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March 26, 2007

Cold Calling the Communists in Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

Weeds and Red Stars.jpg
Red Stars and Weeds

They were the nicest Marxists I've ever met, even if the meeting was by accident. Michael Totten and I arranged to meet with a group of Iranian dissidents who were described to us as a bunch of former communists who now followed a “Social Democrat” ideology so we could interview them. We figured their take on matters in Iran must be very interesting, and hopefully it will be when we meet later this week. Today, however, we got together with our driver and our translator, headed out for a meeting with Iranian dissidents and found one. Strangely enough, it was not with the group we had arranged with. The first commune you run across is often not the one you're looking for and instead of reformed social democrats, we found hard core, unreformed, Marxist-Leninists. Sometimes proximity to town trumps dialectic synthesis, as the fortune cookie says.

Marx Engels and Revolutionary Leader.jpg
Marx, Engels, and Somebody You Just Know Was Hard Core Communist

I ask you to imagine the scene of veteran journalist and traveler Michael Totten and I arriving at the village of the dissidents expecting modern Euro-style socialists. At the checkpoint into the village, we are led to a small blockhouse and our names are entered into the book. On one wall is a framed print of Marx and Lenin. The gatekeeper makes a phone call and announces to us that we can proceed. When the gatekeeper said something to the effect that a member of the central committee will speak to us, I could almost see the light bulb form over Michael's head indicating that he had found a story. These people are not reformed at all!

We are led up the road a bit to a house and are invited to sit in a nice rural courtyard. It is a beautiful spring day of the kind you can only really appreciate when you know what a punishing summer is ahead only a few weeks away. We chat for a while with a fellow who toes strictly to the party line of a revolutionary movement circa 1907 or a faculty meeting at an American university circa 2007. This isn't even the oppressive Stalinist garbage of the anti-war movement in the US, this is really otherworldly ideological purity. A nice, intelligent looking young woman arrives and sits at the table with us, carrying a NY Yankees ball cap. She is wearing pants, Kurdish pants, just like everyone else. Her hair is cut short and she is treated like an equal. This is not something you see every day in the Middle East, and nothing to be despised.

The Commissar Arrives

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Hassan Rahman Central Committee Member

At this point, the social dynamic changed considerably. An older gentleman arrived with a fit young guard in tow. After two weeks in Kurdistan, it gets so that you don't notice the assault rifles when they aren't pointed at you. (Upon reflection, it occurs to me that this young guard had the best muzzle discipline of any I have seen outside the US Army during this trip, a laudable behavior that I hope catches on.) The mood, not the machine guns, is the existential threat in Kurdistan and everybody was still friendly. Nevertheless, everybody stood up and the chairs were literally rearranged. The only one at the table was the older gentleman and two other chairs were moved apart, where the guard could keep an eye on things. Tea was brought by the young woman, and gender roles moved to more traditional ones. The comments of the previous speaker were dismissed and we were told to quote only what the gentleman now at the table was saying. This was the central committee member, Hassan Rahman.

Intelligent Young Woman and Guard with Muzzle Discipline.jpg
Intelligent Young Woman and Guard with Muzzle Discipline. Pity we never got to talk to them.

Last night, Michael and I had put together a list of things we wanted to know about the situation in Iran and the view of dissidents here. We had hoped to sit down and just chat with everybody relaxed and the topics naturally flowing from one to another. We dreaded going to someone's office, sitting in formal roles, and presenting a list of questions for review. We got something in between, but it was a beautiful spring day in the foothills outside Suliamaniya, Iraq talking about international politics amicably with Marxists. You don't get this working in a cubicle farm.

We covered our list of questions and got some interesting responses that Michael will be covering in greater detail in his blog. For me the responses were not as interesting as the ideological filter that they were viewed through. The post-Soviet communist filter is tricky. The manifold failures of the Soviet system are so profound that only the most obdurate hack ignores them, and this Hassan was not that obdurate. Similarly, he did not endorse the starvation monarchy of the Kim family in North Korea. The tattered fig leaf of Cuba was sufficiently intact for him to extol the virtues of free medical care and education. Apparently nobody has told him about the boats still landing in Miami. It will be interesting to talk to him again in a year.

Here Commences the Comedy of Manners

We were done with the questions and about to go and invited to lunch when Michael's literary degree and my family background in theater came in handy, because about then we found ourselves in a comedy of manners. Our translator came back from the car with some water and announced that the Iranian dissidents we were supposed to be interviewing were on the phone asking where we were. It turned out that not only were we talking to the wrong communists, but the group we were supposed to be talking with split from the ones we were talking to seven years ago. The ideologically pure, revolutionary communists whose armed camp we were in the middle of were not on good terms with the people we just announced that we actually came to see. If this had been Africa, the situation would have been less humorous; out would have come the machetes, and so much for your intrepid reporters. But this was the middle east, and we had just shared tea and been invited to lunch. More importantly, this was Kurdistan and under no circumstances were guests to be treated rudely, especially American guests!

