Between popular uprisings last year, U.S. sanctions, and sabre-rattling in the Gulf, the Islamic Republic of Iran is undergoing a substantial period of political pressure.
One of the little-noticed but important differences in the Iranian political landscape is the role increasingly being played by Iranian Kurdish groups. Kurdish insurgents remain the most organized armed opposition to the Islamic Republic. At the same time, several Kurdish activists have organized peacefully around the globe against the theocracy. What has recently changed is the declared goal of this organized militia.
Like Kurdish nationalists in Turkey and Iraq, many Iranian Kurds have long dreamed of an independent state. For Iranian Kurds, this dream remains a bit more vivid than that of others given the memory of the Mahabad Republic which declared its independence in 1946 during the chaotic end of World War II.
However, circumstances have changed the appeal of such a project, at least in the short-term; this has greatly diminished the dream for many Iranian Kurds given the region’s shifting geopolitics.
The trajectory of Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan perhaps best symbolizes a transition in ongoing Kurdish political thinking, which was once an armed insurgency fighting for an independent Kurdistan.
Beginning decades ago, it began to emphasize the political and democratic struggle over the armed one. Conversely, other Kurdish insurgent groups like the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) have continued to focus on a forceful change.
The Islamic Republic is currently involved in its most serious confrontation with the West since the so-called “Tanker War” in the 1980s. In recent weeks Iran has seized oil tankers and prior to that played a role in a bombing in Kabul that resulted in the death of several Americans. The renewed tensions come in response to new U.S. sanctions on Iran and also dramatic protests in Iran over the past two years.
“In January 2018 in over 100 cities and towns, protests and uprisings sparked against the Iranian state,” says Abdullah Mohtadi the head of Komala. ”This marks the beginning of new phase and encourages all opposition groups to get more active to provide viable leadership for the Iranian people who seek freedom after long decades of dictatorship.”
Komala’s thinking has evolved beyond just ideological or even ethnic lines.
Komala unilaterally declared an end to its involvement in the armed struggle in 1991. However, recent events resulted in a new policy. Some 36 Komala volunteers received training from U.S. special forces operatives, according to multiple sources. These volunteers participated in fighting for 14 months against ISIS around Kirkuk. According to Komala, this was the first combat the group has been involved in for years though it maintains a military hierarchy at the compound it is based out of in Northern Iraq.
“None of our forces were [KIA] however, some were wounded in the operation. Fighting against ISIS was a very good experience because it consolidated our cooperation with Iraq Kurds as well as our relations with the United States.”
A popular Kurdish saying suggest that a Kurd’s only friend is the mountain but, Komala is trying to break the mold, not only with its new ties to the Iraqi Kurds and the U.S. but, in its efforts to build ties with other non-Kurdish Iranian groups.
“Representatives of Komala have played an indispensable and constructive role in Iranian pro-democracy organizations,” says Shahriar Ahy, co-founder of Unity for Democracy in Iran. “To no small measure, cooperation and convergence of the activities of these organizations owes a great deal debt to Komala under Abdullah.”
While many in the Middle East brace themselves for the growing conflict between the United States and Iran, many in the Iranian opposition are invigorated that the new pressure will finally topple what they see as an unjust regime. As an outsider with inherently anti-regime credentials, Komala and other Kuridish groups could become increasingly influential kingmakers in the aftermath of the Islamic Republic, which is maybe why the group’s profile has risen in recent months. A Komala spokesperson has denied a reported meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mohtadhi took place last summer. Mohtadhi admits only to having met Pompeo when the latter was still a U.S. Senator. The calculus of such a dalience remains clear as both groups have a shared enemy.
“Iran is Cooperating with Al Qaeda and willing to do anything to hurt the United States and Israel – its declared archenemies,” says Mohtadhi.
The experience of his Iraqi Kurdish hosts offer a cautionary tale in seeking a transactional alliance. In 1991, Iraqi Kurds (joined by some Iranian Kurds in Northern Iraq) rose up en masse against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They were inspired by the Coalition war against Iraq which had ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Initially entire Iraqi units melted under the fury of the Kurdish onslaught in scenes that seem like an odd precursor to the 2014 ISIS invasion of Iraq. However, soon the Kurds were crushed when Saddam’s Republican Guard and other units rallied to the defense of the Baathist regime.
Mohtadhi offers when asked that he is hesitantly optimistic about democratic change in Iran, “However ours has been a long-struggle and there have been other periods in which I had similar optimism,” he says.