The life and death of Abdul Rahman
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou
Man of Peace
The life of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou is one with the life of his Kurdish people. He was only
fifteen when he joined the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan which he was to become the
Secretary-General in 1973. He was brutally murdered in Vienna on 13 July
He went to université in Paris and later Czechoslovakia, had a Doctorate in économics
and was an associate professor, having taught in Prague and Paris. In 1941, the Allies invaded Iran in a 'bridge of victory" opération
that inevitably brought about the downfall of Reza Shah because of his relations
with the Axis powers. A major political change was to take shape in the country.
In Iranian Kurdistan the national movement came back to life and the Democratic
Party of Iranian Kurdistan, founded on 16 August 1945, attracted young people in
their masses. One of them was Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou - not yet 15 years old.
On 22 January 1946 the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad came into existence by
proclamation, but in December the same year the imperial army with the help of
the Anglo-American forces entered the city and the kflling and arrests that
followed were as cruel as they were indiscriminate. The Republic had fallen. Its President, Qazi Mohammad, and his close followers
were taken prisoner and then put to death on 30 March 1947.Little by little the Kurdish people re-gathered its strength : the Republic
of Mahabad may have been short-lived but in the collective memory it did not
die. Running unlimited risks, the Kurdish leaders set about the vast task of
protecting, educating and organising the population. Back from Europe in 1952,
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou devoted his energies to these clandestine activities for
several years. In the next decade he split his time between Europe and Kurdistan
working in double harness : his université career and his repeated missions to
In 1959, the regional context appeared to be more hopeful : in neighbouring Iraq,
the monarchy had been overthrown and Molla Mostafa Barzani (leader of the
Democratic Party of Iraqi Kurdistan) had returned to his country after eleven
years of exile in USSR. In 1968-69 armed conflict was rife in Iranian Kurdistan
and the period ended in a bath of blood with the massacre of the Kurdish leaders
- and yet, even then, Kurdish résistance managed to raise its head again.
CIle government in Bagdad accepted the principle of autonomy for the Kurdish
population of Iraq. Was the Kurdish identity at last to be recognised ? On the
other side of the frontier, the DPIK steeled itself to renew the struggle. The
vice-like grip in which the Shah's armies were trying to hold it had to be
broken. At the third Congress of the DPIK (1973), Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was elected
Secretary-General and at those that followed he was invariably returned to
During the years that followed, the prestige of the Pahlavi monarchy
continued to wane. The White Revolution was questioned by experts in
international affairs, the greedy demands and extravagant behaviour of the court
were criticised in the press and the SAVAK was active throughout the country, no
social class being spared its baneful attentions. Clearly - and sooner rather
than later - the regime was doomed. If that happened, what should be the
position of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan ?
In view of the complex nature of the problems in the region that position had
to be clearcut. The Party had to reply unambiguously to a number of questions
about its identity, its allegiances, its aspirations and its options. Abdul
Rahman Ghassemlou and his aides drew up as coherent and realistic a programme as
they could which may be summarised, in essence, as follows :
- We are Kurds, we belong to a people that the vicissitudes of history have
scattered over five states. A bond of brotherhood binds us, and will continue to
bind us, to all other Kurds, wherever they live.
- We are the descendants of one of the oldest Indo-European civilisations. Our
identity is defined by the fact that we have our own language and our own
- We are the citizens of a country called Iran - on the same basis of the other
peoples living on Iranian territory : the Baluchs, Persians, Azeris, Arabs,
Turkmens and so on.
- We are ardent defenders of the Declaration of Human Rights and the right of
peoples as defined by the United Nations.
- We are for the freedom of worship and we respect all religions practiced by
Faith is an inviolable right.
However, being resolutely modern in our outlook, we feel that a séparation
between the religious institutions and the state is desirable. A lay state is
not, on that account, opposed to the faith or to those that serve it.
- For the living conditions of all to be improved, customs from long ages past
condemning women to a state of inferiority to be ended.
- To accelerate development in our contry, it is necessary to establish a system
providing free éducation of uniform quality throughout the country. A special
effort should be made in the peripheral areas (Kurdistan, for example) that are
clearly a long way behind.
- No attempt to leave poverty behind will succeed without the active
participation of the people themselves. To feel concerned - so we believe - they
have to feel free. Freedom of movement for goods and persons, freedom of
association and freedom to form political parties or unions and to belong to
such organisations are the indispensable preconditions for economic and cultural
- For there to be trust between the population and the central authority,
large-scale décentralisation is necessary.
