The offices of the Kurdistan National Congress (Kongreya Neteweyî ya Kurdistanê, KNK) are located on a quiet backstreet in Brussels, Belgium. When I visited these premises in early June, the mood was gloomy.
Many who operate here are Kurds from Turkey. Hopes had ridden high that the Turkish presidential elections might see the departure of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarded as an archenemy by nationalist and secular Kurds. These hopes, of course, have been dashed, and with them the plans of many to return safely to the places of their birth.
The house in which the offices are located must once have been the home of a family from the Belgian upper middle class. The Kurds have not subjected it to a major renovation. As a result, it is all creaking north European wooden floors, dark corners and plush crimson carpets, an incongruous setting for Mideast revolutionary political activity.
But then, much about the KNK is incongruous. The movements gathered under its umbrella are committed to the socialist and feminist ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, jailed founder of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). During the Cold War, the latter engaged in insurgency against NATO ally Turkey and gained designation by the US and EU as a terrorist organization. Yet fighters associated with this trend in Syria have emerged as the most capable and trusted partners of US Central Command in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which they predominate, indeed represents a rare and notable success for the West in the field of proxy warfare in the Middle East. This was the partnership that destroyed Islamic State in Syria by 2019. It remains in ownership of about 30% of the territory of that ruined land, constituting today a de facto though incomplete barrier against an Iranian advance west.
As we approached the heavy wooden door to enter the building, I remembered the first time that I had been on these premises. It was 12 years ago. At that time, I had come to interview the leader of the Iranian Kurdish PJAK (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) organization, Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi. And now, 12 years on, I am going to interview his successor, Siamand Moeini. Not much progress in 12 years, you might say, and you might be right. But two very significant things have changed substantially over the last decade.
Firstly, the de facto alliance with the US in Syria has brought the cluster of movements around the KNK to an unprecedented level of relevance in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Secondly, the uprising in Iran that followed the killing of the Iranian Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022 has returned the question of Iran's internal stability in general, and of its management of its national minorities in particular, to center stage at a crucial moment for the region.
The Current State of Affairs: Uprising in Iran and the Fractured Opposition
So I have come to ask Moeini about the current state of affairs for the uprising inside Iran, and about prospects for unity among Iran's fractured opposition. I also want to get his movement's take on the latest tortured diplomatic moves on the Iran file, on the state of the game with Iran's proxy warfare across the Middle East, and on the efforts to counter it.
AS WE enter, I note that security arrangements around the offices in Brussels have also improved in recent years, in accordance with its members' enhanced status – and with reference to a number of recent murders of KNK-associated political activists by the Turkish government on European soil. When first visiting 12 years ago, I was struck and slightly alarmed by the casual apparent indifference to such concerns. No more.
On the day I meet him, Moeini has just wrapped up a conference bringing Iranian opposition groups together, at the European Parliament. It was a success, he tells me. There were representatives of the Ahvazi Arabs there, of Iran's Baluch minority, labor activists, and leaders of the various Iranian Kurdish factions – Komala, PDKI and PJAK. It is only a start, though, in the long and tortuous effort to achieve some structure of unity for the fractured foes of the Islamic regime in Tehran.
Moeini, 62, stocky and balding, is from the city of Mahabad in Iran's West Azerbaijan province. He hails from a family long steeped in Kurdish activism. His grandfather was the interior minister of the short-lived Mahabad Republic, an early attempt to carve out a Kurdish sovereign state in 1946, rapidly crushed by the Iranians. His father was one of the founders of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and was killed by the shah's authorities in 1968. Moeini himself was a Peshmerga fighter of the Kurdish Komala Party, a far-Left nationalist outfit, in the period 1979-1983. This was the time in which the new Islamic Republic engaged in a bloody settling of accounts with the Kurdish resistance factions. Splitting with the Komala movement because of what he terms its "drift toward communism," Moeini made his way to Europe in the mid-1980s and continued his activism against the Islamic Republic of Iran from there.
