This paper challenges a widely held myth that, distinct from the Sunni Ottomans, the Shiite Safavids adopted a harsh policy towards Kurdish tribes and their chieftains, most of whom were Sunni, forcibly depriving them of their hereditary fief. Special focus is put on the Kurdish policy pursued by the first Safavid ruler, Esmā‘il I (1501-1524) , and even more so on the second, namely Tahmāsb (1524-76).
Rapidly conquering vast territories extending from eastern Anatolia to Khorasan, from the outset the Safavids had to integrate ethnically and religiously diverse populations into their ruling system, dominated by Qezelbash tribes and the local Iranian bureaucratic aristocracy. The incorporation of the Kurdish tribes was all the more imperative given the strategic importance of their homeland, Kurdistan, situated between the Safavids and their rivals, namely the Ottomans. In fact, with their land bitterly contested by the two states, the Kurdish tribes often switched loyalties between them. What complicated the matter even more was the disunity within their ruling families with regard to the inherited post of amir and hakem, with each contender seeking help and legitimation from either one of the two powerful dynasties. Under these circumstances, the Safavids as well as Ottomans were obliged to adopt a conciliatory policy towards these recalcitrant tribes, so as to prevent them from siding with their rivals.
During his long reign, for over half a century, Tahmasb tried skillfully to forge allilances between the Kurdish tribes and his dynasty, by recognizing their hereditary governorship, welcoming young members of their ruling families in his court, and above all by recruiting them as qurchi, or royal guards. Certainly, their influence seems to have been neither permanent nor profound. Almost no prominent figure of Kurdish origin emerged in the Safavid court throughout his reign, and because of the political confusion following his death, most of the Kurdish chieftains swore allegiance to the Ottomans. In this sense, under his reign, the Kurdish tribes remained quite marginalized in the Safavid power structure, which was controlled mainly by Turkish tribes and the Iranian bureaucracy: Tahmasb did not drastically modify this political configuration. There is however no doubt that his deliberate Kurdish policy greatly contributed to the relative political stability, that was achieved under his rule.