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The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations

Auteur : Robert Olson
Éditeur : Mazda Date & Lieu : 1998, California
Préface : Pages : 108
Traduction : ISBN : 1-56859-067-9
Langue : AnglaisFormat : 155x235 mm
Code FIKP : Liv. Eng. Ols. Kur. N°1814Thème : Politique

Table des Matières Introduction Identité PDF
The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations

The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations

Robert Olson


This volume, the first in Kurdish Studies Series by this publisher, focuses on the “Kurdish question,” i.e., the trans-state aspects of the challenge of Kurdish nationalism on Turkish-Iranian relations since WW1. It emphasizes the period of the Iraq-Iran war (I 980-88) and the Gulf War( 1991). The book stresses the impact of the Kurdish question on the "Kurdish problem,” i.e., the challenge of Kurdish nationalism on the domestic polities of both Turkey and Iran.

The author concludes that the impact of the Kurdish question and the Kurdish problem is vital for both Iran and Turkey, but of paramount importance for Turkey which has waged war against the PKK, the militant Kurdish nationalist movement in I'urkey since 1984. The book argues that the Kurdish question and the Kurdish problem have dominated Turkey’s foreign and domestic policy decision making for the past decade. The Persian Gulf War further exacerbated Turkey’s dilemma.

The author argues that Iran’s Kurdish question and Kurdish problem has been less severe than Turkey’s during the past half century, but that it is of enough importance that it demands Tehran’s cooperation with Turkey in order to control it. The author argues that Iran’s need to compete with Turkey to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish stale in norther Iraq is motivated partly by Iran’s fear that if it docs not cooperate with Turkey to control the Irans-state aspects of the Kurdish question, Turkey might seek to encourage Azeri nationalism among the some 10 million Azeri population in Iran. Tehran fears that Turkey might attempt to encourage Azeri nationalism in Iran via its relations with the republic of Azerbaijan.

The book emphasizes that Turkey’s and Iran’s wider geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean compel both Turkey and Iran to cooperate to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The book concludes, however, that Turkish and Iranian competition for influence in northern Iraq provides a space in which both countries cart ompete geopolitically without fear of war caused by accusations that either country was/is interfering in the domestic politics of the other country. Northern Iraq, especially after 1991, acted/acts as a “safety valve” for moderating other disagreements and the jockeying for power that the two countries had in the 1990s.

'The Kurdish factor has long been a major variable in shaping the contours of Turkish-Iranian relations. In this balanced, well-informed, and meticulously researched book, Robert Olson makes a valuable and timely contribution to our understanding of this increasingly important issue."
— Nader Entessar
Spring Hill College

'Olson’s scholarly and perceptive work on the relationship of the Kurdish Question to twentieth century Turkish-Iranian relations is the most in-depth treatment of the topic to date. It is a must reading for all students and scholars of modern Middle East."
—Paul .J. Magnarella
University of Florida



I am pleased to offer this essay as the inaugural volume of the new Kurdish Studies Series to be published by Mazda Publishers. Dr. Ahmad Jabbari, publisher of the Press, is determined that this series will make available the newest and best work published on the history', politics and culture of the Kurds.

It is about time. The history- of the Kurds and the significant role they have played in Middle East and Islande history' is the most neglected area of research and publication in Middle East and Islamic studies. One reason for this is that the field of Middle East and Islamic studies has long been dominated by scholars and people interested in Arab. Turkish or Iranian history. Indeed, more has been published in the last twenty-five years on the history of the Jews in the Middle East than on the entire history of the Kurds. Middle East and Islamic studies also have been dominated by Europeans and Americans interested in Arab, Turkish and Iranian history and cultures or scholars from those lands.

There are other reasons for the lack of Kurdish studies. Such studies, as is implicit in the following essay, would have served the interests of the imperial Great Powers, especially the interests of Great Britain. For this reason it is most appropriate that the inaugural volume in the Kurdish Studies Series begin with a study of the Kurdish question in its geopolitical and geostrategical context over the past five centuries and especially during the last two decades.

