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Threats + Promises:
Does Fighting On Iraqi Border Signal New Iranian Kurdish Rebellion?

Honar Hama Rasheed
Fighting on the Iraq-Iran border has seen deaths and controversial statements, including a threat to invade Iraq. It may also mark a new era of unity for emboldened Iranian Kurdish, anti-government groups
21.07.2016  |  Sulaymaniyah
Members of the Iranian-Kurdish group, the PDKI, in the mountains. (photo: صلاح نردي )
Members of the Iranian-Kurdish group, the PDKI, in the mountains. (photo: صلاح نردي )

Since the middle of June there has been renewed fighting between Iranian Kurds and the Iranian security forces on the wrong side of the border, inside Iraq. There hasn’t been any major military action in this area between these two forces for years and the fighting drew threats of invasion from Iran. Naturally this has resulted in rising tensions between Iran and authorities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

And it all comes on top of what appears to be an attempt at not just renewed fighting, but also increasing coordination between the Kurdish groups fighting for the rights of Iran’s approximately 6 million Kurds.

Iraqi Kurdistan hosts the headquarters of several groups who fight for the rights of Iran’s Kurdish minority, including the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI, the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan, more commonly known as the Komala party, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK and the Kurdistan Freedom Party, or PAK.

We will destroy any place that threatens the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of all the Kurdish-majority areas in this part of the world, Iraqi Kurdistan has the most freedom to host these kinds of groups, as it operates like a kind of a state within a state in Iraq. In Iran, Turkey and Syria, Kurdish minorities are still experiencing a lot more repression and discrimination.

Which is why the Iranian military occasionally makes shallow forays into Iraqi Kurdistan: in order to pursue those they consider rebels from inside their own country; Turkey often does the same thing when it is chasing Turkish Kurdish rebels.

In late June and July there was some over-the-border shelling, with Iranian forces lobbing bombs into Iraq. It was unclear who started it – both sides accused the other - or how many from either side had been killed or wounded.  Local media reported that villages were evacuated and civilian deaths; the Iraqi Kurdish people living here were alarmed because, while there have been fairly regular Turkish incursions, this area had not been targeted by the Iranian military for around a decade.

As a result of the fighting on the Iran-Iraq borders during June and July, Hossein Salami, the deputy chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, said last week that Iraqi Kurdish forces needed to maintain border security or his troops would be forced to enter Iraq and deal with problematic Iranian Kurdish rebels hiding there themselves.

“We will destroy any place that threatens the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Salami said.

An Iranian delegation then came to Iraqi Kurdistan’s two major cities, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, to hold meetings with the region’s governing political parties.

During a series of meetings, the Iranian officials called upon the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to put more effort into restraining the Iranian Kurdish rebels, and in particular, to prevent anti-Iranian operations being carried out from inside Iraq.

“It is true that the Iranian delegation asked the region’s officials to stop the activities of the Iranian Kurdish in the region,” Nazim Dabbagh, Iraqi Kurdistan’s representative in Tehran, confirmed to NIQASH. This was also confirmed by two other Iranian Kurdish groups, the PDKI and the Komala party.

As Dabbagh noted, the legitimate rights of Kurdish people in Iran need to be recognized through ongoing dialogue and negotiation, not through violence, which just hurts all parties involved. Dabbagh called on the Iranian Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan to cease their activities in the Iraq-Iran border areas.

They refused.

“After suspending activities for two decades we believe that it is important to begin our work again, in order to confront Iranian military power that has built up in these areas in the past two decades,” Mohammed Qadiry, a spokesperson for the PDKI explained to NIQASH. “We stopped our activities for internal reasons and for reasons that have to do with Iraqi Kurdistan. But now we don’t see that need any more and we will resume our fight.”

In the past, the Iranian Kurdish had apparently stopped military operations against Iran in exchange for safety in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“At the moment we are taking a defensive position,” Kawa Bahrami, a military commander and member of the PDKI leadership, told NIQASH. “But we do have plans to go on the offensive.” Bahrami refused to give any more details on this.

He did have a response to the threats issued by the Iran’s brigadier general, Hossein Salami, though. “Iran cannot do what it wants anymore, as it did in the 1990s,” Bahrami argued. “That is in the past.”

Bahrami points out that back then, during the Iraqi Kurdish civil war where the two major political parties were fighting each other, Iran took the opportunity to launch attacks against Iranian Kurdish parties on Iraqi soil. Apart from the fact that there’s no civil war any more, other things are also very different in Iraqi Kurdistan now – there are international coalition forces based in the northern region as well as many international consulates and, Bahrami reasons, this means Iran cannot carry out such threats with impunity.

Up until recently Iranian Kurdish groups have not been particularly coordinated in their approach to confronting the Iranian government. In fact, there are around 18 different Iranian Kurdish parties and many have several wings; there are also a lot of different opinions among them.

Activists says that this, combined with Iran’s effective repression of the Iranian Kurdish lobby inside the country, means that there hasn’t been any particularly useful action taken to fight for the rights of the Kurdish minority inside Iran.

“All that has had an impact,” Arsalan Yarahmadi, a human rights and pro-Kurdish activist in Iran, explains. “But all of the involved groups should stop and look at what the PDKI is doing now. And they should coordinate, to better confront the Iranian authorities in Kurdish regions.”

Indeed, this more recent military activity and the increased tensions are coming on top of what appears to be an attempt at increased cooperation between the Iranian Kurdish groups. Members of the KDPI told other news organizations that they had been encouraged by Kurdish success elsewhere, in Syria and Turkey, cultural change and crises inside Iran as well as general hopes for a new political landscape for the Kurds, who have been instrumental in the fight against the extremist Islamic State group and have achieved international recognition for that.

Activists and senior sources from within a number of the Iranian Kurdish groups told NIQASH that there are ongoing efforts to try and come up with some sort of united front, or mechanism for better cooperation. They say there’s been a good response to this initiative but that nothing has been confirmed or announced as yet.

When it comes to actual fighting, or military operations, against the Iranian government though, at least two large parties still seem divided as to whether this is the best course of action.

The PDKI’s Qaderi tells NIQASH that, “all parties should confront the Iranian military powers who have done everything they can to suppress the Kurdish people in this region”.

Meanwhile Ashraf Bokani, a spokesperson for the Komala party, felt that efforts should be directed at uniting the various Iranian Kurdish parties on a less militarised level. “Our party would certainly respond to any efforts made in this direction,” he said.

This week the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have also felt moved to action; they responded to, firstly Salami’s threats of military action and then, secondly, to later accusations by Mohsen Rezaei, a senior politician and former IRGC commander, that Saudi Arabia was to blame for the renewed activity by Iranian Kurdish groups over the border.

Spokespersons from the PDKI and the Komala party denied this, saying that the Iranians were simply saying this to “hide their own mistakes”.

Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish government issued a formal statement saying that the accusation was baseless and that a joint committee was being formed with Iraqi Kurdish and Iranian representation to resolve this and other issues. Good, neighbourly relations should be the basis of the relationship between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, the government said.

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