Cablegate: "Lords of the Mountains" Will Fight No More Forever

Published: Fri 18 Sep 2009 06:06 AM
DE RUEHKB #0744/01 2610632
R 180632Z SEP 09
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/16/2019
Classified By: Pol/Econ Counselor Rob Garverick, Reasons 1.4 (a) and (d
1. (C) The Kashgai are a little-studied, semi-nomadic
Turkic minority in Iran with a history of anti-government
resistance. Recent interviews with Kashgai members,
supplemented with information from other Iranians, suggest
that most of the 1.5 million Kashgai, while still poorly
educated and impoverished, are adapting to many aspects of
modern life, including the internet. While many Kashgai
still seek to preserve their traditional migratory ways,
urbanization of Kashgai appears to be increasing. Tehran's
abandonment of forced settlement policies in favor of
economic incentives for those who wish to settle, and
improved education and economic infrastructure, has reduced
Kashgai-Tehran tension, and encouraged voluntary settlement
trends. Memories of the brutal repression of Kashgai
resistors in the 1980's, combined with improved economic
status and increased integration with the outside world have
also reduced temptations toward unrest. Today, only about
one third of the Kashgai are actively maintaining their
traditional tribal and migratory lifestyle, though cultural
traditions remain strong. Though proud to be Kashgai, there
is no meaningful autonomy movement, and self identification
of Kashgai as also being "Iranians" is increasing. According
to sources, most Kashgai are satisfied with the current
system and probably voted for Ahmadinejad. Once the stuff of
village nightmares, the modern Kashgai are largely
apolitical, peaceful, patriotically Iranian, and the object
of increasing tourism. End Summary.
2. (C) Baku Iran watcher met separately with two Iranian
Kashgai minority members,xxxxxxxxxxxx Both grew up in traditional Kashgai
households (though the former ran away to be educated as a
teenager). Taken together, the two sources (both unknown to
each other), provided interesting social and political
perspectives on this significant but comparatively
little-known Iranian minority group. The following account
of current life and attitudes among the Kashgai is taken from
these interviews and supplementary conversations with
non-Kashgai Iranians.
Lords of the Mountains
3. (SBU) The Kashgai (AKA Qashgai) are a 400-year old Turkic
language tribal confederation numbering approximately 1.5
million people. Their lifestyle, still pursued by a majority
of members, is based on nomadic sheep and goat herding.
Traditionally famed as fiercely independent "Lords of the
(Zagros) Mountains," the Turkish-speaking Kashgai
historically maintained a tense relationship with the mainly
Persian-speaking villagers and farmers through whose
territory they traveled, traded, and (sometimes) raided, and
by whom they were regarded with hostility and fear. Today,
about a third of the Kashgai herders and their families still
live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving over 300 kilometers
twice a year between summer and winter pasture areas located
outside of Isfahan and Shiraz, respectively. Other Kashgai
have combined herding with sedentary farming, or moved to
urban centers or abroad. Some of these remain sentimentally
attached to the old lifestyle, and seek to maintain ties with
it in some fashion.
4. (SBU) Thirty years ago the twice-a-year seasonal trek
took three months each way; now some Kashgai travel in two
days by truck to the pasture areas, and make camp while
awaiting the arrival of the herds (which are sometimes also
moved by truck, but over a longer time period, stopping
frequently for road side forage). Camels and horses are
still part of Kashgai life, but reportedly are more and more
regarded as "status symbols" items rather than necessities.
Families often pool income, and sources noted that some
normally city-based wage earners also return for short
periods to participate in festivals and assist with the herd
movement and resettlement.
5. (SBU) The Kashgai are historically among Iran's most
turbulent minority groups, engaging in repeated twentieth
century incidents of massive armed resistance against central
BAKU 00000744 002 of 003
government policies and control as late as 1982; a Persian
Isfahani related that his grandfather was decorated by the
Shah for organizing local villagers to fight them.
Long-standing efforts by the Iranian state to force their
permanent settlement were largely abandoned after the fall of
the Shah, when many forcibly settled Kashgai abandoned
farming and returned to their traditional herding ways.
Although the Kashgai's previously exiled, anti-Shah
traditional leaders were initially embraced by Khomeinei,
they rejected Islamic rule and perceived efforts by the new
regime to enforce settlement. After a government-broken
peace treaty, the returned exile Khosrow Khan and many other
prominent Kashgai (including its Majlis members) were hanged
by the Revolutionary Guard in 1982. The last widely accepted
Ilkhan (tribal high chief) renounced politics, and died a
natural death in 1984. The Persian Isfahani said that today
the Kashgai are widely viewed by other Iranians as a "simple,
honest, hospitable people who are easy to cheat."
