Iran’s Komala: Guns and social democratic roses

Kawsar Fattahi (left) and Siamak Modarresi from the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Photo: Marcel Cartier

The text message indicated that today was bound to be very different from what my colleague and I had grown accustomed to in Kurdistan over the previous week: “We will be there to pick you up at 16:33.”

To say this was precise would be a bit on an understatement, but it was a message from the press office of a political party — an illegal one, although not in the territory we were in.

As the clock hit 17:00, we still hadn’t been picked up. As we would find out later, we had given faulty — or at least incomplete — directions to navigate the Sulaymaniyah neighbourhood we were staying in.

We surely looked out of place, not to mention lost, standing on the curb in front of a kebab shop. After a few phone calls, and some help from a local teenager with directions, we were optimistic.

Minutes later, a large van rolled up to the curb, the driver and passenger realising that the two European-looking guys standing cluelessly on a street corner had to be us. Surely these were the journalists who had inquired about interviewing this armed leftist organisation in exile?

We were greeted with huge enthusiasm by a 30-something, sharply dressed man wearing a medical mask, apologising profusely. We laughed it off, arguing that we were likely the idiots for not understanding the street signs in Sorani.

As we took our seats in the air-conditioned van — a godsend even in April in sweltering Iraqi Kurdistan — we noticed two brand new medical masks laid out in the seat pockets in front of us. After the presumably customary “Welcome to the Komala Party,” we were instructed to “please wear the masks, along with plastic gloves, because of Corona”.

To understand why this was strange, in the previous week we had only seen perhaps a dozen or so people wearing masks throughout the whole of Sulaymaniyah, a city of around 750,000. People would put them on to walk through metal detectors in shopping malls and government buildings, then promptly remove them. So, it felt awkward to be asked to wear masks and gloves.

But the hygiene protocol made sense. After all, we were en route to the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan’s headquarters, roughly a 20-minute drive southeast of the city. Until our visit, they had managed to keep their camp free of COVID-19. Visitors of our type were almost certainly rare, although new recruits are again joining their ranks, after a brief hiatus due to the pandemic.

The scenery across the Sulaymaniyah governorate is startling and spectacular. Winding our way up the hillsides, we entered the village of Zirgewezala, and a sign let us know we had reached the party headquarters.

As we approached the camp’s front gate, I could make out at least four Komala Peshmerga fighters stationed inside, weapons at the ready. One of these young men emerged to greet us, but not before following protocol in making sure there wasn’t a bomb placed under our vehicle. As we were to find out, it wasn’t without precedent — several explosives were found at the camp in 2015, and blamed on an Iranian spy who had infiltrated the group.

We were quickly cleared for entry, and I soon spotted a number of stunning wall murals, some with portraits of martyrs from the party’s half-century of struggle, as well as the ubiquitous red star to symbolise the socialist cause.

After a short drive through the compound, we neared the Central Committee building. Emerging from the van, we were greeted by two young Politburo members, likely no older than 40, and therefore probably younger than the Islamic Republic of Iran itself.

Awaiting us inside was the kind of human being who captivates you with instant charisma and charm. “Welcome to Komala. Your name is?” came the words from the party’s Deputy Secretary General, Siamak Modarresi.

As we were seated, customary cups of chai made their way around the room. A huge Kurdish flag stood to our right, and an enormous flag emblazoned with the red star of Komala flanked the chairs next to Modarresi. Soon, one of the youthful comrades we had met outside joined us, introducing herself as Kawsar Fattahi.

Although we were far from a war zone — at least in a technical sense — both wore the uniforms of the Peshmerga and Fattahi had a pistol in her holster, in case she had to defend herself or her comrades.

Komala's origins

Preparing for an interview with a party such as Komala is made all the more difficult by the fact that the name is currently used by three separate organisations, all of which are based in Sulaymaniyah.

In the days prior to our visit, friends of ours had inquired about “which Komala” we were going to be speaking with.

As intrigued as I was to get into the details of the splits of recent years, which seem so characteristic of the left on a global scale, we first needed to hear about the origins of the party.

