An Iranian Living in Exile in Iraqi Kurdistan

WASHINGTON — Following the December 27 Ashura protests in Iran, his face was broadcast on nearly all of Iran’s state-run television stations. He had been accused of Mohareb, or “enemy of God.” The punishment for this crime is death.

Nearly three months later, I had the honor of meeting with this particular individual in Iraqi Kurdistan. I volunteered not to use his name and certain details for his own safety, but he insisted that I use his name, share the full details, and even post his photo. He wants his friends, family, and even his government to know that he is alive and well. A post on this blog is also a useful outlet to an American audience.

His story is both intriguing and inspiring. I spent a significant amount of time talking with him in Kurdistan and I was moved by the situation he finds himself in. I feel obligated to share his story, yet hope I can give it the justice that it fully deserves.

Ali Shams, Iranian activist living in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan

Ali, an Iranian Green Movement activist living in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan (March 20, 2010)

His name is Ali, a Green Movement activist currently living in exile in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He is 30 years old and formerly worked as a stock market analyst in Tehran. Since being on the run at the end of December, each day has been a struggle for basic needs–food, shelter, and security. He is wanted by the Iranian government and if they find him, they have promised to send him back to Iran in a bag. The Iranian authorities would be happy to see his death, but perhaps even happier to see that he is tortured for his crimes. Iranian spies have a presence in Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurds can easily tell that he is an Iranian. At the moment, he is living his life on the run. For his own safety, he moves from hotel to hotel and from city to city. Despite the dilemma that Ali finds himself in, he maintains high hopes and doesn’t ask for much. He wants to live in Iran, make a decent living, and be free from the strong grip of the current Iranian government. In the meantime though, he has his sights set on moving to the U.S., Australia, or somewhere in Europe. However, this is not an easy process.

Ali participated in the Ashura protests in Iran on December 27. Throughout that evening, he received countless messages and phone calls from friends saying that they saw his face on television. He knew his life was now in danger.

Ali wrestled with the question of what to do for the remainder of the night. Would Iranian intelligence agents come knocking on his door? Not many people knew where he was currently living, but would Iranian authorities be able to find him? Around 2 AM that night, his instincts told him that something was seriously wrong. He looked out the window from the second story of his mother’s three-story house on the outskirts of Tehran, and through the front gate, he saw a number of Iranian security forces barging through. His immediate reaction was to try to make a run for it. He ran to the third floor, jumped off the roof onto the neighbors roof, and ran through a large garden. After fleeing from his house, he continued to run and didn’t look back. He left everything without warning. He did not have time to grab money or identification, nor did he get the opportunity to say good-bye to his mother. To this day, two Iranian agents are on watch near his house, either waiting for his return, or watching what kind of people come to visit. His mother’s phone is tapped by the government. They occasionally speak to one another on the phone, but can say nothing of substance. If the government knew exactly where he was, it wouldn’t take long for them to find him.

His strong instincts that night likely came from the more than 9 months he spent in an Iranian prison in 2003. Similar to this time, they arrived in the early hours of the night so they would catch him sleeping. In 2003, he woke up to guns being pointed in his face. He had an emotionally difficult time explaining what kind of torture he endured during his time as a political prisoner. “This government is violent and vile. I know because I was in their hands,” Ali recounted. “They are savages. They torture in the name of God.”

With a significant amount of luck, Ali managed to escape from his house late that night without being caught. At the time, he knew he couldn’t stick around and it was time to find a way out of the country. His options were limited. After a couple days of traveling by car and bus, Ali eventually made it to a border town in the northwestern part of Iran. He was introduced to a small group of whiskey smugglers on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border who smuggle whiskey from Iraq into Iran. The whiskey smugglers proved to be his savior.

To pass him through the border, he had to pay around $1,000, paying a bit extra for armed security. The smugglers operate in a mountainous border area that is quite challenging to cross. The night he began his journey the weather was brutal and snow had been falling for days. With a few smugglers by his side, Ali walked more than 20 kilometers, until he reached a point which was not passable. He was forced to return back to the base where he began. His one lasting memory from this particular experience occurred during a time of desperation, when he realized he would be forced to turn back. He looked up to the sky for some sign of hope and at that precise moment, above the snow-capped mountains, he saw a moon like he had never seen in his life. This demonstrated to Ali that hope was still alive and that he couldn’t give up.

