On February 10, 2016, the Washington Kurdish Institute conducted a Skype interview with Professor Abbas Vali on the political situation in Rojhelat (Iranian Kurdistan) and Iran’s foreign policy towards Kurds. As a distinguished political and social scholar from Mehabad, Iranian Kurdistan, Vali obtained his BA in Political Science from the National University of Tehran in 1973. In 1976, he received an MA in Politics from the University of Keele. Then in 1983, he obtained his PhD in Sociology from University of London. Dr. Vali has authored numerous books and articles on the Kurdish nationalism and also Iran. He currently teaches Modern Social and Political Theory in the Department of Sociology at Bogazici University in Istanbul.
The following is the whole transcript of the interview.
WKI: Thanks for giving your time to the WKI. The first question is about the Kurds in Iran. Please give us a brief about their history, their population, and their situation?
Abbas Vali: The Kurdish community is a historic community in Iran. It has been in Iran historically and has been a part of that particular entity, which has changed significantly but it is called Iran. So it has been a part of it. And before 1514, in fact the bulk of Kurdish territory was a part of the state of Iran. But in 1514, as a result of the war between the newly-established Safavid state, which was established in 1510, and the expanding state of Salim I of Ottomans, the two neighbors collided in the place called Chalderan. As a result of that, the Safavid were defeated. Consequently, quite a substantial part of the Kurdish territory was taken by the Ottoman state, which is the main part of what is now called Bakur or Northern Kurdistan. Before that, [this separated territory] was an integral part of the Kurdish territory which was being ruled under the Iranian sovereignty. So the division came then and more or less since 1514, the division which was subsequently ratified legally over 100 years in 1639, in the Treaty of Zab, the territory of Eastern Kurdistan which is a part of the sovereign state of Iran at present has remained more or less intact and the same. The major geographical contours of this territory have not changed. And this territory, at present, is divided and subdivided. Divisions and subdivisions are attached to various provinces in Iran. And they have different names. This is strategically meant to deprive the Kurdish territory of administrative unity and also to subject it to different cultures and local cultures and local portion of influence in various parts of Iranian territory so that this entity will develop under different cultural differences and with lack of administrative unity.
So the entity now in Iran is called Kurdistan is a very small part of the larger territory of Kurdistan, which is inhabited by Kurdish speaking population in Iran. The other parts of it are attached to West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Ilam, and Hamedan. So the whole entity lacks this kind of administrative unity. But despite this, there is a boundary which delineates the Kurdish community from other parts of Iran. This boundary is fundamentally defined by language and ethnicity. The Kurdish community in Iran is an ethnic, linguistic community and despite lacking a kind of contiguous geography, it has ethnic and linguistic unity.
As far as religion is concerned, there is diversity. Majority of them are Sunni Shafe’i Kurds. But there is also a sizeable Shiite Kurdish community which is spread largely in the southern parts of Kurdish territory. Because these specific features of the Kurdish territory have never been reflected in any official censuses carried out by various governments, be it Pahlavi or the Islamic Republic, we do not know what percentage of the Kurds are Sunni and what percentage are exactly Shiite. There are educated estimates, which would by no means be statistically precise, based on personal writings about the Kurdish territory in literature, geography, history, or at times in politics or sociology. It is said that roughly about 70-75% of Kurds in Iran are Sunni and 20-25% are Shiite. The Shiite population is also subdivided. The majority is by those who practice the Twelver Shiism, which is the same religion of majority of Iranians. There are also heterodox Shiite sects such as Ahle Haq or Yarisan, which have a complex religious formation but on the whole are considered as heterodox Shiite sects. Their population is not clear either. At present, [this issue is] more so because they are in conflict with the central state which does not accept their denomination and their religion but as a heterodox form of Shiism. They are under serious repression at the moment.
