A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 23, 2015

Vanished States: the Mahabad Republic and the Azerbaijan People's Government, 1945-1946

It's time for another post on "Vanished States" in the Middle East in the 20th century. Previous posts dealt with the Republic of Hatay (1938-39), the Syrian Arab Kingdom under Faisal (four months in 1920), the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hejaz (1916-1925), and the Rifian Republic (1921-1926). 

Today let's deal with two Soviet satellite states declared on Iranian territory in 1945, at the end of World War II and in the midst of the opening moves of the Cold War: the Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad  (usually referred to as the Mahabad Republic) and the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan (or Azerbaijan People's Government). By late 1946, both were gone after the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The two emerged from the occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union in 1941, when Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Muhammad Reza, in order to facilitate Allied supplies to the USSR. The Allies pledged to evacuate their forces from Iran within six months after the end of the war. These assurances were repeated when Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at the Tehran Conference in 1943.

But as World War II ended and the Cold War began, the Soviets encouraged these two states to declare independence, and Soviet forces remained in northwestern Iran. The Azerbaijani state, which had its capital at Tabriz, was rather different from the Kurdish one: it was run by veteran Communists and closely tied to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, while the Mahabad Republic, with its capital at Mahabad, as led by Iranian Kurdish nationalists of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), in alliance with a military force led by the Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, founder of the Iraqi KDP and father of the Kurdish Regional Government's President Mas‘oud Barzani.

Ja'far Pishevari
The Azerbaijanis declared their state first. A group of longtime Communists led by Ja‘far Pishevari declared the formation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party on September 3, 1945, the day after the surrender of Japan. The Tudeh Party, the official Communist Party of Iran, ordered its Azerbaijani branch to join the new movement. The group formed a "peasant's militia" and on November 18, 1945, staged an de facto coup, declaring an "autonomous republic." (Since Iran was a monarchy, how could a republic be autonomous within it?") Pishevari served as President and Ahmad Kordari as Prime Minister.

Azerbaijan Republic Flag
During the approximately one year before its dissolution, there were clearly close links between the Soviet Republic and the "Autonomous Republic" in Iran and Azeri Turkish was made official and Persian banned.  A Soviet-style judicial code was enforced.

To the West, the Kurdish region of Iran also sought to declare itself a Kurdish Republic. The USSR does not seem to have been as enthusiastic there since the Kurdish leadership were more traditional Kurdish nationalists rather than veteran Communists. The Soviets sought to encourage the Kurdish leadership in Mahabad, which during the period of Soviet occupation had been formed of traditional tribal and religious elements, to join the Azerbaijani Republic, but instead they declared thgeir own autonomous state on December 15, 1945 and on January 22, 1946, announced the formation of the Kurdish Rrpublic in Mahabad.

Qazi Muhammad
Its President was Qazi Muhammad, from a family of religious judges, and its Prime Minister Hajji Baba Sheikh, both members of the KDPI rather than traditional Communist Party (Komala) cadres. The Defense Minister was Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader. Historians claim that there was considerable resentment of the Barzani clan's presence in Iranian Kurdistan, where they had fled after fleeing Iraq. But Barzani's forces clearly were a mainstay of the Mahabad Republic's defense forces. Though the Kurdish Communist Party (Komala) supported the Mahabad Republic, the republic's leadership was officially KDPI.

Mustafa Barzani in 1946
Mahabad's more traditional leadership, though it included elements from Komala, resisted merger with the Communist government in Tabriz, and while the Soviets supported it in their efforts to remain in Iran, they seem to have been less trustful of the independent-minded Kurdish state than of the more Moscow-lining regime in Tabriz.But Mahabad was small, since significant parts of Iranian Kurdistan were in the Anglo-American rather than the Soviet-occupied zone, and were thus easily held by the government in Tehran.

The United Nations 

Mahabad Republic Flag
The West saw the Soviet efforts to remain in northwestern Iran in terms of the Cold War and viewed both mini-states as Soviet satellites. The newly formed United Nations was soon wrestling with what came to be called the Iran Crisis, and in fact, three of the first five resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council (UNSC Resolutions 2, 3, and 5) dealt with Iran; the Soviets were absent for the later resolutions.

Qazi Muhammad (l.) and Mustafa Barzani
In March of 1946, the USSR promised to withdraw its troops from Iran. (Eastern European domination took precedence over Iran, and the US had a nuclear monopoly until the first Soviet test in 1949.) While they sought as many delays as possible, they did indeed withdraw. By June the Pishevari government in Tabriz negotiated an agreement with the Shah's government to replace the "Autonomous Republic" with a Provincial Council. Although Iranian troops did not move into Azerbaijan until November and December 1946, the withdrawal of the Red Army meant the Azerbaijan Communists had no real source of support. Once the Iranian Army returned, Pishevari fled to Soviet Azerbaijan and Kordari was jailed.  In 1947, Pishevari was killed in an automobile accident, which many have found suspect. (We are talking about the Stalin era, after all.)

The end of Mahabad was messier and bloodier. Even as the withdrawal of Soviet support undercut his government, and many traditional tribal shaykhs and aghas were deserting the republic, Qazi Muhammad and his war council pledged armed resistance on December 5, 1946. With the Soviets leaving and Azerbaijan falling back under Tehran's control, this was a futile and rather puzzling gesture, especially given the fact that Qazi Muhammad agreed to the occupation of Mahabad by Iranian troops. During this period, Qazi Muhammad's brother, Sadr Qazi, had been serving as a Deputy in the Iranian Majlis in Tehran and serving as a go-between in negotiations. Nonetheless, after the fall of Mahabad, the Iranian government hanged Qazi Muhammad, Sadr Qazi, and their cousin Seif Qazi. This seems particularly unjust in the case of Sadr Qazi, who had been the go-between negotiator.

Mustafa Barzani and his Iraqi Kurdish forces tried but failed to cut a deal with Tehran and then conducted a fighting retreat toward the Iraqi and Soviet borders, bloodying the Iranian forces. To his credit, Stalin [as much as it pains me to write those four words about Stalin] allowed the Barzani forces into exile in Soviet Azerbaijan. In the 1950s, after the fall of the Iraqi monarchy, they would be allowed to re-enter Iraq.

The Azerbaijan Soviet satellite is largely forgotten, but Kurdish nationalists sill remember the Mahabad Republic as an evanescent moment of Kurdish independence. Unfortunately, they were dependent on Stalin to make that independence last, and Uncle Joe was not a man to depend upon. A YouTube video of the declaration of the republic:

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