Iranian Kurds Push for More Autonomy

Last summer, riots and demonstrations exploded across ethnic Kurdish parts of Iran. A government crackdown has brought the area back under relative control, but tensions between the government and Iran's Kurdish minority remain high. Iranian Kurds say they are inspired by developments across the border in northern Iraq.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Last summer, riots and demonstrations exploded across ethnic Kurdish parts of Iran. A government crackdown has brought the area back under relative control, but tensions between the government and Iran's Kurdish minority remain high. Iranian Kurds say they are inspired by developments across the border in northern Iraq, where a semi-autonomous Kurdish state is flourishing. NPR's Ivan Watson recently traveled to the border between these two regions.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

In the three years since Saddam Hussein's overthrow, the once remote Bashmak(ph) border crossing between Iran and Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq has grown significantly to include on the Iraqi side a compound for customs, border guards and vehicle inspections.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: So far, very few trucks are allowed through the gate, but there is a steady stream of people trudging through on foot, many of them men in search of work in Iraqi Kurdistan. These Iranian Kurd guest workers, who would not give their names for fear of persecution when they return to Iran, frequently use the word `Azad'(ph) to describe Iraqi Kurdistan. Azad means freedom.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: `As soon as we step into Iraqi Kurdistan, we feel free,' one man says. `There is huge discrimination against us in Iran,' another man says. `We Kurds get lower salaries and there are fewer jobs for us.'

Smuggling is booming here, almost within sight of the border gate. The surrounding villages in Iraqi Kurdistan deal in black-market tea, sugar, fuel and booze. Lunch sizzles on a frying pan in a small shop stocked with Grant's whiskey, Tuborg and Heineken beer and a purportedly French wine with the label Le Bonjour. Here a Kurd from Iran who only gives his first name, Rahim(ph), says every night he and around 70 other smugglers load their horses up with beer and whiskey and then make a three-hour trek through the hills to Iran, where they make a hefty profit selling the illegal alcohol.

Unidentified Man #6: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #7: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Rahim says these days, Iranian Kurds spend much of their time talking about the freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan.

RAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: `When the Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, became the president of Iraq,' Rahim says, `the Kurds in my city celebrated. They came out dancing in the streets, shouting: Death to Khomeini.' Less than 10 percent of Iran's population is Kurdish, mostly concentrated in regions bordering Iraqi Kurdistan.

Professor BAHMAN BAKTIARI (University of Maine): There was a significant rise in Kurdish identity among the young and students, particularly students in universities in that part of the region.

WATSON: Professor Bahman Baktiari of the University of Maine recently visited Kurdish parts of Iran, where he says he saw a real awakening of Kurdish nationalism.

Prof. BAKTIARI: The more the Kurds in northern Iraq are engaged in their nation-building and the more they are able to exert their Kurdish-language culture, it will have an impact on Iran.

WATSON: Last summer, Iranian security forces arrested a Kurdish activist named Shivane Qadri and were later reported to have dragged his corpse behind a truck through the predominantly Kurdish Iranian city of Mahabad. The incident triggered riots and demonstrations that quickly spread through Kurdish parts of Iran. They were encouraged from across the border by exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition groups that operate out of camps and offices in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr. ABDULLAH MUQTADI(ph) (Komala(ph)): (Through Translator) You can see Shivane Qadri.

WATSON: Abdullah Muqtadi, the leader of a leftist group called Komala, shows Internet video of Shivane Qadri's bruised and battered corpse. Though the Iranian security forces eventually crushed the Kurdish demonstrations, Muqtadi and his followers continue to disseminate anti-Iranian propaganda, particularly against new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. MUQTADI: (Through Translator) The people of Kurdistan believe that he directly participated in the assassination of the leaders of Kurdistan democratic and party of Iran and also in killing and murdering the Kurdish in Iranian Kurdistan.

WATSON: The Iranian Kurdish exile groups say they consider Iraqi Kurdistan to be a model for what they hope will one day be a semi-autonomous Iranian Kurdistan. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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