Iranian Dissidents Find Escape Route Through Iraq

Demonstrations in Iran have been centered in big cities, and so far haven't gained traction in the traditionally rebellious Kurdish province in the northwest of the country.

But while Kurdish Iranians don't appear quite ready to join the "Green Movement" — as the opposition is being called — they do seem to be helping dissidents from Tehran escape Iran on the way to Europe.

Sepideh Pooraghaiee and her husband — Iranian journalists who have both spent time in Iran's infamous Evin prison — contacted friends who live in the Kurdish area of Iran when they decided they needed to leave.

Pooraghaiee and her husband were already in trouble when the protests over June's disputed election began.

She had spent 110 days in jail, and her husband about six months, she says. To be released on bail, both Pooraghaiee and her husband signed statements saying that they would no longer be involved in politics.

But after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to office in an election they both believe was stolen, they began writing about the government crackdown. When Pooraghaiee got a threatening call directly from a government ministry, she decided her time was up.

"I was in danger because I know the truth," she says. "And it was bad for them."

Escaping Iran

Pooraghaiee and her husband got in touch with friends from the Kurdish area of Iran, which has a long, porous border with Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region. Through methods she would not describe in detail, Pooraghaiee soon found herself in Iraq, where she gave this interview.

"It was the first time that I rode a horse, especially in mountain," she says. "It was vey hard."

Sitting nearby is the Kurdish man who helped Pooraghaiee escape. He asked not to give his name, but he did volunteer that he's helped about 100 Iranians recently, most of them en route to Europe.

Pooraghaiee is understandably grateful. She says that all of Iran's minorities are a part of the Green Movement.

"Kurdish, Baluchi and Turkoman — all of them took part in demonstration," she says.

Her benefactor politely does not contradict her. But one element missing, so far, from the Green Movement protests has been the organized involvement of ethnic minorities like the Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and Azeris, who make up nearly half of Iran's population.

Skepticism Of Movement

There are several Iranian Kurdish separatist groups based in the north of Iraq, but so far they're not convinced by the Green Movement.

The Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party has kept a base for decades in the northern Iraqi city of Koya. At the moment, they are also hosting a number of exiles from Iran, but these are not members of the Green Movement. They're Iranian Kurds who have fled because they say the Iranian government discriminates against them.

Salam Pur, a 33-year-old librarian from the Iranian city of Kermanshah, fled in June, but not because of the strife after the election. He had been working with Kurdish cultural groups, and both he and his wife were fired from their jobs. Next to him, 25-year-old Muhammad Reza Hematgar, who crossed the mountains from Iran earlier this month, has a similar complaint.

"We have no freedom in Iran," he says. But Hematgar left mostly because no one would hire him as an architectural engineer. At demonstrations in Tehran, Hematgar heard the Green Movement call for the release of detained protesters.

But Hematgar says there's been no mention of Kurdish political dissidents who have been arrested or even executed. Another Iranian Kurdish exile agrees.

"In our hearts, we love anyone who is going to topple the Iranian regime," says a man who calls himself Muhammad. But, he adds, they aren't sure that the Green Movement really wants to change Iran so drastically.

Muhammad says the movement will succeed if it joins its cause with ethnic minorities. But that's something he believes the Green Movement is, so far, afraid to do.

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