- In Kurdistan's case, that décentralisation has to comprise a charter of
autonomy for the region whose boundaries would need to be precisely defined.
Within this Kurdish space, the administrative languages should be Kurdish and
Farsi, which would both be official languages of the regional and local
authorities. Primary éducation should be in Kurdish whereas the two official
languages should be routine practice in secondary school. Lastly, after so many
years of violence, the Kurdish people could not accept a police force that was
not manned by Kurds. It is only on these conditions that there would be any
chance of lasting peace in Iranian Kurdistan.
- Lstly, the "kurdification" of the administrative and 'production
structures would demand major investment in the training of senior officials and
staff and also - it goes without sayitig - a multidisciplinary université on
In other words, what the leaders of the DPIK demand is genuine and effective
Unfortunately, as everyone knows, dictatorships hide behind pyramid-shape
structures excluding all horizontal communication. Feeling themselves
perpetually threatened (as indeed they are), they seek the support of foreign
powers which, in the end, become their masters. Dictators are not free and they
abuse the freedom of others. So the autonomy of Iranian Kurdistan would be
utopian unless Iran made the change to democracy. Without democracy in Iran
there could be no guarantee for autonomy in Kurdistan.
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou saw that these two concepts were inseparable and so they
became the watchword of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan: Democracy
for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan.
This policy statement in which chauvinism and sectarianism had no part won
the DPIK the firm friendship of Third World countries and modern democracies
alike. During his many trips abroad, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was always sure of
a warm welcome. Many humanitarian organisations offered him help, eminent
figures on the world stage in political and university life thought highly of
him and human rights and religions militants encouraged him throughout his life.
It was thanks to him that the Iranian Kurds were able to emerge from their
isolation and make their voice heard in the international fora. Some of these sympathisers were surprised that the Iranian Kurds had "such
modest" demands after such a bitter struggle. "It is really autonomy
you want - nothing more ?" was a not uncommon reaction.
No secret clause was ever planned or hidden in this blueprint for autonomy
because it was the fruit of long and profound thought about the world political
context following World War Il. The Kurdish leaders took the view that major
changes to frontiers were ruled out and that the general trend was towards the
formation of large groupings rather that the fragmentation of existing units.
In any case, once peace was restored, it would surely be natural for countries
with common borders to seek to develop trade and cultural exchange. In the long
term, therefore, the existence of big Kurdish communities in various parts of
the Middle East could be a positive factor in inter-régional relations. Everyone would stand to gain. It is well known that the big exporting countries
pay considérable attention to the ethnic minorities, which often act as
bridgeheads or relay stations in campaigns to win a foothold in new markets.
In short, the Kurdish thinkers concluded that only the short-sighted could see
ethnic, linguistic or religious diversity as an obstacle to development. In the
future the big middle-eastern house would derive its energy from the many
different elements of which it was built. This pattern was particularly true of
Iran itself with its 45 million inhabitants of which only 40 % were of Persian
origin.(Today Iran has over sixty million inhabitants). At that time, towards 1975, this type of thinking sounded at least advanced, not
to say fanciful. The Kurds were still under the heel of the Shah. But nothing is
eternal, dictators included.|
One day in February 1979 Reza Pahlavi finally gave up the throne. At that time
the DPIK had a solid base and a real impact in Iranian Kurdistan. However, to
run the territory properly and control its administration the police had to be
removed and the army thrown out down to the very last man. This was the task of
the "peshmergas" or partisans, who attacked army barracks and seized
large stocks of arms and ammunition. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was then able to
claim that, in a large part of Kurdistan, the Kurds were their own masters.
It was reasonable to hope that the Iranian révolution would have brought men
to power able to realise that the interests of the central authority and those
of the Kurds were compatible. Elections were planned and a new constitution was
being written for the country. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was elected to the
Assembly of experts and made ready to carry to the capital the message of the
Kurds - a simple message: there is room for all in this country where everything
needs doing or re-doing. Imam Khomeini, unfortunately, saw things differently,
he labelled the newly elected representative of the Kurds an "enemy of
God" and declared a "holy war" on Kurdistan.
This was in 1979. Sudden though it was, this call to arms was, in restrospect,
not surprising. How, after all, could this grim gerontocrat with the cruelty of
another age be prepared to give his attention to the history and wants of the
Kurds ? How could Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou be expected to stay silent at the
hostagetaking, occupation of foreign embassies and other terrorist activities
launched in 1979 by an Imam who had recently returned from Neauphle-le-Château
to sow the seeds of hate and insanity.
