The Kurdish minority in Iran has for decades suffered discrimination and many Kurds have been thrown into prison and executed for seeking equal rights from the Islamic government in Tehran.
But "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Middle East and threats of military attacks to stop Iran’s nuclear program have given some Iranian Kurds hope for change.
An estimated 12 million Kurds live in Iran, mostly in the northwest of the country bordering Kurdish-majority areas of Iraq and Turkey.
Tehran says it has generally improved living conditions and education for Iran's Kurds and they are integrated into the political process.
But Kurds say they have lesser rights and a rebel group, known as PJAK - the Free Life Party of Kurdistan - has been waging an insurgency based in the Qandil Mountains.
Shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared war against the Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslims in a predominantly Shi'ite country.
Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga were crushed by Iran's military. Thousands of Kurdish villages were flattened. Many Kurds were killed.
“After they took over the cities, they started executing, mass executions in the Kurdish area," said Kamran Balnour, a Kurd who fled Iran during the repression. "I remember in my small town, which is Mahabad, we had 59 people executed in one day.”
Balnour, 43, was arrested by Iranian authorities while in college some two decades ago. He says he was repeatedly tortured and he fled the country.
“Sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up and start screaming," Balnour said in an interview from suburban Washington, where he now lives. "I still think that I was in prison and I have these bad dreams and all that.”
Kurdish Percentage of Population
Kurdish Percentage of Population
Iraq 15 to 20 %
Syria As much as 9.7%
Source: CIA World Factbook
Iran's Kurds are keenly watching the fallout from the Arab Spring in neighboring countries where Kurds also live. They see how the uprising against Syria's government has given Syrian Kurds a new autonomy to control their own affairs.
Some Iranian Kurds are hoping for a military confrontation between Tehran and the West over the nation’s nuclear program. They hope an attack would lead to an uprising against Iran’s Islamic government and to better treatment of Kurds from a new government.
“I would think a majority of Kurds would be more interested in having some sort of a military intervention to resolve this situation,” said Bruce Freeman, a Kurdish activist in the U.S. who fled Iran and Americanized his name.
Until that happens, the Kurdish guerrilla group PJAK vows to continue fighting government forces.
PJAK has been declared a terrorist organization by Iran and the United States but has assumed the role of armed guardian of the Kurds in Iran.
“We believe the legitimate rights of the Kurds have been trampled on by Iran’s central government, that their ethnic identity has been destroyed and they have been subjected to discrimination by Tehran," Rezan Javid, a PJAK commander, said in a recent interview with VOA.
"We have been engaged in this fight in order to bring about freedom and social justice for the entire Iranian nation,” he said.
Relying on bases across the border in Iraq, the rebels have frequently clashed with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Recent amateur video, which cannot be verified, appears to show Kurdish rebels attacking an Iranian military convoy.
Last year, Iran rejected a cease-fire offer from PJAK.
“We demand peace among all peoples," Javid said. "We have never demanded secession from Iran or called for an autonomous Kurdish government.
"All we want is for the Kurds to be recognized as equal and enjoy the same rights as other Iranian citizens,” he said.