‘The Fear Has Gone’: Conversations with Iranian protestors

A version of this article appeared in The Australian, weekend edition, 26-27/11/22

‘At about 10.30, we got a warning that an attack was coming.  So we had to disperse.  I ran home to Reyhana.  I was about five meters from where the rocket landed. I was thrown back. After a couple of minutes, I woke up.’ 

We are sitting in the front room of Zanyar Rahmani’s house, at the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) base in Konya, northern Iraq.  The base was struck by the drones and rockets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on September 28th.  13 people were killed. 

Zanyar Rahmani is speaking in a calm and matter of fact tone about the events of that day.  The base has re-acquired a peaceful, industrious atmosphere.  The morning is quiet. There are pictures on the wall of Rahmani’s front room, of him with Reyhana, his wife, and of a newborn baby, their son, Waniar. 

‘There was two weeks left til she was due to give birth,’ Zanyar says, taking up the story again.  ‘When I came to, I saw my wife, and I told her to go to the car.  But then I saw that she was looking strange, and she fell.  I carried her to the car and I saw that I was covered in blood.  We drove to the hospital.  In the car her waters broke and she began bleeding.  They gave her an x ray in the hospital, and they said probably we have to choose between saving her and saving the baby, and that she’s almost certainly not going to make it.’ 

‘They gave her surgery for an hour and a half.  She died but the baby survived.  Then after one day, the baby followed her. ‘

‘Afterwards, we learned that she had shrapnel wounds in her back, and that her lungs were destroyed. She had no chance to survive.’

A day after our visit to the PDKI base in Koya, it was targeted again by regime rockets.  Three more people died.  Then on November 20, another attack took place.  No one believes it will be the last. 

The ongoing rocket and drone strikes by Iran on the bases of a number of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq constitute one of the more mysterious aspects of the current instability in Iran.  The demonstrations which began to protest the killing by the regime of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, have now entered their third month.  They show no sign of dissipating. Rather, both the protests themselves, and the regime’s response to them, appear to be growing increasingly violent.  Over 450 people have now died.  The use by the authorities of live ammunition against the protestors has become routine.  In recent days, meanwhile, a colonel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hasan Yousefi, was beaten to death by protestors in Sanandaj.  Demonstrators in Teheran burned down the childhood home of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic. 

The Kurdish Iranian opposition groups in northern Iraq combine political and military capacities. But none of them are engaged in active insurgency against Teheran. No one, themselves included, believes that they are in control of the angry crowds of mainly very young people that return to the streets of Iran’s cities night after night to challenge the regime’s security forces.  Why, then, are they being systematically, and brutally, targeted?

PDKI officials I interviewed contended that the attacks are part of an effort by the Iranian regime to depict the struggle against it as led by external, ‘separatist’ forces.  This would be a prelude to a declaration of defensive war against these forces.  This, in turn, ,would be a perfect framing for the wholesale slaughter of protestors, to be depicted as part of a national war against an external enemy. 

‘The regime want to make it into a military battle with us.  But we see that this would be in the interests of the regime, so we try to prevent that,’ says Mustafa Maroudi, a senior PDKI official, speaking to us from his office in Koya. 

‘They attack us because they feel weak.  The regime is trying to look strong, when actually they are very weak…What’s happening now is unprecedented.  In terms of the time that it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime. The protests are getting stronger day by day.’ 

The organizations targeted – the PDKI,  Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK) and Komala, are playing, in their own depiction, an auxiliary role in the protests.  They maintain ‘field hospitals’ for wounded protestors in private homes, because the regime is known to target medical facilities in its search for those engaged in the uprising against it.  They provide finance to doctors treating the wounded, and to the families of wounded demonstrators. But the real energy and impetus driving on the demonstrations is clearly not emerging from these small, exiled groups. 

Assessing the true impetus behind the protests is a task made deliberately difficult by the Teheran regime.  Reporting on the ground in the areas most affected by the protests, such as Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces, is impossible.  The regime also tries to restrict internet access to affected areas.  It wishes to do its work in darkness. 

The Iraq-Iran border area, however, is a place where some light gets in.  There is a steady stream of people making their way by clandestine means over the Zagros mountains that bisect the border.  Many of these are young women and men who took part in the demonstrations, were identified by the authorities, and then had to cross the mountains to avoid arrest.  From conversations with them, one may begin to build a clearer picture of the motivations for the revolt currently under way, of the form that it is taking, and of the efforts by the regime to destroy it. Many of our interviews were conducted in the field, on the day of Iran’s renewed missile attacks, as the Iranian Kurdish fighters and refugees sought shelter from the attacks in the countryside surrounding their bases.

