Choman, Iraq // As the snow begins to melt in the spring, small groups of men prepare for a perilous journey over the mountains that straddle the border between Iran and Iraq.
Soon, the steep passes will become accessible again, and the men will slip across the border to continue a struggle the world has forgotten about. Dressed in traditional combat fatigues and wearing leather ammunition belts, these fighters belong to the exiled Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) that is looking to stage a comeback in its home country.
Once across, they will seek to attract new followers to rebuild their network in Iran’s Kurdish region.
Kurds in neighbouring countries are getting plenty of attention: Iraqi Kurds are a valued partner for western countries in the fight against ISIL; Kurds in Syria are busy carving out their own statelet; and the Kurds in Turkey are being pummelled by state security forces in a campaign against the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The plight of the 12 million Iranian Kurds is largely ignored, even though they have suffered discrimination and government persecution for decades.
Part of the reason is that Iran has been very effective in fighting Kurdish opposition groups like the KDPI, which was pushed into Iraqi Kurdistan by Iran’s army in the 1980s. The government in Tehran treats dissent harshly in Rojhelat, as the Kurds call the Kurdish region in north-west Iran.
“The people of Rojhelat are increasingly unhappy with the government, but it’s not possible for them to show this discontent. The regime is very strong and can’t be beaten," says Kheder Pakdaman, who commands a small unit in the mountains above Choman, near the Iranian border.
At 47, Mr Pakdaman has been a peshmerga for 20 years. He and his handful of fighters have occupied a simple, two-roomed, concrete house along an unpaved road that winds into the mountains.
His men are a mixed bunch. Weather-beaten, leathery old-timers sit next to young men barely out of their teenage years. Their Kalashnikovs are never far from their sides and daggers in belts abound. Sniper rifles and machine guns complete the armoury.
For all their rugged appearance, however, the peshmerga speak eloquently about their cause. Many of them were politically active before the Iranian regime turned its guns on the Kurds.The KDPI has been around since 1945, and a year later its founder Qazi Muhammed became president of the short-lived Kurdish Marhabad Republic.
The party was part of the opposition movement that toppled the Shah in 1979, but was soon at odds with Iran’s new rulers, the religious regime established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In a military campaign against the KDPI not long after the revolution, about 10,000 Kurds are thought to have perished.
Iran’s Kurdish region also suffers from economic neglect. Kurds struggle to get jobs in government and even in the public sector, causing widespread unemployment particularly among the youth. Ethnic, cultural or religious identities that differ from the Shiite majority are eyed with suspicion by Tehran, and any dissent is quashed.
For the mainly Sunni Kurds, who cherish their culture and language, this situation is difficult to bear. Hopes that things would improve when the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 were quickly dashed, and Kurds do not expect to benefit when the economy recovers after sanction are lifted as part of last year’s nuclear deal.
“In Iran, the tyranny is evident. That made me join as a young Kurd," says 20 year-old Peshwar, one of the fighters in the room. Peshwar became a peshmerga two years ago, leaving behind his hometown of Bohan for a life in exile. If caught by the Iranian security forces, he can expect to spend many years in jail.
The party leadership believes it is benefiting from a growing dissatisfaction among Iran’s Kurds.
“It is easy to find new recruits in Rojhelat. Hundreds of people contact us every day," says Qadir Wrya, a member of the KDPI politburo, at the party’s headquarters in the Iraqi town of Koya.
Unlike PJAK, the Iranian branch of the PKK, the KDPI does not intend to bring about change through force of arms. While PJAK has launched attacks on military installations in Iran in recent years, the KDPI seeks to conduct a political struggle for Kurdish rights, and demands a more federal structure that grants a measure of self rule to the Kurds.
But the peshmerga run the risk of being ambushed by the Iranian army on their way, and deadly firefights are not uncommon.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that rules the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq has granted the KDPI refuge, but the KRG is also under pressure from Iran to clamp down on cross-border activities.
Iran has close ties with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which dominates the eastern part of the KRG that includes the border areas and Koya, and Tehran’s help in fighting ISIL has given it extra leverage in Iraq.
“The KRG have restricted our activities out of Iraq to protect their own interests. We understand that they are in a vulnerable position, and have shifted our activities into Iran more," Mr Wrya says.
As Iran turns the screw on the exiled KDPI, it inadvertently increases the potential for conflict at home. Forced to scale up its presence in Iran, the party will come into conflict with security forces from the government, which does not tolerate opposition movements on its soil.
“The party needs to increase its political presence in Iran. This will lead to a violent response," Mr Wrya says.
The younger generation of Peshmerga in particular seem ready for the fight. Reza, a 24 year old whose unit is based in an old farmhouse in the mountains near Iran, is one of them. Reza has fought ISIL with another exiled Iranian Kurdish party known as the PAK when the extremists stormed into Iraq in 2014. He has since joined the KDPI Peshmerga, and expects to be engaging a different enemy soon.
“I believe that the threat by the Iranian regime is stronger than that of Daesh," he says.