The reaction to the Kurdistan independence referendum on September 25th was fast, collective, and punishing. The remarkable scenes of Kurdish flag-waving and celebration gave way to isolation and sporadic clashes with Iraq’s government forces. Seemingly adrift, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offered to freeze the referendum results. Politicians in Baghdad are searching for a path to resolve the crisis through dialogue.

Divided opinions

Among the Kurds, President Massoud Barzani and his populist Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) are the driving forces behind the referendum. Previously known for his amicable relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Barzani has been accused of using the referendum to monopolize Kurdish politics.

Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, a leader from the leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has said the Kurds were now paying the price for Barzani’s stubbornness. She even recently compared his Supreme Political Council to Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Revolutionary Command Council. Last weekend, Barzani gave way to pressure from opposition groups and bitterly agreed to resign.

The referendum also made it clear that Baghdad’s key supporter, Iran, is one of the Kurds’ most prominent opponents. The gravest threat for further conflict comes from the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Forces, which made good on their threat to use force in order to confront the Kurds over disputed territories and recapture oil-rich Kirkuk. Iran, for its part, mobilized tanks at the Parviz Khan border crossing where they conducted drills with the Iraqi army.

Meanwhile, the jubilation surrounding the referendum was felt strongly by Iranian Kurds, who wish to establish ‘Rojhelat’ or ‘East Kurdistan’. Demonstrations broke out in the Iranian Kurdish cities of Baneh, Sanandaj, and Mahabad (in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province), with Kurdish flags flying and large crowds singing the Kurdish anthem. The anthem, Ey Reqib, was in fact first used by the short-lived 1946 Mahabad Republic before being adopted by the KRG. Even the color scheme of the Mahabad Republic’s flag is remarkably similar to the flag that dominates Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

But tensions continue to exist in Iran between the government and the country’s ethnic Kurds. The images of Iranian Kurds in Mahabad celebrating the referendum on Twitter were followed days later by videos of Iranian security force vehicles cascading throughout the city’s center. A ceasefire between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Tehran collapsed in recent years, and the KDPI, through the course of the referendum campaign, sought to maximize awareness of its own political struggle.

In many ways, it is the story of the Barzani family, Iran, the origin of the KRG’s two dominant political parties, and the largely forgotten Mahabad Republic (Jan-Dec 1946) that sheds the most light on the latest chapter in the quest for Kurdish self-determination.

The Mahabad Republic

Occurring in the backdrop of World War II, the Kurdish Mahabad Republic emerged after a joint British-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941. The two invaders sought to keep Iran out of the hands of Nazi Germany, and secure a land corridor to supply the Soviets. Iran’s Kurdish region quickly received support from the Red Army, which in turn cultivated Kurdish nationalism in order to create a new sphere of influence.

Barzani’s father, Mustafa, had led several unsuccessful attempts to free the Kurds from the British-supported regime in Baghdad. Fleeing Iraq, it was in Iran’s Mahabad where the Barzani tribe made an alliance with the local Kurdish political leader, Qazi Muhammad.

David McDowall, author of A Modern History of the Kurds, explained to Raddington Report: “Barzani was extremely difficult to work with because he would not willingly accept a subordinate position. He was an agha (tribal chieftain) and as such he wanted to be the boss. His tribal mentality qualified his concept of the Kurdish nation. Qazi Muhammad, on the other hand, was an urban cleric, so there was a huge cultural gap between them”.

The Mahabad Republic declared independence in January 1946, and Mustafa Barzani became the Minister of Defense and commander of the Kurdish army in northwestern Iran. But during the 1946 Iran Crisis, the United States pressured Stalin to withdraw his forces from Iran. Without the Red Army to protect it, the Mahabad Republic was recaptured by the Iranian army in December 1946. Qazi Muhammad, who had decided to avoid armed confrontation with the government, was hung for treason in March 1947.

Mustafa Barzani eventually returned to Iraq to bolster the local strongman Abdul Karim Qasim, whose anti-Arabist outlook depended on an alliance with the Kurds. Following a Kurdish revolt in 1961, Qasim allowed for negotiations that gave the Kurds their first experiment with official recognition from Baghdad. Later, after siding with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Mustafa Barzani’s KDP was forced into exile in Iran.

The origin of the leftist PUK is also rooted in the Mahabad Republic. Ibrahim Ahmad, a Kurdish intellectual and the father of Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, favored Qazi Muhammad. This put him at odds with the faction of the KDP loyal to Barzani’s tribe. Ahmad, along with the rising Kurdish figure Jalal Talabani, eventually split their faction away from the KDP and founded the PUK in the 1970s. The resulting inter-Kurdish tensions led to a brief civil war in the mid-1990s between the KDP and the PUK. Today, the PUK still maintains a close relationship with Tehran.

Historical influences continue today

It was the United States that helped pull the plug on the Mahabad Republic in order to maintain a unified Iran and combat what it perceived as a spread of communism. Now the region wonders whether Washington will stand by the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Russia, for its part, remains invested in the Kurds, maintaining ties with the YPG in Syria as well as economic development in northern Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shrewdly played to the Kurd political desires, and the Russian energy firm Rosneft has successfully secured control of the oil flow from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Former president Massoud Barzani was himself born in Mahabad, and some commentators have rightly noted how the Kurdish republic fuelled Barzani’s drive for Kurdish independence throughout his life. But the ultimate legacy of the Barzani family may still be unwritten. Massoud Barzani’s nephew, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, is often viewed as more patient and diplomatically calculating than his father. He yields support from Washington, Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad, and according to some regional reports, Nechirvan is less convinced that now is the right time for a Kurdish state.

The saga of the Mahabad Republic illustrates how the Kurdish liberation movement has always spilled over borders, yet heeded the call of the world’s powers. It also shows that the idea of Kurdish independence will likely survive, despite regional efforts to extinguish it.

About the author

CHRIS SOLOMON is an analyst specializing in Middle East history and politics, and works for a US defense consultancy monitoring local and international media reporting in the Middle East.