Between the Hammer and the Anvil: An Exclusive Interview with PJAK’s Agiri Rojhilat

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 31

Agiri Rojhilat

Agiri Rojhilat is one of the top seven members of the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane (PJAK) which is a part of the larger umbrella organization Koma Civaken Kurdistan (KCK) that includes the PKK. The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan portrays itself to be more of an armed democratization movement rather than a traditional national liberation movement for Kurdish sovereignty. PJAK says it is taking a stand in the name of all of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities and it is much more than a Kurdish ethno-nationalist organization. Its expressed aim is to change the regime of the Iranian Ayatollahs to form an inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic participatory, federalized democracy in Tehran. Jamestown spoke to Rojhilat at the PJAK base in Qandil, northern Iraq.

JT: Can you tell our readers about PJAK’s internal political framework?

AR: Every four years we will have a congress that is made up of two-hundred delegates that from come from within our organization representing our women’s wing, youth wing and armed wing. This congress assembles itself in secret in Kurdistan. Because of the situation for Kurds in Iran, the elections for our congress cannot be held in the open. From the 200 assembled delegates, a thirty-person parliament is elected. Of those thirty elected, seven are chosen to form the coordination board of PJAK.

JT: How precisely are these elections conducted? Since your organization is not a legal party in Iran, they must be done clandestinely, no?

AR: The elections are done secretly. I want to let you know that we have over a million supporters inside Iran today. There is a lot of support for PJAK. But these elections cannot be perfectly [democratic] but of the secrecy in which they must be conducted.

JT: It has been reported that PJAK is very concerned about women’s issues and gender equality. What can you tell us about this aspect of your organization?

AR: I want to emphasize that women’s issues and women’s rights are paramount to our organization and we have a quota for female PJAK membership. Women are active at all levels of our organization. From the delegates to the parliament to the coordination board, we require a forty percent quota for females in PJAK. From top to bottom, we stress female participation in PJAK.

JT: Even participating in guerrilla attacks?

AR: Even fighting, yes.

JT: Do the PKK and PJAK conduct joint military operations or are their kinetic activities totally isolated from one another?

AR: What the PKK and PJAK have in common is that we both follow the ideology and philosophy of [imprisoned PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan and we are both Kurdish parties. Let me explain this; there are four parts of Kurdistan since it was divided. Within both the PKK and the PJAK, there are Kurds from the different parts of Kurdistan. So within the PKK, there are Iranian Kurds and there are Germans and within PJAK there are Kurds from other parts of Kurdistan, but the PKK and PJAK are different groups with different political objectives.

JT: You are referring to diaspora Kurds from Germany or European Germans?

AR: Both. Let me explain; there are Kurds from all four parts of Kurdistan participating in the PKK, diaspora Kurds as well as some Germans. All of these types of Kurds are also participating in PJAK as well but I want to stress that the PKK and PJAK are two different organizations with different aims and objectives.

I want to add something else. If the regime in Syria attacks Syrian Kurds, PJAK is obligated to have a reaction to such behavior. Despite the fact that PJAK operates primarily in Iranian Kurdistan, we feel we have a responsibility to protect Kurds from the other sectors of Kurdistan as well. There are not different kinds of Kurds. There is one Kurdistan and one Kurdish people.

JT: Is PJAK a purely Kurdish liberation movement or is its appeal more broad based within Iran?

AR: In our movement, there are several nationalities. We have Azeris, Baluchis as well as ethnic Persians fighting.

JT: What is the geographical scope of the insurgency you are mounting?

AR: We have guerrillas in place from Maku all the way to Kermanshah. Throughout Iranian Kurdistan we have over one million sympathizers.

JT: What is the size of PJAK’s current military force?

AR: Until now, we do not like to give out precise figures for this but we have over one thousand active guerrillas. Eighty percent of which are inside Iranian territory.

JT: How are the values and teachings of Abdullah Ocalan carried out by PJAK?

AR: Of course it is a matter of evaluating the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan according to our specific needs. The PKK and PJAK are two different organizations and the situation in Turkish Kurdistan is different than in Iranian Kurdistan. We implement his teachings according to the needs of Kurds in Iran. Do we put everything exactly as Ocalan says into practice? Not necessarily. You cannot say exactly that whatever Ocalan says we put into practice…

JT: What can you tell us about how PJAK was founded?

AR: For about five or six years before 2004 when our organization was officially announced, we were having some meetings to decide about how to organize ourselves politically and improve the situation for Kurds in Iran.

JT: Can you answer the allegations that PJAK has received support in any form from the Central Intelligence Agency? Journalist Seymour Hersh and former CIA officer Robert Baer have stated the United States government is very likely aiding PJAK in its proxy struggle with the Iranian regime. Is there any truth to these assertions?

AR: It is not right that the CIA is helping PJAK. That is not the reality or right at all. Once we had a meeting with Americans in Kirkuk to discuss possible cooperation. Our friend Akif Zagros [a former member of PJAK’s seven person leadership council who the author was informed was killed in a flash flood] talked with them but the Americans said PJAK should abandon the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan and our brotherhood with the PKK if we want help from them. Akif Zagros told the Americans PJAK would not abandon the teachings of Ocalan or our friendly relations with the PKK. Because of the way the Americans approached the issue, shaheed Zagros left the meeting. Since the meeting in 2004, no other such meetings occurred.

