Is it Time to Plan a No-Fly Zone over Iranian Kurdistan?

May 22, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IranKurdsEbrahim RaisiAli Khamenei

Is it Time to Plan a No-Fly Zone over Iranian Kurdistan?

When Khamenei dies, Iranian Kurds will assert autonomy. As the new Iranian regime consolidates control, it will seek to crush it.


Ebrahim Raisi’s sudden death last weekend renewed attention to the Iranian succession question. While Raisi was the frontrunner to succeed eighty-five-year-old Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, all bets are now off. The Iranian government may focus on replacing Raisi. Still, across Iran, the knives are out as clerics, Revolutionary Guard generals, aspiring politicians, and opposition groups plan for the real prize: determining who holds power the day after Khamenei’s death.

On paper, succession in Iran should not be a problem. The Assembly of Experts, an eighty-eight-member clerical body, chooses the next supreme leader. Nothing works as written, however. Prior to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death thirty-five years ago, leading luminaries from various power centers quietly negotiated and settled upon Khamenei, considered weak and non-threatening at the time, to be his future successor. The Assembly of Experts gave him the rubber stamp to confirm what others had already done.


A quick rubber stamp may not be in the works this time. The problem is three-fold. First, whatever internal power balance existed at the time of Khomeini’s death has ended. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for example, is not only a military force but also a business conglomerate worth billions of dollars. They will not risk their financial interests for a leader they have not vetted or of whom they disapprove.

Second, unlike in the Sultanate of Oman, there is no specified time frame associated with succession. In Oman, there is a graduated process to deliver a successor after three days at a maximum. In Iran, the Assembly of Experts could choose a successor after two days or wait two years.

Third, the prize is immense. Khamenei has presided over a thirty-five-year dictatorship with not only vast religious and political power but also control over personal wealth greater than the gross domestic product of many Latin American, African, and even European countries. The odds may be against any specific man replacing Khamenei, especially if he is coming from the sidelines, but if succession comes just only once every few decades, why not try a “Hail Mahdi” pass?

When Iran Grows Weak, Iranian Kurds Make Their Move

The American humorist Mark Twain once quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” At times of transition and weak central government, disorder grows along Iran’s periphery but nowhere so much as in Iranian Kurdistan.

During the late nineteenth century, Iranian power dissipated. Both Russia and the United Kingdom interfered politically and diplomatically to keep Iran weak. Both countries also constrained Iran by entrapping its spendthrift Shah with debt. Tehran was weak, but the Kurdish region was weaker. Tribesmen raided across the porous border from what now is Iraq. Local notables became effectively autonomous.

The Shah eventually dispatched troops to the border. The telegraph created an early warning system that let Tehran stay one step ahead of chaos. However, such stability did not last long. Political instability marked the first decades of the twentieth century in Iran. After years of struggle, the Constitutional Revolution succeeded only to face a Russian-backed counterrevolution and abortive invasion. Tribes rose up and again asserted their autonomy, especially in the mountainous Kurdish region. The Shah put Reza Khan, the head of the Persian Cossack Brigade, in charge of reasserting his authority. Reza Khan fulfilled his mission with enthusiasm and brutality, so much so that his prestige grew to the point where he outshone the Shah, whom he ultimately unseated, declaring himself Reza Shah in 1925.

Reza Shah started out strong, but the winds of war loomed. After the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union occupied eastern Iran in 1941 to secure an alternate supply route for the Red Army, the Allies forced the Shah’s abdication and exile due to their suspicions about his pro-German leanings. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah, assumed the throne. The new Shah filled the void in Tehran, but the periphery was another story.

When World War II ended, the British and Americans withdrew, but Soviet troops stayed in Iranian Azerbaijan, sparking the first real crisis of the Cold War. Diplomatic pressure ultimately compelled the Soviets to withdraw, but they left behind a vacuum that Iranian Kurds sought to fill with their own separatist republic. It would be a year before Iranian forces rallied, reoccupied the region, and hanged the Kurdish ringleaders.