As to the total population of this ethnic, linguistic community in Iran, I must say that whenever this issue is raised, it turns political which signifies the very conditions of the existence of this community and its denied identity in Iran. And because of its denied identity the government’s refusal to give us any specific numerical statistics as to what is the exact size and strength of the Kurdish community, we do not know. There are governmental estimates, which are often the lowest due to the government’s desire to underestimate the exact population, that lies between 6 to 8 million. On the other side of this spectrum is the Kurdish nationalists’ estimates which puts it at 16 to 18 million. I think both are far from real. The government wants a lower representation and the nationalists want a higher representation. I think the truth lies somewhere around 10-12 million. 12 million is probably a fair estimate given the proportional rise of the population of the community in the context of the increased Iranian population which is now said to be around 80 million. So I think we could safely say that the Kurdish community could exceed 12 million.
WKI: So the second question would be, Dr. Vali, how many active Kurdish political parties are there inside and outside Iranian Kurdistan? Who are the major ones? What are their accomplishments? Do they enjoy any noticeable popularity among Kurds in Iran in general and new generation of educated Kurds in particular?
Abbas Vali: The Kurdish political parties are living a life of exile. They have been forced out of the Kurdish territory in Iran ever since 1983-5. And ever since then, they have been residing in Southern Kurdistan. Under the protection of the federal government of Iraqi Kurdistan, they are living a life which is largely detached from the bulk of the Kurdish community in Iran. It is rather difficult to say that how many branches or sections are there, largely because the two main political parties i.e. the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (a.k.a. Komala) have suffered a number of important divisions since the 1979 revolution. Some of these divisions have disappeared and some have remained with lasting influence on the organizations and their ideological and political representation.
To begin with, The Kurdish Democratic Party, only days after the revolution, suffered a sectarian division in which a faction of the party which was cooperating with the Communist Tudeh Party of Iran chose to split from the party or rather was forced out of the party because of its strategic differences with the bulk of the leadership regarding their attitude and position towards the Islamic Republic. It was supporting the Iranian regime on an anti-imperialistic [approach] while the bulk of the party under the leadership of Dr.
Qasimlu were against this and subsequently that small faction was expelled from the party. That is not the only division this party have suffered, though. After Qasimlu’s death in 1989, this party went through another division. This one has been more significant and has carried a larger sector of the membership with them. This is the division between what is now the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran. The latter is currently led by Mustafa Hijri while the former is led by Khaled Azizi. As far as I know, there are no specific ideological and political lines on which this division can be explained. It seems to me that the main reason is intraparty factional struggle, which itself is a consequence of forms of disagreement between those who vie for leadership and their clients within the party. It is a division, a kind of sectarianism within the party, which so far has had no significant and convincing political or ideological explanation whatsoever.
So one in inclined to conclude that this is largely a personal problem between the leaders. It is a consequence of personal ambitions, personal interests, personal infighting, and so on and so forth in the party. This [division] has largely weakened the party. Now each of those two are pursuing their own policies which are highly distinguishable from one another. Therefore, one is often wondering why the two have remained separate? And why do they not unite again? Because there is no significant or telling political or ideological differences to justify this division.
When we go to the Komala side, it has suffered a number of divisions. To be quite truthful, there have been so many divisions inside Komala, I just cannot remember how many they are. And if I want to tell you the exact number of them, I have to go and look at my notes to see how many divisions have happened over the last 15 years.
The first division was a communist separation from this party in the early 1980s, which damaged Komala very significantly. The communists who left the party did it so due to the ideological reasons ostensibly. These ideological reasons were clearly a kind of opposition the communists had towards the nationalist identity of Komala. They [communists] wanted to push Komala towards a more workerist-socialist position. As a result, the workerist-socialist faction left the party and formed the communist party of Iran. And after divisions within the communist party of Iran, the more extremist and orthodox members separated and established the Workers’ Communist Party of Iran under the leadership of a non-Kurd Iranian named Mansour Hekmat who died a few years ago. The Communist Party of Iran is still under the leadership of Ebrahim Alizadeh.
The more nationalist-socialist faction was under the leadership of Abdullah Mohtadi, who were pursuing the old identity of Komala which is both nationalistic and socialistic. This faction also suffered further divisions and sectarianisms in the last few years. This latest division happened between a group which is still led by Mr. Mohtadi and another one led by Omar Ilkhanizadeh. Mohtadi and Ilkhanizadeh are cousins and come from the same clan. Again exactly like the situation with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, the division between Mr. Ilkhanizadeh and Mr. Mohtadi seems to be largely based on personal ambitions for leadership. Again, there is no convincing ideological or political explanation as to why this division took place, why they have different political party programs, and so on.
