“When you grow up in Iran, as a woman, and especially as a Kurdish woman, you notice immediately that things are not – normal,” Kawthar Fattahi tells me in her clear and fluent English. “That you have no place. So you think about it. Why don’t I have basic rights?” she continues. “We have to wear a hijab from the first days. And step by step, you start to learn that you are nothing. You are told how to walk, how to sit, how to eat, even. It was even forbidden for a woman to eat in the street in Iran.”
We are sitting in Fattahi’s drafty office, at a base of the Iranian Kurdish Komala movement, on high ground about 50 km. from Iraq’s border with Iran. The mountains that can be seen in the distance mark the border itself. These are the Zagros range, a region saturated with memory and history for the Kurds of Iran and Iraq.
In the 1980s, thousands of Kurds made for these mountains and for Iran, to escape the poison gas attacks of the Saddam Hussein regime. Now, the traffic is in the opposite direction. Hundreds of young Iranians, Kurds and others, have made the perilous trip across the mountains to avoid the attention of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Most of them are veterans of the unrest that has gripped Iran, and Iran’s Kurdistan province in particular, since the killing of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Jina Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the Iranian authorities on September 16, 2022.
The struggle of Kurdish groups against Iran
Fattahi made the same journey a few years earlier. She is 33, and hails from the town of Bokan, in Iran’s western Azerbaijan Province. Fattahi is an official of Komala, a revolutionary party engaged against the authorities in Tehran. The path that would lead her eventually across the mountains began in her mid-teens, when she became aware, as she put it, that things were not “normal” in Iran.
She began to organize young people in demonstrations, first on local environmental issues. Then she began to search for broader contexts in which to be active. It took a while to reach Komala. Finally, they contacted her. She had to go to a café, to meet with a man who would identify her. That was the start.
A while later, she was warned that the authorities had identified her. And with the help of the movement and a smuggling network connected to it, she made her way across the Zagros range to northern Iraq. It is at this base, not far from the border, where the fighters and organizers of Komala train and act in the war of liberation that they have declared against the Islamist authorities in Tehran.
The countryside surrounding the Komala base near Suleimaniya is hypnotically beautiful. Further west, around the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, the land is flat and parched. Yellow desert stretches all around. A faint smell of petrol pervades the city. But as one travels eastward in the direction of Iran, the air grows cleaner and the flat desert landscape gives way to scrubland and high green hills and mountains.
I HAVE come here for a particular purpose. On September 28, 12 days into the start of the uprising in Iran, this position was attacked by the regime, using ballistic missiles and drones. Two other bases belonging to Iranian Kurdish movements were also hit; 13 people were killed, 58 more wounded. The office in which we are sitting is in the remaining intact part of a building badly damaged by one of the drones.
Fattahi was there when the attack took place, a short distance from the building. During our conversation, she notes the “horrible, weak sound” of the drone’s engine, as it loitered above before crashing into its target.
I made my way to the Iraq-Iran border area in November 2022, to look into the issue of the Iranian attacks – but also, perhaps more centrally, with the intention of meeting and talking to young Iranians involved in the emergent uprising against the regime. I have been following the struggles of the Iranian Kurds for some years, have spent time with their armed organizations, and once even ventured a little way across the border with fighters of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, another organization that was struck on September 28.
The struggle of the Iranian Kurds has acquired a sort of symbolic significance for me. During the last two decades, I have covered conflicts and wars in many different places. But more than any other, it is for me this arena that seems to symbolize the stubborn and curious refusal of the human desire for liberty ever to be entirely extinguished.
This is partly because of the very great imbalance in the forces engaged here. Against the powerful and repressive structures of the Islamic regime, the small Iranian Kurdish political and military organizations – Komala, the PDKI, the PAK and PJAK – bring only long traditions of organization and defiance, a few light weapons, and a determination that the current situation is not acceptable and cannot be endured.
The Kurdish provinces of Kurdistan and western Azerbaijan are politically airless, landlocked, and cut off from the world. Impoverished, they are the subject of the close attention of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the studied indifference of the rest of the world. The organizations, based in northern Iraq, do their best to prepare the slow way for the insurgency. Their fighters and organizers make their way back and forth across the mountains, recruiting militants, teaching the Kurdish language and culture, and preparing infrastructure.
The area is sealed off by the regime. Foreign correspondents in Tehran are unable to travel there. But in any case, major news organizations show little interest in this apparently hopeless cause.
The power imbalance is accompanied by a moral imbalance, too. But here, the scales pull in the other direction. The Iranian Kurdish struggle, against what might seem like hopeless odds, is distinguished by its very obvious and unambiguous justice. It is the struggle of a sorely oppressed minority population, subjected to brutally repressive and alien religious laws – without its consent – and prevented from living and educating according to its own language and tradition.
