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Kurdish-Iranian Negotiations: What Do They Mean?

July 17, 2019
Shahed Alavi
6 min read
Entrance to the Cooperation Center of Iranian Kurdistan’s Political Parties in Erbil, Iraq
Entrance to the Cooperation Center of Iranian Kurdistan’s Political Parties in Erbil, Iraq
Mohammad Khaki, a Kurdish journalist in London, says it is not clear what percentage of the Kurds are represented by the parties who met with the Islamic Republic delegation in Norway
Mohammad Khaki, a Kurdish journalist in London, says it is not clear what percentage of the Kurds are represented by the parties who met with the Islamic Republic delegation in Norway

Meetings in Norway between four Iranian Kurdish political parties and delegates from the Islamic Republic have sparked a wave of criticism on social media. 

Critics have questioned why the talks were held in secret, why so little information has been published about what was discussed, and why all Kurdish parties were not represented.

They also queried the intentions of the Islamic Republic, which has previously labeled these parties as illegal terrorist organizations and said they “lacked a social base among Kurdish people.”

Ali Karimi, a Kurdish political analyst close to the leftist Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), is skeptical about Iran’s motives. He believes the government only agreed to the meetings to show the international community that it is dealing effectively with the Kurdish issue. 

“If the Islamic Republic had even a little honesty and good will, it would have taken some trust-building steps first,” he says. 

“At the very least, it could stop killing Kulbars [porters who carry goods, legally or illegally, across mountainous borders between Iran and Iraq], free political prisoners, open up the political space a little, and allow for the return of exiles to their homeland.

“That would all be better than putting on a show of friendship by holding secret meetings.”

Hassan Rahmanpanah, a member of the central committee of the Komala Kurdistan Organization of the Communist Party of Iran, is equally unconvinced. 

“The Islamic Republic wishes to sow divisions among political movements in Kurdistan and the Iranian opposition,” he says.

“We believe it also wants to give false hopes to the Kurdish people in Iran and to compensate for its weak position in Kurdistan in case of a US military attack.”

 

Failure of Repressive Policies

Mohammad Khaki, a Kurdish journalist based in London who was once a member of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (not to be confused with the Komala Kurdistan Organization of the Communist Party of Iran), is more optimistic. 

He believes the discussions signal an admission of failure on the part of the Islamic Republic, which for four decades has maintained that these parties have no right to exist.  

“The mere fact that the Islamic Republic is negotiating with Kurdish parties means that their repressive 40-year policy of denying and disregarding the Kurdish parties has failed. 

“It is an admission of their political significance and social standing among the Kurdish people.”

The Islamic Republic is weak and had no choice but to engage with the parties, he adds. 

“The Republic is in a very fragile position due to the escalation of the economic blockade, the heightened discontent, and the growing protests by people of all classes, including workers, women, youth, intellectuals, and national and religious minorities.

“It is so fragile that it has been forced to accept the offer to talk to the Kurdish parties.”

 

An Opportune Time for Negotiations? 

According to Karimi, a key problem lies with the Iranian Constitution, which prevents meaningful talks with opposition groups.

“The issue is not only the negotiations with the Kurds,” he says. “With its existing Constitution, the Islamic Republic cannot even enter into serious negotiations with its own domestic opposition.” 

For Khaki, it will be the Islamic Republic that benefits the most from the discussions. 

“The Islamic Republic knows that if something like a military attack on Iran happened, Kurdistan would be the first place to slip from under government control. 

“But it is aware of the ignorance of the Kurdish parties, including the four who are participating. It believes that, by taking part in the talks, it can win what it has not been able to gain through war.”

 

The Issue of Representation

Not all Kurdish parties have agreed to meet the Islamic Republic, prompting claims from critics that the delegates do not represent all Kurdish people.

For Karimi, the politicians at the talks do not even fully represent their own parties. 

“Many people have now left the Democratic Party and Komala,” he says. “The four parties who met the Islamic Republic cannot claim to represent all those people. 

“Times have changed. They can’t simply rely on the political weight they used to enjoy within Kurdish society.” 

Khaki agrees. Unlike the first round of negotiations following the 1979 revolution, not all major parties are choosing to engage, he points out, and it is unclear what percentage of the Kurdish population they are representing. 

“In the first decade after the revolution, the Kurdish parties enjoyed widespread popular support and serious military capabilities,” he says. “That is no longer the case.”

The Komala Kurdistan Organization of the Communist Party of Iran was invited to participate in the meetings by the designated intermediary, the Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution (NOREF), but the party rejected the offer. 

The Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution (NOREF), the designated intermediary for the talks, invited the Komala Kurdistan Organization of the Communist Party of Iran to participate in the meetings, but the party rejected the offer.

Rahmanpanah says his party would only join the discussions if senior Islamic Republic officials publicly confirmed that they had started. 

“Naturally, after such an announcement, they must acknowledge the ‘Kurdish problem’ in Iran. In addition, they must end the killing of Kulbars, free political prisoners, guarantee freedom of activity for civil organizations, assure freedom of expression, and open up the cultural scene. 

“Only then could we consider entering into such negotiations.”

 

Little Chance of Success

Rahmanpanah is not hopeful these conditions will be met. The Islamic Republic will not grant such concessions because other parts of Iran will be encouraged to make the same demands, he says. 

“The Islamic Republic cannot ease off in Kurdistan while continuing its repressive policies in Tehran, Tabriz, and Isfahan — unless, as a result of widespread protests or a war with the US, they are forced to dispatch their 200,000 troops in Kurdistan to somewhere else in Iran.” 

So the question remains: Why did these four parties agree to the meetings?  

They may be trying to extract concessions from the Islamic Republic and marginalize the other two parties, PJAK and Communist Komala, Karimi believes.

“The Norwegian intermediary did not even invite PJAK to the meetings,” he says. “I think this was the result of lobbying by the four parties that, wrongly, convinced the intermediary that PJAK is irrelevant in Iranian Kurdistan. 

“This, of course, is to the advantage of the Islamic Republic, as it creates more division among Kurdish parties.”

Karimi adds that, besides provoking tensions among the Kurds, one of the goals of the Islamic Republic could be to discredit the parties in the eyes of the Iranian opposition, who would consider the talks as a strike against them.

Khaki agrees with this assessment. According to him, the meetings are likely to harm the Kurdish movement in three significant ways. 

“First, they will reinforce political differences among the Kurdish political parties, as well as among the Kurdish people as a whole. Second, they will worsen relations between Kurdish and nationwide opposition groups. 

“Finally, they will damage the trust and respect of supporters and activists outside these parties for those inside.”

Some non-Kurdish critics contend that the Kurds may be seeking a similar deal as that struck in Syria with President Bashar al-Assad. But Rahmanpanah believes this is unlikely. 

“If we negotiate, we will use the negotiations as a tool to move forward and defeat the Islamic Republic,” he says. “We will not allow the regime to use the talks as an opportunity to rebuild its strength.”

 

 

Related Coverage:

Kurdish-Iranian Talks: Hope for Peace or Just Another Political Stunt?, July 15, 2019

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