With Iran’s protests dragging on for a third month, the government’s crackdown is intensifying in ethnically Kurdish areas in the country’s northwest, according to government, local officials and human rights activists.
At least 42 people have been killed over the past week while protesting in Kurdish cities as a result of «direct fire from Iranian government forces,» the Kurdish human rights group Hengaw said on Tuesday. The group, which focuses on human rights in Iranian Kurdistan, said at least 1,500 people were injured.
The authorities restrict media coverage of the demonstrations, making independent reporting on the protests difficult, if not impossible. NBC News cannot verify claims made by the government or independent organizations.
Two videos that NBC News was able to confirm were filmed in Javanrud in Kermanshah province, an area with a high proportion of ethnic Kurds, showing clashes on a rubble-strewn street. One video was filmed from the perspective of camouflage-clad men from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful military and political force with deep influence in the Iranian state. The other was filmed from the perspective of civilians in plain clothes with no visible weapons.
In the clashes that Hengaw said occurred on Monday, gunshots can be heard as gunmen in camouflage advance down the street toward people in civilian clothes.
According to the semi-official Fars news agency, violence broke out on Monday after two funerals were held in the city. The regime-aligned agency blamed the violence on «rioters» and «Kurdish separatists» who infiltrated crowds of protesters and attacked an IRGC base. The guards “started shooting into the air, but they had to resort to shooting at the attackers,” Fars reported, adding that several officers were injured and two set their houses on fire.
Mohammad Kowsari, a former IRGC commander who is now a hardline lawmaker, said Iran sent the army to the region to fight Kurdish separatist groups. He was speaking in an interview that he appeared on Jamaran, a website with close ties to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Jalal Mahmoudzadeh, a member of parliament from Mahabad, told the Etemad newspaper that members of the security forces had fired on houses and businesses on Saturday, and called on the authorities to soften their approach, according to Reuters.
On Wednesday, the United States imposed sanctions against three Iranian security officials for allegedly helping to extend military control over predominantly Kurdish areas that it said have «faced a particularly harsh security response» since the protests began in September.
Iranian officials have blamed much of the violence in the northwest on people they refer to as terrorists or Kurdish separatists, offering no evidence for those claims. Local security officer Mohammad Pourhashemi told state television that local gunmen were responsible for the violence in Javanrud after exchanging fire with security forces.
Some Kurdish groups have been involved in a low-intensity conflict with Iran since the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979. Iran accuses them of inciting protests and smuggling weapons into the country, charges the Kurds have denied.
Violence in Kurdish areas is just one of several moving parts in the widespread display of dissent, often led by women, against the authoritarian semi-theocratic regime that has ruled Iran since 1979.
«There’s a lot going on,» said Sanam Vakil, deputy director specializing in Iran at the London-based Chatham House think tank.
Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose arrest by the morality police and subsequent death three days later sparked deadly protests across the country, was a Kurd. The authorities deny mistreating her.
The demonstrations originated in the western Kurdish region but have since spread across the country, which is about the size of Alaska and whose 85 million people outnumber the populations of California and Texas combined.
On the ground, protests for women’s rights have morphed into a broader and more diverse movement. Some protesters have called for the overthrow of the regime and the «death of the dictator», that is, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Younger protesters, often horrified by Amini’s death after her arrest for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code laws, have not been afraid to attack the Islamic Republic’s holy symbols. Videos of people removing the turbans from the heads of religious figures have gone viral, one of which was geolocated by NBC News in the Tehran metro system. Last week, protesters burned down Khomeini’s own ancestral home, activists say.
“Today, young people in particular are disruptive and want to change the status quo by rolling back social, cultural and political norms and red lines that previously limited engagement between state and society,” Vakil said.
These «blatant acts» show «their level of deep anger at a leadership that has known about popular frustration but has done nothing to address it,» he added.
These national protests erupted onto the international stage after Iran’s men’s soccer team failed to sing the national anthem during their World Cup opener against England in Qatar on Monday.
Ehsan Hajsafi, the captain of the Iran team, became the latest public figure to suggest support for the protesters. “We have to accept that the situation in our country is not good and that our people are not happy,” he said during a press conference.
On Thursday, the semi-official Tasnim News agency reported that national soccer player Voria Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, was arrested on charges of insulting and damaging the image of the Iranian National Soccer Team and anti-government propaganda. .
The violence has also spread across the border into Iraq, which like other neighboring countries also has a Kurdish region.
Iran blames part of its internal unrest on Iraqi Kurdish groups, and has attacked them with missile and drone strikes. These have been condemned by Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government, despite the fact that the latter is dominated by parties close to Iran.
Last week, Esmail Ghaani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, visited Baghdad and threatened Iraq with a ground invasion in the north of the country if it did not fortify the border.