New York Times: Iran's six million Kurds are avidly following events across the border in Iraq, hoping that the Kurds there will blaze a trail to greater freedoms that can be duplicated in Iran.
But lately, the Iranian Kurds are discouraged. New York Times

By NAZILA FATHI

TEHRAN - Iran's six million Kurds are avidly following events across the border in Iraq, hoping that the Kurds there will blaze a trail to greater freedoms that can be duplicated in Iran.

But lately, the Iranian Kurds are discouraged.

Their hope was that in Iraq, Kurds would build on the autonomy they had established for all practical purposes since 1991, when routine British and American flights over Iraq kept Saddam Hussein from ruling, and mistreating, the Kurdish region.

Iranian Kurds were jubilant when their brethren across the border won rights in the interim Iraqi constitution recognizing the autonomy of the Kurdish region and granting the Kurds extraordinary powers to protect it.

But now they fear that those powers will be ignored, as the interim Iraqi leaders talk of that constitution applying only until national elections are held. Further, the appointment of non-Kurdish Iraqis as prime minister and president raised fears that Kurds would once again become marginalized.

"The population of Kurds is much smaller than the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq," said Tofiq Rafiee, the editor of Sirvan, a leading Kurdish journal. "Without the right to veto, Kurds can never make any changes to improve the situation for themselves," he said, referring to the Kurdish veto right that is part of the current constitution.

Sirvan reported in September that the current arrangement, in which Kurds serve as vice president and deputy prime minister, was similar to what Mr. Hussein granted Kurds 20 years ago and was not what the Kurds were expecting today.

Iran's Kurds, who reside mostly in the northwestern parts of the country, near Iran's borders with Iraq and Turkey, were hoping for a spillover effect if the Iraqi Kurds gained greater powers.

Although the Iranian Constitution recognizes the Kurds as a minority, the government has long treated them as second-class citizens. Unlike the majority of Iranians, who are Shiite Muslims, most of the Kurds are Sunnis.

They have been barred from teaching the Kurdish language at schools or publishing their literature freely. They complain that they face discrimination in employment and university admissions. Kurdish provinces are among the least developed regions in the country, and the Kurds have been discouraged from forming their own political parties.

After 1991, Iranian and Iraqi Kurds increased their contacts. They exchanged political and cultural journals, and professors from Iran taught at the four universities in Kurdish areas in Iraq.

"The situation in the two regions affects one another," said Jalal Jalalizadeh, a Kurd who is a former member of Parliament. "Iranians compare themselves with the Kurds of Iraq. When their situation improves they also struggle for more rights."

Mr. Jalalizadeh said that when Iranian Kurds learned about the rights granted to Iraqi Kurds in the interim constitution they demanded a more active political role. "They want to be able to have their own independent TV, teach the Kurdish language at schools and have representation in the government," he said.

Kurds on the two sides of the border speak the same language and share the same faith. Marriage between Iranian and Iraqi Kurds is common, and a Kurdish satellite television channel has increased communication between them.

Iranian Kurds celebrated for several days in March after the Iraqi interim constitution granted Kurds the right to form a government. However, the Iranian government put down the celebrations and arrested nearly 100 people when the events turned into riots. In a sign of solidarity, the Iranians held mourning ceremonies when several Kurdish officials were killed in a bombing in Erbil, Iraq, in February, Sirvan reported.

Iranian Kurds have not sought full independence since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which was followed by a period of fighting with the government, but they have demanded greater autonomy, democracy and freedom.

They refer to their historical and cultural ties with Persian Iranians and say their Iranian identity is as important as their Kurdish identity. The Kurdish language is close to Farsi, the main language spoken in Iran, and Kurds say they were the founders of the civilization where Iran is today.

They took part in the political process along with other Iranians, and voted overwhelmingly for President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, in 1997 in the hope of achieving more democracy.

Reformist Kurdish members of Parliament, who were elected after the brief period of political openness after Mr. Khatami's election, formed a Kurdish bloc in Parliament and managed to win a fivefold increase in the budget for their part of the country. One member spoke in the Kurdish language for the first time in Parliament, and the language will be taught for the first time at universities in Kurdish areas this year.

However, the Iranian Kurds feel marginalized again, after Kurdish candidates, along with other reformists, were removed by a hard-line watchdog council before the last parliamentary elections. With many reformers prevented from running and voters angry that the pro-reform Parliament was able to achieve so little, hard-liners recaptured Parliament again this year.