‘When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the regime was preparing to bury her at 4am, in darkness, the Saqqez people went to the streets, to all the roads leading to the cemetery.’  Rojda (not her real name), 22, tells me, describing her participation in the protests that launched the uprising.  She is a native of Saqqez, the hometown of Mahsa Jina Amini. (the Iranian Kurds all refer to Amini using her Kurdish given name, Jina, rather than the Persian ‘Mahsa.’

‘The killing of Jina was so brutal,’ Rojda continues, ‘and Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  And it was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us. But the next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  And then the authorities began to open fire, using shotguns.’ 

‘After four days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid, and I got a message that I had to come to the ‘Etelaat’ station (the Ministry of Intelligence and Security).  So then I decided to leave, and I came here across the mountains.  I contacted a humanitarian organization who helped me get to Sardasht.  Then I stayed there for 6 days. The border was closed.  Then it took me 5 hours walking to cross the border, with the ‘kolbars’ (border smugglers).’ 

Rojda’s account is in its essential details similar to the stories of many of the young women and men who we interviewed in the border area.  The heady exhilaration of involvement in the protests, subsequent location and targeting by the authorities, and then the flight across the mountains.  The Iranian-Kurdish organizations provide both a place of refuge, and a framework for continued activity. 

‘I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations,’ she tells us.  ‘Young women, 19-20 years old. The fear has gone.  That’s why I’m optimistic.’ 

‘In Iran, a woman is nothing,’ 28 year old Mafriz tells us, ‘She is seen, excuse me, as a kind of sh**y animal, without respect.  I took part in the demonstrations in Sina. We were asking for freedom and democracy.  The issue in Iran is not only about hijab.  It’s more than this. 

The Basij (regime paramilitary forces) came into the university and beat us.  Three of my friends were captured and they beat them.  Their parents paid for them to be released.  One of my friends, after she was caught, they physically and sexually abused her.’ 

‘The Etelaat came to my parents’ house.  They promised me an amnesty if I returned…My family want me to return.  The regime makes these claims that people who go to the Kurdish organizations are being held there by force.’ 

Rezan, 25, from Sine, keeps her face covered throughout our conversation.  ‘Because of my family,’ who are still in Iran, she tells us.  She left Iran at the end of September, after taking part in the protests.  ‘Most of the participants are 15-20 years old.’ She tells us. ‘They come from families that have been oppressed. There are poor economic conditions, political instability, and no one feels safe. So people come out.  The regime has become more aggressive now, entering peoples’ homes and so on.  But I believe the protests will continue to intensify.’ 

So where is all this heading?  The latest news from Iran suggests a sharp intensification of regime tactics.  Three months in, the regime has evidently decided that ongoing containment is no longer an option.  Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, was in Iraq last week for a  two day visit.  While there, Ghaani threatened Iraqi and Kurdish officials with an Iranian ground military operation, unless the Iranian Kurdish organizations along the border were disarmed.  Ghaani’s visit came a day after the November 14th attacks on Koya. 

Within Iran, meanwhile, the latest reports are of regime targeting of protestors in the Iranian Kurdish city of Mahabad, which briefly fell out of government control.  Video evidence of machine gun fire on protestors has emerged. All the indications suggest that the regime’s face is set toward escalation, in a desire to provoke a showdown with the demonstrators, and then adopt the tactics of brutal counter-insurgency against them.  It is a familiar playbook, last employed in the Middle East by the Assad regime in Syria, a close ally of Teheran. 

The difficult task facing the uprising will be to maintain momentum and build world attention, without falling into the traps set by Teheran.  Strike action in support of the protests, meanwhile, remains somewhat sporadic and, crucially, no real leadership has yet emerged to guide the revolt.

The goal, nevertheless, remains clear.  As Koser Fatahi, a 33 year old organizer for the Komala movement, expressed it to us, speaking from an office damaged in the September 28th attack: ‘The world should act more.  They are still negotiating with Iran. Its disgusting.  If this regime gets a nuclear capacity, it’s the end of everything.  Because the regime believes it should spread.  They call it an octopus, with lots of hands.  Well these hands should be cut – in Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Syria. 

Its important to hear the voice of the people. Iran is still on the committee for womens’ rights in the UN. Its disgusting.  The world would be a better place if the Iranian regime didn’t exist.  If you want democracy, womens’ rights, human rights, this path leads through the destruction of the Iranian regime.’ 

Reyhana Rahmani and her son Waniar, who lived a single day, are buried beside one another, in the cemetery maintained by the PDKI at Koysinjaq.  More than 450 people have now been killed by the Iranian regime since the uprising against it began in September.  The protests are continuing.     

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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