It speaks volumes about the essential Kurdish decency that not only were we not thrown out on our ears (or worse) but that we were invited to visit their armed camp up the hill after we rescheduled our meeting with the other group. Maybe this speaks volumes about our ability to brazen out a bad situation, but I prefer to think well of the Kurds whenever possible. Instead of talking to people who were unprepared to speak to American journalists due to a communications failure, we had accidentally cold called a group of revolutionary communist Kurds who had then treated us as honored guests and freely shared their best. In the place in all of Suliamaniya governate where we could expect the worst treatment, their hospitality was more gracious than we could expect among friends in America. Here endeth the Comedy of Manners.

Up the Hill to the Armed Camp

Machine Gun on the Mountaintop.jpg
Machine Gun Guarding the Mountaintop

So we went up the hill to the bunkers and the radio station. With the kind indulgence of the PUK that dominates Suliamaniya governate, they are allowed to broadcast their perspectives eight hours a day on FM. The signal reaches a little ways into Iran, but their message is also transmitted by satellite and website. I do not endorse their viewpoint, but their cordiality in extremely strained circumstance deserves at least this respect in turn.

Hassan Rahman and Disciplined Guard.jpg
Hassan Rahman and the Disciplined Guard

They were very free about letting us take pictures, leading me to believe that they were secure about their situation. My military appraisal of the camp is that they are in a good defensive posture, but not training to attack. I did not see anything resembling training camps for offensive purposes. Their primary effort appeared to be ideological, not military. Oddly enough, this is exactly what the Hassan Rahman told us. I suspect that if you want to have belt fed machine guns for the defense of your compound here, that is acceptable, but training for attacks is not.

Down the Hill and Home Again
Hassan Rahman Unreformed Communist.jpg
Hassan Rahman, Unreformed Communist

These communists really do have people not far away who would like to kill them, which may be why they were so cordial. Unlike American leftists who have to invent horror-movie fantasies of bad guys out to get them, these people have real, known state oppressors, and they are not us. Although Hassan and others paid lip service to the bad things America is supposed to do, in reality none of their 3,000 martyrs were killed by the US. It has been more than a generation since anybody working with the US has been working to oppress them. It is easier by far for these people to be concerned about the spot just down the hill that they can point to where operatives from the Islamic Republic of Iran tried to shut them down and killed some of them. If they were to protest at their homes, they would invite a lot more than pepper spray and bean-bag rounds.

Communists Guarding their Radio Station.jpg
Young Men Guarding their Radio Station.

There was some common ground I found with Hassan Rahman. Neither of us want religion in charge of education. We both believe that women should be more than servants and baby factories. (Although his grasp of this in practice may need some work. ) The impact of widespread opium abuse in Iran troubles us because we can each see the long-term problems.

Defended Hill and Village Playground.jpg
Defended Hill and Village Playground

It was an act of will on my part to avoid confronting Hassan on most other matters, but my purpose there was to cover his story, not engage in debate. That his was not the story I set out to report on is irrelevant. He did not need a lesson on Navy history or American party politics. Asking him to defend his assertion that the US somehow supplies all the arms of all the bad guys know...facts would not get me invited up the hill. Being unkind to him to feel superior now will not get me invited back. It was an interesting day, Michael and I both got good stories from it, and I hope to get more from his former associates soon.

UPDATE: Michael Totten has gotten his more lenghty transcription of events posted.

Photos Added as Internet and Electricity is Available
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I for one would be extremely interested in their opinions of the international Left in general.

The Left has mostly told Iraqi leftists to FOAD because they aren't anti-American enough. When an Iraqi trade unionist wanted to go to Britain to ask for support, ANSWER turned him down and invited a jihadist instead. George Galloway probably wouldn't invite Kurdish Communists to lunch.


Great post and pictures. It looks like they have some source of money. Of course machine guns are fairly cheap over there, but that playset must have set them back a bunch.

Keep it up, you guys make a great team. Just try and keep each other in check and stay safe.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Communist party of Iran has more splits. The majority faction doesnot have a military wing. The leadership is in europ with many members around the world and in Iran. They are called worker communist party of iran-wpci. I suggest if you want to know more about this movement, you could also interview the leadership of wpci.

first of all communist is not so popular with in kurdish society, and we do not believe leftist wing at all. secondly, what mohtadi said about PKK is unreliable and not true. i have evidence, which shows that communist party is a mafia, and takes tax from civilians by force in Iranian Kurdistan. Mohtadis property in london worth around 1.5 million, how he got all that money while he is living in mountains.

I have evidence that the space aliens are controlling the PKK from their base in Uzbekistan that is just as valid. -PSL

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