Reprinted from

Kurds: U.S. a 'Positive Force' in Middle East

Kenneth R. Timmerman
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

PARIS -- As Democrats continue to seek ways to force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a group of influential Iranian Kurds are urging the Bush administration to maintain military forces in the region and to stay engaged in regional politics.

"People in the region are happy to have the American presence," said Hassan Sharafi, deputy secretary general of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI).

In a wide-ranging interview with NewsMax in Paris, Sharafi said that Iranian Kurds and others in the region see the American military presence in Iraq as a "positive force."

"Before the U.S. liberation of Iraq, only the regimes were happy to have the Americans in the region," Sharafi said.

When Saddam Hussein was still in power, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the smaller Gulf monarchies saw the Americans as the protectors of their privileges. "Now it's the people in the region who support the American presence," he explained.

The KDPI is the largest, oldest, and best organized party of the Iranian democratic opposition. They maintain training camps and logistical bases in northern Iraq, and have an underground army of peshmerga guerilla fighters inside Iran, although they are not currently engaged in armed conflict against the regime.

If the United States decides to begin working with Iranian opposition groups, Sharafi had a word of advice. "Please pay better attention to who is who, and who has what capabilities," he said. "The United States should better discern which groups have real assets" than they did in Iraq.

The United States over-estimated the capabilities and influence of Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, he said, while underestimating the power and the danger of Iranian-backed Shiite groups led by Muqtada Sadr and by Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim.

"Chalabi exaggerated his influence inside Iraq, and in particular within the Iraqi army," Sharafi said. "He is not a hero. But neither is he an Iranian spy."

Sharafi said that Iran's four million Kurds, who control the northern border with Iraq, would support America in the event the United States takes more aggressive steps against Iran.

"The current regime in Tehran is a threat to the region, a threat to the world, and a threat to Iranians even without nuclear weapons. They will be far more dangerous if they can produce them," he said. "Only democracy can produce a peaceful tomorrow."

Since 2004, Sharafi's KDPI has expanded its horizons as other ethnic groups in Iran have started to organize themselves politically. "Before, our goal was autonomy" for the Kurdish region of northwestern Iran. "Now, we are in favor of federalism, since this is the only system that provides an answer for all of Iran's nationalities."

The identity of Iran's diverse ethnic groups is a hot-button topic among Iranians. Persian nationalists fear that regional autonomy is the first step toward the disintegration of Iran. But groups such as the KDPI argue that Iran is a mosaic compromised of many different nationalities, each with their own cultural identity and language. "Together, we make up the Iranian people," Sharafi said.

Figures compiled by suggest that ethnic Persians are in fact a minority in Iran, with other peoples making up 60% of the total population of 70 million.

"We don't want to split up Iran, to destroy Iran," said Sharafi. "We want to be part of the framework of Iran."

He compared the situation of Iran's Kurds to the Kurds in Iraq, who have chosen to be part of a single, unified Iraqi state.

"The Iraqi Kurds have far less in common with the Arabs than we do with other Iranians," said Sharafi. "Their language is completely different, whereas Kurdish is very close to Persian. We are Iranian nationalists. We want our rights within a federal Iran. Splitting apart Iran is to nobody's benefit."

Ramin Parham, a prominent intellectual and supporter of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah, said the monarchist camp had to come to grips with the realities inside today's Iran, including the demands of the Kurds and other nationalities for regional autonomy.

"Persians are actually a minority. So we should be speaking of the ethnic components of Iran," he told NewsMax in Paris.

Throughout history, Kurds and other Sunni minorities had formed a belt around the high plateau, which was dominated by Persians. "For centuries, they have protected us from invaders.," Parham said. "These people have not been treated with respect or fairness."

Parham's understanding of Iran's ethnic minorities was not just intellectual, but personal.

"The Kurds protected me for three months when I escaped from Iran. They called me ‘Kak Ramin,' a term of respect. They protected all the Iranian opposition. We need to recognize this and give them the respect they deserve."

The Kurds are not the only minority to have suffered under the current regime. Sistan and Balouchestan, on Iran's eastern border with Pakistan, is Iran's biggest province – and the poorest. Arabs in Khouzestan, the oil-rich area bordering Iraq to the south, are regularly brutalized and murdered by regime thugs.

"Despite all the oil in Khouzestan, the regime has never rebuilt Ahwaz," Parham said. The city was destroyed during the Iraqi occupation in 1982.

Parham is confident that Iran's ethnic leaders understand the unity of Iran. "We need to build trust with them, a shared vocabulary, confident that they are mature enough not to go for disintegration," he said.

Should the United States get more involved in Iran, Parham believes the work of rebuilding Iran after the fall of the Islamic Republic will be easier than it has been elsewhere.

"You don't need to do nation building in Iran," he said. "You need to do state building, to build the institutions of a modern democratic state."

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