Escape from Iran: protesters regroup in Iraq after perilous journey

Daily shows of dissent against repressive 43-year clerical rule continue, with exiled demonstrators asking for help from the west

In late October, Paiman, an Iranian protester from the restive city of Mahabad, lay in a hospital ward, guarded by regime officials who had gunned him down during anti-government demonstrations.

Buckshot from a shotgun blast riddled his legs and torso, and blows to his head with wooden clubs had left him dazed and in agony.

Paiman needed treatment, which he was not about to get from a regime where mercy, let alone medicine, has been in short supply since the outset of an uprising that – three months since it began – continues to pose a profound and sustained threat to Iran’s hardline leadership.

The 28-year-old veterinarian’s fate seemed tied to that of other protesters who had died in the same hospital often two to three days after being admitted. But his brother and cousin had other ideas.

“We launched a rescue operation and took him from the bed, then we smuggled him here,” said Paiman’s brother, Aso, from a safe house in Erbil in neighbouring Iraq. “It was a four-day journey across the mountains, much of it on horses. It was the toughest thing we have done.”

Paiman and his relatives are among the few demonstrators to have made the precarious journey from Iran to the relative safety of Iraq, where some survivors of the violence are trying to regroup.

A grab from footage filmed in late October showing a fire burning at the office of the governor of Mahabad.
A grab from footage filmed in late October showing a fire burning at the office of the governor of Mahabad. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Kurdish officials estimate that dozens of protesters have crossed the border. Protesters themselves say the number is likely to be in the low hundreds.

Sitting on a floor, covered in a blanket, his skin pallid and his breathing shallow, he described the mounting violence that met the demonstrations in Mahabad, a predominantly Kurdish city in north-eastern Iran that has remained a focus of the clashes – the most serious threat to Iran’s clerical leaders since the revolution that swept them to power 43 years ago.

Mahsa Amini was a Kurd, it is true,” said Paiman, “but the revolution is a popular one, made up of Iranians from all parts of the country. There are Baluchis, Azeris, Persians and others. This is because we are all sick of them and their repression.

“Make no mistake, this was a revolution from its earliest days. It was not just protests. The revolutionary current that started this will see it to a finish. They are weak and they are scared of us,” he said of Iranian officials who continue to combat widespread daily shows of dissent with violence.

But fear cuts both ways; even in exile, the brothers, who have been joined by a cousin in their rented home in an Erbil suburb, still worry that Iranian officials could reach them.

A grab from footage showing protesters marching in Mahabad in October.
A grab from footage showing protesters marching in Mahabad in October.
Photograph: ESN/AFP/Getty Images

“We think about this a lot,” said Paiman. “They have interrogated my father at home, but they won’t bother with my mother. She is old, and she doesn’t speak Persian anyway. They have so much to deal with, so we have to hope that they’re too busy to make us much of a problem.”

Paiman says he saw the regime official who shot him from less than five metres away. X-rays show his body was peppered with pellets, which are yet to be removed. Doctors in Erbil have little expertise in treating such wounds.

“They dragged me away by my legs to their car and I slipped into semi-consciousness,” he said. “I heard one of them say I was dead and to take me to the hospital. Next thing I woke up there.”

All three men keep in regular touch with relatives in Mahabad, who say the protests continue in many towns and cities at a similar tempo to the past three months – close to 600 people have been killed and nearly 10,000 injured by regime violence.

Two demonstrators have been sentenced to death, leading to demands that global leaders do more to support the uprising. “We call upon the west to recognise what this represents,” said Aso. “To the people of Britain, France and Europe; we share your values. Please help us.”


Others have called for more robust backing, including the supply of weapons. “It is very possible that this could become armed,” said Paiman. “Each family member who has lost someone will do their best to avenge the death, and this may mean taking up arms. For 40 years, weapons were not allowed in Iran, though, and it’s very difficult to find them.”

Outside Erbil, the leader of a Kurdish-Iranian militant group, the PAK, suggested there was little regional or global appetite to support an anti-regime movement.

“We have previously called on the free and democratic states against terrorism and dictatorship to provide them with advanced weapons to fight against Iranian terrorist forces and terrorist groups under the command of the Quds Force,” said General Hussein Yazdanpana. “However, we have not received any positive response so far, not any.

“In some cases, people have taken weapons from the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officers who opened fire and killed demonstrators. However, because of our insistence on continuing peaceful demonstrations and refraining from fighting and taking up arms, these cases have not become the general characteristic of the uprising.”


Martin Chulov and Nechirvan Mando in Erbil

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Iran launches airstrike against Kurdish group in northern Iraq
Deadly attack comes in response to KDPI support for ongoing protests over Mahsa Amini death in custody

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

28, Sep, 2022 @5:35 PM

Article image
Officials raise Iran-Iraq earthquake death toll to at least 530
Iran declares national day of mourning and newspapers publish front pages in Kurdish to show solidarity with affected region

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

14, Nov, 2017 @3:21 PM

Article image
Iran may eventually get its way in protracted power struggle in Iraq
Analysis: Kurdish officials are considering allying with Iranian interests to finally form a government in Baghdad

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

28, Jul, 2022 @5:07 PM

Article image
‘They tried to wipe us out’: Kurds shelled as Iran seeks scapegoats for unrest
Exiled Kurdish forces in Iraq feel abandoned by west and say they need weapons like in Ukraine

Martin Chulov in Erbil, Iraq

15, Oct, 2022 @4:00 AM

Article image
'Fear factor is broken': protesters demand removal of Iraqi government
Crowds of dissenters in central Baghdad want Iranian influence banished from Iraqi politics

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

01, Nov, 2019 @6:40 PM

Article image
Iran hits back after Trump claims it is planning Iraq attacks
US president accuses Tehran or its proxies of planning ‘sneak’ assault on US bases

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

02, Apr, 2020 @5:11 PM

Article image
Iran marchers call for execution of anti-government protesters
Army signals it is prepared to crush dissent after unrest over death of Mahsa Amini in police custody

Patrick Wintour and agencies

23, Sep, 2022 @5:28 PM

Article image
Iran stays execution of anti-government protesters on death row
Rejection of appeal against convictions had triggered protests on social media

Michael Safi and Akhtar Mohammad Makoii

19, Jul, 2020 @12:25 PM

Article image
Kurds to protest over Iran executions
All the main Kurdish parties deny that five people hanged in Tehran for 'anti-revolutionary activities' were involved in terrorism

Ian Black, Middle East editor

10, May, 2010 @10:24 AM

Article image
Kurdish and Iraqi troops in Kirkuk standoff amid fears of new violence
Political leaders on both sides try to calm nerves as Iraq’s prime minister insists he has no plans for an attack

Martin Chulov

13, Oct, 2017 @6:13 PM