Iran’s Kurds don’t usually make the headlines like Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq do. Iraqi Kurds helped beat back the Islamic State and held a failed independence referendum last year. Syrian Kurds still control much of northern Syria and have become a point of serious contention between Turkey and the U.S., which supports them against the Assad regime. Turkey’s military invaded northern Syria to push Kurdish militant groups away from the Turkish border. Iranian Kurds have been quiet by comparison. To be sure, they’ve waged a low-level insurgency off and on with the Iranian regime for decades, but it’s held steady at a low simmer for some time. This summer, however, something seems to have changed.
Also this summer, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. This may not be a coincidence. Washington this month reapplied the first of two batches of sanctions on the Iranian regime, and it makes sense that the U.S. would be exploring other means – beyond economics but short of direct war – to destabilize the regime. There’s reason to believe it may have found such a means in the form of Iran’s Kurds.
Who Are the Iranian Kurds?
Some 8 million to 12 million Iranians identify as Kurdish (between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s population), which makes Kurds the second-largest minority group in Iran after Azeris. They are ethnically different from the majority Persians, and unlike the overwhelming share of the population, they’re Sunni. The Kurds in Iran, as in other countries, have been agitating – often violently – for greater self-determination or independence for decades. They achieved their goal once, briefly, with the establishment of the Republic of Mahabad in 1946, the only independent Kurdish state ever. Mahabad lasted almost 11 months before the Iranian army dismantled it and arrested and executed many of its leaders, members of what was at the time a fledgling group called the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI.
The PDKI survived and resumed the struggle in the 1960s, with a spike in violence after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but by 1996, it was forced to declare a unilateral cease-fire because of a successful assassination campaign of its leadership by the regime. A new group, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, or PJAK, picked up the torch in 2004. Then, in April 2016, the PDKI recommenced its attacks. These are the largest and most significant of the Iranian Kurdish groups.
Their relationships with other countries in the region are complicated. The PJAK is rumored to coordinate with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria that the Turkish government considers a terrorist organization. Iran has charged Israel for years with supporting the PJAK. And during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime initially supplied the PDKI with weapons and equipment to sow chaos within Iran.
It’s little wonder, then, that Iran has banned Iranian Kurdish organizations from the country. They have instead set up shop in other places, predominantly the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.
Last summer, well before he joined the Donald Trump administration as national security adviser, John Bolton wrote a brief at the behest of then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon advising the administration on its Iran policy. In it, Bolton recommended “[announcing] U.S. support for Kurdish national aspirations, including Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria” and “[providing] assistance to Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others.” Could the U.S. be following through on that advice?
There were rumors during the presidency of George W. Bush that the U.S. was aiding the PJAK against Iran. Iranian media made similar claims about U.S. and Israeli supplies of weapons and funding to the PJAK during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
There’s also a certain strategic logic to it. The Iranian government is dealing with increasing opposition and persistent protests at home. It’s also under fiscal stress as it tries to both fund its foreign adventures and provide sufficient domestic investment to assuage protesting Iranians. Yet none of this has altered the regime’s defiance in the face of U.S. economic pressure. (Though it’s true that the most crippling of the U.S. sanctions – a ban on Iran’s export of petroleum products – won’t go into effect until early November.)
Given all the threats the Iranian regime is already facing, an uptick in violence by Iranian Kurdish militias would be more than simply a thorn in the regime’s side. The U.S. is already applying pressure to the Iranian economy; supporting the Kurdish insurgency would enable it to pressure its security establishment too. The United States’ goal is not necessarily regime change. Rather, the U.S. interest is in forcing Iran to abandon its efforts to build influence through proxies throughout the Middle East. A growing, coordinated insurgency – and indeed, the PDKI has reportedly been adding to its numbers of peshmerga fighters in Iran throughout the year – with U.S. support would tie up the regime’s domestic security forces, potentially forcing it to divert resources that for the past four years it has had deployed abroad.
The logic checks out, but how does it look on the ground?
A United and Serious Force
In 2006, the U.S. State Department set up the Office of Iranian Affairs, whose goals include “to reach out to the Iranian people to support their desire for freedom and democracy.” In its 12 years, no head of the OIA had met with the leadership of the PDKI – the Iranian Kurds’ oldest and largest organization, remember – until this summer. PDKI Secretary-General Mustafa Hijri was in Washington in mid-June at the invitation of the Trump administration – a fact that is not on its own unusual. But then he met with Steve Fagin, then-director of the OIA. A few days after their meeting, Fagin was appointed consul general of the new, sprawling consulate that the U.S. is building in Irbil – the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iran’s Kurdish groups have a large presence. It isn’t a meaningless posting: When completed, that consulate will be the largest of its kind in the world (51 acres, with an anticipated construction cost of $600 million).
Meanwhile, the U.S. is believed to be expanding its footprint at the Bashur Airfield, located in Harir in Irbil province, only about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Iranian border. This despite the fact that the U.S. is purportedly looking to draw down its military presence in Iraq. According to Kurdish media outlet Roj News, there was a protest July 20 in Harir after the U.S. banned travel into the mountains overlooking the airfield. The protesters said the local government was taking possession of fields they used for farming and grazing, forcing them to sell their livestock, and turning the land into a U.S. military camp. Some residents believe that the U.S. is planning to build a military barracks at the location in addition to the airfield.
Regarding Hijri’s visit, an unnamed source from an American think tank who was familiar with the discussions told Al-Monitor news site that the U.S. wanted to know “if the Kurds are a united and a serious force.” (The PDKI, the source said, wanted to gauge Washington’s seriousness about “its aggressive stance on Iran.”) If it’s unity the U.S. is hoping for, it may be in luck. Days before Hijri’s trip, the PDKI reportedly met and discussed the establishment of some sort of inter-institutional entity that would enable different Iranian Kurdish organizations to more effectively coordinate their activities. Several groups already in 2017 formed a joint commission to better handle intelligence sharing, so this initiative would presumably go above and beyond what has already materialized.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that a couple of weeks after Hijri’s trip, the PJAK also proposed greater cooperation and unity among Kurdish Iranian groups, including the establishment of a media agency to cover all Kurdish Iranian parties (each party currently has its own media organization), and was shot down by the PDKI and others. But based on its earlier actions, the PDKI clearly isn’t opposed to unification. More likely, it is opposed to unification on the PJAK’s terms. The groups have different visions for the insurgency. It won’t be easy to overcome these differences, but with Iran weak and the U.S. potentially spurring them on, their chances now are as good as ever.
Syrian Kurds, Turkish Kurds and Iraqi Kurds have played prominent roles throughout the recent wars in the Middle East. Now, it appears that Iran’s Kurds, too, will come to command the attention of states that wish to tip the balance of power in the region.