Modarresi explained that Komala, or the Society of Revolutionary Toilers, was established in 1969 by students and intellectuals as a clandestine revolutionary organisation. This was during the period of the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had the backing of the United States and his notoriously brutal intelligence service SAVAK.

The period coincided with the rise of the New Left and New Communist Movement across the globe, inspired by the theories and practice of Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Revolution, as well as successful national liberation struggles and socialist revolutions waged in the Global South from Cuba to Vietnam.

Komala therefore took its place in history alongside a myriad of other socialist groups in Iran, among them the long-established, pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, as well as newer organisations that held views more favourable to armed struggle — whether of the [Che] Guevarist or Maoist variants — such as the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas.

What made Komala unique as a revolutionary socialist party in Iran was that it focused its attention on the liberation of Rojhelat, or Iranian Kurdistan. Until this point, Rojhelat had seen the dominance of one opposition force, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), but it had suffered a tremendous crackdown by the Shah that left most of its leading activists imprisoned or in exile.

Modarresi told us that because of this, “the foundation of Komala was like a renaissance for the Kurdish struggle in Iran.

“It has not only been during the period of the Islamic Republic that Kurds have been oppressed. For the entire modern history of Iran, Kurds have been neglected and viewed as kinds of tribes that have strange languages that differ from Persian. So in 1969, these students not only came together to fight for cultural rights and the right to run Kurdistan’s own affairs, but to promote leftist and progressive values of what society could look like for poor people, for workers, for peasants.”

Paradise and hell in 1979

The 1979 Iranian Revolution swept the Shah from power in a broad struggle for democratic rights, but the clerical leadership of the country that came to be assumed under Ayatollah Khomeini soon ushered in an Islamic Republic, following a referendum in March of that year.

Modarresi said that despite their unflinching opposition to the Shah, “for leftist forces, it was obvious that a theocratic regime would be even worse than the Shah. For that reason, we and other left parties boycotted the referendum.”

Tragically, the Tudeh Party had thrown their lot in with Khomeini and supported a “Yes” vote, but still had their party banned and thousands of party cadres were subsequently executed.

Modarresi recalled a brief period after the fall of the Shah, where achievements in the Kurdish region became so numerous, and there was a period of such revolutionary enthusiasm and jubilation, that could best be referred to as a “paradise”.

As he put it, “people came from all across Iran and even the world to see what we were building in Kurdistan. It became almost a tourist attraction, a paradise in the middle of hell. But we prepared for resistance, because we knew that the Islamic Republic would soon come to invade Kurdistan.”

That invasion commenced as early as March 1979, but the fierce resistance mounted by Komala and other Kurdish factions forced Khomeini to send representatives to Rojhelat to negotiate, resulting in limited concessions to the region. However, this situation did not satisfy Khomeini or the new authorities, who had issued a fatwa against the Kurdish resistance, and soon launched an all-out assault on Kurdistan in July of 1979.

This military operation was repelled by Peshmerga forces, but another invasion began in the spring of 1980. Although Komala and the other Peshmerga resisted heroically, and the armed struggle dragged on for nearly a decade in some form, the control of the Islamic Republic over Rojhelat was largely secured by 1981.

An estimated 10,000 people were killed in the fighting between the leftist factions and the new Islamic Republic. About 1200 political prisoners were executed, and one of Komala’s founding members, Foad Mustafa Soltani, was martyred. A mural in memory of Soltani sits prominently on a wall near the entrance to the Komala compound.

Among the contradictions of the Iran-Iraq war, when each side lent their support to the Kurdish forces of the opposing country, Komala came to base themselves within Iraqi territory. As Modarresi put it, although there was never a period when there ceased to be training of new Peshmerga units, priority gradually became assigned to “organising and helping people to find ways to resist in non-armed forms within the country. This is the situation we are still in today.”

When asked about how difficult it is to organise within Iran today given the group is effectively exiled, he said: “People in Iranian Kurdistan have the historical memory of Komala, and this is why they try to push us into the mountains and push us into exile. But despite this, we are still organising there and still have huge respect and admiration from the people.”

