1947: Qazi Muhammed, father of Kurdistan

On this date* in 1947, the only president of the world’s only Kurdish state was hanged with two aides in Mahabad, the Iranian city that had been the capital of his nascent country.

Ground between the maneuvers of much more powerful states — the stereotypical fate of the Kurds — Qazi Muhammed‘s endgame begins not in mountainous northwest Iran where he declared the short-lived Republic of Mahabad (alternatively, Mehabad), but in Berlin, where a distant dictator had hurled Europe’s great powers into war.

The contest for influence in Middle East and its lifeblood of oil for the modern mechanized army forms a crucial sidebar to World War II’s European chessboard, and the unpredictable collisions between rival empires and competing anticolonial interests made many strange bedfellows.

Two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, British and Soviet troops jointly seized Iran from its potentially pro-German ruler — securing both oil resources** and a precious route for sending American supplies to Russia’s desperately pressed defenders.

Kurds were very far from Stalin or Churchill’s calculation, but the moment also offered a power vacuum permitting de facto Kurdish self-rule in a narrow band straddling Soviet and British occupation zones.

As the war drew to a close, erstwhile allies began girding for the Cold War — and the disposition of Iran was a dress rehearsal. Moscow was keen to maintain influence in that country’s north, and to that end encouraged Iran’s Azerbaijani region to break away as an independent state — which it did in December 1945. The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad followed suit on January 22, 1946 (a date still commemorated by Kurdish activists) with Qazi Muhammed as president. Although the Mahabad Republic is sometimes characterized as “Soviet-backed,” or even a Soviet puppet, that might be a better description of its hopes than its reality.

Mahabad may have represented the national dream for Kurds, but it was a small pawn to the Soviets, easily sacrificed when its position became untenable. Moscow’s priorities were elsewhere, and this was the brief window when America was the only nuclear power: the Red Army was (diplomatically) forced out of Iran and the breakaway Republics reoccupied by the western-backed Iranian government. And Mahabad, a statelet founded by a middle class party with only limited backing from tribal chiefs, required Soviet support to have any hope of holding up.

Seeing where the wind was blowing, the Kurds submitted in December 1946 to the advancing Iranian army without a hopeless fight, but Muhammed refused on his honor to flee, hoping to placate the Iranians.

For all its inadequacies, Mahabad was the only Kurdish state of the 20th century, and Qazi Muhammed its founder and only president. That has earned him a place of honor in the crowded pantheon of Kurdish martyrs.

After a military court had him hanged, leadership of the Kurdish struggle passed to Mustafa Barzani, whose refugee guerrillas had made declaration of the Kurdish state a possibility in the first place.

In a biography of Barzani written by Barzani’s son, the Kurdish captain describes his last meeting with the president — and if the manifest interest of the reporting parties colors our presumption of its literal authenticity (journalist Jonathan Randal, for instance, reports that Barzani never held Mohammed in high regard), it likewise underscores the place of this day’s victim in the Kurdish mythology.

I went to Qazi Mohammed and asked him what he personally intended to do. He said that he intended to sacrifice his life to prevent bloodshed in Mahabad, that he would surrender to the Iranian forces, and that he had sent an emissary to General Hamayoni in Miyandoab informing him of his decision. He broke down in tears as he continued: “Never rely on anyone but your own group. All those who took the oath of allegiance have betrayed us and are rushing to prove their loyalty to the Iranian forces. Beware of the tribal chiefs who would target you if they could. I hope that you will leave Mahabad as soon as youc an to avoid confronting the Iranian forces.”

I insisted that he go with us [to Iraq], and pledged my word of honor that I would sacrifice my life and the lives of all who were with me to defend him, because he was the symbol of our nation. I told him that my advice to him was not to trust Iranian promises. It would be painful to see the first president of the Republic of Kurdistan fall into enemy hands.

In tears, Qazi Mohammed rose and hugged me, saying, “I pray God will give you strength and protect you. May my sacrifice spare the citizens some of their affliction and mitigate the terror and vengeance.” Then, he pulled a flag of Kurdistan from his pocket and gave it to me and said: “This is the symbol of Kurdistan. I give it to you as a token of trust in your honor, for I think you are the bes man to keep it.”

The Encyclopedia of Kurdistan has an excellent entry on Mahabad’s straitened political situation, as well as a good article on the background of tribal politics in the years prior to World War II.

* Some sources report March 30; the small hours in the morning of the 31st seems to have the plurality of scholarship.

** Although Baku was a much more important source of oil for the USSR.

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