The exiled president of Iran's largest Kurdish opposition group appealed for U.S. political and military support for its campaign to topple Iran's Islamic regime and create a new democratic, federal government in Tehran.
In his first visit to Washington, Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, president of the three-year-old Kurdistan Free Life Party, told The Washington Times that the Iranian regime faced a growing internal challenge to its power from the Kurds, Azeris and other restive minority groups.
Mr. Haj-Ahmadi, who lives in Germany, said his movement, known by its Kurdish acronym PJAK, was forced to take up arms and retreat to the rugged highlands along the Iran-Iraq border in self-defense against the central government.
"We certainly would not take to the mountains and live such a difficult existence if the regime allowed us to pursue our struggle politically," said Mr. Haj-Ahmadi, speaking through an interpreter, in an interview Wednesday.
PJAK, he said, has only limited contact with the U.S. government, but he appealed to Washington to push Iran harder on its human rights record and said his party would welcome American military and financial aid to carry on its fight.
"We obviously cannot topple the government with the ammunition and the weapons we have now," he said. "Any financial or military help that would speed the path to a true Iranian democracy, we would very much welcome, particularly from the United States."
But the question of the Kurds, a stateless people with significant communities in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, is one of the most delicate facing the Bush administration.
Iraq's Kurds were key U.S. allies in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and establish a stable Iraq. But Turkey, also a key U.S. ally in the region, has fought a long, bloody war against Kurdish separatists to the north and watches with increasing anger signs that Iraq's Kurds are moving to de facto autonomy.
The Kurdish independence movement in Turkey, known as the PKK, was officially designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. Chris Zambelis, a terrorism analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said there are multiple reports of operational and logistical links between the PKK and PJAK.
PJAK officials traveling with Mr. Haj-Ahmadi said they tried to set up meetings with the State Department and other administration officials, but received "no answer" to their requests. Mr. Haj-Ahmadi said PJAK had good relations with other Kurdish movements in the region, but insisted his party was a "completely independent organization" from the PKK.
Iran's leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accused the United States of secretly funding PJAK and other minority resistance movements as part of a campaign to undermine their regime.
Mr. Haj-Ahmadi dismissed questions of whether PJAK was part of a master plan to create new "Greater Kurdistan" in the region.
"Right now, for us, democracy inside Iran is the issue," he said. "We will work with whoever we can to establish a just, democratic federal government to replace the Islamic regime."
If and when democracy takes hold in Iran and throughout the region, "we would then lean toward the idea of a greater Kurdistan as an aspiration," he said.
The PJAK president acknowledged that his group did not have the numbers or the military might to challenge the Iranian regime on its own.
"But I guarantee you, anyone who wants to do something about Iran needs to reach out to us," he said. "We are working hard to make ourselves known to other ethnic minorities in Iran. Without PJAK, you will not get anywhere."