Women’s liberation at the forefront

Fattahi, who was born in the decade after the Iranian Revolution when her party was first picking up guns against the theocratic regime, said one of the attractive qualities of Komala for women in Rojhelat — both at that time and now — has been the party’s emphasis on gender equality and commitment to women’s liberation.

During the first half hour or so of the interview, Fattahi largely took a backseat to Modarresi, unsurprising given his position as the Deputy Secretary General, and thus the number two figure in the entire organisation. However, once she began to contribute to the conversation, it was obvious she was a theoretical and political force to be reckoned with.

“Being political is not optional for Kurdish people in Iran” she said, in a matter-of-fact manner. If her nationality made her political by default, her family history destined her to be a part of Komala.

“My mother was a Komala Peshmerga, and everybody in my family was a part of the organisation in some way, with many of them working underground.”

Fattahi has been at the Komala camp for nine years, although prior to this she conducted underground work for the party inside Iran.

“I was working for NGOs inside Iran, and at one time I was with an environmental NGO, which was not really political at all. But for the government, it was political. I also worked with a women’s NGO, which was operating underground, because these kinds of organisations are not allowed.

“In the end, I was being hunted by the authorities to put me in prison. Because of this, I escaped and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.”

At this point, Modarresi interrupted to let us know that dinner was ready. We had already been speaking for a few hours, and though I didn’t want to assume that we would be having something to eat together, his announcement was very welcome.

I wasn’t sure what the protocol would be as far as those plastic gloves, though, since we had still been wearing them throughout the interview, which made writing notes a bit of a challenge. We ended up ditching them, sanitising our hands, and sitting down to the most incredible feast you could imagine – think Kurdish Thanksgiving, if there was such an occasion. As we began eating, Modarresi turned to us and said: “[Fattahi] hasn’t told you about when she fought against ISIS, has she?”

Of course, fate would have it that some of the most amazing stories tend to come out in more relaxed, off-the-record settings. I wonder if Fattahi would have told us this story at all on her own accord, as she appeared so humble about it, and somewhat shy that Modarresi had brought it up.

Fattahi later showed us a video report made by France24 during the Battle of Kirkuk in 2014, when the Islamic State was on the offensive. At that time, she was 24 years old, and had traveled to the frontlines with a group of Komala Peshmerga to defend the city.

But the Iraqi Kurdish authorities struggled to find a way to integrate her and the rest of the group into the fighting, not least because of the alliance between the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iranian government, as well as the fact that there was quite a bit of discomfort — and awe — from men in the Iraqi Peshmerga units.

“There were times when in the middle of a raging battle they would want to stop to take selfies with me, just because I was a woman fighter. It was very strange.”

As it turned out, she was only able to spend two weeks in Kirkuk, though it was easy to get the sense that she would have preferred a longer period on the frontlines. But seven years on, she seems content with her life at the camp, underscoring that for her as an Iranian Kurdish woman, there is no other place where she would be able to achieve the same level of equality.

“You can see with Komala families the difference that exists in relation to traditional Kurdish families. In a Komala family, there is complete gender equality. My father is always pushing me to be a leader, to be a feminist, to give powerful speeches among the men. It is encouraged.”

Social justice and the gun

Although the history of Komala can be traced back over half a century, the party as it is known today was only reconstituted in 2000.

Komala merged with two other leftist factions to form the Communist Party of Iran in 1983, with Abdullah Mohtadi becoming its Secretary General. Although the new party was dominantly Kurdish in membership, Komala became part of an organisation claiming to represent the whole of Iran, not just Rojhelat.

Needless to say, the events of 1989–91, when the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc disintegrated, had a profound impact on communist parties across the globe. But, Moderrasi points out that Komala “was always critical of the Soviet Union, and therefore this did not have a deep impact on us”.

Indeed, Komala had initially been more influenced by Maoism rather than what many of that ideological tendency would see as the “revisionist” camp led by the Soviet Union. Still, the post-1991 chaos that afflicted most of the left globally did seem to create some kind of ideological schism in the Iranian party, and Mohtadi went through a process of theoretical soul-searching and reform.

