Michael Totten

The Iranian Revolution in Iraq

KOMALAH COMPOUND, NORTHERN IRAQ — They were supposed to be social democrats, the people Patrick Lasswell and I met yesterday in a compound outside the city of Suleimaniya, the cultural capital of Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. We had it all set up. We were to meet Abu Bakr Mudarisy and his associates for lunch at 11:00 A.M. and learn what we could about the anti-government resistance a few miles away in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our driver Yusef misunderstood and took us to the wrong place. He did drop us off where we met left-wing dissidents from Iran. But these weren’t the moderate English-speaking leftist intellectuals we were looking for. Instead we found ourselves in an armed camp of the military wing of the Iranian Communist Party.
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They call themselves the Komalah Party, which is some kind of acronym for the Kurdish Organization of the Iranian Communist Party. Patrick and I were deposited, along with our translator Aso, at the guard house at the gate on the way into the camp.
Aso introduced us to the man whom we later would know as Kamal. Kamal dutifully logged our names in the guest book and said we were welcome to talk to the party leaders. We hadn’t yet figured out we were in the wrong place. That would take us a while. But apparently it’s perfectly normal, or at least acceptable, to show up unannounced and without an appointment even at this kind of place around here. Unreformed Communists may not be our cup of tea — and bourgeoisies citizens of the American Empire may not be theirs — but this is the Middle East at the end of the day. Pretty much everyone except the violent jihadists takes the cultural requirement for hospitality seriously.
Marx and Engels hung on the wall of the guard house, and I asked Kamal if I could take a picture.
“Of course, of course,” he said. So I took a picture.
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In the corner was a photograph of the founder of the party who was assassinated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I took his picture too.
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I noticed the not-so-vague resemblance to Josef Stalin (it’s the moustache, I guess), and I did wonder why supposedly moderate leftists hadn’t junked Marx yet. But hey, I thought. Maybe they just simply honored the man who inspired them in the first place. No big thing.
Kamal set up a plastic table and chairs in a pleasant courtyard surrounded by a high wall across the road from a small mosque. I asked if I could tape our conversation, and he said no problem. It wasn’t much of a conversation, however. Kamal was all about the pre-prepared boilerplate monologue.
“We are the opposition to the Iranian government party,” he said without being prompted. “Our goal is to save, or liberate, all the Iranian people. We are a Communist party, an international party. Our action is for those people who are toilers and workers in Iran.”
An armed guard sat down behind me and Patrick. He did not say a word, and he shrugged when I asked if I could take his picture.
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The Silent Armed Guard
I wondered where our English-speaking guy Abu Bakr Mudarisy was, but I didn’t mind a briefing by Kamal about who we were dealing with.
“We announced our hostility to the Iranian regime 28 years ago,” he continued. “Before that we didn’t announce our party. We saw that many people were persecuted under the Iranian regime so we began our struggle against that regime in order to liberate the people. At that time Khomeini was in power and he waged a campaign against Kurdistan — a jihadi campaign. The Iranian regime said Kurdish people are blasphemous and deserve to be killed.”
“Is this because the Kurdish people are Sunni and not Shia?” I said. The fitna, or civil war within Islam, between Sunni and Shia Muslims is so ancient and fierce it makes the Arab-Israeli conflict look like a recent and passing phenomenon. The Iranian theocracy is Shia, and the overwhelming majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
“That is part of it,” Kamal said. “There were many violations of human rights at the time.” He spoke more intensely now, and with a fast staccato voice. “Our party did not want to see people under torture and persecution, so we started struggling against the government. We bear our arms in order to defend ourselves, our human rights and other rights in Iran. We don’t want to kill people. We just want to defend ourselves. The Iranian regime waged a campaign against the Kurdish people, including arresting us and burning the villages and houses of our people and bringing our people under torture. There are many internally displaced people in Iran, people who were involved in political parties, opposition. The Iranian government sent them into exile. They became internally displaced people in Iran.”
Neither Patrick nor I needed to ask him anything to get him to talk.
“There are many many sectors of the government that persecute people in Iran,” he continued, “like the intelligence agents. They spy on people. There is no freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Many of the newspapers have been closed. If you go to Iran now, they will not take you to the places where people are persecuted. They will show you their own parties and their own places. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please,” both Patrick and I said. Everyone offers us tea in Iraqi Kurdistan.
