If the latest claims are to be believed, the Iranian regime has reached new levels of depravity to quell the unrest stemming from a young Kurdish woman’s murder at the hands of the state’s morality police in September. For three months, major cities across Iran have seen demonstrations against the state, whose security organs have tried and failed to use repression to end them. The authorities must be truly fed up.
According to reports, Iran’s powerful and ruthless Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has started deploying more ruthless tactics: abductions, mass arrests, sexual violence including rape against detained protesters, and the use of nerve agents such as hexachloroethane in several Kurdish cities.
The brutality of all this (against unarmed protesters) seems to have changed the shape of resistance in some part of Iran, at least in the level of intensity. Reports from Persian-majority cities such as Tehran suggests that there are now fewer mass protests and more ‘flash mobs’ and/or civil disobedience, such as people shouting from their windows: “Death to the Dictator”. The picture looks very different elsewhere, with continuing protests in Iran’s Kurdish region of Rojhalet.
Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has repressed its ethnic minorities - Kurds in the West, Baluchis in the southeast, Sunni Arabs in Ahvaz in the south. In these areas, the regime faces an acute challenge, with anti-Tehran protests and a growing armed resistance steadily intensifying.
Rojhalet protest organisers have called on the people of Iran to take part in mass nationwide protests 24-25 November in solidarity with Kurds, who may well be under threat like never before, after videos emerged on social media allegedly showing Iranian security forces using a “thick green gas” nerve agent against demonstrators in the Kurdish-majority cities of Javanrud, Kermanshah and Piranshahr.
Even more disturbingly, there are also videos showing security forces sexually assaulting female protesters on the streets, which now get filed alongside unverified reports of rape against female and male protest detainees, including minors.
Speaking to Majalla, Rebaz Sharifi of the Kurdistan Freedom Party Leadership Council (PAK) said the repression was further spread. “Not only in these cities of Javanrud, Piranshahr, Sanaa and Kermanshah was this brutality committed,” said Sharifi. “Dozens were martyred and thousands injured in one week. Many have been arrested and are now missing. Some were killed and their bodies dumped on the outskirts of the city. Night forces raid houses to arrest and take away boys and girls… Rifles and machine guns are now being used to kill people.”
Asked about the use of hexachloroethane gas (HCE) against Kurdish civilians, Sharifi said: “Yes, they used a kind of gas in Mahabad and Javanrud, which causes headaches and disorders.” He also accused Iranian security forces of using sexual violence including rape to suppress protests.
The Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights is a Norwegian NGO operating in Iran’s Kurdish region said they “received reports of using strange gas by security forces, but until now we couldn’t confirm the type of gas was used by those forces”. Some say the gas used in Javanrud and Piranshahr is HCE. Others say it is adamsite, an organic compound used as a riot-control agent.
US-based physician Dr Mohammad-Kazem Attari told the London-based Iran International Channel that HCE is used widely in open-air military exercises but unlike the extremely toxic Sarin, VN, and other nerve gases, it does not cause death or permanent disabilities, but rather serious skin irritations, partial paralysis of facial muscles etc. HEC has been banned by the European Commission since June 2003.
Reports of Iran using nerve agents on Kurds has sent shockwaves throughout the country and rekindled memories of Halabja, the Kurdish city in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was attacked on 16 March 1988 by Saddam Hussein, with 5,000 killed within minutes another 7,000-10,000 left suffering life-long health problems.
Hengaw said 118 Kurds had been killed by Iranian security forces in the past three month, with more than 5,000 detained. It also reported that from 15-21 November at least 42 Kurds were killed by direct fire from the Iranian forces, with 1,500+ injured. The charity said it believes that there is “definite evidence regarding genocide” in the last 48 hours in the cities of Kurdistan, with an emphasis on Javanrud.
“We believe what is happening in Kurdistan cities are massacres against civilians,” it said. “Government forces deliberately shot at protesters on the streets of Mahabad, Javanrud, Bokan, and other cities in Kurdistan. They also fire at civilian houses… 118 Kurdish citizens were killed in the protests. There are more deaths that are not published by the families of the victims due to the pressure from the security forces. Many citizens are missing in Kurdistan and their fate is unknown.”
There is solidarity with the Kurdish people. In Baluchistan, in the city of Zahedan, a large crowd gathered to chant: “We stand with Rojhalet”. In Tehran, demonstrators gathered at night to chant: “Mahabad, Kurdistan, the role model of whole Iran”. It comes amid fears that the Iranian regime is set to commit large-scale massacres in Kurdish regions.
They have cause to worry. On 21 November, Tasnim News Agency, an Iranian regime mouthpiece, reported that IRGC forces were clearing cities of anti-regime elements. The majority of these cities were in ethnic-minority regions in Baluchistan, Azerbaijan province, including many Kurdish cities such as Ilham, Saqqez (hometown of the murdered Zhina Amini), Bokan, and Mahabad. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has given his blessing to the IRGC crackdown.
This is counter insurgency tactics, not protest-management. Indiscriminately firing at civilians, cutting and isolating cities by blocking major roads – these are not from any standard textbook. Last week, IRGC commander Mohammad Pakpour identified the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) as the main cause of the “riots and chaos” and threatened further attacks. In the city of Bokan, IRGC units have allegedly been driving round chanting: “I swear on crushing the demonstrations.” Activists say this is an explicit call for more violence against the Kurdish people.
All this suggests that the regime has lost control at least in some parts of Rojhalet, and sees the continue protests as an acute threat to its very survival. Responding to Pakpour’s threat, Sharifi said: “We have been under threat and terrorism from the Iranian state for 43 years. No threat or behaviour will deter us from the struggle for freedom. We are in a war between freedom and the war of the donkey. Kurdistan Freedom, PAK, is the source of the Kurdistan nation. It’s their party, of the nation of the people and Kurds. The party is fighting for their rights and goals. PAK supports the uprising and is with the uprising. We will pay the price for this position and we do not care about any threat… No matter how many threats there are, they will not stop us from fighting for freedom.”
Sharifi added that “many of our Peshmerga fighters lost their lives, many of our Peshmerga bases were destroyed against the battlefield against ISIS… It is the duty of the United States and the international coalition to protect the airspace of the Kurdistan Region and counter Iranian aggression against the Peshmerga”.
Sharifi said the PAK had so far not deployed any Peshmerga fighters but said protesters had a natural right to defend themselves. The regime has killed many unarmed protesters from Day 1, he said, adding: “The military attack on the cities of Kurdistan is organized, widespread, and programmed for the specific purpose of killing the Kurds.” He does not rule out protesters taking up arms. On 26 November, the PAK reported that the IRGC deployed heavy artillery against Kurdish cities in Rojhalet, saying it was designed to “suppress and kill peaceful protesters”.
Irrespective of whether there is an international response, we are approaching a turning point: the protests are ongoing, and the regime has failed to quell them, but the level of barbarity in recent weeks shows that the Mullahs are running out of patience. They should be. This remains a big moment for the country. For first time since 1979, the people of Iran united against the regime. Yes, Kurds have borne the brunt of the backlash, and Iranian troops have been deployed to Kurdish cities. It is only a matter of time before troops get their final order: eliminate the final protesters.
Sharifi urges the US and others to “hear the voice of the Kurds and the revolting people of Iran”, saying: “It is time for the free world to support the actions of the Kurds and all the people of Iran to end the Islamic Republic. We call on the United States and other major countries to declare a no-fly zone in East Kurdistan. This will both prevent further killings and create more opportunities for freedom uprisings to continue elsewhere in Iran.”