hiding Turkish losses by leaving the bodies of scores of its dead soldiers to rot in hospital wards.
The Kurdistan Regional Government felt compelled to condemn the Iranian attacks, but it has become increasingly intolerant of any form of radical protest, and in Slemani, controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has historic ties with Iran, security forces tear-gassed and arrested people at a demonstration of solidarity with the Iran protests. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates Hewlêr and the north and also the regions’ politics overall, has close links with Turkey and helps them in their invasion. On Tuesday, two biologists from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War told how a KDP district governor had prevented them from carrying out research into Turkey’s reported use of chemical weapons in the region.
Even apart from their desire not to upset Turkey, Western countries have been comfortable supporting the business-friendly corrupt dynasties that rule over South Kurdistan, while showing no sympathy for leftist Kurdish movements. Western support for the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria is, explicitly, only directed towards the fight against ISIS, and is accompanied by attempts to dilute the administration’s more radical approaches.
Turkey is also continuing its relentless attacks on North and East Syria, which are calculated to destabilise the region’s social fabric. This was exemplified by the choice of targets for Tuesday’s drone assassination. Zeyneb Sarokhan and Yilmaz Şero were co-chairs of the Judicial Reform Administrative Department for the Cizîrê region. A heartfelt tribute from German NGO, Medico International, describes Sarokhan’s commitment to Yazidi mothers and their children, and to women escaping violence, and Şero’s work with young ISIS prisoners, who they both hoped to help rehabilitate. This is vital work, not just for those immediately involved, but for the future of the region.
On the same day, a Turkish attack on Zirgan district killed two civilians and wounded five others. And the Euphrates Region Executive Council headquarters in Kobanê was also hit, though no one was hurt. The US-led coalition claims to be protecting the region against ISIS, for which social stability is essential, and they are also guarantors of a ceasefire agreement signed with Turkey in 2019, but they do nothing to stop these attacks.
On Friday, Sweden’s Inspectorate of Strategic Products announced that Sweden had reversed its ban on exporting military equipment to Turkey – a decision made in response to Turkish threats to veto Sweden’s application for NATO membership.
Meanwhile, ISIS thrives on the fears Turkey has created, and finds protection in the areas that Turkey has occupied. This week the Autonomous Administration’s Syrian Democratic Forces reported that, through intelligence gathered in their recent security sweep of Al Hol detention camp, they had uncovered one of the largest ISIS weapons caches since their territorial defeat in 2019. Their press statement makes clear that, “All the investigations conducted by our forces proved the clear coordination between the two parties [Turkey and ISIS]. The attacks and aggressions of the first side give the chance to the other side (the defeated ISIS cells) to reorganize itself.”
On Monday, in Mersin, in North Kurdistan/southeast Turkey, two PKK women attacked a police station in response to “the repression in the prisons, the massacres and the use of chemical weapons against the guerrillas”. 1
Both died in the attack, which left one police officer dead and another wounded. While the PKK lauded its “martyrs”, the imprisoned co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, made clear over Twitter that his party “will oppose every kind of violence and insist on democratic politics”. This provoked an intemperate response from Turkey’s home minister, who seeks to paint the PKK and the HDP as one and the same. The police have used the attack as an excuse to raid homes and take people into custody. Firat News Agency reported twenty-two detentions on Wednesday and nine more on Friday.
Despite the relentless pressure, the Freedom Alliance, formed by the HDP and five much smaller parties, announced its “road map” to a large audience in Istanbul last Saturday. Whether the HDP is banned and shut down before the elections will depend on Erdoğan’s calculation of what would be to his own political benefit.
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At the beginning of this week’s review, I asked how we have been landed with such disastrous world leaders. The history of the 1979 Iranian Revolution demonstrates how fear of the left leads capitalist powers to open the door to the forces of reaction, and this has happened again and again. It is happening now in the abandonment of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, in the international privileging of the KDP, and in the lack of mainstream international solidarity with the HDP. It is clear in the international meddling in Haiti, and in the elections in Italy – where the left has been undermined by the CIA ever since Mussolini’s body was hung upside down in Milan. We can watch the systematic strangulation of Britain’s parliamentary left on our screens, and we are increasingly feeling the consequences of the destruction of the only forces that can mount an opposition to imperial war and climate destruction.
Watching the blurred videos that are still managing to get out from the brave protestors in Iran, we can only hope that sufficient of them are brave and determined enough, not only to stand up to the violence of the Republican Guards, but also to carry their fight through to achieve genuinely liberational social change.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter.