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Speech Kurds in Iran

Ladies and Gentleman, First I would like to thank UNPO and International Network of Iranian Kurdistan Human Rights not only for organizing this import event Justice for Iran’s Kurds, but also inviting Iran Committee to address you on this topic.

Iran Committee is a Dutch foundation with the main objective to make sure the Dutch government and parliament keep addressing the issues around Iran.

My name is Frank van Dalen and I am chair of the Iran committee.

My presentation has the topic: How to mobilise and organise western support

And I am sorry to say, but it isn’t all good news.

I won’t talk about the oppression the Kurds have been facing over the years by the Iranian government. We know that the Kurds social, political and cultural rights have been repressed and still are today. Not alone to say the executions of Kurdish political prisoners.

I will talk about the position of the west and look for way show to bridge between the Kurdish cause and the western political reality. Because, let’s face it, the political reality for the western world in the Middle East is complicated, to use an understatement.

For years the western world has interest in Iran. Both the human rights violations and the nuclear program were fuelling the confrontation between the West and Iran. At the same time, things have started to shift. Negotiations between mainly the United States and Iran about the nuclear program have showed progress. Slowly Iran is opening up. For the Western world – and let’s face it for most of the Arabic countries surrounding Iran – this is good news.

But this is about the nuclear program. What about human rights? I am not optimistic. It is certainly true that there still are severe human rights violations in Iran. But how do they compare to the terror of ISL next door? As long as human rights violations don’t get strong visibility in cruel pictures of video-footage, the anger of a society, in this case the Western society is absent. And without this anger and cry for action, Western governments are not likely to move.

But there is also a strategic component to it. The end of August Ayatollah Khamenei gave Rouhani what many Iranians are calling a public “yellow card”, saying that the Government must not antagonize hardline Iranian groups with its proposals to ease cultural, social, and political restrictions.

The outcome was apparent at a Rouhani news conference on August 30rd. The President avoided any reference to long-standing promises to open up Iran’s cultural sphere, let alone last summer’s declaration that he would seek freedom for political prisoners.

Well informed sources declared that President Rouhani has struck a deal with the Supreme Leader to protect the Government against hard-line criticism of the interim nuclear deal and further negotiations with the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, Germany, China, Russia, and France). In return, Rouhani has pledged to back away from pursuit of measures to open up Iran’s political and cultural spheres. He has also agreed not to seek the freedom of high-profile political prisoners, such as 2009 Presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

And the arrangement has been tested by cracking down on some cultural festivals and imprisonment of some artists. Rouhani and the minister of culture remained silent. At the same time hardliners in parliament will remain sceptical. In the most interesting case, Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, who has been working with Rouhani to attract investment from foreign companies, will face hard-liners who are sceptical about his plans. That scepticism may be bolstered by elements, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who stand to lose income and influence under any new arrangement for Iran’s oil and gas fields.

So what we see here is that regarding human rights, president Rouhani will pick his battles and apparently a sustainable deal about the nuclear program is more important the freedom rights as mentioned.

How does this reflect on the Western World? Lets be clear about that. A nuclear Iranian state is perceived to be a direct threat to the Western society and Western interest. Human rights violations are a moral concern. So if the Western world has to choose, it is obvious – and not only because of the political reality within Iran – that the nuclear ambition of Iran wins over the human rights violations.

So should the Kurds expect serious help from the Western world for their battle against the oppression by the Iranian government? Yes and no. Yes, if you talk about moral support, maybe even some money and gadgets. But real serious help, that reduction of the oppression, maybe even an independent state, which remains to be seen. So far I can only imagine the disappointment and frustration that the Kurds must feel over the last years.

So what can be done?

  • First of all a more systematic approach of sharing human rights violations against Kurds need to be documented and reported – human rights watch is a good channel to give word and image to these violations
  • The second action is a moral one. Human rights violations are also reported coming from Kurdish territories. What is the position regarding religious freedoms, woman rights, homosexuality, economic and social freedoms, political freedoms. The position of the Kurds is unclear, or bending into the – from a Western perspective – wrong direction. Why as a western society should we invest in Kurdish freedoms if there is no guarantee that one oppressive society won’t be replaced by an other one? This is a question that needs to be dealt with by the Kurds themselves. Human rights are universal, undividable and non-negotiable. A stronger voice from the Kurds is welcomed.
  • And then we have the conflicts in the region. Obviously it is problematic to have sji’it Iran becoming member of the big coalition when soenite Saudi Arabia is needed as well. At the same time the United States are bombing areas to create space for the Kurds to combat IS and is Iran providing weapons to the Kurds. Both the United States and Iran have interest in Kurds fighting against ISL. And that is exactly the momentum the Kurdish movement can create space for their own ambitions. Last July an Iranian delegation was in Erbil to press Iraq’s Kurds to mobilize forces in the war against Islamic State (IS). The Iranians have met with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). It is these kind of meetings – assuming there is communication and collaboration amongst Kurds in Iraq and Iran – that can open doors to a better future of the Kurds in Iran, when the rights themes are brought in.

Am I optimistic? No I am not. The Middle East is a headache for the western world. There is not much to gain, but a lot to loose. But with more visibility, a more clear position on democratic values and human rights and – maybe cynical but for that not less true – use the ISL-momentum and the broad coalition for a future oriented agenda that will benefit the Kurds as well.