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Some buildings in the Komalah Party compound
“Many of the people in Kurdistan especially have been deprived of education because of the regime,” Kamal continued. “All the people are under the rule of the Islamic Republic. If someone wants to go abroad from Iran, everything they do will be spied on. If you are a political man in Iran, what frightens you is the prison. Taking drugs is a widespread phenomenon. The one who is responsible is the Iranian regime. They want people to not care about anything, just to take drugs and things like that. It’s a part of the story. It’s a small part of the story.”
Two women sat down at the table. I assumed they wanted to join the conversation. I offered them cigarettes, the only vaguely hospitable gesture a guest is really allowed in the Middle East.
“No,” said the first. She wore a floral print shirt, the kind you might expect to see in the tropics. She looked like everyone’s mom.
“Merci,” said the second as she declined. She actually looked a bit like a communist, and she had the French to go with it.
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Her short hair, drab gray clothes, and vaguely masculine demeanor set her a ways apart from most women in Iraqi Kurdistan who tend to be submissive and quiet.
“Our struggle has been announced internationally,” Kamal went on. “We don’t only want to work for the Kurdish people in Iran. We work for all the country in order to get their rights and in order to make the regime stop persecuting people and torturing people. We don’t bear arms in order to kill people. We only want to defend ourselves. Again, you are very welcome. I am happy to see you here.”
I had only asked one single question. Patrick hadn’t said anything yet. Kamal didn’t know the first thing about us. He larded his speech with more arcane information about when and where his party was founded. I wanted to get to something more interesting.
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The Komalah Party compound.
“Some of the Communists in Iran were a part of the 1979 revolution,” I said. “Were you a part of that revolution?”
“Yes,” Kamal said. “We were. We were supported by people who were workers and poor people. You should remember that the Komalah Party was the first party that brought women equality. Komalah still wants women to have the same rights that men do.”
“How long did your Party have good relations with the government after the revolution?” I said.
I’m not sure if he dodged my question or if it was lost in translation.
“We have 3,000 martyrs,” he said. “We have hope and we have struggled for many years. We have activities everywhere.”
The problem with the 1979 revolution in Iran is that it, like so many others, devoured its children. It was broad-based and popular at the beginning. Liberals allied with leftists, and leftists allied with Islamists. It wasn’t a cocktail for fascism, but that’s what they got. The Islamists came out on top and then they liquidated the liberals and leftists. Kamal didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that because another man showed up at the table and abruptly dismissed him.
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The new guy’s name was Hassan Rahman Panah, and he is a member of the party’s Central Committee. He told me we weren’t allowed to publish anything Kamal had just told us even though Kamal gave me permission to quote him. I like Hassan Rahman as a person, and I sincerely appreciate his hospitality. But I can’t let a Communist Party Commissar tell me I can’t publish quotes that were given to me on the record. Hassan did not even know what Kamal had said. He was asserting his authority and reaching for information control.
“How long have you been here in Northern Iraq?” I said.
“Since 1988,” Hassan said.
“Are you here because it’s safer, or because the Iranian regime exiled you?” I said.
“We are in opposition to the Iranian regime,” he said. “We are political men.”
If I were working in Iran I would have a hell of time finding someone like him to interview. People like him exist, of course, but the regime tightly controls who journalists can talk to and what the interview subjects can say. It is extraordinarily difficult to file reports from Iran that don’t mirror the state’s propaganda. There is a violent insurgency against the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Kurdistan, but journalists in Iran can’t get any details.
“I know there is an insurgency in Iran, in the Kurdistan region of Iran,” I said. “What do you know about it?”
“We have details about the events that happen every day in Iranian Kurdistan,” Hassan said.
“Events happen every day?” I said.
“The struggle is going on,” he said. “It’s not every day, but it’s going on.”
“What kind of action is taken against the regime in Iran?” I said.
“Our activities include political and civil activities,” he said. “Struggles for women and workers and education. There are also struggles inside the education system.”
“How do you feel about Iran getting nuclear weapons?” Patrick said.
Aso translated the question and I whispered to Patrick: I want to steer him back to the insurgency. The diversion may have been for the best, though. Neither of us wanted Hassan to feel like we were too aggressively pumping him for information.
“It is a dangerous thing,” Hassan said, regarding Iranian nuclear weapons. “We see that it is not in favor of the people in Iran in general. We see two goals behind that phenomenon. The first is to better rule the Iranian people. The second goal is they want themselves to be known as a strong nation in the Middle East. Before, when the Shah was in power, Iran was a strong country in the Middle East. Now they want such power again.”
