By Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN (Reuters) - The leader of an armed Iranian Kurdish group says new President Hassan Rouhani is taking advantage of the West's wary optimism towards him to step up pressure on citizens at home, particularly Kurds, and has markedly increased executions.
The election in June of Rouhani, a relative moderate and a former chief nuclear negotiator, has created a diplomatic opening between Iran and a group of six world powers which are trying to persuade it to curb its nuclear program.
Rouhani even spoke by phone to U.S. President Barack Obama in late September, in the highest-level contact between the two countries in three decades.
Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi, the Germany-based leader of the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), told Reuters in a written interview that Rouhani "belongs completely to the core system" of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and bringing him to the fore was Tehran's attempt to get out of political deadlock.
"Obviously he has played very well so far, managing to escape from some crises as well as deceiving some of the Iranian peoples," Haji-Ahmadi said, but this would end if he fell short of election pledges in a country hungry for change.
PJAK, an Iranian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group in Turkey, has sought greater autonomy for Kurdish areas of Iran.
Iran considers it a terrorist group and in 2010 sought Haji-Ahmadi's extradition, but Berlin rejected this as he holds German citizenship. Since 2011 a ceasefire has largely held between PJAK and the Islamic Republic, but Haji-Ahmadi said he believed Iran was "gearing up for another offensive against PJAK to retest its military might."
"The Americans and the Europeans are being optimistic, but no internal changes have been made... Pressure on the people and the rate of executions have markedly increased."
Rouhani had released political prisoners, but none were of non-Persian ethnicity, he said.
He highlighted the killings of 52 Iranian dissidents in a camp in eastern Iraq in September, which he said was neglected abroad. The dissidents belonged to the Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK), which wants Iran's clerical leaders overthrown. They are no longer welcome in Iraq under the Tehran-aligned, Shi'ite Muslim-led government.
Haji-Ahmadi also pointed to Iran's execution of 16 people in a day last month, most of them Baluchi, Sunni Muslims who lived near the Pakistan border, as well as two PJAK members. Iran said those executed were elements of terrorist groups, and they were killed in response to the killing of 14 Iranian border guards.
Kurds are estimated to number about 8 million in Iran. The country's minorities - Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and Turkmen - make up nearly half the population of 76 million, have cross-border ethnic kin and are at times seen warily by the Persian majority.
A U.N. envoy to Iran said last month Iran's human rights record should not be overlooked amid Tehran's overtures to the West. Rights groups say Iran has executed more than 400 so far this year, including at least 125 since Rouhani's election.
Haji-Ahmadi said all Iran's ethnicities aspired to the same rights Persians have.
"We envisage a free border confederation for Iran," he said, with the potential to avoid possible future civil war between different national groups."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)