These are the major divisions inside these two organizations. But on the whole, these two organizations have adopted a policy of quietism, which means that they have not been extremely active, that they have not been either politically or militarily active against the Iranian regime. They have lived a life of exile. I myself have described them as political parties who have decided to retire. I think they have retired from active political life. And this retirement was largely precipitated by the conditions that seem to have been imposed on them by their life in Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems there is an agreement between the KRG and Iranian regime, based on which Iran has agreed to keep quiet and to not carry out military operations against the Iranian Kurdish communities around Suleymaniyeh and allow the KRG to host them in its territory and support them financially. In return, the Iranian Kurdish parties will not carry out military operations against the Islamic Republic.
So as we see, in the last 15 years, there has hardly been any military operation against the Islamic Republic. This absence of military operations has also been, in largely, compounded by [absence of] any significant political activities, which tells us something quite important about the current situation in the Iranian Kurdistan: These parties are largely living a life of isolation from the Kurdish community in Iran. Neither do they seem to be active or influential forces in defining the nature or character of the political configuration of Iranian Kurdistan.
It also seems that these parties have been left behind by sociological changes taken place in Eastern Kurdistan in the course of the last 3o years. The new generation of the Iranian Kurds do not seem to be particularly interested in the political and ideological position taken or espoused by the Kurdish political forces in exile. This new generation of Iranian Kurds, who could have been potentially the main backbone of a kind of politics led by those parties, have chosen to go a different way. Their consciousness, political position, and ideological orientation seem to have been developed under different discourses and practices that are very different from those taken by different factions of both Komala and Kurdish Democratic Party.
The problem, to my mind, is these parties have thus far failed to understand the significance of this sociological, cultural change and its political consequences for the Kurdish community in Iran. They seem to be still living in the past, to be still believing that the Iranian Kurdistan they left 37 years ago is still the same. To my mind, there is a huge generational gap which has been constantly reinforced by this cultural, political, and ideological divisions and differences which have come about in the Iranian Kurdistan in the course of the last 37 years.
When you read the writings of the younger generation of the Kurds in Iran, when you look at the discourses, their analyses and their representation of politics and culture, their outlook regarding their perception of their community, their self-perception within their own community and within the larger Iranian community, you would come to the conclusion that there is a world of difference between what the reality is in the Iranian Kurdistan and what the Kurdish political forces in exile believe it to be.
This isolation, this failure to understand the situation in Iran, has also created an increasing political marginalization of these forces. In my opinion, because of the fact that these forces have led struggles against various regimes in Iran, be it Pahlavi or the Islamic Republic, although Komala did not exist under the Pahlavi regime, and because they are ethnically Kurdish and have Kurdish ethnic identity, they have some sort of inbuilt legitimacy. But this inbuilt legitimacy has been significantly undermined by the political, ideological, and cultural developments in Iran in the last 37 years.
I must add here that if the situation develops in a way that these parties return to Iran, they may still have some support among the generation of Iranian Kurds aged over 45 but not among younger generations. That support, I would say, would be short-lived because these parties have failed to adapt themselves to the new situation on the one hand and have failed to modernize themselves politically and ideologically on the other hand. This failure to modernize themselves is going to cost them a lot if situation changes in a way that enables them to return to Iran.
WKI: Speaking of the growing gap between Komala and Kurdish Democratic Party on the one hand and the new generation of Kurds in Iran on the other hand, the third question would be in year 2003 some Iranian Kurds within the PKK ranks came up with the idea of establishing the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (a.k.a. PJAK). What impact has it had on the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iran? It seems to me PJAK has not welcomed by both Komala and Kurdish Democratic Party. How could one explain this?