He was one of the founders of PJAK in 2004, and replaced Haji-Ahmadi as its leader in 2016.
The protests that began with the killing of Jina Amini have faded somewhat in their intensity in recent months. Nevertheless, they continue, and they represent the most serious internal challenge to the Islamist regime in Tehran since its establishment in 1979. I begin by asking Moeni about his own movement's role in the events.
"I don't want to give a direct answer," he tells me, "because it can put pressure on people who have contact with us. But in the past 10 years, we taught many people, and sent them back into Iranian Kurdistan, and some of them are now engaged in politics inside Iran.
"After the murder of Jina Amini, the uprising began in Saqqez cemetery, and the Kurdish people there chanted 'Women, Life, Freedom' [a slogan emerging, it is worth noting, from the circles of the Ocalan movement]. Then it spread to Sanandaj, then the students in Tehran University took up this slogan, and then it spread to Tabriz [an Azeri city]. This is not an accident. It was organized. After that, we saw that the majority of Iranian citizens favor the uprising."
The uprising, though, appears for now to be losing momentum, I suggest, and seems to lack a coherent program for further progress. What is the mechanism by which Moeini believes it can topple the regime?
"It's not reasonable to expect that after four or five or six months of the uprising, that we can topple a totalitarian regime with protests alone. These protests can weaken the regime, however.
"But the collapse of the totalitarian regime in Iran," he continues, "is possible in two ways: One is if we manage to create and sustain nationwide, ongoing organized protests across the entirety of Iran. The other way is military engagement inside Iran by armed opposition or by external intervention by external powers."
And what, I ask, about the possibility of splits in the Iranian security forces? I have heard many Iranian opposition voices speak of the need for identifying and developing fault lines in the regime's tools of oppression. Many, indeed, believe that without some kind of crack in the regime's instruments of force, no way through to the destruction of the Islamic regime will be found.
Moeini dismisses any such possibility: "I disagree," he says. "It's not possible that either the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] or the Artesh [the conventional Iranian armed forces] will split. This claim is made by the ultranationalist tendency and by the centralist mindset. This is the claim of those [among the opposition] who want to preserve centralist government in Iran."
This response raises one of the central dilemmas facing the opposition to the Iranian regime. It includes both ethnic separatist forces that want a radical change in Iran's constitutional structures regarding rights for regions and national minorities, and patriotic and nationalist Iranian forces that want only to replace the mullahs and the IRGC with an equally centralized but anti-Islamist government.
SO WHAT is PJAK seeking in that landscape? Kurdish statehood and separation? Greater autonomy within the framework of Iran?
"Our political agenda is clear," Moeini tells me. "We want self-management for Iranian Kurdistan and democratic confederalism for Iran. We aren't just seeking democracy in Iranian Kurdistan but rather democratic confederalism for all nations in Iran. Because we believe that if there's no democracy in Baluchistan, or Ahvaz, then democracy in Kurdistan also won't prevail. We want to be free in our own Kurdish territory, to live as free women and men in our own territory... without formal change or alteration of Iran's borders."
Moeini's words regarding external military intervention stood out, and I return to this issue. Is he, then, advocating that external powers take military action against Iran?
He chooses his words carefully. "One of the ways that the regime can collapse is by external military intervention. I don't mean that I advocate this. But it's one of the possible ways. And if this external military engagement happens in the future – it's not in our hands, and it's not related to us. But for sure, Iran is a threat to all the nations inside Iran, and to the nations outside Iran as well.
"Imagine if this regime had nuclear weapons. Who could then stop it? They already have advanced ballistic missiles, and we know that they are working in underground facilities, also in our region. That's why this regime is a colossal threat to all the countries in the region."
And what of the nuclear diplomacy now underway? The media are full of reports of a new, "partial" nuclear agreement – less for less.
