By Richard Miniter, PJM Washington editor, reporting from Sulaimaniya, Iraq
From his secret base Abdullah Mohtadi commands a small armed force inside Iraq and a vast clandestine network inside Iran.
"I didn't believe in the so-called critical dialogue with Iran. We are for regime change, no matter what the Europeans or even the United States says," Mohtadi tells me.
It is not an ambition for the faint-hearted. Mohtadi, who is Secretary General of the Democratic Komala party, an Iranian Kurdish political party banned by the Islamic Republic, has survived several attempts on his life.
This charming former communist wants to topple the mullahs of Tehran and replace their dictatorial rule with a federal democracy.
"In a sense we have some things in common with the neocons. We believe in the democratization of the whole Middle East and recognize the danger of political Islam."
Still the former communist does not call himself a neo-conservative. He prefers the term "revolutionary liberal." He is one of the "free rangers" of Iran.
The day I first met him, he was trying to stay in the background. I had come to visit his older brother, a famous Kurdish novelist, and the younger Mohtadi was serving as a translator. He didn't even let on that he was related to the novelist, let alone venture a detail about his history, until I asked him about himself.
He was traveling incognito; dressed in a striped shirt and trousers.
Today he is dressed in an olive-drab kawapatour, a traditional Kurdish man's pants suit that flares from waist to knee; it makes him look like both a 1940s military commander and Kurdish nationalist. It looks like a suit for a special occasion.
His words are measured and soft. He drinks his tea without sugar.
There are 12 million Kurds spread across four provinces in Northwestern Iran and another one million Kurds in a far-eastern province. Iran's total population is estimated at more than 60 million.
As with Kurds in neighboring states, the Iranian Kurds have a series of discrimination complaints. He ticks them off. Kurds are deprived of education in their mother tongue and denied money for schools and roads, even though they pay heavy taxes to the central government, according to Mohtadi. Generally, Iran's Kurdistan is run not by Kurds, but by people appointed by Tehran. Not a single police chief is a Kurd, he said. Indeed, none of the top jobs in the four Kurdish provinces are held by a Kurd. "It is a cultural occupation, a case of clear discrimination."
Congress of Nationalities
Mohtadi, with a wide array of allies, is building consensus among the democratic opposition among ethnic minorities inside Iran. It is a minority within a string of minorities. The five main ethnic minorities inside Iran are the Azerbaijanis, the Azeris, the Beluch (in southeast Iran), the Arabs of Ahwaz (in southwest Iran) and the Kurds (in northwest Iran and northeast Iran). These minorities call themselves "nationalities," because they are peoples without a nation. Nonetheless, Mohtadi (and presumably his allies) acknowledge that seceding from Iran is not a realistic option.
Instead, Mohtadi and others have united the democratic elements with the "nationalities" to form the Congress of Nationalities for Federal Iran. They do not seek breakaway republics or ethnic fiefdoms, but regional autonomy within a federal, democratic Iran. They envision that this new Iran will be like the Federal Republic of Germany or the United States before the civil war extinguished the autonomy of states.
Iraq serves as a model for what is possible in Iran. "The Iranian Kurds are celebrating the presidency of Talabani in Iraq," he said. The new Iraq is a viable democracy, with regional autonomy for the Kurds, that can elect an ethnic minority (a Kurd even!) to the presidency to a large, united nation.
Can Iran really evolve in this direction? Yes, it is a faraway dream, Mohtadi admits. But progress to the promised land is quietly being made.
When Iranian police arrested a Kurdish teenaged boy, named Shwana Kadini, and tortured and killed him, in July 2005, it was not hard to stoke public outrage. Across Iran's Kurdish region, the public fury was overwhelming.
Democracy activists were quick to capitalize on public sentiment. Komala and others in their coalition mounted demonstrations in nine cities. The carried signs saying "Bring the killers to justice." Read one way, the signs seem to be about bringing the rogue cops to trial. Read another, it is a call for regime change in Tehran.
Komala and its supporters put some 100,000 people on the streets to demonstrate against the regime in July 2005, he said.
The Iranian writer's union supported Kurds, as did many other Iranian groups.
"For the first time since 1979, all of Iranian Kurdistan erupted with demonstrations," he said.
