(Translated from Libération, August 7, 1989)
Abdel Rahman Ghassemlou, murdered in Vienna on July 13th 1989, was in every way an exceptional man, both as leader of one of the oldest and most deeply rooted national liberation movements and in his personal magnetism – his international influence, his rare if not unique ability to express the traditions and the struggle of a thousand-year-old people in terms of the values of the late 20th century: freedom, democracy, internationalism. But he was little known to the public, and many will have learned simultaneously of his existence and of his death.
Ghassemlou was not a man of shadows, nor surrounded by mystery. The Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iran, war leader when necessary but political leader above all, he saw himself as a man of contact and dialogue. He was a passionate and tireless ambassador for this cause, who travelled all over the world to make it better known. But he was happiest sharing mud hut with his peshmergas at the bottom of some remote valley on the Iran-Iraq border, where he was constantly on the move, taking his library with him.
He liked good books and good wine – but could do without the latter more easily than the former – and was at ease at a Parisian table as in the spartan loneliness of the harsh mountain winter. At nearly sixty, he would have been 59 next December, he combined the serenity of an eastern sage with the dynamism of a youth, the curiosity of an encyclopaedist with the appetite of a bon vivant. As firm in his convictions as he was pragmatic in action, Ghessemlou seemed to reconcile without strain the toughness required for a political-military struggle and the elegant scepticism derived from his long academic career.
He had a doctorate in economics, loved history and literature and was an expert on Kurdish, Persian and Arabic poetry; he also readily quoted Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Walt Whitman or T.S. Eliot. Warm, open, approachable, using irony and humour as easily as the six or seven languages he spoke and wrote fluently, he inspired the same reaction in everyone who met him. Sympathizers with his movement, intellectuals, doctors, ministers, ambassadors, politicians of left or right. All, even if recalling only one long-ago conversation, admit that they fell for his charm. Few people in this century could boast such unanimity.
Ghassemlou began his political life as a communist in the Iranian Tudeh party, in which he rose to a position of leadership. After 15 years in Prague teaching economics, he broke with the Communist Party in August 1968 over the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. Though he abandoned the certainties of Marxist dogma he did not renounce his background. Rather, he examined its mistakes as he analysed the political situation to understand where and when justice had slipped into injustice and truth into error, or even horror, and to draw the moral conclusion. He was particularly well placed to know the difficulties of political struggle in a society that was “backward”, as he used to say, because, from being cut off from the world and deprived of its right of decision and expression, even when of access to its own culture. But he was not prepared to use underdevelopment as an ideological justification for all kinds of excesses, such as the cult of violence for its own sake, the cult of the leader in an organization, or the dictatorship of an organization over the people.
Nor could he adopt the idea that it is quite all right to use one language for public relations and the media, and then forget about it in the field. His great pride, as he was never tired of saying, was that as far as humanly possible the ideals of the movement were reflected in its everyday conduct. The PDKI has never mistreated prisoners, never used force against civilians, never taken hostages, never hijacked aircraft or planted bombs in the buses or markets of the “enemy” towns, let alone outside the war zone. Though by no means a pacifist, Ghassemlou opposed terrorism on principle, knowing that he paid a price for that and sometimes remarking, with just a hint of bitterness, that it explained why the media showed so little interest in the Kurdish question. “Any little group can become famous by taking hostages or planting bombs,” he once wrote, “whereas liberation movements which abstain from terrorism are generally ignored.”
In November 1979 Ghassemlou condemned, on the very first day, the seizure of the diplomats and staff of the US Embassy in Tehran. For him the liberation of Iran from American control, or the Third World from great-power imperialism as the PDKI programme put it, was the objective of a long-term political struggle which entailed freedom and democracy for all.
Yet, contrary to the accusations of the Tehran regime, Washington was not won over to the Kurdish cause. Though American diplomacy had indeed been active during the Kurdish war in Iraq (1961-1975), for geostrategic reasons which Dr. Kissinger explains at length, and quite cynically in his memoirs, it never lifted a finger for the Kurds of Iran. Ghassemlou himself was banned from entering the US until the month of his death, when he was for the first time granted a visa. Just before leaving for Vienna he was preparing very carefully for his trip to the US, where he hoped to do a great deal to publicise the Kurdish problem, though he had no great illusions about the likely political result.
He knew all too well that however great the sympathy felt by a certain educated world opinion for the Kurdish cause, (not only that of the 5 million Iranian Kurds but of the 25 million scattered through five countries) the cause would never mobilise the diplomacy of the great powers, nor even of the European democracies, since they were concerned primarily with their own regional interests. He had learned this during his frequent travels abroad, especially in Europe. For although generally respected, he was rarely welcome in official circles. At best, by playing on old friendships and exploiting his membership of the Socialist International, he would now and then secure a little humanitarian aid for his people. Or, by whispering in a generous ear, would manage to resolve a problem of special importance to him. Jean-François Deniau, a minister in the Giscard government, described with some emotion how Ghassemlou had at one time laid siege of his office to get the French government to back a new edition of the only French-Kurdish dictionary, which had long been out of print.
He was a realist. I remember him telling me once that at the end of a century notable for the assertion and precarious stabilisation of different nationalisms it was no good expecting to “explode the map to allow the Kurds to build themselves an independent state on the ruins of three others”. So he demanded autonomy for Iranian Kurdistan, not independence for the Kurds. But his opponents in Tehran assumed that this was only a hypocritical tactic, crudely disguising a separatism which dared not speak its name – the first step towards a “Greater Kurdistan” uniting the Kurds of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, even Syria and the USSR. On this point, “laymen” such as [former Iranian president] Bani-Sadr were in full agreement with the fundamentalist mullahs.
Ghassemlou’s death warrant was signed as early as 1979, when he was elected as the only self-confessed secularist in Iran’s “constituent” assembly. For security reasons he refused to go to Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeiny publically regretted his absence in a televised speech, adding: “What a shame. We could have arrested him and had him shot at once.” July 13th 1989, the day when Muslims celebrated the Id al-Kabir or “feast of pardon”, was also observed by Shiites as the 40th day of mourning for the Imam. Was that only a coincidence? Or did the murderers, disguised as peace envoys with an official mandate from [former Iranian president] Hashemi-Rafsanjani and passports signed by [former Foreign Minister] Velayati, come from Tehran deliberately to carry out the sentence on that ritual day?
Source: “Dr. Abdoul Rahman Ghassemlou,” (Paris: Institut Kurde De Paris, Information and Liaison Bulletin, Special Issue 75 FF, July-August 1989), pp. 7-9.