In a green valley nestled between snow-capped peaks in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq is an armed camp of revolutionaries preparing to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Men with automatic weapons stand watch on the roofs of the houses. Party flags snap in the wind. Radio and satellite TV stations beam illegal news, commentary, and music into homes and government offices across the border.
The compound resembles a small town more than a base, with corner stores, a bakery, and a makeshift hospital stocked with counterfeit medicine. From there the rebels can see for miles around and get a straight-shot view toward Iran, the land they call home. They call themselves Komala, which means simply “Association.”
Abdulla Mohtadi, the Komala Party’s secretary general, and Abu Baker Modarresi, a member of the party’s political bureau, hosted me in their meeting house. Sofas and chairs lined the walls, as is typical in Middle Eastern salons. Fresh fruit was provided in large bowls. A houseboy served thick Turkish coffee in shot glasses.
Both men started their revolutionary careers decades ago, when the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi still ruled Iran. “We were a leftist organization,” Mohtadi said, speaking softly with an almost flawless British accent. “It was the ’60s and ’70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against—the United States.” He seemed slightly embarrassed by this. “Sorry,” he said.
I told him not to worry, that I hadn’t expected anything else. The U.S. government had backed the dictatorship he fought to destroy. Pro-American politics had not been an option.
The Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, arrested Mohtadi and his closest comrades. He suffered three years of confinement and torture in the dictator’s dungeons. Modarresi quietly sipped his coffee while Mohtadi explained this to me, interrupting only to say that he too was arrested and tortured, and jailed for four years. Both were later released. And both took part in the 1979 revolution that brought down the state.
The even more tyrannical Ayatollah Khomeini replaced Reza Pahlavi, and the Iranian Revolution, like so many others before it, devoured its children. It had been broad-based and popular at the beginning: Liberals allied with leftists, and leftists allied with Islamists. It didn’t seem like a recipe for fascism, but that’s what they got. The Islamists came out on top and smashed the liberals and leftists.
Mohtadi is still a critic of the United States, though he is much milder about it today. “There has been lots of oppression,” he said, “and killings and torture and expelling people from their land and sending them to internal exile in Iran and shelling the cities and all kinds of oppression. The problem with the policy of the United States is that for a long time they neglected the violations of human rights in Iran. Also the European governments, the European countries, they didn’t say anything about the atrocities going on in Iran. They called it a critical dialogue, but it was not a critical dialogue. It was lucrative trade with Iran.”
Komala vs. Komala
Don’t confuse the Komala Party with the Komala Party. Iraqi Kurdistan hosts two exiled leftist parties from Iranian Kurdistan, both with the same name, the same (red) flag, and the same founder. Both parties have armed camps and military wings. Both built their compounds on the same road outside the city of Suleimaniya. They’re right next to each other, in fact. Stand in the right place, and you can see one from the other. The difference is that one is liberal and the other is communist.
I didn’t know there were two until I set up an appointment to meet Mohtadi, of the liberal Komala Party, and wound up inside the communist camp, unannounced. The communists were good sports about my mistake. They granted me interviews, introduced me to Secretary General Hassan Rahman Panah, and fed me lunch. They gave me the grand tour. They didn’t tell me I was at the wrong compound. That news came from Modarresi, when he called to ask why I hadn’t shown up.
On the surface, the two parties are more confusingly interchangeable than the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mohtadi says Life of Brian is one of his favorite movies.
Today’s liberal Komala Party members belonged to the communist Komala Party and the larger Iranian Communist Party until they bitterly divorced in the 1980s.
“They were hard left, to the point of Maoist, at one point,” says Andrew Apostolou, a Brookings Institution historian who specializes in the region and knows Komala well. “We took part in the Communist Party of Iran,” Mohtadi said, “but after some years we realized it was a mistake. We criticized that and split from them. It took some years, of course. It was not just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“You split with them over what, precisely?” I said.
“Over so many things,” he said, his voice heavy with disappointment. “They have lost contact with the realities of the society. They have no sympathy for the democratic movement in Iran. We think the time for that kind of left is over.” Mohtadi disagrees with Iran’s communists on every point that matters: human rights, democracy, economics, the appropriate use of violence, the proper stance toward the West. Komala’s economic views are still leftist, like those of small-s “socialists” in Europe, but Mohtadi flatly rejects systems like Cuba’s. “I know they have social achievements in health care and education and all that,” he said. “But in terms of political oppression and cult of personality, that’s outdated. It’s not acceptable for a modern civil society.”