"The Days of the Khans are Over"
6. (C) While both sources said that hereditary tribal and
clan leaders still command respect, and often serve as
informal adjudicators on internal Kashgai matters, xxxxxxxxxxxx
stated flatly that "the day of the Khans is over." xxxxxxxxxxxx
claimed that while Khosrow Khan is still regarded as
a hero by many Kashgai, mentioning his name in public is
forbidden," and could lead to arrest or other problems. He
stressed that most Kashgai are not focused on politics,
although asserting that awareness of and pride in their
cultural distinctiveness is high. He added that increased
literacy, internet access, tourism, and a growing
international diaspora have buttressed previously declining
cultural practices, especially handicrafts, dancing, and
music. He said that he himself is active with urbanized and
diaspora Kashgai in creating websites and publishing
magazines targeting a Kashgai audience. He also helps market
Kashgai international and domestic tour packages that include
sleeping in tents, dancing and music performances, hiking and
riding excursions, etc. "Economics is achieving what force
could not achieve," observed xxxxxxxxxxxx.
Liking Karroubi, Voting Ahmedinejad
--------------------------------------------- ----
7. (C) Both sources opined that the large majority of
Kashgai personally like Mehdi Karroubi, regarding him
favorably as an ethnic Lur with sympathy and understanding
for their traditions. However, both stressed that most
Kashgai are apolitical and pragmatic, and focused on their
immediate personal situation, not larger issues. For this
reason, they opined that most Kashgai probably voted for
Ahmadinejad, as a result of gratitude for improved health,
education, and infrastructure services and/or monetary
inducements. Overall, they opined that most Kashgai have
little interest in the election issue, seeing it as "Tehran's
8. (C) Both sources related approvingly that since the
mid-1980,s the central regime has moved away from forced
settlement to more relaxed and nuanced policies allowing
peaceful herding to be pursued, but offering economic and
social incentives (including free housing, electricity, and
cash subsidies) for those who are willing to settle.
Education is mandatory for all children until the age of
twelve; many are taught in tent schools by teachers
(sometimes also Kashgai) who travel with the community. The
merchant said that school curricula include instruction in
officially "correct" Islamic religious beliefs and rituals,
and "teach Persian (not Kashgai) history, language, and
culture." According to sources, few Kashgai focus on
religion or seek clerical careers, and mostly Persian mullahs
who teach religion or visit to proselytize are "tolerated,"
but not followed. Kashgai women work outside and do not
wear the chador except when visiting towns.
Economic Conditions
9. (C) Both sources noted that pursuit of education beyond
age twelve is becoming more common, though this often
requires abandonment of the transhumant lifestyle, and is
still resisted by some adults as a source of alienation.
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Defying clan elders runs the risk of becoming an outcast.
xxxxxxxxxxxx who ran away at sixteen, to avoid a forced marriage
and obtain further education, said that it took many years
for him to reforge links to the community. Both said that
many young Kashgai males now seek work as unskilled labor in
the cities, providing remittances and returning periodically
to help out the family. Many of these end up in Turkey,
where employment opportunities are better and their native
language is understood. Others try to make it to Europe or
North America, legally or not. He noted that most young
Kashgai are internet-literate, and are utilizing the internet
to create and follow Kashgai websites promoting information
on Kashgai traditions and culture, connecting to the
diaspora, and assisting with job searches and other economic
issues. He said that Kashgai young also use the internet to
tap into international mass (mainly youth) culture sites xxxxxxxxxxxx
claimed that many young herders "follow the NBA... and
listen to rap."
10. (SBU) Some Kashgai seek education to become health
workers or teachers, others become unskilled workers or seek
work with traders shuttling back and forth from towns where
they specialize in selling Kashgai carpets and handicrafts to
Iranians and foreigners. The resulting remittances are used
by their families to buy trucks and other more expensive hard
goods; less expensive hard goods and consumables are still
acquired through barter of fresh meat and live sheep to
(mainly Persian) villagers and merchants. Government
subsidies, good prices for lamb and wool, and sale of
handicrafts have combined to increase Kashgai prosperity in
recent years, though most are still impoverished. While
Kashgai carpets are world renowned, xxxxxxxxxxxx
observed that most of the income from this business does not
reach the Kashgai, since most of the Kashgai handicraft
business is in the hands of non-Kashgai merchants and
government buyers. xxxxxxxxxxxx claimed that Kashgai
carpets that take several months to make and retail for more
than a thousand dollars typically earn its (generally female)
maker as little as fifty dollars.
"We are Iranians"
11. (C) Despite sporadic central government efforts to
obstruct tribal movements, enforce Persian norms of Islam and
strict dress codes for women, and exact excessive bribes,
both sources denied that severe state-Kashgai tensions exist,
and portrayed the Kashgai as politically quiescent since the
1980,s. They stressed that, unlike other traditionally
restive Iranian minorities (e.g., Baluchis, Kurds, and Arabs)
there is no significant Kashgai separatist or autonomy
movement. The sources noted that, in contrast to these
Sunni-majority groups, the Kashgai, like most Persians, are
overwhelmingly Sh'ia and thus do not suffer the religious
discrimination reportedly experienced by Sunni Iranians.
They also pointed out that, unlike other minorities, the
Kashgai are not linked to populations in other countries,
have no written language (obviating many cultural issues),
and have no historical "national" ideology. In addition,
they noted, both urbanized and traditional transhumant
Kashgai are increasingly tied to and dependent on the larger
Iranian economy and their Persian neighbors. Instead the
carpet merchant asserted, "we are not Persians, but we ARE
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