This culminated in his wing of the party deciding that Marxism-Leninism was no longer relevant for a country like Iran, and taking the step of leaving the party to refound Komala as a social-democratic party at the turn of the century.

Modarresi said that some of the most important elements of Komala’s program today are “the freedom to strike for workers [and] the freedom to build trade unions for workers, teachers, doctors and everyone else”.

“All sectors of society must have the right to organise themselves.

“Government must have responsibilities toward the wellbeing of deprived people and poor people. Everybody should have work and a home, and the government should make sure that this is funded through taxes, not just oil revenues.

“We don’t advocate a communist program of confiscation, but one of social justice with a more equal distribution of wealth.”

I have to admit I was skeptical as to whether this “reform” was a kind of window dressing to garner support from Western countries and progressives who may find supporting an outwardly revolutionary Marxist organisation unpalatable.

I also wanted to know if the comrades think social democracy has any redeeming features, given that the term has come to be associated with European parties that have shifted toward neoliberalism.

“One could say that we are not necessarily a social democratic party in that sense, but a Kurdish party that believes in social democracy,” explained Modarresi.

Another question that has likely puzzled more than just the two of us radical journalists, is whether there is any contradiction between being a social democrat and taking up arms?

Komala may be a member of the Progressive Alliance, as well as an observer party in the Socialist International, but surely they bring — along with the KDPI — a unique element to these international groupings?

“We have these kinds of discussions often with our European friends,” said Modarresi. “Maybe we have a social democratic perspective, but we are also Kurdish. This means that we have to protect ourselves. We have Peshmerga units because it is a necessity to protect our existence. Our struggle is a defensive one, not an offensive one.”

Komala graduates groups of about 35 Peshmerga fighters every three months, who first have to endure precarious conditions while illegally crossing the border from Iran to Iraq — through minefields and with the threat of being shot on sight, if caught. After graduating from their military and political training, many are sent back into Iran on secret missions. Others stay at the camp at Zirgwezala, and work in departments ranging from the kitchen to media office.

Although they are armed and ready, there is no war being waged against the Islamic Republic, at this stage, by Komala or any of the other factions.

Political split and relations with the US

Komala originally emerged onto the world stage in 1969 as a communist and anti-imperialist force. This was perhaps a natural orientation for the young revolutionaries, given that the Shah was backed to the teeth by the US and other Western powers — Iran being viewed, alongside Israel, as essential and strategic partners for NATO in the region.

But what does this mean for the politics of Komala and the other Iranian leftist forces today, given that they are now up against an Islamic Republic that claims the mantle of anti-imperialism? The 1979 Revolution — though it brought to power Islamist forces — proclaimed itself to be a “revolutionary” regime closing the door to foreign domination.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, the US ramped up sanctions against the Iranian government and pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.

For the three factions claiming the historical lineage of the original Komala organisation, there are marked differences in orientation toward the US and Western powers. This political perspective appears to have been, in large part, behind the party’s first split in 2000.

The Komala Organisation of the Communist Party of Iran, which Mohtadi left, along with Modarresi and many other senior cadres, continues to oppose any US meddling in the internal politics of Iran.

Ahmad Salehi, from the Communist Party faction, told Rudaw in 2012 that ideological divergence led to the split, saying: “We have chosen different paths in our struggle. For example, they are depending on the US to overthrow the Islamic Republic, but we are against any US intervention in Iran. We support people’s power for Iranian Kurdistan but they support federalism. That’s why any attempt to unite us is futile, because ideologically we are very different.”

The social democratic reiteration of Komala — which itself split in 2007 with a so-called Reform faction taking shape due to organisational differences, rather than political ones — seems to have vacated its anti-imperialism with its ideological turn, first holding meetings with US government officials during the George W Bush presidency in 2005.

The organisation officially registered as a lobby in Washington, DC in 2018. Its social media posts often reveal the meetings of its US representative Salah Bayaziddi, who it appears more often holds talks with war hawks and arch reactionaries such as Ted Cruz, rather than those from the progressive aisle of Congressional politics.