"It can have a very negative effect on the uprising in Iran and on the people in Iran. It will create pessimism among people.
"The interpretation of people in Iran will be that people will think that the regime cracked down on the uprising, killed people, and the US administration gives out prizes and awards for this so that the regime can kill more young people in Iran.
"If we look at the region now, Iran has created the PMU [Shia militias] in Iraq, military groups in Syria, military groups in Yemen, and Lebanese Hezbollah, which is a threat itself in Lebanon. The regime has engagements across the region. So if this regime will have nuclear weapons, it would represent a threat to the whole region."
SOMEONE, A young Kurdish man, pokes his head in the door, looks around for a moment, and withdraws, shutting it again. I use the momentary distraction to put in another question. So what should be done? What should the West be doing?
"Western countries could establish a coalition of countries, which would support authentic opposition groups against the regime," Moeni replies. "The regime is now very weak; they lost their internal legitimacy because of the uprising, and their money is blocked in Western countries. But if this money is given back to the regime, that will let them breathe stronger – as happened during the Obama administration period after the JCPOA in 2015. That enabled the regime to become stronger."
The problem, I suggest, remains the divisions and disunity among the population. If no unified opposition structures emerge, how can Western pressure have an effect?
"A unified opposition coalition is possible. But if Western countries put their efforts into supporting monarchists, it isn't going to work. It isn't possible that the monarchy will come back to power because Iranian people won't accept the creation of a centralized government of this type again. A few years ago, some Western media tried to give a major voice to [Crown Prince] Reza Pahlavi, but it didn't work.
"As for the alternative, we have to be able to separate from the mindset of centralism in Iran and give power to separate nations within Iran, and the coalition of opposition movements of different nations within Iran will be the alternative, and we are going to create that."
I ASK about Israel, and Moeini responds immediately "We know that we have a common historical background between Kurds and Jews."
Statements of this kind are not unusual in the circles of the Kurdish national movements. They remain notable, nevertheless, in that they represent a type of language that, prior to the Abraham Accords, at least, was near unique in Mideast political discourse, dominated as it largely remains by Islamic and routine anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments.
"Our movement thinks that all the nations of the region have the right to live as free women and men. Jewish people, like Kurds and others, have this fundamental right. That's why I think Jews and Kurds have much in common and can be strategic allies."
As for where things are heading, Moeini notes the Turkish pressure on his movement in recent weeks. Ankara, for its part, does not differentiate between PJAK and the PKK, regarding them as part of a single organization. A couple of days before our meeting, a Turkish drone attack had killed a PJAK fighter close to a mountain village called Galala in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"The Turkish drones attack the region in order to collaborate with the Iranians. They are allies, absolutely, when it comes to the Kurdish question."
By way of a conclusion, he underlines the central message that he has been addressing from various angles throughout our conversation. "The only way to have an Iran which isn't threatening is to have a decentralized country in which power is given to the different nations within Iran. Only in that way can it become a normal country rather than an aggressive regime which threatens countries across the region."
LEAVING THE KNK offices after my conversation with Siamand Moeini, it occurred to me that something profound had indeed shifted in the course of the last year.
The cause of the Iranian Kurds, about which I have been writing for nearly two decades, had long been characterized by a particularly pronounced imbalance. This was the very great chasm between the obvious and straightforward justice of the Iranian Kurdish cause, and the enormous, seemingly insurmountable odds laid against them. The regime had appeared rock-solid, implacable and impervious, the world largely indifferent.
The uprising that began last year in Iran has shifted that balance considerably. The Iranian Kurds are no longer unheard and unseen, the regime no longer apparently impregnable.
It remains to be seen how long the Islamist regime in Tehran will hold power. But the revolutionaries, Kurds and others, organizing against them, in European cities, on Iran's borders and within Iran itself, have advanced a considerable way since the movement galvanized by the murder of a single Iranian Kurdish woman was launched in September last year. They intend to continue moving forward.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).