Inside the Kurdish Uprising against the Iranian Regime

Jerusalem Post, 16/12

“About the events of the last two months – what happened with Jina Amini was like putting a spark on a pile of TNT, which has now exploded,” Hussein Yazdanpana tells me. “We will not accept what has happened to the Kurds. We see what happened to this girl as an insult to our dignity and our honor.  And we are now taking part in the uprising against the Iranian regime” 

Yazdanpana is the leader of the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK – Parti Azadi K), one of three Iranian Kurdish organizations targeted by the missiles and drones of the Teheran regime in recent months.  We are talking in a small hut located at the movement’s headquarters in Pirde, Kirkuk Province, in northern Iraq, close to the place where the missiles landed. 

In mid-November, the Jerusalem Post visited all three of the targeted areas, and conducted interviews with leaders and activists of the organizations targeted.  Our presence in these areas also enabled us to meet with and interview young Iranians who had taken part in the current protests, before being identified by the Iranian security services and fleeing the country.  At a time when the Iranian authorities are doing their best to block access to the country, and to stifle the voices of those engaged in revolt against it, this provided a valuable window both on what is going on in Iran, and on the sentiments, views and motivations of those involved in the protests.   

The PAK stands out in two ways among the cluster of small, armed Kurdish organizations gathered along the Iraq-Iran border – for the clarity and unambiguous nature of its rhetoric and its demands, and for its emphasis on military activity and struggle.  Regarding the former, the organization openly calls for the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish state on the lands that the Iranian Kurds call ‘Rojhelat.’ 

Other Kurdish groups tend to restrict themselves to demands for autonomy within a federal Iran, or various other formulations.  Regarding the latter, the movement is reknowned for its actions both during the war against ISIS and, in particular, during the Iraqi Kurds’ desperate defense against the pro-Iran Shia militias after the failed Kurdish independence bid in September, 2014.  On that occasion, the movement is credited for stopping the advance of the militias towards the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, at the Alton Kopri bridge, which links Kirkuk and Erbil provinces. 

Formed in 2006, the PAK, like the other targeted groups, is a small organization, numbering around 1000 fighters, with an larger network of supporters inside and outside Iran. 

The base at Pirde was attacked by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on September 28, shortly after the outbreak of the current uprisjng against the regime in Tehran.  Six members of the movement were killed on that occasion.   The bases of two other Iranian Kurdish groups, Komala and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) were also targeted.  At total of eighteen people died in the attacks. 

The Iranian regime accuses the PAK and the other organizations of carrying out ‘armed attacks’ against regime security forces, and of fomenting the current demonstrations and protests.  IRGC Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour was quoted by the IRGC-associated Tasnim channel as  saying that that the attacks will continue until “the complete disarmament of the anti-Iranian and separatist terrorist groups”. 

Yazdanpana, and leaders of the other two organizations dismiss the accusations of ‘armed attacks’, while freely admitting to active support for the uprising.  “As PAK,” he tells me, “ we are calling for the continuance and expansion of the protests. This is what we’re working on.  What is happening now is not criticism of the government.  We are demanding the end of the regime. Iran’s bombardments just motivate us more.”

On the issue of armed action, the PAK leader told me that “we want to continue and expand the civil way.  But we should be prepared also and should not hesitate to protect ourselves.” 

But alongside the determination, there is a clear frustration at the failure of western countries to respond adequately to Iranian aggression, and more broadly, at what the PAK leader identifies as a more general failure to grasp the nature of the Iranian regime and its regional intentions. 

“Our fighters fought ISIS, and like the Ukrainians, we’re friends of the US, and right now we’re under Iranian bombardment and are being killed.  How can the international community keep silent?  You remember when Hizballah was bombing Israel? How do they come to have such weapons? Its not Hizballah, its Iran which is the source.  You have to deal with the source of the weapons. 