Tehran's reaction was instructive. "The government became cautious," he said. It made some attempts to placate the public. It suggests that the mullahs realize how tenuous their hold on power really is.
A Secret Network
Still, support is growing among Kurds in Iran, he said. "A decade ago, it is very difficult to get cooperation. Now people complain that you don't give them missions. Why am I not a member? they ask me." You have to earn the right to be a voting party member, he explains.
"We have had 4,000 martyrs in past 28 years, now new recruits are strengthening the party."
Azerbaijanis came late to liberation movement but their democratic management is growing fast. "This is one of the biggest political changes is that we have managed to win over the Shi'ite Kurds of southern [Iranian] Kurdistan," he said.
The internal organization for leading and organizing clandestine staff has doubled twice in the past year, according to Abu Baker Modarrisi, who is a member of the collective that runs the clandestine service.
"We send people into Iran every day," he tells me. "We sent an organizer yesterday to a Kurdish city to set up a cell."
Komala reaches Iranian Kurds through phones, e-mails and satellite television.
"Our satellite broadcasts station both Kurdish and Farsi, using an uplink in Sudan and a studio in Iraq. Rojhelat TV - sunrise and east, broadcast from Sweden, studio here. Iranian Kurd is eastern Kurdistan."
But the jamming backfires. "People are angry about health effects of Iranian jammers," he said. Many Iranians believe they are being poisoned by the intense electro-magnetic fields generated by jamming devices, he said. When I tell him that I can see the moral outrage of being denied free speech, but that the health effects of the jamming are probably nil (the electro-magnetic fields fall off by the square of the distance), he looks nonplussed. He does not want to surrender such an effective propaganda point. But he is an educated man and knows, as a matter of science, that I am right. So he moves back on the better terrain: the regime's use of torture.
For now, Komala will confine itself to mass protests and civil disobedience. "When the time is right," the former communist said, "armed struggle will resume."
Mohtadi strongly denies that Komala coordinates with Pjak, a Kurdish terror group known to attack Iranian police stations and other targets inside Iran. He believes that violence at this stage would alienate supporters inside Iran and is morally opposed to senseless taking of life.
But Komala does have its international affiliations. It is affiliated with Socialist International through the Kurdish branch. The party recently applied for full membership on its own.
It would seem to be the perfect group for the Left to embrace: it is democratic, represents an ethnic minority, fights an evil regime run by Islamist fanatics, uses non-violent techniques to demand social justice and is a bona fide member of the global socialist movement.
And yet it has shockingly few friends on the Left. A few Europeans will listen, he said. But most in Europe and North America ignore Komala. They have moved on. Some seek to accommodate or understand the Iranian regime. Many more are consumed by Bush hatred. Komala is a oxbow lake, left behind by a Mississippi that has changed course.
Little Help from Washington
The Bush Administration seems to have little interest in Komala or the other members of the Congress of Nationalities.
Has he met with representatives of the State department or the CIA? He only nods.
He is grateful that the State Department and the European Union have condemned Iran's use of torture, censorship, false imprisonment, police brutality and sharia law. But he said he does not understand America's goals vis-a-vis Iran.
"We don't know what strategy U.S. is following. They show sympathy [for us], they condemn violations of human rights, nationalities, women. This is said. But there is no strategy. We still don't know what the U.S. want to do with this regime."
"It is better for the strategy to be publicly announced. There is no shame in it."
I ask him if he would favor a "No-fly zone" over the Kurdish region of Iran, similar to the umbrella that once shielded the Kurds in Iraq?
He seems surprised and delighted by the suggestion. But he responds cautiously. "That would greatly help," he said.
He receives no aid from America or any Western government. Sometimes, the local Kurdish government will give the party a little money "for water, electricity and so on. It isn't much."
Komala's support comes solely from supporters inside Iran and among the Kurdish diaspora - desperately poor people providing what they can.
"We are surprised why the Americans are so sensitive. The Iranian regime is confronting the U.S. very openly and still the U.S. is doing nothing to help the Kurds and other nationalities."
The regime is weak, he believes. "It is corrupt, has no self-belief, just self-interest. In the ruling circles, there is no solidarity." With a hard shove, the regime would crumble, he said. "I am optimistic."