After re-walking the 20 kilometers through the mountains, Ali eventually returned to the original smuggling base on the Iranian side of the border. He had to wait a few days for the weather to improve and then traveled to another border area. At this new border town, he would have to pass through the mountains by horse. The whiskey smugglers dressed him up in traditional Kurdish clothing and he was on his way. After a full two days traveling by horse with an armed whiskey smuggler alongside him, he reached another point where he was picked up in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Smuggling goods, let alone people, along the Iran-Iraq border is a dangerous affair. Especially on the Iranian side, the government will not hesitate to kill the smugglers on the spot, with no questions asked.

Once in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ali was taken to a camp operated by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. He stayed at the camp for one week and they took care of him. After getting to know him, they decided to be his sponsor for residency in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He had several meetings with the top leadership of the party and they offered him a position within the organization. Let alone the fact that he isn’t Kurdish, the party’s goal is a free Kurdistan, whereas Ali’s goal is simply a free Iran. He has no desire to operate among an Iranian Kurdish political organization in Iraqi Kurdistan, armed and storming the Iranian border. He wants to have the ability to non-violently protest against the current Iranian government and this is why he is in exile.

He eventually made his way to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. With no money initially, he spent more than a week sleeping in a tent on the outskirts of Erbil. During the past two months, he has found various jobs such as unloading trucks (including some filled with whiskey) and a computer programming job. But nothing has been long-term.

His ultimate goal is to return to the homeland that he loves. He wishes to live in no place other than Iran. His short-term goal is to seek asylum in the West. In Iraq, he has met with officials from France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S. They have all rejected asylum. The United Nations has also been unable to help. He is now a refugee, struggling to find basic necessities in a dangerous place for him. He doesn’t speak Kurdish, he has no family there, and he can never be sure if he is being tracked down by an Iranian spy. If he were in the West, he wouldn’t be worth Iran’s time to find. But now he is in the government’s clear range of influence. He has been advised by some Western governments that if he can make it to their country illegally he will then have a better chance of getting accepted. With $100 in his pocket, this is easier said than done.

Ali would like to send a simple message to the U.S. government and to the American people. He urges that the U.S. not recognize the Ahmadinejad government and never sign an agreement with his government. He said that the Green Movement is not asking for U.S. support. Its goal is to engage in peaceful protests with the hope of changing certain aspects of the government. However, on some matters, U.S. help with communication tools is needed, for example with providing internet proxy servers and preventing satellite blocking by the Iranian government. He questions why the U.S. talks about being concerned for the well-being of someone like himself, but then not caring when it comes down to it.

Even though Ali is considered the worst kind of criminal in Iran, one which is an “enemy of God”, I can attest that Ali is no criminal. He has not a violent strain in his body. His only crime was that he dare to stand up to the Islamic Republic. He missed not a single protest following Iran’s disputed presidential election in June 2009. He was on the front lines of the protests, willing to sacrifice himself for even the slightest change in the political system. Asked if he was prepared to sacrifice his life for the cause of change in Iran, he responded that he would, without a doubt. However, he also explained that he doesn’t want to die for nothing.

“I don’t even want to be involved in politics. The Iranian government forces me to be involved,” Ali said. “Perhaps my problem is that I do not keep my mouth shut. But with the current situation in Iran, I refuse to keep my mouth shut. And for this, here I am. This is my life.”

[If you would like to send Ali a message, feel free to leave a comment on this blog, or email him at He is a great person, a dear friend, and I wish him the best.]


2 Responses to “An Iranian Living in Exile in Iraqi Kurdistan”

  1. New Posts on The Other Iraq « The Mezze – المزة Says:

    […] An Iranian Living in Exile in Iraqi Kurdistan — The story of Ali, an Iranian Green Movement activist living in exile in Kurdistan […]

  2. Ali Says:

    Thomas,you are a dear friend and wish you alway the best,and it was a honest and great report!

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