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. It involved 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 involved some Cold War jockeying for influence. But our story starts back 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 then (of course) be brought into Moscow’s orbit. The Kurds weren’t too keen on that joint arrangement, so instead two republics took shape. 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, but the Soviets were increasingly dependent on American and British aid for their survival (this was World War II, don’t forget). Much of that American/British aid ran through the “Persian Corridor,” and so when those Western powers (not to mention the Iranians themselves) told the Soviets to knock off the Iranian expansion plans, they really had no choice but to comply.
The Iranians reasserted control over Iranian Azerbaijan first, but Mahabad, now completely isolated, couldn’t hold out very long. Qazi Muhammad’s internal support diminished along with everybody’s food supplies. When an Iranian attack, and Kurdish bloodbath, seemed inevitable, in December, he surrendered rather than try to put up a futile resistance. In March 1947, he was hanged in Tehran. 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–and father of the ex-president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud 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. 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.