Today in Middle Eastern history: the Republic of Mahabad is born (1946)

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:


No, really though, the Republic of Mahabad was an experiment in Iranian Kurdish self-rule that survived 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. That’s right, there were damn Reds everywhere.

Whoa, I started channeling every Republican over the age of 60 there for a minute. Sorry about that.

It is true, though that the Republic of Mahabad involved some Cold War jockeying for influence. But you have to start 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 amenable son) and out of the country, but then an interesting thing happened: the Soviets didn’t entirely leave. Instead, they started to get designs on establishing an “independent” (and Communist, of course) republic in northeastern Iran, containing 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 arrangement, so instead two republics took shape. In the city of Mahabad the Soviets established the Society for the Revival of Kurdistan, under a local bigshot named Qazi Muhammad (d. 1947, which in this case is a bit of a spoiler).


The “People’s Republic of Azerbaijan” was formally established in November 1945, but it took the Kurds until January 22, 1946 to declare their state. Neither one had much chance of lasting. 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), and much of that aid ran through the “Persian Corridor,” which wasn’t a hallway covered in Persian rugs. So the when those Western powers (not to mention the Iranians) 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 current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud 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 control over the would-be republic. Unfortunately for Qazi Muhammad, his ties to the Iraqi Barzanis also dinged 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. When Mahabad fell, Barzani and his men headed north to Soviet Azerbaijan, and they remained guests of the Soviets until 1958, when they returned to Iraq after the coup that toppled the Hashemite monarchy.



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