Kobani and Tehran: Iran Social Media on the Struggle between the Kurds & ISIS

Raz Zimmt analyzes the Iranian social media reaction to the current battle between the Islamic State and the Kurds in Kobani.

The Islamic State’s (ISIS) control over parts of Syria and Iraq poses  a significant threat to Iran, who is concerned about the threat of instability on its borders and damage to its territorial integrity being  a minority state. Although Iran is aware that the international coalition has advantages in the effort to weaken ISIS, it remains disturbed by the possibility that western countries will take advantage of the circumstances to deepen their presence in the region and topple Assad’s regime in Syria. Iran’s concern over developments in the region has intensified since September 15, 2014 when ISIS launched a massive attack on ‎Kobani, located on the border between Syria and Turkey. In the ongoing battle, local Kurdish forces have shown stubborn persistence, and with the assistance of a coalition led by the United States have, to date, successfully prevented ISIS from capturing the city. The increasing strength of ISIS near Iran’s borders is of great interest to Iranian users of social media networks (SNS), who express clear hostility towards the movement, along with concern about the impact that ongoing fighting will have on the stability in the region, and the possibility that it will spread into Iranian territory.

Simultaneously, the fighting in Kobani has awakened a wave of support and identification with the Kurds, and social media platforms have become a central arena for expressing this support. In recent weeks, Iranian citizens have launched several Facebook pages entitled “Kobani is not alone.” These pages, which have received tens of thousands of likes to date, post ongoing updates about the fighting and expressions of support for the Kurds. [1] In online discussions, Iranian users express great respect for the Kurdish fighters, especially the women among them, and confidence that Kobani will not surrender. This PR campaign is not limited to members of Iran’s Kurdish minority, which is approximately 7% of the country’s population, but also includes other citizens with a variety of opposing political views. In recent weeks, this campaign has moved from cyberspace into the streets as thousands of Iranian citizens in Tehran and other cities demonstrated in support of the Kurds. Participants in these demonstrations, some of which have been organized on SNS, have protested that Turkey is not – in their opinion – doing enough to help the besieged residents of Kobani. [2]

The public discourse surrounding the events in Kobani reflects, to a great extent, the dilemma that the fighting between the Kurds and ISIS presents to Iran. On one hand, Iran is committed to fighting ISIS because the organization is harmful to its strongholds of influence in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Iran, like Turkey, is worried about increasing separatism among the ethnic minorities living in its border regions. This dilemma is also reflected in online discourse expressing support for the Kurds that is accompanied by anxiety that their struggle will spread into Iran and jeopardizes the country’s territorial integrity. Many social media users users used historical context and the deep cultural ties between Iranians and Kurds to justify their support for the Kurds, while others emphasized that “in Iran, the Kurds are Iranian citizens, and there is no difference between them and other citizens." [3] Reformist journalist and activist Foad Shams addressed this issue in a note on his Facebook page, stressing the unifying characteristics he claims are shared by all citizens of Iran. He contended that the support of Iranian citizens from Tabriz to Tehran for the Kurds is evidence of the national unity prevailing between all ethnic and religious groups, which has the power to prevent the social and national disintegration that is plaguing Syria and Iraq. [4] Conversely, fear of Kurdish separatism is also expressed by some users’ hesitant responses to the possibility of Iranian support for the Kurds. For example, one noted that the Kurdish forces include “terrorists” from PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), which declared an armed struggle against Iran in 2004. [5]

Discourse on social media also reveals the complex attitude of Iranian citizens towards the increasing strength of ISIS. While some voices demand that Western nations join in a military operation on behalf of the Kurds, there is also criticism of the Western policies that supposedly led to the ascent and strengthening of ISIS. Some users claimed that the international coalition was actually intended to make it possible for the Americans to establish their control of the region. [6]Massive criticism was also directed at the Turks and particularly at Prime Minister Erdoğan, who was accused of supporting ISIS and not assisting the Kurds in Kobani. Against this background, calls were heard for boycotting Turkish products and outgoing Iranian tourism to Turkey. [7] However, most users avoided calling for direct Iranian intervention in the fighting, apparently because of the fear prevailing among the Iranian public that Iran could become more deeply involved in the regional conflicts that has already exacted a high human and economic price. Only a few users think that Iran should send the Revolutionary Guards to assist the Kurds in their fight. [8] On October 7, journalist Sadeq Rouhani published an article on the conservative website “Khabar Online” calling for the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard to liberate Kobani from ISIS immediately, just as it liberated Amerli in northern Iraq in late August. In addition to expressions of support, the article also garnered critical responses warning against Iranian involvement that might cause the conflict to spread into Iranian territory and lead to direct conflict with Turkey. [9]

Another characteristic of the online discourse emerges from the comments made by opponents of the regime, who draw parallels between ISIS and the Iranian regime. This comparison has gained momentum against the background of two issues that riled the Iranian public during August: the execution of Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was accused of murdering a man who intended, she claimed, to rape her; and a wave of attacks in Isfahan where women’s faces were disfigured with acid. These events led to many parallels between the oppression of women in Iran and the oppression of women by ISIS. On Tweeter, one user compared Reyhaneh Jabbari to the women of Kobani who refuse to submit to rape, [10] while another tweeted, “Death to ISIS: both in Kobani and in Isfahan." [11]

In conclusion, the discourse on Iranian social media regarding the ongoing conflict in Kobani reflects the complex situation in which Iran finds itself vis-á-vis regional developments and the growing strength of ISIS. This position grows out of clear opposition to ISIS, a lack of trust in the foreign forces intervening in the region, and fear that the national and territorial integrity of Iran will be harmed. In the midst of this, opponents of the regime are taking advantage of the discussions about ISIS to reflect on events in Iran and emphasize the threat inherent in radical Islam of all types, including that of the Iranian regime.


[1] Currently, the most prominent pages are “Kobani” (more than 27,000 likes),  https://www.facebook.com/kobaninews?fref=nf; “Kobane is not alone” (more than 5,000 likes), https://www.facebook.com/pages/%DA%A9%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%87%D8%A7-%D9%86%DB%8C%D8%B3%D8%AAkobane-is-not-alone/1444692845797413?ref=br_rs; “Kobani is Not Alone” (more than 2,500 likes),   https://www.facebook.com/pages/%DA%A9%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%87%D8%A7-%D9%86%DB%8C%D8%B3%D8%AA-Kobani-is-Not-Alone-%DA%A9%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D8%AA%DB%95%D9%86%DB%8C%D8%A7-%D9%86%DB%8C%DB%95/1512037972344132?ref=br_rs; “Campaign in support of Kuban” (more than 3,500 likes),   https://www.facebook.com/pages/%DA%A9%D9%85%D9%BE%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%DA%A9%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8CCampaign-in-support-of-Kuban/322358064607279?ref=br_rs ;  and “Supporters of Kobani (more than 1,100 likes),https://www.facebook.com/koobaniiiiiii2014?ref=br_rs.

[2] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/iran-kobane-turkey-syria.html#ixzz3HFiLPg5Y.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/bbcpersian/posts/10152567429042713.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/foad.shams.1/posts/10152795463096079:0

[5] https://www.facebook.com/mehdi.parpanchi/posts/612750765513902.

[6] https://goo.gl/unKAGI.


[8] https://www.facebook.com/mehdi.parpanchi/posts/612750765513902.

[9] http://www.khabaronline.ir/detail/379205/weblog/rouhani.

[10] https://twitter.com/kiankk202/status/525924013726396417.

[11] https://twitter.com/koobani/status/525336958000971776.