BERKELEY, United States (IPS) -- Author of the upcoming book "The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis", due for release in September from Polipoint Press, Reese Erlich recently spent three weeks investigating Kurdish resistance organisations in Iran and Iraq's Kurdish region. He tells IPS that "the United States is officially funding armed groups to overthrow the Islamic government" in Tehran.
In an interview with IPS's Omid Memarian, Erlich, who has covered the Middle East as a freelance journalist for the past 20 years and co-wrote 2003's "Target Iraq", says that Washington's strategy is primarily focused on media propaganda -- such as websites and satellite television and radio stations -- but also includes covert military training.
The Iranian government has itself accused opposition groups of destabilising the border region, and recently warned Kurdish Iraqi officials to expel armed bandits and anti-Iranian groups from their province, or face military incursions.
IPS: What do the Kurdish opposition groups look like? What constitutes the daily life of these small groups who are fighting an established government?
Reese Erlich (RE): The Kurdish compounds are like small villages. They have barracks for the single men peshmurga. Political cadres live with their families in small homes, much like Iraqi Kurds in that area. They have meeting halls and offices. PJAK's [Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê, or Party of Free Life of Kurdistan] conditions are much more like guerrillas, living in the cold mountains with more rudimentary huts.
I described one PJAK leader as the "very model of a modern guerrilla general." He has a cell phone, internet access and satellite TV. The women guerrillas claim they only watch news programmes, but I got them to admit they also like movies with Brad Pitt and Mel Gibson.
IPS: Is the U.S. support limited to media or does it include other activities, such as military operations?
RE: Secretly, U.S. intelligence services are also sponsoring armed attacks within Iran. I discovered the U.S. and Israeli support for PJAK in Kurdistan and from so-called former MEK members. The U.S. asks a Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MEK or MKO) member if they have left and if they support democracy. If they answer yes, they can be trained and armed for clandestine actions inside Iran.
I believe that Kurds and other minorities within Iran have legitimate grievances. They are not allowed to learn in their local languages and face other forms of discrimination. But the U.S. finds the most extremist of minority groups and encourages them to engage in violence. The PJAK is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and has become a nationalist cult built around the personality of Abdullah Ocalan. MEK is really a cult, run by very secretive and authoritarian leaders. Both these groups consider themselves social democrats, but ironically, they receive the most support from extreme right wingers in the U.S.
IPS: How do they get support from [sympathisers in] Iran when the Iranian government has extensively shut down their operations in the west of Iran?
RE: I met with three Iranian Kurdish opposition groups with camps in northern Iraq. KDPI [the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran] and Komala say they recruit new members from Iran and both have peshmurga militias. But neither currently engages in armed activity inside Iran. It's hard to know what actual support they have inside Iran, but they historically certainly had supporters in the Kurdish regions. PJAK is much smaller and more isolated. But they have picked up some support from young people angry at the oppression they face inside Iran.
>From my sources among Kurds, all three groups carry out clandestine meetings with supporters inside Iran. When big demonstrations broke out inside Kurdistan in 2006, all three groups participated in the demonstrations. PJAK took a more militant line, calling for armed struggle, and that appealed to some youth.
IPS: What can they achieve while there are many dynamics to reform the Iranian political system?
RE: All three groups agree on certain things. They say they support a revolution in Iran with the ultimate aim of establishing a democratic, federal system. They want the central government to control major issues such as foreign affairs, the military and economy. But local regions should control education, health, police and similar local issues. They do not call for separatism. The danger, of course, is that if Iraqi Kurdistan becomes independent and the Iranian government continues its current policies, the mood could shift in support of separatism.
It's very hard to judge how much support these groups have in Tehran. I met with some intellectuals, NGO leaders and others who -- I suspected -- supported one or another group. But since the groups are illegal, they can't be very specific. I think the support for much greater local control or federalism is strong among the Kurds I met.
IPS: Does the Iranian opposition, which is supported by U.S. money, support any kind attack against Iran?
RE: KDPI strongly opposes any U.S. military attacks against Iran, arguing it will just alienate Iranians, including those who oppose the government. PJAK welcomes such attacks in hopes they will topple the government. Komala says it neither supports nor opposes such attacks. U.S. attacks might help topple the regime, they argue, but they don't advocate it.
U.S. military officials I spoke with deny any U.S. support of PJAK. The official position of the Bush administration is to support Iranians to bring about a new government, but they don't officially call for "regime change." In reality, the U.S. is doing everything in its power to overthrow the Iranian government and install one friendly to the U.S.
IPS: Is there any direct connection between the Kurdish opposition groups and U.S. officials? Do they meet on regular basis?
RE: In 2006, top Komala and KDPI leaders visited the U.S. to meet with middle level State Department and intelligence officials. It was an official meeting covered in the press at the time. They wouldn't tell me the content of the meetings except that the meetings were very friendly.
Hejri visited Washington in 2006 to meet with State Department and other U.S. government officials. Hejri and other KDPI leaders deny accepting U.S. financing, although he said KDPI would accept such aid if offered.
Morteza Esfandiari, the KDPI representative in the U.S., told me that KDPI had applied to get some of the 85 million dollars allocated to "promote democracy" in Iran in order to improve its satellite TV station.
The KDPI opposes U.S. or Israeli military attacks on Iran's nuclear power facilities as counterproductive.
I think it will very hard for Iran to crush the Kurdish opposition. Kurds are a very independent people who have never liked repression from the central government. In addition, the Kurdish guerrillas can retreat into Iraq, and return to fight another day.
IPS: The Iranian government has a very friendly relationship with Iraq's president, who is a Kurd himself and has strong ties with Iranian officials. Why does the Iraqi government allow the Kurdish opposition groups to operate in Iraq?
RE: The KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) allows Komala and KDPI to maintain compounds in Iraq and train peshmurga, so long as they don't carry out armed actions inside Iran. I think KDPI and Komala agree to those terms. PJAK does carry out armed actions. KRG officials claim they can't stop PJAK because of the rugged mountain terrain. In reality, they just look the other way, since PJAK has U.S. and Israeli backing.
Kurdish nationalism is very strong. The KRG, which has good relations with Iran, can't ignore the plight of Kurds living in Iran. So they compromise by not allowing the two major groups to engage in guerrilla activity. But it's a situation that can't last forever. Last year, on two occasions, Iran shelled Iraqi Kurdish villages, killing five people as a warning to the KRG.
In the past, Iran has asked the KRG to shut down opposition groups operating in Kurdistan. They even made a deal with one of the Iraqi Krudish groups to attack KDPI's camp. But KDPI was warned in advance and no one was hurt. Right now the KRG relies on the U.S., and the U.S. wants Iran attacked. So I don't think Iran's entreaties will go anywhere. If the general political situation changes, however, who knows?
Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil society activist. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award. His blog can be found at http://omidmemarian.blogspot.com.