JT: If the United States were to approach you again asking to work with your organization against the Iranian regime, but this time without such preconditions, what would be the reaction of PJAK’s leadership?

AR: We have nothing against the United States of America. We are not closing our doors to anyone. We are open to dialogue with everyone. We are open to America, Europe and still Iran for talks. We decide what is best for our people based on our own will. We decide democratically when, where and with whom we will engage in such dialogue. We do not want to be simply used against others…

JT: So PJAK does not want to be used in a proxy war even if its interests temporarily converge with an outside power?

AR: Until now, both the U.S. and the European Union approach Iran for their own benefit. Within these dialogues, the Kurds are always used and then thrown aside after we have served their purposes. Because of these failed policies, we do not accept these kinds of approaches.

JT: Why do you believe that the Americans put PJAK on the Treasury Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations?

AR:  Last year, there was a small bit of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran and the nuclear issue and then suddenly PJAK gets put on this terrorist-financing list. We know there are some political parties [in Iran] that get some support from the U.S. but we are a totally different kind of party. We have our own will and objectives.

JT: Out here in Qandil, I do not see any visible economy with which your organization can sustain itself. How is PJAK funded? Do you benefit from the Afghan opium trade? Do you receive donations from sponsors?

AR: Our economy is based purely on the Kurdish people living in Iran. We collect voluntary donations from the Kurdish people according to how much they are able to give within their relative means. To explain to you the level of support that we receive, the Kurdish people even bring their children to us to join our organization.

JT: Children of what age?

AR: Normally eighteen. You must understand that Kurdish society is very different than the West. Because there are so many operations to suppress us, Kurdish society has turned inward. This stress from the outside strengthens our communities. We have some recruits that are under eighteen, maybe sixteen, but they are not participating in our military operations. Where we are from in Iran, there is a very large youth population and our party sees a lot of potential in them as we consider ourselves a young party. The Islamic Republic of Iran has three elements it uses in the destruction of our youth. Firstly it encourages and facilitates drug use among them. Secondly, it employs the Basij [militia] system and tries to brainwash our young people to be against the U.S. and Europe, saying, “We [Iran] stand for Islam and therefore the U.S. and E.U. are our enemy.” Thirdly, the regime systematically imprisons and tortures them in order to annihilate us and discourage them from joining PJAK or supporting the Kurdish freedom movement.

JT: Can you be more specific about how the guerrilla movement is financed?

AR: For example, certain Kurdish people that have relations with PJAK come and visit us. They pledge to sponsor maybe fifty or one hundred guerrillas from top to bottom for an entire year. They buy everything for them and it is their way of supporting their own freedom struggle. All of this is done through voluntary sponsorship.

About the drug question you brought up, Iran has very special policies in regard to this matter. They encourage Kurdish youth in Iranian Kurdistan to use drugs and the percentage of addiction among our youth has been increasing. The Iranian state wants our young people to remain outside the political framework of the country. Let me give you an example of how this policy affects our people. Recently, a mother came here from Iran asking us to help her deal with her son who was badly addicted to drugs and she felt powerless to do anything about it. She said she could not turn to the Iranian state for help and came to us because she felt that by joining PJAK, [her son] could shake his addiction. We told her “bring your son to us. We can help him.”

JT: PJAK does not profit from the transit of Afghan narcotics through its territory?

AR: There have been clashes with police in Iran with Sunni groups who are fighting the Islamic regime in Baluchistan and Khorosan. Sometimes these police die. From time to time, we also have clashes between our armed wing and regime elements. When some pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards] die, the regime says it is because of bandits involved in the drugs trade. They describe clashes with PJAK as banditry and try to link us to the drugs. Iranian authorities do not like to mention the name PJAK after some pasdarans die, just referring to us as bandits. These Iranians are not dying because of the drugs trade. They are being killed because they are oppressing Sunnis and Sunnis in these provinces are fighting the regime. If you come back to me on another visit, I can provide you with names of those in the regime that are involved in the drugs trade.

When the Iranian regime prepares its annual budget, it does not have enough money to sustain itself and so it supplements governmental coffers with money from the transshipment of Afghan narcotics. The drugs are shipped across Iranian territory under the supervision of Ettela’at (Iranian Intelligence: Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhuri-e Eslami – VEVAK) to Orumieh (provincial capital of West Azarbaijan Province). From Orumieh they are sent to Hakkari Province in Turkey where they are shipped under the supervision of the MIT (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati – Turkish intelligence) and from Turkey these drugs reach Europe. Both Iran and Turkey may employ some Kurds as part of their trafficking apparatus but the trafficking is state organized by both countries’ intelligence services.

Can you imagine this high volume of drugs coming into Turkey from Iran without the Turks’ knowledge? It would be impossible. Turkey has many checkpoints. How could they not know about all of these drugs passing through their territory?