What exactly does this Komala faction want or hope to achieve from this orientation toward the US government? Is it dangerous to pin their hopes for regime change in Iran on the world’s dominant imperialist power? Especially as the US has a history of intervention in Iran for its own political and geostrategic advantage, such as the 1953 coup against President Mohammad Mossadegh.

Isn’t it a bit odd to hold Peshmerga induction ceremonies under the chants of “Long Live Socialism!” but at the same time court the most vehement right wingers in Washington?

I ask Modarresi about the effect of sanctions, given that Mohtadi has made statements in the past about supporting Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran — which I found to be quite baffling. The evidence seems to indicate that sanctions have had the deepest effect, not on Iran’s leadership, but on the very people that Komala seeks to organise, cutting the access of Iranians to essential health services such as chemotherapy medications and drugs for epilepsy.

“Poverty among the majority of Iranian people has been common through all 42 years of the Islamic Republic. So it is not sanctions that are making them poor. I am not saying that the sanctions have had no impact, but I think sanctions make life hard, mainly at the first instance for the government, and this is good. We are not ashamed to say that.”

But how far will this support for US hostility toward the Iranian state go? Is this not a dangerous slope that can lead to them being auxiliaries in a new war of imperialist aggression in the region?

“Sanctions or anything else that comes from outside Iran’s borders cannot bring down the regime,” said Modaressi. “Only the Iranian people can. They must do the job. No one can do this job for them, but we need other countries — governments and their people — to have sympathy for us.

“We know, for example, the motivation of Donald Trump to sanction Iran is not the same as our motivation. It is different aims. But, it is not the first time in politics where two forces with different origins and different aims can converge.”

It appears, then, that the Komala leadership opposes any potential US war against Iran. But then, I wonder, are sanctions not also an act of warfare? Modarresi and I are coming from very different lived experiences and realities. I could never imagine what it is like to be effectively exiled from one’s homeland for four decades. My reality is that of a socialist from the US — so it is remarkably easy, and in fact the first point of my internationalist politics, to oppose the machinations of my own government.

I am left pondering the complexities of this orientation, and whether trying to achieve both the sympathy of the US government and people are irreconcilable goals. Certainly, most progressive and leftist people I know back in the US will scoff at anything to do with the likes of Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo (who met with Mohtadi during the Trump presidency), and just as many would be inclined to do the same with the liberal politicians from the current Joe Biden administration. After all, they are still representatives of a declining American Empire, regardless of which party they are members of.

Komala’s vision of the future

To say that Kurdistan and the broader Middle East is complicated would be a gross understatement. With their historical homeland being split between four chauvinist nation states, Kurdish political forces have found themselves often being seen as fit for use by some of these states against others. Such was certainly the case in the 1980s, when the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein allowed Komala to set up shop within Iraq, even as the Iraqi government engaged in a genocide against its own Kurdish populace.

Politics is never black-and-white, and astute political figures like Modarresi know the history of the Kurds’ collective oppression in a very marked, personal way. He was imprisoned by the US-backed Shah regime on two occasions, and confined for about four and a half years in total. It would therefore be wrong to say that he — or the Komala leadership — does not understand the US’ goals or strategic orientation.

For Modarresi and Mohtadi, though, it looks as if the Western axis appears more preferable to the Eastern one, which now includes Tehran — which has entered into a long-term alliance with China and deepened its relationship with Russia.

However, it is not only the orientation towards the US and the West that has led to a gulf between the social democratic and communist tendencies called Komala. Modarresi and Mohtadi’s grouping advocates for a federal, democratic Iran, whereas the Communist Party sees Kurdish self-determination — in other words, independence — as the ultimate goal.

Whether there will ultimately be any sort of rapprochement between the different Komala groupings remains to be seen, though a reunion between the non-communist factions appears far more likely due to their programmatic similarities. Even with their differences, the three groups still share intelligence, indicating that there is still some limited degree of cooperation.

[Marcel Cartier is a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, journalist and author, whose work has appeared in the Morning Star, Green Left, TeleSUR, and Kurdish Question. His book Serkeftin: A Narrative of the Rojava Revolution (2019) was one of the first major accounts in English of the structures set up in northern Syria by the Kurdish forces.]