The revival of Kurdish nationalism in the Middle East has largely been discussed in the context of Syria and Iraq, but not Iran—which is the home of seven to nine million Kurds who make up almost 10 percent of the Iranian population. Behind the scant attention is the common perception that a strong state security apparatus and cross-cutting nationalism would constitute a robust wall against separatist ethnic demands in Iran. Realizing the significance of Kurdish votes in a highly competitive election atmosphere, both Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi campaigned in Iranian Kurdistan. Despite the calls for boycotting the election by Kurdish expatriate groups, voter turnout in Kurdistan was reported to be high, over 58 percent.
In the past two years, however, the major Kurdish political parties declared their return to armed struggle against the Islamic Republic and began launching attacks. State repression and economic collapse in Kurdish populated regions were steady in Rouhani’s first term despite Kurdish hopes from the reformist leader. The key reason for the resurgence in violence, however, is not necessarily about local grievances but political opportunities that feed growing competition among different Kurdish factions. In the larger Kurdish geography, the active involvement of Kurdish groups to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has empowered them significantly. Militant activism against Tehran is perceived as an opportunity indeed. Various Kurdish parties now seek to expand influence over Iranian Kurds as well as to attract international financial support from Iran’s enemies. The recent ISIL attacks of the Iranian parliament indicate how militant groups exploit the current turmoil in the Gulf region in pursuing their political goals.