The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the center of Iran’s uprising, Kurds now face a mounting crackdown

Iranians protest in Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Iran’s Kurdistan region, on Sept. 19 after the death of a young Kurdish woman in police custody in Tehran. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Security forces with heavy weapons roam the streets of Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Iran’s Kurdistan region, in armored vehicles. They fire into the homes of terrified residents, who are living under a near-total communication blackout.

“Sanandaj is now a military zone with weapons of war being used,” a 30-year-old woman in the city, some 250 miles west of Tehran, told The Washington Post by voice message. Like other locals in this article, she spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by security forces. “Almost every house in the city has been affected,” she said.

Iran’s long-oppressed Kurdish population has been at the forefront of the month-long anti-government uprising. Now it is bearing the brunt of the government’s intensifying efforts to crush the unrest — a possible harbinger of what awaits protesters in other parts of the country.

In interviews with The Post over the past week, three residents of Sanandaj described a military-style occupation of their city, which has been almost entirely cut off from internet and phone service since mid-September. The Post could not independently verify their accounts, but they were consistent with the findings of rights groups, and with past crackdowns in Kurdish areas.

“The consolidation of authoritarianism” in Iran “has often been consummated through the repression of the Kurdish movement,” said Djene Rhys Bajalan, a professor at Missouri State University who specializes in Kurdish history. “The road to tyranny goes through Kurdistan.”

Protesters in Nowshahr in northern Iran flipped a police car on Sept. 21 during the fifth day of protests sparked by Mahsa Amini's death in police custody. (Video: Storyful)

The demonstrations sweeping the country first gained speed in the Kurdistan region. It’s the home of Mahsa Amini — or Jina Amini in her native Kurdish language — whose death in police custody last month fanned long-simmering fury over the iron rule of Iran’s clerical leaders.

But for Iranian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the population, the protests are also part of a long tradition of resistance against the Islamic republic. One of the demonstrators’ key slogans — “Woman, life, freedom” — has its roots in the regional Kurdish struggle.

“Men and women of all generations have come together here to fight for their rights that have been trampled for 50 years,” the 30-year-old woman told The Post. “We will be on the streets until the day we find some peace from this constant injustice and oppression.”

The Kurds are one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups, with tens of millions of people in communities spanning Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, they are typically Sunni Muslim, subject to heightened discrimination by Iran’s theocratic Shiite government.

Kurds have long struggled for an autonomous region of their own in northwestern Iran — a movement Iranian authorities have sought to crush.

Tehran responded swiftly and violently to the outbreak of protests here in September and was quick to blame the unrest on foreign instigators and dissidents.

For the first five days of protests, all of those killed — seven people, including a 16-year-old boy — came from Kurdish communities. One month in, rights groups estimate around 30 Kurds, including five children, have been killed among some 200 deaths nationwide.

A man was killed inside a vehicle in Sanandaj, Iran, on Oct. 8 as protests around the death of Mahsa Amini continue. (Video: Storyful)

Exact figures are nearly impossible to confirm “either because of communication outages or because [people] are too afraid to speak,” said Rebin Rahmani, a member of the board of directors of the France-based Human Rights Network of Kurdistan.

Iranian authorities have been stepping up assaults on Kurdish hot spots like Sanandaj for more than a week, said Baha Bahreini, an Iran researcher with Amnesty International.

“They have made the city into a military base,” a 37-year-old businessman told The Post. “Sanandaj is fully militarized.”

Residents told The Post they are afraid to leave their homes. Yet despite the danger, they said, protesters are still taking to the streets each day, usually in the evenings.

The businessman said various security forces, including the feared Basij paramilitary arm of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, attack people at random.

“They have this look that is filled with hatred and grudge toward us,” he said. “The brutality that you are seeing on videos is real.”

Tactics of repression: How Iran is trying to stop Mahsa Amini protests

In one video circulating online, a man shows how a bullet went through the window of his home in Sanandaj, through a wall and into another room.

“There have been a lot of disturbing reports about constant firing of live ammunition throughout the whole night and reports of tear gas or different ammunitions being thrown at the windows of houses to prevent people from going to the windows and looking at the streets,” Bahreini said.

The violence would not end “without urgent action at the international level,” Bahreini continued.

“We know the way the system is,” she said. “It’s been constant waves of protests over the years and killing with impunity.”

Kurds make up half of political prisoners held in Iran and a disproportionately high number of those executed, according to a 2019 U.N. report, part of a history of brutality toward the country’s Kurdish communities.

The Pahlavi monarchy, which ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979, tried to centralize control by assimilating Kurds, sometimes by force, and reducing the power of tribal leaders, Bajalan said.

Iranian Kurds joined protests to overthrow Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — and continued to fight Shiite revolutionaries who won out in 1979.

When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, Iran’s new clerical leaders upped their efforts to crush Kurdish resistance.

“The Iranian state heavily militarized the region,” Bajalan said, adding that the state “condemns all forms of political activism as separatism.”

Armed Kurdish groups seeking autonomy in Iran have periodically fought with government security forces. Many have sought refuge across the border in Kurdistan, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Iran has retaliated by carrying out strikes across the border in Iraq, including two last month, accusing Kurdish groups there of having a hand in the protests. Kurdish authorities said strikes on Sept. 28 killed 10 people, including at one least one child.

As protests rage on, Iran carries out strikes against Kurds in Iraq

Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, while visiting Sanandaj on Oct. 11, blamed the city’s unrest on “terrorist and separatist groups,” with an “ugly and bad history” of cooperating with Saddam Hussein, Western countries and Israel, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News reported.

The 37-year-old businessman in Sanandaj denied accusations that protesters are armed. “The people are fighting with no weapons,” he said, and are being met by security forces with “military-grade weapons.”

That was echoed by a 65-year-old woman who described a scene she witnessed while driving around Sanandaj on Oct. 8, when she heard cars honking and saw riot police dressed in black with masks over their faces. Police ran after bystanders, she said, and threw tear gas at a group of women not wearing headscarves. Closer to her home, she heard continuous rounds of gunfire and then saw a group of young people fleeing the scene.

Just days earlier, she said wistfully, she had seen women and girls without their hijabs doing a Kurdish dance in a local park at night, their hair glowing in the moonlight.