Abbas Vali: I would sort of probably disagree with the account that Kurds inside the PKK decided to establish PJAK. I think it was a decision made by the PKK leadership who decided to size down the organization and to encourage Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria to create their own similar organizations that would subscribe the same ideological position, which is based on Abdullah Ocalan’s position. In terms of political organization, too, they basically duplicate that of the PKK. They [PKK-affiliated groups in those three countries] have intrinsic ideological and political relationship with the PKK. This is how the Kurdistan People’s Congress (a.k.a. Kongra-Gel) decided how these divisions would come about.
PJAK, as you said, has not been and will not be welcomed by either Komala or Democrat because first, they are rival organizations; and secondly PJAK does not seem to be a part of the agreement which the KRG has with the Iranian government to live in Iraqi Kurdish territory in return for quietism and lack of activities against the Iranian government. They [PJAK] have chosen to ignore this rule and they are active against the Iranian government. This activeness, however, slowed down a few years ago when the Iranian government started bombing the Kurdish territory in Iraq (where PJAK is based) after PJAK had carried out a few operations inside Iranian Kurdistan. I think, with the intervention of the KRG leadership and negotiations with Iran, they seem to have reached some sort of an understanding that Iranian government would cease military operations against PJAK and, in return, PJAK would cease or slow down its military operations against Iranian forces.
It is said that PJAK seems to be more attractive to the younger generation of the Kurds in Iran. It is not surprising. Its left-wing ideology, its association with the PKK, its declaration of opposition to the Iranian government and commitment to the destruction of the regime seem to be attractive to the younger generation although in the reports I read or the information I gain, that this attraction [I think] is rather limited. Largely because it seems this kind of political activity, which has its roots in the past, does not have that much support from the bulk of the Kurdish population in Iran. I think the experience of the revolution, the experience of the hardships that the Kurdish community has undergone after the imposition of the Islamic rule, and the experience of the Kurds in other parts of Kurdistan have all created some sort of cautious consciousness among the bulk of the population in Iranian Kurdistan. They do not seem to be looking positively upon political strategies which would give significant role to political violence and military activities.
That is somehow seems to be a problem. This is the first reason. Secondly, I would say that despite the attraction of PJAK to certain sector of the Kurdish youth in Iran, its strict ideology and its commitment to certain interpretations of Marxism combined with nationalism, its commitment to forms of political planning and projects which have been devised for the Kurds in Turkey and now are being practiced in Rojava, these do not seem to be cutting too much ice in Iranian Kurdistan. The situation may, however, change if there is a political upheaval in Iran and if proper conditions for this form of activities come about. But at present, I think, the situation in Iranian Kurdistan is not completely receptive to this kind of political ideology. I would say they will remain an active but largely marginal force.
WKI: Iranian Kurds have shown solidarities with Kurds in neighboring countries on certain developments in neighboring countries. Ocalan’s capture in 1999, the brutal crackdown on Syrian Kurds in 2004, unprecedented Kurdish accomplishments in Iraq since 2003, and most recently Syrian Kurds’ successes have all caused mass demonstrations by Iranian Kurds. Why do Kurds in Iran care about the destiny of Kurds in other countries? Do you think developments in neighboring countries will have any lasting impacts on Kurds in Iran?
Abbas Vali: Yes, I think this is hardly surprising because the Kurdish identity is transnational insofar as “national” means the existing nations within Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. To that extent, the Kurdish identity is transnational, transbordering, and extraterritorial because of the strong ethnic, linguistic, and political bonds among the Kurdish communities in the region. So it is not surprising that what happens in one part of Kurdistan has very strong repercussion on other parts of Kurdistan. Here, I actually want to add something with regard to what I said about PJAK. Whatever happens in Rojava and, by extension, in Bakur (Turkey’s Kurdistan) will have very strong important consequences for PJAK in particular because of its ideological and political affinity with those both the PKK and PYD. So if the PYD succeeds, I think the fortunes of PJAK will be on the rise; it will be able to attract more people, more cadres and more political support in Iranian Kurdistan. Particularly in comparison with the vicissitudes of life in Southern Kurdistan, which used to be a very attractive model for many, and its current political and economic problems, the extent of corruption, mismanagement, lack of direction, lack of clear political plan, lack of active ad wise leadership, these are all examples which would be very discouraging for the Kurds of Rojhelat (Iranian Kurdistan) to try to emulate that kind of plan [led by Iraqi Kurdish leadership].
