Nader Entessar’s 1992 book, Kurdish Ethnonationalism, was then one of less than half a dozen English language books on the Kurdish issue. The book was extremely useful for my doctoral work on the Kurds. Kurdish Politics in the Middle East is a significantly revised and completely updated version of this earlier work. Entessar again provides a clear, compelling, and honest examination of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Readers unfamiliar with Kurdistan and its people will very much appreciate Entessar’s ability to describe eloquently and explain the most important issues without getting lost in the details of a subject of such enormous complexity.
The table of contents makes it immediately clear to readers that the book offers a summary and overview of Kurdish history and politics, rather than a theory-driven analysis or a focus on some particular aspect of the Kurdish experience. The chapters provide a general introduction; an examination of the Iranian, Iraqi, and Turkish Kurdish cases; and a deeper focus on the impact of recent events (Iran-Iraq relations [End Page 311] in the 1960s and 1970s, the Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq). The concluding chapter—“Autonomy or Independence?”—briefly considers the future of the Kurds, especially in light of international law and norms.
The overview of the Kurdish situations in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey allows readers new to the Kurdish issue to make a ready comparison. First, as Entessar clearly outlines, policy towards the Kurds under the Iranian Pahlavi monarchy and Republican Turkey bore remarkable similarities in their attempts to deny a Kurdish identity and assimilate their respective Kurdish minorities. This included forbidding the use of Kurdish (in schools, government, media and public venues in general) and went so far as to refer to Kurds as “mountain Turks” and “mountain Iranians” for a time. Such policies proved more successful in Turkey (for a while) than in Iran. This reflected the Turkish state’s comparatively greater capacity for this sort of policy. However, Entessar suggests that Iran’s somewhat softer assimilationist program also may reflect the linguistic affinity between the Kurdish dialect spoken in Iran and Persian, which in turn has fostered a closer cultural affinity between the two ethnic groups, as illustrated by their mutual celebration of the Nowruz Spring equinox.
A comparison of the chapters on Iran and Iraq likewise offers a striking commonality: When, at times, the central government in either country has been weak, Kurdish rebels have extracted wide-ranging concessions and promises, leading them to hope that they could achieve some kind of autonomy. Conversely, when the central authority in Tehran or Baghdad has been strong and the Kurds have pressed their demands too far—as in 1946, when Iranian Kurds attempted to secede—fighting has resumed, Kurds have been massacred, and tight state control has been re-imposed without even minor provisions for autonomy or minority rights. Had this chapter examined events in Turkey between 1919 and 1925 a bit more closely, a similar sequence of events would have come more sharply to light.
At times, it seems as if Entessar endeavors to be “too fair” in his account. In discussing the Iranian state’s long history of assassinating Kurdish (and other) dissident leaders—assassinations that were usually preceded by an offer to “meet and discuss a resolution of the conflict”—Entessar reviews the various claims and denials about who was responsible, without supporting one narrative over the other. This reviewer wishes he would take a stand more often. Additionally, in this reviewer’s opinion, the concluding chapter should have explored in greater depth the various implications for the region of the emergence of a legally recognized and increasingly accepted autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
David Romano is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).