In 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, an independent Kurdish republic was carved out in the northwest of Iran. Centered on the city of Mahabad, the Republic of Kurdistan was dependent on support from the Soviet Union. It also rested on the leadership of the charismatic Qazi Muhammad and his Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), founded the year before as a progressive, anti-imperialist organisation.
The so-called Mahabad Republic would last a mere 11 months before being drowned in blood as the Soviets retreated from Iranian territory, but its legacy endures. Today, the PDKI can look back at what many Kurds see as a glorious attempt at independence and statehood, and claim to be the standard bearer for the Iranian Kurdish struggle.
The PDKI has gone through several periods of retreat and reactivation. In the late 1970s, under the leadership of Dr Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the party emerged from a shell of its former self to become a mass party of tens of thousands of members and supporters. With the fall of the Shah in 1979, the PDKI become embroiled in a bitter war against the country’s new clerical regime under Ayatollah Khomeini for attempting to carve out autonomy for Kurdistan. The war fizzled out, and increasingly PDKI fighters found themselves based across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 1989, tragedy befell the party when Dr Ghassemlou was murdered in Vienna during peace talks with the Iranian regime. His replacement, Sadegh Sharafkandi, was also killed in what is called the Mykonos restaurant assassination in Berlin just three years later. These series of murders, as well as the situation on the battlefield, led the PDKI to pause its armed struggle in 1996.
In recent years, however, the PDKI has declared itself once again at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. They were joined in their 2016 resumption of armed struggle by their erstwhile enemies, the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Together, the two parties founded the Cooperation Center of Political Parties of Iranian Kurdistan.
This return to arms has not led to any major battles materialising, but it has nonetheless been met with force by Tehran. In 2018, missiles rained down on the PDKI’s headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Koya, killing 18 of their fighters.
With the massive protest movement that emerged in September 2022 in Iran over the killing of Jina Mahsa Amini, the PDKI’s base was again targeted by missile and drone attacks in September and November, which also took aim at the Komala and the Kurdistan Freedom Party’s bases inside Iraqi territory. More than 20 were said to have been killed.
Journey into Iraqi Kurdistan
I recently had the opportunity to visit Koya and spend the day with leading figures of the PDKI, to figure out what ideology and motivation is behind the oldest and most respected of the Iranian Kurdish parties, and to see how the repressive measures in Iran have altered their methods of work.
The journey began two hours east of Koya in Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city of Sulaymaniyah, where I met my guide for the day — Karim. Our initial conversation confused me when Karim, in his late 50s, started speaking to me in perfect Finnish. Before agreeing to meet with me, the party had requested my ID so they could verify my identity and I opted to provide my Finnish passport. Although I am half Finnish and hold citizenship, it’s a language I do not know well, so the presence of a peshmerga fighter in military fatigues speaking the language that could be my mother tongue threw me off.
At the beginning of the journey, we traversed the phenomenal mountains that are picturesque beyond belief. The holiday resorts in the region made for a surreal backdrop when Karim shared his tumultuous life story. He joined the PDKI in Iran at the age of 14, found his way into the party’s intelligence operations structures, and was eventually posted to Erbil. This is when the story became dark.
“There was an assassination attempt against me in 1996," said Karim. "It was around 5 o’clock in the evening one night, when two comrades and myself were driving along a narrow road. Suddenly there was a burst of gunfire from a car behind us. It was Iranian agents. One of my comrades died immediately, the other later. Somehow, I survived. There were forty bullets, so people were surprised that I lived to tell the story.”
As we descended from the mountains and drove towards Koya, Karim recounted how at least 15 PDKI members were killed along the route in ambushes by Iranian forces in the 1990s. Nowadays, under the federal system in Iraq and the recognition of the autonomous Kurdish administration by the central government in Baghdad, that danger seems more distant, but not completely far-fetched.
Karim decided to leave Kurdistan for Europe in 2002. This was a period when the PDKI’s political activity was at a lull, and he had a family of his own to think of. They were smuggled into Turkey, but found themselves stuck there for six years, while — as he put it — the UNHCR “did nothing”.
Eventually in 2008, Karim and his wife picked up their five-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son, and were smuggled to Greece. From there, they made their way through Europe with fake identity documents until they reached Finland. But why Finland?
“I wanted to get as far away from Iran as possible. I figured you can’t get much farther than Finland, plus I already had family there. That was important.”
Despite settling into a new life in Finland as a teacher, Karim eventually found the pull of his homeland too strong to resist. Once the PDKI resumed armed struggle, he made a decision to return to the party’s headquarters in 2018. He now works within the political leadership, but the pistol he wears on his holster indicates he is still very much a peshmerga.