The following essay concentrates on the Kurdish question— i.e. the challenge of the Kurds and of Kurdish nationalism in the interstate relations of Turkey and Iran. There are several reasons for this selection. The few scholarly studies that do exist concerning the Kurds have generally been confined to the Kurds in Iraq. This is because, as the Introduction makes clear, Great Britain's control of the Middle East in the post-WW I era depended on its control of Iraq in which the Kurds were major players. There is no question that the historical and political impact of the Kurds on Iraq is immense. The results of the 1991 Persian Gulf war are proof of this. But the consequences of the Persian Gulf war have emphasized again the pivotal role that Turkey and Iran played, continue to play and the great interest that they have in containing the challenge of Kurdish nationalism referred to euphemistically as the "Kurdish Problem" in its intrastate dimensions and as the "Kurdish Question" in its trans-state context.
What I try to do in the following essay is to extract the essential facts of the Kurdish question and the Kurdish problems that affect directly Turkey's and Iran's internal and external policies.

Both Turkey and Iran have Kurdish problems. The substantial Kurdish population is in itself a major factor. The Kurdish population of Turkey is approximately 12 to 14 million, representing 18 to 21 percent of the a total population of some 65 million. Turkey's Kurdish problem and its intermingling with the Kurdish question has dominated Turkish politics for over a decade. Just a few statistics demonstrate its significance. Turkey has had some 400,000 military personnel in eastern and southeastern Turkey during the last decade. The cost of its war against the PKK and its suppression of other Kurds was estimated to cost around $10 billion per year by 1997. This figure does not include an approximate cost of another 3 to 4 billion in other sectors of the economy. Three thousand six hundred villages and hamlets have been destroyed. Over 300 journalists, mostly Kurdish, have been murdered. There were 3,000 other "unsolved" killings. But by far the most drastic consequence of Ankara's war and ethnic cleansing practices against the PKK and Kurds, in order to deprive the PKK of a sympathetic environment, has been the flight of some 3 million Kurds to the larger cities within the east and southeast and to the large cities in the West, especially Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. The migration has been so monumental that some cities and towns along the Mediterranean that twenty years ago had no Kurds now have populations that are half Kurdish.

The Kurdish problem—or as the Turks say, "reality," although there is very little realization on their part—is so pressing that the Turkish government and censorship bureau have recently allowed a Turkish scholar, Kemal Kirici, and a British colleague, Gareth Winrow, to publish The Kurdish Question in Turkey: An Example of a Trans-State Ethnic Conflict. This is the first book published in English to deal seriously and in a scholarly way with the great challenge posed to the Turkish state by the Kurds: the greatest since the creation of the republic in 1923. It seems unlikely, however, that the present Turkish government or any Turkish government will heed some of the solutions proffered by the authors. The reason for this pessimistic view is that Kirişci and Winrow do not address the wider geopolitical and geostrategical context that compels the Turkish state to continue its war against the PKK and the Kurds and the ethnic cleansing, especially along the Iraq and Syria borders, that accompany it. The following essay attempts to provide that geopolitical and geostrategical context.

The difficulties of Turkish scholars in writing scholarly articles about Turkey's Kurdish challenge is well illustrated by Metin Heper, the Dean of the College of Administrative and Social Sciences at Bilkent University, the premier university in Turkey. Heper is perhaps the best known Turkish political scientist. Writing in the Armed Forces Journal (vol. 22, no. 4 [1996]:638) regarding the military and democracy in Turkey, Heper concluded "...sure of its continuing high status in the Turkish polity and society, thanks to its avoidance of involvement in day-to-day politics, the Turkish military can afford to forego most of its powers and prerogatives." One year later, writing in The Middle East Journal (vol. 51, no. 1 [ 1997]: 45) on the topic of Islam and Democracy in Turkey, Heper concluded that "A marriage between Islam and democracy can be consummated if the radical secularists stop trying to impose their preferred life-style and set of values upon the Islamists, and if the latter do not attempt to undermine by word or deed the basic tenets of the secular democratic state in Turkey." Yet. less than six months after Heper published this article, the military toppled the government of Necmettin Erbakan. The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) commanders justified their action by proclaiming that "reactionism," i.e.. the Islamist movement, was a threat to the state. This demonstrates how far off the mark recent analyses of Turkish politics have been. I hope that my essay will correct some of these misplaced prognosticians.