In contrast with that, Rojava seems to be a militant example which is very much imbedded in a very libertarian and democratic ideology which has received significant endorsement from international community because of its stance against ISIS and its cooperation with the international coalition against ISIS and also the model of social, political, economic, and cultural life it has been trying to establish. So I think if PJAK moves properly and correctly, if it reads the situation properly and correctly, and if it tries to adapt its political and ideological discourse in relation to the developments in Rojava and Bakur, given the outcome of these two experience, I think PJAK’s fortunes could change and could significantly overshadow the traditional Kurdish parties. But this all depends on all the “ifs” I just said.
With regard to your question and the transnational nature of the Kurdish identity, it can be always activated by developments in other parts of Kurdistan. For instance, what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan 13 years ago had a significant impact on Rojava. The first political rising in Rojava happened in 2004 one year after the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. It clearly had a dispensable impact on Kurds in Syria. In the Iranian Kurdistan, too, the creation of the KRG was a landmark. They [Kurds in Iran] looked upon it with admiration, supported it, and wished it would succeed. They still hope it will succeed. They still associate with it if not politically, maybe emotionally.
So, this kind of transnational identity makes the political feeling and the political desire and demands of Kurds cross borders very easily.
That means that Kurdish identity and Kurdish community, by the same token, can be easily and actively mobilized if there is a significant Kurdish development in one of the neighboring country. It is never immune to that development; never will it be. This is something that governments in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria have known. We know that in the past, they always formed alliances against the Kurdish political movement e.g. the Treaty of Saadabad in 1937. There also have been numerous covert and overt coordinated operations between these countries against the Kurdish movement in various parts of Kurdistan. If these governments have supported these movements, they have had an instrumental, temporary purpose of playing off Kurds against each other such as using Iraqi Kurds against Iranian Kurds or Turkey’s Kurds.
Kurdish identity and community, as I have mentioned frequently, have been ruptured, fragmented, and divided by politics, culture, economics, and internal divisions. Yet, we do not know whether or not these divisions are going to really be translated to permanent historical divisions. So I would say that despite this identity is ruptured and all the divisions I just mentioned, despite the fact that Kurdish communities have lived and developed under very different economic and political regimes for a century, this identity is still capable of being mobilized and of being responsive to what is happening across the border. The ethnic and linguistic common grounds of this identity seem to have a capacity to form a basis for a more solid and stronger, more solid and unified entity. But that would depend to the extent to which the political forces in various parts of Kurdistan would understand the necessities of the day to move towards it in a coordinated way. At present, this kind of understanding and vision is unfortunately absent.
WKI: What is Tehran’s policy towards Kurds in Iran and in neighboring countries?
Abbas Vali: I think Iran’s policy towards the Kurdish community, their politics and their aspirations can be summed up in one sentence: Iranian government has repeatedly said that it does not have a Kurdish question, which means that although it does not deny that it has a Kurdish community, with specific language, ethnicity, and historical formation it does not believe that there are enough to form a basis for a specific political identity to become the bearer of a specific political movement or project. They [Iranians] don’t accept that. When they say there is no Kurdish question, they implicitly make a sharp distinction between two groups of Kurds. The first group is what they call the “traitors or combatant Kurds”, who do not submit to the rules of the Islamic Republic, do not accept its fundamental principles, and do not subscribe to any principles explained in its constitution. These are the “bad Kurds” or even “not Kurds”. They are just agents of foreign countries and the bulk of population oppose the government; nor do they take up arms or rise against the government. They are a part of a community which is acknowledged by the government but as a local ethnic community with no political identity. And there is no Kurdish question. So that is the issue.
But despite this, the denial has always been supported by an increasing move towards securitization and militarization of the Kurdish area. Therefore, the government’s approach is one which is grounded on security considerations of the state based on which the Kurdish community and its question is seen as being primarily a security problem which could be dealt with, if need be, by force and violence. The government, because of its denial of the Kurdish question and Kurdish political identity in Iran, has been unable to work out a particular strategy for the incorporation of this ethnic and linguistic community into its ideological and political formation. That community is kept under the security outlook and when it comes to consideration of its position inside wider Iranian politics, it’s an alien. It is only incorporated by force of arms and all necessary violent means and instruments which underpin support and activate this security outlook of the Iranian state.
