Today in Middle Eastern history: the Republic of Mahabad is born (1946)

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You may not have heard of the Republic of Mahabad. You may not even know anybody else who’s heard of the Republic of Mahabad. Maybe you’re looking askance at this blog right now, wondering if I’m telling the truth. Wondering if I’ve ever told the truth. Well let me assure you that the Republic of Mahabad was real. Very real. The Republic of Mahabad is just as real as well-known cities like Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, which you can see are definitely real from this map:

Really though, the Republic of Mahabad was an experiment in Iranian Kurdish self-rule that survived all the way from January (January 22, to be precise) 1946 until December, um, 1946, when the Iranians decided that they weren’t really all that keen on the idea of Iranian Kurdish self-rule. Its story involves Kurdish nationalism, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, World War II intrigue, and—best of all—commies.

It is true that the Republic of Mahabad was the product of some Cold War jockeying for influence. But our story starts in 1941, when Reza Shah Pahlavi’s official neutrality was deemed unacceptable to the Allied war effort and inspired the Soviets and Brits to invade Iran from the north and south, respectively. They cast Reza Shah off his throne (in favor of his more pliable son) and out of the country. But then an interesting thing happened: the Soviets didn’t entirely leave. Instead, they revisited their old post-World War I idea of establishing an “independent” republic in northeastern Iran, in this case incorporating Iran’s Azeri and Kurdish populations, that could be brought into Moscow's orbit. The Kurds weren’t too keen on that joint arrangement, so instead two republics took shape (much to Moscow’s chagrin). In the city of Mahabad the Soviets set up the Society for the Revival of Kurdistan, under a local big shot named Qazi Muhammad (d. 1947, which in this case is a bit of a spoiler).

The “Azerbaijan People’s Government” (one of its several names) was formally established in November 1945, but it took the Kurds until January 22, 1946, to declare their state. Neither one was ever likely to last. Both were heavily dependent on the Soviets for their survival. The Soviets, however, were not in great shape in the immediate aftermath of World War II. And so under pressure from the US and UK (not to mention the Iranians themselves), the Soviets agreed in March 1946 to knock off their Iranian meddling, mostly because they really had no choice.

Without its Soviet lifeline, Mahabad couldn’t hold out very long. Qazi Muhammad’s internal support diminished in direct correlation with the republic’s food supplies. In particular, while Kurds in the city of Mahabad remained relatively committed to the cause, Kurdish tribes in the surrounding region lost interest as soon as the Soviets (and their economic and military support) withdrew. In December, when an Iranian attack—and Kurdish bloodbath—seemed inevitable Qazi Muhammad surrendered rather than try to put up a futile resistance. The Iranian military entered the republic unopposed on December 15, 1946, and spent some time destroying a Kurdish-language printing operation and burning copies of Kurdish-language books. The Iranian government also banned the teaching of the Kurdish languages. For his trouble, Iranian authorities hanged Qazi Muhammad in Tehran, in March 1947. The short-lived Republic of Mahabad was no more.

One interesting side note to this episode involves the Iraqi Kurds. Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish resistance to the Kingdom of Iraq—also father of the ex-president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, and grandfather of its current president, Nechirvan Barzani—was forced out of Iraq in 1945 and wound up in Mahabad, where he and his fighters were instrumental in helping Qazi Muhammad consolidate his control over the would-be republic. Barzani and Qazi Muhammad founded the “Kurdistan Democratic Party” to serve as the governing party in the new state. Barzani was in many respects the second most powerful figure in Mahabad. Or perhaps even the most powerful, since it was the fighters loyal to him who made up the core of the republic’s military forces (such as they were, anyway).

Unfortunately for Qazi Muhammad, his ties to the Iraqi Barzanis hurt his credibility with his fellow Iranian Kurds, and when Mahabad’s situation started to deteriorate those Barzani connections were one of the reasons why Qazi Muhammad’s support collapsed as quickly as it did. When Mahabad fell, Barzani and his men headed north to Soviet Azerbaijan. They remained guests of the Soviets until 1958, when they returned to Iraq after the coup that toppled the Hashemite monarchy. The KDP, now the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, remains more or less a Barzani family operation, though it's since gone in a more conservative direction. The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, which traces its roots to the party that Qazi Muhammad and Mustafa Barzani founded in Mahabad, is still around and is still ideologically left of center, although it’s been heavily repressed by Iranian authorities.