Mohammad Reza Shah consolidated the dictatorship. Throughout the 1960s, Iranian Kurdistan was relatively quiet. Unrest exploded, however, as Iran descended first into chaos and then into the Islamic Revolution. As the Shah teetered, his forces consolidated themselves in Tehran. In the end, while the Shah wanted it all if given a choice between Tehran and the Kurdish hinterlands, Tehran was politically and economically more important. 

After the Islamic Revolution succeeded, Khomeini moved to reconsolidate Tehran’s control throughout the entirety of the country. In practice, this meant the dispatch of Sadegh Khalkhali, a Shia cleric who served as Khomeini’s hanging judge, in the region. He established revolutionary courts that sentenced hundreds of Kurds to summary execution. That he was ethnically Azeri only added glee to his job. To this day, the most brutal Revolutionary Guard units operating in Iranian Kurdistan are ethnic Azeris, a situation akin to how the Kremlin often uses Chechen units to do their dirty work elsewhere in the South Caucasus and Ukraine.

The Islamic Republic repressed the Kurds, but not for long. During the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, the most famous battles were in the south, but Iranians say the most fearful front was in Iranian Kurdistan. Kurds were generally no friend of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, but they cared little for Khomeini either. As a result, Kurdish groups like Komala and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran grew in popularity. Today, Iranian officials inflate voter participation, seeking to use it as a metric of regime legitimacy, but Iranian Kurds report low levels of participation in polls. The tendency of those compelled by authorities to vote to spoil their ballots on purpose even garnered Khamenei’s attention.

When Khamenei dies, the most likely scenario is that there will be a contested succession and a power vacuum. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will reinforce its presence in Tehran as it seeks to secure the prize for itself or its clerical proxy or, conversely, as it seeks to block any path to power by those it opposes. Civil war is a possibility. That war will either end with Iranian Kurdish separatism—an unlikely prospect given the balance of power—or massacres by Iranian forces of Iranian Kurds.

In 1991, as Saddam Hussein sought to reassert control over Iraq following Operation Desert Storm, he directed his Republican Guard to target Iraqi Kurds en masse. The Iraqi Kurds knew what Saddam was capable of. Just three years prior, Iraqi forces had dropped chemical weapons in Halabja, killing between 5,000 and 8,000 Kurdish men, women, and children. Fearing a repeat, more than a million Kurds began to flee toward the Turkish border.

Not wanting to host so many Kurdish refugees at a time, Turkey was fighting a Kurdish insurgency. Turkey’s then-President Turgut Özal proposed a safe haven in northern Iraq. Eventually, Turkey also hosted a no-fly zone to defend American, European, and UN personnel conducting humanitarian relief in the safe haven.

Back to Iran: when Khamenei dies, Iranian Kurds will assert autonomy. As the new Iranian regime consolidates control, it will seek to crush it. Revolutionary Guard units or successors made up of Revolutionary Guard veterans will act with extreme brutality, perhaps egged on by Iranian Azeris. The result will be a 1991 redux with Iranian Kurds fleeing across mountain passes into Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey. Satellite news crews will beam images of human suffering into living rooms across America, Europe, and the Middle East.

The question then becomes: will the West do anything?

Among both Democrats and Republicans, the mood towards military deployments abroad is sour, but there is a humanitarian exception. Even President Barack Obama, who campaigned against “dumb wars,” succumbed to political pressure to engage in Syria, especially after the Bashar al-Assad regime reportedly used chemical weapons against civilians.

With U.S. jets stationed in Turkey, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, the question then becomes: Will the United States support a no-fly zone over Iranian Kurdistan? If so, what are the implications for the rest of Iran and the region? Conversely, if not, what might a wholescale massacre of Iranian Kurds mean for Iran, and how might Iranian Kurdish refugees destabilize the region?

Waiting for the crisis to occur rather than proactively planning for it now would be diplomatic and strategic negligence.

Michael Rubin is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on X @mrubin1971 and LinkedIn.

Image: Athikhom Saengchai /