We’re not living in the age of empires, but Iran is an imperial state.  Iran wants to control the Sinjar mountains so as to put its missiles within range of Tel Aviv.  It has bombed Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It has destroyed Yemen.  So how can we keep silent? 

They have brought their militias into Iran.  The Fatemiyoun, Zeinabyoun and so on (Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias) and they’re using them against the demonstrators.  They have permission to open fire, wherever they want. 

Iran must be faced with force.  With force you can change it.  But only in this way.”

On the matter of Kurdish statehood, the PAK leader is unequivocal.  “If Israel didn’t have its own state, there would be another Holocaust.  So having a state is the only way to guarantee the safety and sovereignty of the nation.  I want a free and independent Kurdish state.  But of course, the people themselves must decide this.”

Why is Iran targeting the Iranian Kurdish organizations?

The PAK, PDKI and Komala are organizations raised against the Islamist regime in Tehran, and are committed to its downfall. At the same time, these are all small organizations, with limited reach.  Members of all three organizations in conversation with the Jerusalem Post noted their active involvement in the protests. Kawthar Fatahi, a leading Komala activist, said that her movement maintains “illegal hospitals,’” and  “We pay doctors to bring aid to wounded people.  We pay the families of wounded people.  We assist the movement a lot, but not via armed action.” 

But while the organizations are undoubtedly engaged in active support for the uprising, no-one, including the organizations themselves, claims that they are in control of, or leading the demonstrations.  Rather, the protests in the main involve very young people, many of them under 20 years old, and few over 25.  Why then does the regime appear to be paying such disproportionate attention to the Iranian Kurdish organizations in the border area?

Many of the activists interviewed by the Jerusalem Post in the border area attribute the apparently disproportionate attention given to the organizations to a desire by the regime to present the civil uprising against it as a military insurgency.  This depiction would then be the prelude to a much harsher crackdown on the protests, presented as a response to a national security threat. 

As one official of the PDKI put it, in conversation with the Jerusalem Post at the organization’s Koya headquarters, “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.  A military confrontation would enable them to cause mass casualties and end the demonstrations.  So we are trying to educate people so as to avoid this.” 

“They attack us because they are feeling weak.  The attacks also show the weakness of Iraqi sovereignty.  Iran is trying to look strong when actually they are very weak.  What’s happening now is unprecedented, in terms of the time it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime.  Its getting stronger day by day.” 

Conversations with protestors

On November 14, in the course of our visit to the bases of the Iranian Kurdish organizations, Iran launched an additional missile and drone attack.  The headquarters of the PDKI and Komala were targeted.  Three people were killed at the PDKI base in Koya.  We were at the base of the PAK on that day.  As a precaution, the base was evacuated, and the fighters deployed in the surrounding hills.  In the following tense hours, we were able to speak to a number of people who had taken part in the protests in Iran, before making their way across the mountains to northern Iraq, to avoid arrest by the regime.  

Mafriz, aged 19, from Sine, took part in the demonstrations for the first two weeks.  She describes a situation of open confrontation far exceeding the generally reported picture of demonstrations by young women for the rescinding of compulsory hijab laws. 

“The regime attacked us with live bullets.  People are injured but they can’t go to a pharmacy or hospital.  We had to take casualties to private houses.  Men, women, even children, whole families took part in the demonstrations.” 

After two weeks, a surveillance camera placed outside a shop identified Mafriz, and the authorities contacted her family, asking her to report to the local offices of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.  At this point, she decided to leave.  The PAK has a strong presence in Sine, and Mafriz’s family made contact with the organize, to help her leave. 

“After I was threatened (by the regime),” she tells the Jerusalem Post, “I went to Sardasht.  From there I was able to walk for 3 days with smugglers and then to get to Iraq.  I was terrified during the trip across the mountains.  I thought the smugglers might sell me.  Then after I came here, they sent me the number of the PAK.  And I contacted them and came here.” 

