Sole Survivor: A Kurdish Rebel and the Strength of the Iranian Regime

Four years ago, in a remote area of the mountains of northern Iraq, I visited the guerrilla camp of several dozen dissident Iranian Kurds. They are now all dead. They were fighting to overthrow the government in Tehran and made regular incursions into Iranian territory to ambush and kill Revolutionary Guards. The Guards responded first by raining artillery onto the rebels' mountain redoubts, and then by buying off local people -- mostly fellow Kurds -- along the border, and getting them to rat out the rebel positions.

The only person I met in the camps who survived was a mild-mannered Iranian ex-lawyer named Wirya Rehmany. Rehmany wore fatigues and sometimes carried a weapon, but his main function was to camp out in the mountains and write about the Kurdish question, occasionally answering questions from pestering foreigners like me. He escaped and is now a political asylee in Paris, where I met him last Saturday at a Vietnamese restaurant in the neighborhood of Belleville.

It was an eerie reunion. I had photographs from the 2006 visit, and he flicked through them, narrating the grim end each of guerrilla. The majority were killed by Revolutionary Guards, or sepah, with the help of Kurdish collaborators. "He was called to a place near Mariwan," said Rehmany, indicating a graying field commander in one photo. A cat, slightly out of focus, purred on the roof of the camouflaged shack behind him. "The sepah stopped his car and shot it," Rehmany said. There was nothing left but a bloody wreck of broken glass and dead bodies.

Rehmany's group, called PJAK, swore allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the mercurial Turkish leftist who worked for the overthrow of Turkey until his capture in 1999. But because PJAK's target was Tehran, rather than Ankara, they hoped they could attract the attention and support of the United States. That never happened, perhaps because Ocalan was a psychopath and his followers acolytes of a psychopath. But for a brief period hopes were high. Rehmany said that when I visited the camp, deep in the mountains and with no introduction, everyone thought I was CIA, but they figured they should answer my questions anyway, since the more the CIA knew, themore it would be on PJAK's side against the mullahs.

Given that the surviving element of the PJAK unit I met is now sitting opposite me, poking at sticky pieces of yellow fish, it's clear that PJAK never got much US support, though Rehmany claims that US representatives came up into the hills a few times, not in uniform. Rehmany survived because he stayed back in the mountains rather than joining the attacks, and when the going got really tough he fell back even further, working in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil for a few years while the French considered his asylum application. He barely speaks enough French to order tea, but he says he will stay forever, more or less totally estranged from his father (a sepah commander in Kermanshah) and his mother, whom he calls now and then over a phone line that he knows is tapped. Being the last of his kind has clearly exacted a deep emotional toll.

The PJAK threat was an asymmetric one, with some of the traits that have confounded the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has crushed it most severely. The defeat seems to me another piece of evidence that the Iranian state remains robust, with a functioning immune system that destroys its internal enemies efficiently, and that shouldn't be underestimated by those who think anything as simple as Twitter-mobs will bring it down.