Kurdish iranian opposition is bracing for survival in Iraq

Three month after the Iraqi elections, the disappointed hopes of minorities

On October 10, 2021, during anticipated legislative elections, Iraqis gathered to elect the 329 new deputies of the Majlis al Nuwab, the national parliament....

Entrenched in Iraq since the beginning of the eighties, several Iranian Kurdish organizations felt they had no other choice than exile in order to exist. Being regularly targeted by Tehran are living though particularly difficult times since the beginning of the uprising related to the death of Jina (Mahsa) Amini.

It’s been more than an hour driving East outside of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomous region (KRI). At the foothills of the Zagros mountains, which form a natural barrier between Iran and Iraq, lies a remote village, far from all eyes, guarded by armed men and women. It is hard to know whether we are in a small town, a refugee camp or a military training camp. In reality, it's a bit of the three: we just entered one of Kurdistan's Democratic Party in Iran (KDPI) camps. This political and military organization was founded in Iran in the forties and survived an intense repression which forced it to relocate in Iraqi Kurdistan in the middle of the eighties.

Although the place welcomes a large number of civilians, the PDKI trains dozens of recruits with the warfare techniques. Each year, tens of young men and women cross the border in order to incorporate the ranks of the organization who claims to fight for the establishment of a federal and democratic Iran.

Most of them left Iran without warning their families, angry about large scale discriminations they endure in their home country. This assessment is particularly true for many young women that joined the ranks of the party. « They find here a very important space of socialization, which Iran doesn’t have », explains Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne university researcher and Middle East expert Arthur Quesnay.

Shanou (on the right), barely 20 years old, soon got responsibilities within the PDKI. Now a peshmerga, she trains new recruits how to get physically fit. The young lady is still scared by the death of her father, shot down by Iranian border guards when she was just a child. Like many inhabitants in economic distress, Shanou’s father was illegally carrying heavy merchandises on his back between Iran and Iraq. These smugglers, called « Kolbar », suffer many casualties every year, usually killed by border forces’ firearms or by frost. « The regime justified his killing saying he was a terrorist. That day, I swore to honor his memory and to join the ranks of the peshmergas. »

At nightfall, a group of fighters stands guard along the village. They have learned to live under a constant but irregular threat from the Iranian regime. Since the rise of the Islamic republic in Iran in 1979, dozens of PDKI members have been mysteriously killed beyond Iran’s borders. These include two historic leaders of the party, killed in Vienna and Berlin in 1989 and 1992, but also last August, when a historic figure of the party in a hotel in Erbil. As a consequence of this crackdown, party members tend to be more and more secretive about their everyday life.

Since the beginning of the uprising in Iran related to the killing of Jina Amini, the PDKI’s bases have been emptied. Last September 28th, a swarm of ballistic missiles launched from Iran fell over the headquarters of the PDKI. Fourteen people, including a pregnant woman, lost their lives.

Members of the PDKI live secluded in neighboring mountains since late September in an attempt to dodge drone strikes, which recently increased. They explain that they avoid all gatherings in order to prevent any danger.

Ehsan (on the right), only nineteen years old, arrived a few weeks ago from Iran. Shyly, he unveils the scars still easily noticeable under his ochre-coloured military uniform. A few weeks back, the young man was demonstrating with his closed ones. « They fired at us, it was raining bullets. I cried of fear, I thought I was going to die », he described, still moved by the incident, before adding: « I couldn’t go to the hospital, it was to risky, the regime would’ve detained me. Some demonstrators hid me in a house and healed. As soon as I could, I left and crossed the border », he explained.

Several dozens of young women, barely over their majority, arrived early September, a few days before the death of Jina Amini. These women were left unharmed by the September 28th iranian airstrike on their facilities, as well as the one on November 14th, when several ballistic rockets landed a few hundred meters away from them. They do not seem frightened by this stressful situation. « We came to enlist, not to find a shelter », they explained.

Their exile, led them to cease all communication with their close ones « in order to avoid putting them in danger ». Shkofa explained (second from the left on this picture) : « To be honest, we do not know the real toll of victims. We know the authorities forbid people from going to funerals. They want to contain everything and force everyone to stay at their homes. » Although their trip to Iraq seems to be a one way ticket, they are all confident that they’ll come back victoriously in their lands one day.

These dreams contrast with the reality on the field, mostly with the obsession of the Iranian regime regarding refugee organizations in Iraq. The iranian ire is easily explained: although the regime was able to eradicate all opposition on its soil, the persistence of these parties at its borders is felt like a provocation, especially since they played an active role by calling for a general strike following the death of Jina Amini.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic fears those organizations might serve as proxies for enemy States, especially the United States, which could seize the opportunity to destabilize the regime on its western border. In June 2018, in a context of major regional tensions – marked by Trump’s disengagement policies vis a vis the nuclear deal, the PDKI’s general secretary visited Washington upon invitation. On top of meeting various members of Congress, Mustafa Hijri had a discussion with the head of the Iranian section of the State Department. Even though these meetings did not bear many fruits, Tehran vowed to eradicate this turbulent opposition. In that sense, it put serious pressure on Baghdad and on Kurdistan’s Regional Government to dismantle the camps in the last months. For now, the Kurdish authorities keep resisting these demands; but for how long?