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Iran’s leaders opposed Kurdish independence vote in Iraq. Iran’s Kurds celebrated on the streets.

Despite severe opposition from Iraq and other countries, the Kurds voted to secede from Iraq in their Sept. 25 independence referendum. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
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ISTANBUL — Nearly every Middle East government was opposed to Monday's vote for independence in the Kurdish region of Iraq. But not so just across the border in the cities and towns of western Iran.

There, thousands of Iranian Kurds, jubilant for their Iraqi kin, staged demonstrations in support of the vote. (Iran is home to roughly 8 million Kurds. The rest of the region's Kurdish population is spread across Iraq, Syria and Turkey.)

Crowds waving glowing cellphone screens marched in main squares in places including Baneh, Sanandaj and Mahabad, the capital of a short-lived republic declared by Kurds in 1946. Images posted on social media showed demonstrators singing the Kurdish national anthem, chanting for “freedom!” and in some cases marching past Iranian security forces.

The protests, however, defied the government in Tehran that has condemned the referendum and warned of regional chaos. Iran is a key ally of the government in Baghdad and has urged the international community to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity.

But Tehran is also concerned about unrest within its own borders, where Kurds have long complained of discrimination and widespread rights abuses. The armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, or KDPI, which is based in Iraq, ended a years-long cease-fire with Iran's Revolutionary Guard last year. The two sides have engaged in low-level clashes, and on Monday the party circulated images from the protests.

Iranian Kurds “expressed their own desire for the right of self-determination,” the party’s head of foreign relations, Loghman Ahmedi, said in an email Tuesday. And the protests were also “a strong sign of solidarity” with Iraqi Kurdistan, he said, adding that if Iran were to take military action against Iraq’s Kurds, Iranian Kurds would respond.

“That is the message,” he said.

Still, having spent decades in exile, Iran's Kurdish parties remain weak, and it is unclear if the leaders can mobilize their own campaign for self-rule. In the past, the KDPI has said it wants autonomy for Iranian Kurds, but within the framework of a democratic Iran.

In Turkey, the military has battled Kurdish separatists for decades. Meanwhile, Syria's Kurdish militias have forged alliances with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.

Galip Dalay, research director at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, wrote in Foreign Affairs this month: “Even though the Iranian regime continues to execute dozens to hundreds of Kurdish dissidents every year, Iranian Kurds have not effectively sought to change their fate or utilize their power.”

“Iranian Kurdish politics have remained largely unresponsive to the general regional upheaval and even to major developments inside Iran,” Dalay wrote.

But Ahmedi pushed back, saying Monday was a turning point.

Monday’s demonstrations “undermined myths” about Kurds in Iran and the region, he said.

“One myth was that the people of eastern [Iranian] Kurdistan want to live under Iranian rule,” he said. “Another myth is that the Kurdish national liberation movement had lost popular support. Both of these myths were shattered in just 24 hours.”