Insofar as the Kurdish community, Kurdish culture, and Kurdish language is perceived as a security problem, is forced to live under the sign of security and military position of the state, I think it is highly unlikely that the government will be able to address this question and to perceive it as a political question that has to be addressed by the government and treated as a political question. In essence, to remove the security definition from the Kurdish question would be to de-militarize and de-securitize it.
WKI: After the recent agreement on Iran’s nuclear activities was accomplished between Iran and P5+1, what ramifications do you think it will have on the Kurdish issue? Do you think it will cause the Iranian regime to open up on the Kurdish issue?
Abbas Vali: One hopes that it may happen. But I think like any other issue in Iran, at present it is very difficult to forecast. It is very difficult to outline the shape, figure, and contours of the future political and cultural situation in Iran. Because largely the situation which has been created after the nuclear deal has opened up an entirely new political field for political struggle in Iran between the hardliners and the reformists and various factions inside these two general blocs. The fate of this security approach to the Kurdish question, the fate of what may happen to the Kurdish community in Iran, very much depends on the outcome of this struggle. If the reformist camp prevails, one should expect certain opening and recognition of at least cultural identity of the Kurds, admission of certain rights and so on and so forth. But, in any case, I think that would be very much short of accepting a political identity with its specific demands for autonomy and federalism.
Iranian Kurdistan had its darkest days in the eight-year rule of Mr. Ahmadinejad. There was intensification of repression, of militarization and securitization of Kurdistan, and consolidation of the policy of denial and repression. This situation under President Rouhani has not changed much despite the fact that people voted wholeheartedly for him just as they had voted for Khatami before. This means the bulk of Kurdish population in Iran are hoping that reformists’ policies are going to help their cause and the realization of their aspirations.
It not yet clear that what position they [Kurds] will take in the upcoming elections. One should imagine, however, that Kurdistan may not turn out with the same majority as it did in the last election. But they still hope that their participation in the election will help the reformists’ candidates and will help the cause. I think this is largely a consequence of the lack of hope from any internal Kurdish opposition and their negative perception of the role and influence of the external Kurdish opposition. So if they are going out to vote despite the advice of the Kurdish political parties, it means that they simply see no other way for change.
This is very important. It means that if there is an opening inside Iran, if the reformists succeed over hardliners, I think the first move Iranian Kurds would do, which seems quite legitimate to me, is to move towards creating new political organizations. These political organizations would spring up from within the community and would be entirely new with new leadership and perception. This is also going to be very different in terms of the process of creation of the new parties. Previously, as we know, the traditional Kurdish parties were formed and then they started their propaganda and political work to create a political and social base for themselves. Given the current situation, this is not going to be the case again. I am largely convinced that the political situation and the political movement in Iranian Kurdistan will primarily start as a cultural and social movement. Then, a kind of leadership will be emerging from this cultural, social development and if the situation permits, there will be new political force(s) in various parts of Iranian Kurdistan which will be quite new and very different from the old ones. I think it is a development which is long overdue.
WKI: Do Iranian Kurds have any relationship with the U.S. specially after the newly-achieved nuclear deal? If they do, do you think they have any chance of improving their situation in the U.S. foreign policy calculations?
Abbas Vali: I think, at present, there is no such a relationship with the U.S. of any significance. The Iranian Kurdish political have shown that they are not able to present themselves as viable forces. They have been internally divided and subdivided, they have adopted a very negative policy of quietism, and they have hoped for years, particularly since 2003 when Saddam was overthrown and the KRG was created, for the repeat of a similar experience in Iran. They have hoped that Iranian people will rise up, that there will be an internal implosion of anger and frustration, and situation will be proper for them to go back. This was one policy of internal implosion which never came about and will not come about.