JT: Is PJAK a 100% independent organization that exists without the support of international actors?

AR: Yes that is completely right. I will stress that we have not so far [received] any international aid or weapons from anyone. We are an independent organization.

JT: There has been a lot of speculation [surrounding] your leader Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi’s visit to Washington in the summer 0f 2007. Can you comment on it?

AR: As you can see Haji Ahmadi is not here for comment. Whatever I say is on the record as a PJAK official. As the president of PJAK, he is available to have dialogue with anyone. He can visit different countries and meet with different people. Yes, he did visit Washington, as it was within his power to do so.  He has the power to do such things. But I want to reiterate that until now we have not received support from any outside powers…

JT: What is PJAK’s attitude toward the Turkish-Iranian military alliance?

AR: Iran and Turkey have an alliance against us and [have worked] on joint military operations together for the past few years. Despite their differences, they are unified on the Kurdish issue. The alliance between Iran and Turkey is not purely a military one though, it is also now political…

Turkey is taking intelligence that it is receiving from the U.S. in regard to PKK positions here in Iraq and passing it on to Iran so they can attack PJAK. So Iran is now acquiring U.S. intelligence meant for Ankara in this Turkish-Iranian bilateral military strategy against the Kurds. Through this cooperation, we are attacked here in Iraq by Turkish warplanes while Iran fires Katyushas from the other side of these mountain ridges. We believe there are even Turks training members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight Kurds inside Iran.

Additionally, I want to let you know that besides Iran’s increased alliance with Turkey, it is also greatly expanding its bases along the Iran-Iraq border. It says it is doing this to defend the Islamic Republic against a possible invasion by the United States. But what this effort is really meant to do in our view is to separate the Kurds and stop the flow of our movement across the border. From our observations, some of these expanded military bases look to be modeled on Israeli bases.

JT: What can you tell of your organization’s military strategy against Iranian forces?

AR: Iran and Turkey insist that the PKK and the PJAK are the same and this works very well for their own propaganda efforts. We are being shelled here. If you look beyond you, you can see the entire mountainside is burned from Katuysha fire.  Our strategy is one of pure self-defense. We do not make offensive operations against the Revolutionary Guards. We defend Iranian Kurds and ourselves. We have a right to retaliate against the Iranian state as part of our self-defense policy. If Iran attacks our people, we will respond. Iran uses the death penalty and likes to hang people. If they will hang more of our friends, we have plans to retaliate directly… Our main work is political but we have to have an armed wing because Iran is not a truly democratic state and it does not allow people to organize themselves politically.

JT: What can you tell our readers about PJAK’s philosophy and ideological outlook?

AR: Our aim is a free Kurdistan and a democratic Iran.

JT: Are you speaking of creating an independent Kurdish state?

AR: What we are talking about now is not the changing of borders or the replacing of flags but creating an all-inclusive Iran.

JT: Does PJAK seek to overthrow the religious government of Iran?

AR: We do not oppose religion and we are in no way against the Islamic religion, nor do we have any animosity toward any other ethnic groups living in Iran today. Our goals are not limited to the freedom of Kurds. We wish for all the ethnic groups living in Iran to have their democratic rights.

JT: Do you seek a structure of parallel government for Kurds in Iran comparable to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq that has its own parliament and issues its own visas?

AR: Not at all. We would prefer to have much more participation in a democratized central government. To achieve this, we are trying to permeate Iranian Kurdistan with democratic values so that our people can improve themselves and organize themselves politically. We never want to impose cultural hegemony on others and would like to see Baluchis and Azeris organize themselves similarly as well.  

JT: Do you believe that Iran is a Shia chauvinist regime that uses Khomenism and evangelical Mahdism similar to the way Turkey uses the notion of Turkism at the expense of its minorities?

AR: Yes, that’s right. Iran gives Kurds a degree of recognition but with other groups like Azeris, they practice a forced assimilation policy. Iran also practices a divide and rule policy to pit different groups against one another. There is discrimination against Sunnis as well…

JT: Does PJAK have a relationship with the Jundullah insurgency in Sistan-Baluchistan Province?

AR: For us, yes, we have some relations with Baluchi people. However, we do not have a specific relationship with Jundullah. Baluchis have a special meaning for us because of their oppression by the Islamic Republic. Iran’s policy has been to make the Baluchis depend on the income from the transit of Afghan narcotics as well as depend on the Iranian state.

JT: Do you have any connections with Ahwazi Arabs in Khuzestan Province? There has been some unexplained political violence there.

AR: We do not have guerrillas there but we do have some indirect political relations.

JT: In closing, can you tell our readers what core principles drive PJAK’s internal dynamics?
AR: Our movement operates under three core principles: democracy, women’s rights, and ecology. We believe these three principles must be integrated into our everyday activities. Did you know that every year, it is required that every member of PJAK must plant two trees? PJAK strongly believes that understanding ecology improves people’s lives in the region where we are active. We have programs to help surrounding villages to acquire fresh water and PJAK also believes in helping to educate the people in our surroundings.