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The muezzin sang the call to prayer from the minaret of the small local mosque.
No one paid any attention to the call to prayer. No one ever does in Iraqi Kurdistan unless they are already in the mosque, nor does anyone in any other Muslim country I’ve been to. Many Westerners I know assume Muslims stop what they are doing and pray five times a day. The Koran may tell them to do this, but that’s not even remotely how Muslims live in the real world — especially not in an armed Communist camp.
The cows, however, wasted little time before they started mooing in annoyance at the muezzin’s call to prayer.
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Apparently they are Communist cows who are no more religious than I am.
“Do you think that if the mullahs get nuclear weapons they will further oppress their own people?” Patrick said.
“Sure,” Hassan said. “Of course. They will have a stronger authority. People think that if the state has nuclear power, struggling against it will be more difficult. Making a coup d’etat against it will be difficult. So it spreads fear and panic among the people of Iran.”
“[Iranian President] Achmadinejad says that he wants to use — well, sometimes he says this and sometimes he doesn’t — that he wants to use a nuclear weapon against Israel,” I said. “Do you think he is serious, or is he just trying to gain political support from the Arabs?”
“They want to use the Palestine issue as a tool to get support from the Arab countries,” Hassan said. “Achmadinejad knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s not a realistic threat. If they want to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon they know very well that Americans will attack them with a nuclear weapon. American and Israeli governments want to use the issue to strengthen themselves in the region. Mr. Bush’s administration wants to make some trouble outside America to cover or oppress the issues that exist inside the country.”
“Inside America?” I said.
“Yes, inside America,” he said. Hassan Rahman Panah may sound like a neoconservative on the question of the Iranian mullahs, but he can’t seem to resist the coffeeshop foreign policy analysis.
“So do you think American foreign policy is wrong?” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he said.
“What do you think it should be then?” I said.
“The best thing is for America not to interfere with the situation in the world,” he said. “Wherever they meddle they spoil the region — from Afghanistan to Iraq.”
“Was Afghanistan better off under the Taliban?” Patrick said.
“I don’t think it was better,” Hassan said. “But the Taliban was a party established by Americans. They helped them against the Soviet Union at that time.”
Lord only knows how long it will take for this leftist canard to die. The Taliban didn’t exist until long after the Americans left Afghanistan and forgot all about it. Serious analysts of the Middle East know the Taliban was created with Saudi money by Pakistan’s ISI — its intelligence agency — and from the very beginning was an enemy of the United States. But this was an interview, not an argument, so I left him alone about it.
“Ok, so what do you think of the Soviet Union?” I said. I thought perhaps he was angry about the American support for the mujahadeen (not the Taliban) against Soviet imperialism. Maybe he liked the Soviet Union. He is a Communist, after all.
“The Soviet Union was an imperialist country. We were never in favor of the Soviet Union.”
“If the United States wanted to help the people of Iran struggle against the dictatorship,” I said, “would you welcome that assistance, or would you rather the Americans stay out?”
“We think meddling in Iranian affairs is a bad thing,” he said. “There is already the reality of a struggle against the regime. There are many people who are already against the Iranian regime. Let them do what they want to do.”
“Do you think the Iranian people are strong enough to change the regime by themselves?” I said.
“If the other countries in the world stop supporting the Iranian regime,” he said, “it will be very easy for people to topple or oust the regime. All the weapons the Iranian regime uses against the people, where did those weapons come from?”
“The Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States,” I said. “The Iranian regime is also your enemy. Do you really think it would be better for us not to work together since we have the same enemy?”
“We have different interests in such a conflict,” I said.
“Yes, I agree,” I said.
“We are in a struggle for the Iranian people,” Hassan said. “There is nothing which brings us together. There will be a kind of compromise between America and the Iranian regime. If the Iranians accept the demands of the Americans, Americans will no longer have a struggle against them. We have problems with all the systems that exist in Iran — the education, the Islamic system.”
He does, I think, correctly understand the limits of renascent American “realism,” the foreign policy school both Republicans and Democrats (especially Democrats) are swooning over again. Regime-change is no longer what moves most of us, but that is what the Iranian dissidents want. Hassan seems to fear that if the regime capitulates the American government might give it the diplomatic cover it needs to survive.
“We want to have a revolution like the revolution that happened in 1979.”