Secondly, I think they seriously miscalculated the U.S. strategy and Iran’s place in it. They thought what happened to Saddam regime would happen to Iran, too. It was not just a miscalculation but also quiet unwise. It was totally devoid of any rational logic; an absolutely non-strategic reading of the situation. Now they have realized that years of inactiveness have led to their marginalization. They want to resume their activities in Iran. This is not easy, however. Because I believe they do not that kind of support in Iranian Kurdistan. America clearly sees this, and American analysts and strategists know this. Aside from this, I think American strategists and foreign policy makers, fundamentally, have always been orientated towards dealing with sovereign states. They very seldom form alliances and work with non-state actors overtly.
The case of the PYD is quite an achievement in the respect that America is openly and overtly working with a non-sovereign force and is supporting it despite very hard opposition from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This is a quite different situation. This exception stems from the fact that the PYD has shown its capacity. But Iranian Kurdish forces have not shown that. They also have been very inexperienced in terms of working outside the country and creating diplomatic links with other countries, in terms of politics and culture of lobbying, in terms of forming alliances with forces which may be in opposition to the Iranian regime. So altogether, the U.S. does know these forces exist. I do not think, however, it has a very positive assessment of their abilities, capacity, and strategy.
Moreover, after the nuclear deal, the U.S. is moving towards a new balance of power in the Middle East. And all indications show that a reformed Iran, not this Iran, is given a very specific role in that new balance of power. A reformed Iran, not the current Iran, will be invited, asked, and pushed to be a part of that new balance of forces. This again depends how the dice falls in Syria and Iraq, and what position Iran takes in those two countries with regard to overall American strategy. It seems to me that the U.S. is quite happy to recognize Iran’s interests and current role in Syria. But the problem will emerge and stay largely in Iraq. I think Iran’s influence in Iraq will be challenged by the U.S. and this challenge has to be accommodated in the context of the larger strategic balance of force which the U.S. wants to bring about in the region which has been absent ever since the fall of Shah’s regime. I think due to the uncertainties created by the fall of the Shah’s regime, the role given to Saudi Arabia could not perform, the role that Israel performs which always creates more and more opposition, the strategy of the U.S. in the Middle East needs a new lynchpin. There has to be a new balance of power in which Iran is going a very important role. The consequence of it for the Kurdish community in Iran may be good. But I don’t think it will be good for the Kurdish forces in exile.
WKI: The last question is about the upcoming elections. As you know, on February the 26th, there are going to be two simultaneous elections: the parliamentary election and the Assembly of Experts’ elections. It seems that Kurds have different stances on whether or not they should participate in the elections. What do you think would be the wisest position for Kurds to take in Iran? For example, we have homogenous Kurdish cities where the population is just Kurdish versus mixed cities where the population is mixed.
Abbas Vali: I would approach this question with the proviso. I think the Kurdish community is not homogeneous particularly in time of elections. The Kurds who cooperate with the government and reap economic reward from this cooperation will actively take part in those elections. For example, those tribes working with the government and are called the Islamic Peshmerga [will take part]. This section of the Kurdish community will vote.
But I think the second section will look to the major political scene in Iran to see how the current struggle over the election list between the hardliners and the reformists is going to develop. I think if the current situation continues and that the reformist candidates are so massively excluded by the Council of Guardians, the younger generation of the Kurds will be hesitant to go to polls so enthusiastically as they did in the last election. That’s very important and the government will know that. So, to a large extent, it depends on how these lists are going to be modified and how many of the currently excluded candidates will be accepted. It also depends on the way the situation is going to develop within the next weeks inside Kurdistan. I would say the situation is largely undecided. But on the whole, I predict a positive approach towards election although it will, by no means, going to be like the last two times. The last two times, Kurdistan was first and second in terms of [relative] number of the votes given to reformist presidential candidates. This time, they will be more cautious and very watchful of the developments in the larger political field in Iran.
WKI: In the end, we want to thank you again for sharing all your insightful information and analyses with us and our readers. If you think there is anything else worth mentioning that I missed, please feel free to mention them.
Abbas Vali: I think we just covered everything that we could cover for an interview like that. And you have a big task of transcribing all of this. It is not easy. I would not envy you on that. All the best with the work in hand.
Source: Washington Kurdish Institute