Iran's Kurdish problem presents less of a threat to the configuration of the Iranian government and state than in Turkey. But the difference is one of degree. The Kurdish population of Iran is estimated to be around 6 million or about 10 percent out of a total population of 60 million. The Kurdish nationalist challenge in Iran during the twentieth century has not been as great as that in Turkey, in spite of the fact that the first and only independent Kurdish state ever to be established was in Iran from 1945 to 1946. But the creation of the Kurdish Mahabad Republic, although an authentic expression of Kurdish nationalism and will, was also a consequence of the politics of the later years of WW II and the emergent vicissitudes of Cold War politics. After the Islamic revolution in Iran, the new Iranian government had the advantage of attempting to contain Kurdish nationalism by emphasizing an inclusive Islamic ideological discourse. Turkey did not have this instrumental advantage. After the military came to power in 1980, the generals tried to use such a discourse against the leftist challenge, but, rather than diminishing Kurdish nationalism, it increased it.

Iran's great concern with regard to its Kurdish problem is that Ankara's dissatisfaction with its efforts to cooperate in controlling the PKK will impel Turkey to encourage Turkish nationalism among its Azeri population, estimated to be around 10 million or 16.5 percent of a total population of 60 million. As far as Tehran is concerned, the Kurdish question is intimately tied to the Azeri question.

One of the most interesting aspects of scholarly studies dealing with Iran's foreign policy is that they pay scant attention to that country’s relations with Turkey. It is as though scholars dealing with the topic of Iran's foreign relations are mesmerized by Tehran's relations with the West, especially the United States, and with security studies on the Perisan Gulf. This tendency is exhibited in two of the best recent studies on Iran's foreign policy during the last decade. K. L. Afrasiabi's, After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy barely mentions Iran's relations with Turkey or the Kurds. The words Kurdistan or Kurds appear only eight times in the index. The second study, Anoushiravan Ehteshami's After Khomeini: The Second Iranian Republic provides a bit more coverage on the subject, but he, too, has only two citations on the Kurds and they are in reference to the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). My aim in the following essay to correct these omissions.

The significance of the two countries' Kurdish problems, which in Turkey is crucial to the survival of the state in its present configuration, compels them to try to manage the problems via the trans-state Kurdish question and by cooperating on their shared wider geopolitical and geostrategical interests. Regimes—and in the case of Turkey, state survival—depend on such management. This is the topic of the following essay.

Robert Olson
University of Kentucky
December 1997

The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations
From World War I to 1998


Or Why Was No Kurdish State Created After WW I?

The Kurds are a people estimated to number some 20-25 million living largely in four Middle East countries: Turkey with some 12-14 million; Iran with 6 million; Iraq, 3.5-4 million and, Syria with 1 million. In addition, approximately 100-150,000 Kurds live in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Recent reports suggest there may be between 300,000 and 1 million Kurds living within the Russian Federation. Since the bulk of Kurds live in contiguous areas of east and southeast Turkey; north and northeast Iraq; north and northwest Iran and in northeastern Syria, they have possessed a sense of self, community and shared space since medieval times at least. This sense of identity was reinforced by the emergence of large rebellions in the last quarter of the nineteenth century that strengthened further their sense of community.

The Kurds consider themselves to be direct descendants of the ancient Medes (although modern scholarship doubts this) who, because of military conquests, defeats and collapse of empires, began to migrate and locate themselves around 2.000 years ago in the mountain fastnesses of the present day states of Turkey. Iran. Iraq and Syria. From these strategic and almost impregnable locations, the Kurds were able to preserve their communities while at the same time participating in the great Armenian. Greek. Byzantine, Arab, Turkish, Safavid, Qajar and Ottoman empires that dominated this region's history right up to the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires at the end of WW I. The Kurds were promised the possibility of an independent state in Articles 62 and 64 of the Treaty of Sèvres signed on 10 August 1920.

The geopolitics of the Middle East after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 seemed to suggest that the possibility of the creation of a Kurdish state existed for the first time since WW I, with the nucleus of that state to be established in northern Iraq, the very area which the British empire had incorporated into the Iraqi state between 1918 and 1926. The circumstances as to why a Kurdish state was not created in the 1920s resembles tire situation of the 1990s when, again, the geopolitical circumstances did not allow for tire establishment of a Kurdish state. This …


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