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The red Communist flag flies over the Komalah compound
“So you want armed revolution,” I said. “Is that right?”
“We want the ordinary people to rise up against the government,” he said. “But in a situation where everyone has a gun, you have to have a gun to defend yourself. We want protests inside factories and a closing of the market. We want a general strike against the regime in universities, in the market, everywhere.”
“Do you see signs of a collapse similar to the Shah’s government happening now to the mullahs?” Patrick said.
“Yes, I think so,” Hassan said. “In Iran things are going in that direction.”
It was time to steer him back to the insurgency.
“I know that in Iranian Kurdistan,” I said, “and in the areas where the Azeris live, there is a violent insurgency against the government. Which groups are behind this?”
“There are many armed groups in Kurdistan,” he said. “We are an armed force. And there are other groups and forces in Iranian Kurdistan which are armed. One of the Kurdish groups is responsible.”
“Which group?” I said.
“PJAK,” he said. “It belongs to the PKK.”
The PKK (or Kurdistan Worker’s Party) was established in the 1980s as a Marxist-Leninist party and militia in Eastern Turkey. A terrible civil war raged in Turkish Kurdistan for many years until PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999 in Nairobi, Kenya. Since then the war in the Kurdish region of Turkey has been reduced to a simmer.
According to an Iraqi Kurdish friend, the PKK says they are now more moderate “social democrats,” rather than Marxist totalitarians, but they still carry out campaigns of terrorism against Kurdish and Turkish civilians, as well as the Turkish army, in Turkish Kurdistan. Recently they created a new branch of the party in Iran — PJAK, which is an acronym for the Kurdistan Restoration and Freedom Party. If indeed PJAK is the only group behind the anti-regime insurgency in Iranian Kurdistan, it doesn’t bode well for the liberals and moderates in that region.
“Do you have any idea where they are getting money?” Patrick said.
“PJAK cooperates with PKK,” Hassan said, “and PKK is a rich party.”
“Is your party friends with PJAK?” I said.
“We have a relationship with all the Kurdish groups in Iran, he said, “except the Islamic groups.”
“You mean like Ansar Al Islam?” I said.
“Ansar as of a few days ago started calling themselves Al Qaeda in Kurdistan,” Patrick said.
“Even if they didn’t announce that,” Hassan said, “we know they are part of Al Qaeda. They have a close relationship with Iran. After the Americans attacked them in Biara and Tawela [in Northern Iraq], they went to Iran. Now they have camps there. We know where they are, around the town of Mariwan. The Iranian government hires them as mercenaries. I would like to invite you for lunch.”
“That would be lovely,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
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Our translator Aso prepares to enjoy his meal of soup, chicken, and rice.
The young woman with the earrings brought us food. She looked like a strong-willed woman when Hassan, her boss, wasn’t around. Now that he sat at the table she reverted to the usual subservient role women tend to assume in this part of the world. This supposedly leftist secular party didn’t live up to its ideals as much as it could. Hassan did not, for example, invite our driver to eat with us. Yusef — the only working class man around — sat on the curb next to his car the whole time.
Aso’s phone rang and he spoke to the caller in Kurdish.
“It is Abu Bakr Mudarisy,” he said. “He said he has been waiting for us for over an hour. We came to the wrong place.”
So that explained why these leftists weren’t as moderate as I expected. Yusef drove Patrick, Aso, and I to the wrong leftist compound. There are two Iranian “Komalah” parties in Iraqi Kurdistan — the moderate splinter faction and the unreconstructed Communists. We ended up with the old school.
I laughed to myself and was abstractly relieved. Finding ourselves in the armed camp of the wrong Communist party is a lot less iffy than finding ourselves in the armed camp of the wrong Islamist party. Say what you will about Stalin (and you’re probably right). I’m a lot more comfortable around the armed radical left in the Middle East than I am around the armed radical right.
“How do you know about Mudarisy!” Hassan said.
“From Aso,” I said.
“Not from me,” Aso said and held up his open hands.
“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “We know about him from Aso’s friend Alan. Do you have good relations with Mudarisy?”
“No,” Hassan said. “We do not speak to each other.”
Sigh. Radical left parties all over the world follow the same pattern, it seems. Even in Iraq and Iran they fracture and retreat to mutually loathing camps. The moderates are always hated by the radicals as sellouts, capitalist roaders, neoconservatives, or what have you. So it turns out Hassan wasn’t being completely straight with us when he said his party has relations with every Kurdish group in Iran except the Islamists. The moderate leftists are shunned just the same.