Rezan, 25, also from Sine, was arrested on the fourth demonstration in which she participated, and was then rescued from arrest by the demonstrators themselves.  “Most participants in the demonstrations are 15-20 years old, coming from families that have been oppressed.  Poor economic conditions, political instability, no one feels safe, and that makes people come out. 

The regime has become more aggressive, entering peoples’ houses and so on, and I believe it will continue to intensify.  The regime is using hunting guns, live bullets, teargas, sticks and baton rounds.  Also the regime police and intelligence use fake ambulances to arrest people.  So wounded people are being treated in their homes rather than in hospital.” 

“We have to respond to the regime bullet with bullet,” she concludes, “so we need the support of the international community for this, to go back to our lands and to take revenge for all the innocent people who have been killed.” And, on learning where we are from, “Israel should keep on punishing the regime.  As much as you can.” 

Hussein, 27, a construction worker from Saqqez, took part in the demonstrations that launched the current uprising, following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, before escaping with his wife and young won to Iraq. 

“I’m a painter and decorator, an ordinary worker.  We lived in poor conditions, like thousands of other young people in Iran.  The events surrounding Jina’s death gave us an opportunity, to go to the streets, mzke a change, and demonstrate.  I went with four of my friends.  Two have them have now been arrested and disappeared.  The others were injured.  I was recognized and the authorities went to my parents’ home. They took my sister’s phone and called me.  And when I answered, the coice told me ‘come to us, you son of a bitch. So I got some friends to bring my family to me. And we came here.”

Hussein and his family are staying with the PAK in Pirde because he fears the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in the cities, in Erbil, or Suleimania.  The vulnerability of Iraqi Kurdistan to Iranian intelligence penetration and the fears of Iranians present in this area is an under-reported part of this story. 

“They killed Musa Babakhani, in Erbil,” Hussein reminds me, when I ask whether such precautions are necessary.  Babakhani, a leading activist in the PDKI, was murdered in an Erbil hotel room in August, 2021, by agents of the Iranian regime. 

These testimonies, gathered as we waited in the mountains for the all clear to be given, reflect earlier conversations with activists and participants in the Iranian protests.  The details matter.  The issue of the abuse by the authorities of medical care, in order to apprehend demonstrators came up again and again.  And as we saw in the statements of Kawthar Fatahi of Komala, it is in this area that the Kurdish organizations are most practically engaged, creating an independent, rudimentary medical infrastructure that enables participants when injured to avoid the public hospitals and the authorities. 

Another matter which surfaced in a number of conversations was the issue of sexual abuse of demonstrators in the hands of the authorities.  Though somewhat taboo in the conservative environment of Iran, claims of this kind surfaced in several of our conversations and the issue is worthy of greater attention and investigation. 

At the Komala base in Zergwez, Rojda, 22, from Saqqez, gave a vivid account of the first moments of the uprising.  “When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the next day the regime was preparing to bury her, in darkness, at 4am, all the Saqqez people went down to block the streets leading to the cemeteries. 

The police came and began to push people back.  The killing of Jina was so brutal. Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  It was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us as the womens’ demonstration began to spread.  The next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  Then the police began to open fire, with ‘hunting guns.’

After 4 days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid.  They said I had to come to the ‘Etillat’ (intelligence) station.  Then I decided to leave, and I came across the mountains. I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations.  Young women, 19 and 20 years old. Despite the threat, the fear has gone.  For that reason, I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon.”

The Road Ahead

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. Whether or not a ground incursion takes place, no one expects that the November 22 missile and suicide drone attacks on the PAK will be the last. 

The first executions of protestors condemned for their participation in the demonstrations have begun.  On Thursday, according to BBC Monitoring,  the Iranian judiciary announced the  execution of Mohsen Shekari. He had been convicted of “waging war against God” for blocking a street and wounding a member of the Basij. 11 others arrested since the start of the uprising  await execution. 458 people have been killed so far in the Iranian regime’s response to the demonstrations, including 63 children and 29 women, according to Iranian human rights organizations. The protests continue.   

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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