The death of Jina Mahsa Amini, the Iranian uprising and regime crackdown
JINA MAHSA Amini was Kurdish, and the first demonstrations in protest at her state-sanctioned murder took place in Saqqez, her hometown in Kurdistan Province. The Iranian authorities do not, of course, issue press releases explaining their reasons for launching missiles at their opponents. But it seems clear that the intention was to depict the uprising as a narrow, ethnic affair limited to one element of the Iranian population and directed by armed, separatist elements.
This would then clear the way for a brutal reimposition of order. The attempt at increased suppression duly followed, with increased use of live fire against the daily protests underway across the border. It didn’t work. The demonstrations continued and the attack appears to have been the result of flailing and confusion on the part of the authorities, rather than any strategy. But the incoherence behind the regime’s assault does not detract from its cost.
At the PDKI base in Koya, similarly struck on September 28, I spoke to Zanyar Rahmani, a militant of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, who was wounded during the attack. Rahmani, red-haired and stocky, is a kitchen fitter by trade. His wife was eight and a half months pregnant on the day of the raid. It was their first child.
“At 10:30 a.m. we were told a raid was coming. I made my way back to the house and [my wife] Reyhana came out to greet me. Just then a missile landed nearby and I was knocked off my feet. When I awoke, Reyhana was on the floor. I went to try and help her.”
With the aid of several comrades, Rahmani succeeded in getting his wife to a hospital. She died on the operating table while giving birth to their child. The child was a boy, who they named Waniar. After a day, he died too. Rahmani spoke without emotion, quietly and gravely, outlining the facts of the case. His intention, he told me, was to stay with the PDKI at the base in Koya and continue his activities.
In the days that followed, I interviewed many young people who had recently made their way across the mountains after participating in the demonstrations. On November 21, I was at the PAK base outside Erbil when a second missile and drone attack took place. We took refuge in the surrounding countryside.
It was a good opportunity for conversation. In testimony after testimony, we pieced together the picture of daily protests, mainly by very young women and men. We were told there were raids on medical facilities by the authorities who were looking for wounded demonstrators, and the efforts by Kurdish organizations to create improvised medical centers at private homes; of rumors of sexual assaults on young women who were taken from the protests into regime custody; of the growing use of live fire by the authorities; and of the hurried escapes across the mountains.
Regarding the broader dimensions of all this, the Iranian regime in July 2022 arrested four men it said were linked to Komala, and who it accused of working for Israel. The four – Pejman Fattahii, Vafa Azarbar, Muhammad Faramarzi and Mohsen Mazloum – are now on trial for their lives. Komala, for its part, denies that they are its members.
It is well known that Israel possesses an extensive network inside Iran, which it can activate at will. It is known that this network consists, for the most part, of native-born Iranians. It is impossible to say with certainty, of course, but it would seem counter-intuitive that Israel would have failed to notice the presence of determined, resourceful, native-born Iranian cadres of the kind that exist among the armed Kurdish political movements on the border and across it.
It is worth noting that the sentiments I encountered among these groups were uniformly and strongly pro-Israel – perhaps on the basis of “my enemy’s enemy.” But also it was repeated to me again and again that Israel was an example of the kind of open and tolerant, democratic society that they sought to replicate in Iran, and in Kurdistan. It may also be worth noting the extent to which this particular aspect was seen to be worthy of respect and emulation.
Middle Eastern geopolitics is about power. It would be naïve to overestimate the moral element. Performing effectively in this environment inevitably requires cooperation with various unsavory elements, as Israel’s system of diplomatic relations shows clearly. Among the Iranian Kurds fighting the Tehran regime on the Iraq-Iran border, nevertheless, one may find – against the odds and accompanied by terrible sacrifice – a struggle toward liberty of the most unalloyed kind.
“It’s vital to hear the voice of the people. The world would be a better place if the Iranian regime didn’t exist. If you want democracy, women’s rights, human rights, then the path to all these leads through the destruction of the Iranian regime.”Kawther Fattahi
I should leave the last words to Kawthar Fattahi, from her office room next to the gaping hole that the IRGC’s Shahed-136 drone left in the building’s wall on September 28:
“The West should do more. The nuclear negotiations and so on. It’s disgusting. If this regime gets to a nuclear capacity, it’s the end of everything. Because this regime believes it should spread. They call it an octopus. With many hands. Well, these hands should be cut. In Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Syria.
“It’s vital to hear the voice of the people. The world would be a better place if the Iranian regime didn’t exist. If you want democracy, women’s rights, human rights, then the path to all these leads through the destruction of the Iranian regime.”
It is a hard path, to be sure. She and her friends are walking it. ■