“He will send a car and pick you up at your hotel next week,” Aso said, referring to Mudarisy from the Komalah party splinter faction. That was convenient. And of course Mudarisy would do this. The moderates can’t let their ideological foes be the only ones who get to speak on the record to journalists. I didn’t mind being used as a tool in a sectarian leftist squabble if it would get me information and access.
We ate our chicken, socialized amiably, and I asked a few more questions while I had the chance.
“Do you get any support from the Kurdistan Regional Government [of Iraq]?” I said. It would be news to me if the Iraqi Kurdistan government has any connection to armed groups opposed to the state in Iran.
“Yes,” Hassan said. “From the PUK.”
The PUK is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the secular leftist political party in charge of Suleimaniya Province.
“Only PUK,” Hassan added.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is more conservative, tribal, and has no interest in leftism, international or otherwise.
“What kind of support do you get from the PUK?” I said. “Is it political support, or also financial support?”
“Financial support,” Hassan said.
It may not be strictly accurate to say armed Iranian Communists are supported by the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Regional Government, but they are (according to Hassan Rahman Panah) supported by at least part of that government.
We finished our lunch and Hassan offered to show Patrick and I around their armed camp. He told us we were welcome to take pictures, so of course we did.
Kurds in this part of the world have nicknames for all major vehicles. Land Cruisers are “Monicas” because (supposedly, but I am not seeing it) they somewhat resemble Monica Lewinsky.
“We will bring a car,” Hassan said. “We can’t go up to the mountain in your car.”
“We would have brought a Monica,” Patrick said, “but it seemed inappropriate to bring a Monica to a Communist Compound.”
“We have Monicas,” Hassan said and laughed. “Capitalism is not bad in every way.”
So we hopped in a Communist Monica and drove up the mountain behind the compound.
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I was slightly surprised they showed us around. Patrick, Aso, and I could have been anyone, really. They obviously trusted us, or at least their abilities to defend themselves if we decided to try something — which, of course, we would not. They are apparently secure, as well, with photographs of their camp being published. I clicked away at will and no one said boo.
We drove past a watch tower on the left inside the compound.
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Beyond the compound was a moderately rough road that branched into two. One road winded its way up a valley and the other forged straight ahead to the top of a mountain.
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The view on the road up the mountain was spectacular. The mountain inside the camp was shorter than the others, but it was high enough that it provided the illusion of looking evenly across to the tops of the other mountains.
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Near the top of the mountain is a bunker. You would not want to try to take that bunker and mountain by force. The Komalah Party can hurl some real pain down on anybody who tries.
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Just below the top of the mountain in an area beyond a barbed wire fence lay a mine field.
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“Who are you protecting yourselves from, exactly?” I said. “Islamists?”
“Iranian regime,” Hassan said. I was thinking of the Iraqi Islamists, but of course the Iranians are much stronger and more serious enemies.
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“Recently one of our men was killed on the road down below by Iranian intelligence agents,” he said. “They are always coming after us. We need weapons to protect ourselves.”
The area did not look like a camp used to train guerillas for a military aggression, but Hassan did not take us on the road that led up the valley. The party controls that area, too, and just about anything could be up and back there.
A gaggle of young Iranian Communists came out of the bunker when they heard some Americans had arrived. These guys are politically anti-American, yet the looks on their faces made me think of teenagers meeting rock stars. I guess they don’t get too many visitors at the fort.
When they posed for the photo below, most forced themselves to stop smiling and look stern like good Communists should.
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Whatever they think of our politics, they know very well that we are not enemies. Their enemies rule in Tehran, as do ours. 3,000 members of the Komalah Party are “martyrs,” as Kamal had earlier put it, and not one of them was killed by an American.
These unreconstructed Communists are among the least pro-American of the Iranian opposition. They do not want and will not accept American help in the ouster of the totalitarian Islamist regime. I have little doubt, though, that if at some time in the future they become a part of a post-Khomeinist coalition government in Tehran it will be orders of magnitude easier to work with them civilly and diplomatically than it is right now with the murderous fascists of the Islamic Republic.
Post-script: See my colleague Patrick Lasswell’s blog Moderate Risk. He wrote about the same experience in a different way and from another angle.
Post-post-script: I met with the moderate left “splitters” up the road yesterday, and wrote about them here. The moderates are far and away the intellectual and political superiors of the Communists.
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