Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2018, 12:53 GMT

Assessment for Kurds in Iran

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Iran, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Iran Facts
Area:    1,648,000 sq. km.
Capital:    Tehran
Total Population:    68,960,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The situation of Kurdish Iranians is more precarious than the Bakhtiari (because of their higher numbers and Sunni Muslim faith) or the Baluchis (because of their advocacy of autonomy and intellectual urban bases). Complicating any predictive assessment is the number of countries with sizable Kurdish minorities that play off one another and have historically used the Kurds as political pawns. Additionally, while militant Iranian Kurds had been using the northern autonomous zone in Iraq as a safe haven, it appears that this practice has not continued since Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Because regional autonomy does not appear to be in the Iranian Kurds' near future, the condition of Kurds in Iran will likely be unresolved for years to come.

Analytic Summary

Like their ethnic brethren in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the Kurds in Iran have multiple and overlapping demands vis-à-vis their political future, including the desire to unify with their kindred group (AUTGR203 = 3), to achieve political independence (AUTGR303 = 2) and to gain a level of regional autonomy with widespread powers (AUTGR403 = 1). Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims (CULDIFX4 = 2), but there is a minority of Shi'i Muslim Kurds in Iran, primarily in the western province of Kermanshah (GROUPCON = 3). The Kurds (CULDIFX1 = 2) speak several dialects of the Kurdish language (CULDIFX = 2) and are divided into many tribes. These tribal divisions and rivalries have often been an impediment to their struggle for autonomy.

These tribal divisions have led to the formation of several Kurdish political organizations, most notably the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI, currently in exile) and the Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan (Komala). Because Kurdish political parties are banned in Iran, these organizations remain highly militant, yet no acts of open rebellion were reported in the years 1999-2003 (REB99-03 = 0) – the most recent Kurdish uprising occurred in 1972-1982 after the Iranian Revolution. The largest recent Kurdish protest in Iran occurred when the government forcefully suppressed demonstrations by Kurds in the wake of the February 1999 arrest of PKK leader Abudullah Ocalan in Turkey. Security forces reportedly killed 20 people and made several hundred arrests (PROT99 = 3; REP0299 = 1, REP1999 = 1). More recently, there have been acts of protest by Kurdish members of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis), including the 2002 resignation of all six deputies from Kurdistan province in protest against "discrimination against Kurd and Sunni minorities" (PROT02 = 1; PROT03 = 2). Kurds in Iran experience governmental restriction on their observance of Sunni Islam (CULPO196-03 = 2), as well as restrictions on organizations that promote Kurdish cultural interests (CULPO701-02 = 2). These severe restrictions also take place in the realms of political organizing and the attainment of high office for Kurds (POLIC496-00 = 2; POLIC896-03 = 2).

The Kurds have a history of valuing their independence and have, whenever possible, resisted domination by outside powers and have occasionally managed to maintain autonomy in parts of the region in which they live. The last time they were able to maintain regional autonomy in Iran for any considerable period of time ended in the mid-19th century due to centralization policies by the Qajar Shahs. However, local tribal leaders continued to maintain armies. They had brief periods of independence from 1918-1922 and in 1946 and engaged in several other uprisings during times when the Iranian government was weak. They still hold grievances over their being denied the right of self-determination when the imperialist powers were drawing the map of their region.

In 1979, most Kurds initially supported the Iranian revolution, with the primary exception of certain tribal chiefs that were benefiting from the Shah's regime, in hope of gaining democracy and autonomy. However, when it became clear that the new government had no intention of giving the Kurds either democracy or autonomy, the Kurds rebelled against the government. This rebellion was met with repression by the Iranian government. The Iran-Iraq war was used as an excuse by both sides to repress their own Kurds and support insurrection by their enemy's Kurds. Since this time, Iranian Kurdish rebels have been using Iraq, and later the Kurdish autonomous zone in Iraq as a base for their attacks.

There are two major Kurdish parties in Iran as well as many smaller ones, including Kurdish branches of other Iranian political parties. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) was first formed in 1945. It has maintained a constant policy of demanding democracy for Iran and autonomy for the Kurds. It has not demanded a separate state, perhaps because of the close historical and cultural ties between Iran and its Kurds. Most of its support comes from the urban middle class, intellectuals, merchants and government employees. Since 1981, it has formally been part of the Iranian National Resistance Council (a coalition of Iranian opposition groups based in Paris) and has militarily opposed the Iranian government. The Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan (Komala) is the other major Kurdish party. While there are claims that is has existed as an underground organization since 1969, it first appeared publicly in 1983 as the Kurdish branch of the Communist Party of Iran. While it has often violently disagreed with the KDPI, the Komalah has supported the KDPI's stance for democracy and autonomy.


Aghajanian, Akbar "Ethnic Inequality in Iran: an Overview" Int. J. Middle East Stud. 1983, 211-24.

Aguado, Laura D. "The Kurds in the Middle East: Struggle for National Liberation" Ethnic Studies Report, 5(2), July 1987. pp. 9-17.

Helfgott, Leonard M. "The Structural Foundations of the National Minority Problem in Revolutionary Iran" Middle East Studies, XIII (1-4), pp.195-213.

Izadi, Mehrdad The Kurds: A Concise Handbook, Washington: Crane Russak, 1992.

Kreyenbrook, Philip G. & Stephan Sprel (eds) The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, New York: Routledge, 1992.

Meron, Theodor "Iran's Challenge to the International Law of Human Rights" Human Rights Internet Reporter, 13 (1), Spring 1989, pp. 8-13.

Metz, Helen Chapin Iran: a Country Study (4th ed.), Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1987.

Richard, Yann "The Relevance of 'Nationalism' in Contemporary Iran" Middle East Review, Summer 1989, pp. 27-36.

Simm, Richard "Kurdistan: The Search for Recognition" Conflict Studies, 1980. pp. 1-9.

Snyder, L.L. Global Mini-Nationalisms: Autonomy or Independence, Westport Conn: Greenwood, 1982.

Minorities at Risk phase #1 code sheet.

The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-1994.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990-1994.

Lexis/Nexis, Reuters News, 1990-2003.

UN Commission on Human Rights Report on the Islamic Republic of Iran, 12 February 1990.

US Department of State Human Rights Reports on Iran for 1991 & 1993, 2001-2003.

US Department of Sate International Religious Freedom Report 2001-2003.The Washington Post, 1990-1994

Search Refworld