The Gulf War broke out the following September.
Perhaps these unsubdued Kurds would be forgotten during this conflict
between Iran and Iraq (1980-88). On the contrary. In fact, it cost them dearly,
for their villages lay on either side of the frontier where the fighting was at
its fiercest. They were accused, too, of being anti-patriotic : their
settlements were destroyed and the people living there reduced to a wandering
existence. The ultimate purpose of these crimes against humanity was obvious :
to use the war as an excuse for exterminating a people whose authenticity was
denied as strongly as it was proclaimed by the Kurds.
Iran came out of the war with Iraq exhausted and the Imam at death's door.The
facts had to be faced and Tehran had to find a compromise in Kurdistan. For his
part, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou had been saying for years that the fighting had
been imposed on him, that neither side would ever lose or win and that, sooner
or later, the Kurdish problem would have to be solved across the negotiating
table. After flying a few kites, Tehran issued a concrete proposal for a meeting
in Vienna on 28 December 1988 and the DPIK accepted.
The talks lasted two days, 28 and 30 December and the results must have been
promising because it was agreed to hold another meeting the following January.
On 20 January, at the end of the first round of negotiations, the
representatives of Tehran were fully acquainted with the Kurdish demands. The
principle of autonomy seemed to have been agreed. The details of how it was to
be put into effect had yet to be defined.
Six months later, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou returned to Europe to attend a
congress of the Socialist International. Tehran tried to contact him again in
order, he was told, to pursue the negotiations that had begun the previous
winter. The DPIK accepted the offer sent to it. The meeting took place on 12
July 1989 in Vienna. Tbe Tehran delegation was as before, namely Mohammed Jafar
Sahraroudi and Hadji Moustafawi, except that this time there was also a third
member : Amir Mansur Bozorgian whose function was that of bodyguard. The Kurds
also had a three-man delegation : Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, his aide Abdullah
Ghaderi-Azar (member of the DPIK Central Committee) and Fadhil Rassoul, an Iraqi
university professor who had acted as a mediator.
The next day, 13 July 1989, in the very room where the negotiation took place
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was killed by three bullets fired at very close range.
His assistant Abdullah Ghaderi-Azar was hit by eleven bullets and Fadhil Rassoul
by five. Hadji Moustafawi succeeded in escaping. Mohammad Jafar Sahraroudi
received minor injuries and was taken to hospital, questioned and allowed to go.
Amir Mansur Bozorgian was released after 24 hours in police custody and took
refuge in the Iranian Embassy.Indignation was at its height.
How, in this age, in the heart of Europe, could it happen for the
representatives of a member country of the United Nations to open fire at point
blank range on the représentatives of a country with whom it was at war and had
entered into peace negotiations '.?
On 19 July two representatives of the political bureau of the Democratic Party
of Iranian Kurdistan came to Paris to attend the funeral. At a press conference
they announced, among other things, that the higher authorities of the DPIK had
appointed Sadegh Charafkandi to perform the duties of Secretary General.
Sadegh Charafkandi is in his fifties and has a doctorate in industrial chemistry
from Paris University. Up to the death of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou he was Deputy
Secretary-General of the party.
The two murdered men of the DPIK were buried on 20 July in Paris in the presence
of a throng of some two thousand people from all parts : Kurds and Armenians,
Azeris and Turks, Persians and Europeans, poets and doctors, ministers and
workpeople, representatives of humanitarian organisations and members of
parliament. Leading the funeral procession, the peshmergas in their Kurdish résistance
fighters' uniform advanced with difficulty in the torrid heat of the Parisian
They were all there, all that had been able to travel on their crutches
and in their wheelchairs, having come from the various capitals of Europe where
they were recovering, as best they could, from the wounds received in the
conflict. Tehran denied all connection with this triple murder and told Austria
to look for clues in other directions than Iran. But the findings of the
ballistics experts were conclusive. In late November 1989 the Austrian courts
issued a warrant for the arrest of the three Iranian representatives and the
Austrian Government expressly accused the Iranian Goverinnent as having
instigated the attack on Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and the two other Kurds.
Thus died this man who was no warmonger but a man of letters, master of
several languages and persuasive speaker. Overflowing with enthusiasm and energy,
he was an intellectual of his time, this end of the twenthieth century when the
triumph of democracy seems really within reach.