We arrived at a sprawling PDKI checkpoint outside Koya. The camp looked like a massive fortress — much more than just the base of a political party. There were countless homes where Iranian Kurdish civilians live, who perhaps have a loose connection to the party, and who are mostly just trying to get on with their lives. Here they can freely practice their national customs and celebrate their Kurdish identity, free from the watchful eye of the Iranian state.
Inside the courtyard of one of the houses, we met with Mustafa Mauludi, the party's Deputy Director of Coordination. At 64 years of age, he appeared to be a fierce but peaceful man. He spent 20 years underground inside Iran organising for the PDKI — work which could have carried a death sentence if he had been discovered.
I asked Mauludi about the recent uprising in Iran, and what role the party has played in it. After all, the Iranian state seems to attribute much of the strength of the protests to parties such as PDKI and Komala, its justification for the missile strikes last year.
“We have said that the most important thing at this moment is not to be engaged in military confrontation. We realised we needed to be on the ground to support the peaceful movement that took to the streets. We have helped to organise it, to push for strikes, to use the power of civil society to put pressure on the regime. We decided this was the time for us to become more assertive.”
In addition to blaming the PDKI for the protest movement, one common narrative pushed by the Islamic Republic is that they are essentially pawns of the United States or Israel. Asked about this, Mauludi found the very suggestion ridiculous.
“Before the US and Israel expressed any interest in opposing Iran’s government, the Kurdish movement existed and we existed as a party. We’ve been around for 78 years fighting our struggle, even when the US and Israel were supporting the Shah. What is happening is a natural reaction to oppression, not anything else.”
I asked Mauludi if, given the opposition of both countries to the rulers in Iran, the PDKI received any support from Washington or Tel Aviv.
“We haven’t received any material support from them whatsoever," he said. "What we have received from many western countries is moral support, because they issue statements saying they are opposed to the violence of the regime. In terms of practical support, though, this hasn’t existed in any shape.”
Our conversation turned to the question of whether the Kurdish nation within Iran could find unity in the face of the regime, and whether the Iranian opposition as a whole can find common cause in a united front against the clerical state. I mentioned the fact that the late Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, has put himself forward as a central figure among the opposition.
“People in Iran, and especially Kurdish people, will not accept him," said Mauludi. "He wants to rule Iran just like his father, who already failed. Pahlavi has a lot support in western countries among Iranians who were supporters of the Shah and then left. The trouble for him is, the people within Iran don’t support him. For us, he’s a red line.”
Not long after our conversation, Pahlavi became a signatory to a document known as the Mahsa Charter (The Charter of Solidarity and Alliance for Freedom), billed as a common platform for the Iranian opposition to rally around. Although PDKI was opposed to the document and especially Pahlavi’s participation, their comrades in Komala chose to sign on. This appears to indicate that there are some points of divergence between the two parties which otherwise remain close.
Bidding farewell to Mauludi, we made our way to the PDKI cemetery. It was an eerie sight. An older woman sat next to the grave of her son, who was murdered in the attack in September. Although part of me wanted to talk to her, I could sense she was having a deeply intense and spiritual moment with her departed son, so I left her alone, as she wove in and out of talking and weeping.
We soon entered what the PDKI refers to as the “castle” — the organisation's political headquarters — so enormous that the photographer travelling with me and I dubbed it the Pentagon. After the last two missile attacks, the party decided to evacuate the hundreds of personnel and peshmerga who worked and slept in the building.
Karim took me from room to room in the enormous structure — largely in disarray and still damaged from the 2018 attacks. It’s evident that for the PDKI, it is important to retain the evidence of the Iranian state’s aggression. Entire sections of wall are ripped off. Walk one step in the wrong direction and you might fall through the floor to the level below. Shrapnel from a missile riddles the mural of Qazi Muhammad. A huge crater in the middle of a pitch used for sports and military drills is impossible to miss.
Before we left the building, Karim fetched a wheelbarrow. Inside it were several pieces of one of the missiles that struck just months before. Haunting reminders of Iran’s low-level warfare against the Kurdish people are to be found everywhere.
It’s difficult to imagine what this place would have looked like before it was emptied. It’s a ghost town. The question remains: where have the combatants gone? According to Karim, the PDKI is now basically everywhere.
“We’ve gone into the mountains and into the cities. We have had to spread out. This has meant that it’s tougher to get together for events and meetings, but we can rely on the internet.”
In the months since my visit to Koya, the protests that started as a reaction to Jina Mahsa Amini’s death have largely died down. The imposition of death sentences against protesters seemed to be a tipping point. While, at least for the time being, it seems as if the uprising has not morphed into a revolution, I am reminded of how many ebbs and flows the PDKI has seen over their nearly 80-year existence.
Mauludi's words remain with me: “We are a movement with a long history. We have adapted before and we are adapting again.”