The Kurds speak a variety of closely related dialects, which in Iran are collectively called Kirmanji. The dialects are divided into northern and southern groups, and it is not uncommon for the Kurds living in adjoining mountain valleys to speak different dialects. There is a small body of Kurdish literature written in a modified Arabic script. Kurdish is more closely related to Persian than is Baluchi and also contains numerous Persian loanwords. In large Kurdish cities, the educated population speaks both Persian and Kurdish.
There were approximately 4 million Kurds in Iran as of 1986. They were the third most important ethnic group in the country after the Persians and Azarbaijanis and accounted for about 9 percent of the total population. By 2008, Kurds represented some 7 percent of the total Iranian population. They have historically been concentrated in the Zagros Mountain area along the western frontiers with Turkey and Iraq and adjacent to the Kurdish populations of both those countries. Kurds also lived in the Soviet Union (and now in various independant nations) and Syria. The Kurdish area of Iran includes most of West Azarbaijan, all of Kordestan, much of Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) and Ilam, and parts of Lorestan.
Historically, the Kurds of Iran have been both urban and rural, with as much as half the rural population practicing pastoral nomadism in different periods of history. By the mid-1970s, fewer than 15 percent of all Kurds were nomadic. In addition, during the 1970s there was substantial migration of rural Kurds to such historic Kurdish cities as Bakhtaran (known as Kermanshah until 1979), Sanandaj, and Mahabad, as well as to larger towns such as Baneh, Bijar, Ilam, Islamabad (known as Shahabad until 1979), Saqqez, Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, and Sonqor. Educated Kurds also migrated to non-Kurdish cities such as Karaj, Tabriz, and Tehran.
There were also scatterings of Kurds in the provinces of Fars, Kerman, and Baluchestan va Sistan, and there was a large group of approximately 350,000 living in a small area of northern Khorasan. These were all descendants of Kurds whom the government forcibly removed from western Iran during the seventeenth century.
Most of the rural Kurds retain a tribal form of social organization, although the position of the chief is less significant among the majority of Kurds who live in villages than it is among the unsettled pastoralists. An estimated forty Kurdish tribes and confederations of tribes were still recognized by the mid-1980s. Many of these were organized in the traditional manner, which obligated several subordinate clans to pay dues in cash or produce and provide allegiance to a chief clan. The land reform program of the 1960s did not disrupt this essentially feudal system among most tribally organized Kurds.
The majority of both rural and urban Kurds in West Azarbaijan and Kordestan practice Sunni Islam. There is more diversity of religious practice in southern Kurdish areas, especially in the Bakhtaran area, where many villagers and townspeople follow Shia beliefs. Schismatic Islamic groups, such as the Ahl-e Haqq and the Yazdis, both of which are considered heretical by orthodox Shias, traditionally have had numerous adherents among the Kurds of the Bakhtaran region. A tiny minority of Kurds are adherents of Judaism.
The Kurds have manifested an independent spirit throughout modern Iranian history, rebelling against central government efforts to restrict their autonomy during the Safavid, Qajar, and Pahlavi periods. A Kurdish uprising in 1963 was so serious that it prompted the Shah to request support from the United States, who subsequently deployed a covert unit comprised of US Army Special Forces and US Air Force Special Operations aircraft to assist in ending the resistance. Within 12 months of this deployment the uprising had been put down.
The Kurdish uprising that took place in 1979 following the Revolution was cited as one of the most recent serious mass uprisings by the Kurdish population. Mahabad, which has been a center of Kurdish resistance against Persian authority since the time of the Safavid monarch Shah Abbas (1587-1629), was again at the forefront of the Kurdish autonomy struggle. Intense fighting between government forces and Kurdish guerrillas occurred from 1979 to 1982, but since 1983 the government has asserted its control over most of the Kurdish area. During this period Kurdish insurgents active championed for a seperate Kurdish state, a common demand also held by Kurdish groups in Turkey and Iraq. Though significantly reduced in size and significance, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) continued to exist after 1983. Another repressed armed Kurdish political group was the People's Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK). Iran has also historically provided a safe haven for members of the Turkish Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), though after 1999 Iranian policy was to in fact work with Turkish authorities against Kurdish groups.
The complicated geopolitics of the region, coupled with Kurdish interests in three states, have long created conflicting temporary alliances and other relationships between Kurdish groups and the nations they inhabit. During the Iran-Iraq War and through to the US led intervention in Southwest Asia in the early 1990s and on to the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds have alternately sided with Iranian authorities, Saddam Hussein, and others. Kurds have also been targeted by organizations such as Mujahadin-e Khalq Organization (MEK/MKO), who have sought to overthrow the government of Iran, but who have actively opposed Kurdish pushes for self-determination. The MEK was said to be responsible for atrocities against the Kurds in Iraq, as part of their support from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
During 2005 several incidents of domestic terrorism occurred using bombs planted in public places. In most of these cases the bombings were in areas of ethnic tensions, such as West Azarbaijan (Kurds and Turks) and Khuzestan (Arabs and Lurs) provinces, although there also were bomb incidents in Tehran during the presidential election. An outburst from the Kurdish community was sparked by the July 2005 shooting of a young Kurd.
Some experts said Israel had increased its ties with Iranian Kurds during 2007 and boosted intelligence-gathering operations in northwest Iran in order to exploit ethnic fissures between the Kurds and the majority Shiite Persians.
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