The intensifying Iranian battle with PJAK rebels highlights the failed policies of Iran and Turkey in addressing their long-standing Kurdish problem.
Whilst Turkey’s long standing battle with the PKK on the Iraqi Kurdistan border region often dominates the headlines, ironically there is a mirror conflict on the other side of the border between PJAK and Iran.
In a familiar tone to their Turkish neighbours, Iran has accused the KRG of supporting the Iranian Kurdish rebels and has frequently defended their frequent violation of Iraqi sovereignty as a “right”.
Much like their Turkish counterparts, Tehran sees the issue of the rebels as a terrorist issue as opposed to a greater national identity issue and has refused to address the roots of the problems through dialogue, reconciliation and modern principles.
This week saw fierce clashes between the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and PJAK rebels along the Kurdish region border and within KRG territory itself. Some Iraqi media reports had claimed as much as 10,000 Iranian soldiers may have penetrated the region.
Although clashes appear to be intensifying, Iranian shelling and bombing of the northern-most areas of the provinces of Erbil and Sulaimanyia is nothing new. This has led to much damage, death of livestock, disruption of lives and even civilian casualties.
The recent incursion and fierce clashes in Iraqi territory comes despite a recent warning by Massoud Barzani over his increasing weariness over Iranian actions.
“We condemn the artillery fire against Iranian citizens in the border region of Kurdistan,” stated Barzani earlier in the month. Such measures should naturally lead to review of bilateral relationships even if Kurdistan has worked hard to forge strong relations with Tehran.
In light of the Shiite-led governments of Iran and Iraq enjoying close cooperation, the violation of sovereignty with US troops still in large numbers on Iraqi soil, is stark threat, sets the wrong precedence and endangers Kurdistan’s credibility. Can Baghdad prove it can throw its own weight in the face of transgression from the Shiite partners or does Tehran’s increasing military and political clout now place Iraq under their direct sphere of influence?
As Iran tries to eliminate their Kurdish rebels, it continues to support a number of proxy forces in Iraq and the Middle East, on the doorstep of America forces. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta recently stated that Iran’s government had stepped up its weapons shipments to Shiite extremist groups, echoing trends of the past few years.
PJAK took up arms in 2004 but Kurdish resentment with successive Iranian governments goes back several decades. Whilst Iranian Kurds have never been denied outright unlike their brethren in Turkey and have had a level of cultural freedom, any notion of Kurdish power lest autonomy has been harshly crushed. The Kurdish battle for self-rule and more government representation goes back to before and after the Iranian Islamic revolution.
For the best part the Kurds had shaky relations with the Shah’s government and initially supported the overthrow of the Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi in favour of the Islamic revolution in hope of achieving a new break and stronger political influence. However, as a predominantly Sunni group, their demands for power, representation and autonomy was seen as a threat to the new regime in Tehran and a step too far for Iran’s new leaders. The Kurds were denied seats in the assembly of experts formed in 1979 and tasked with the writing of the new constitution.
As early as 1979 Kurdish rebels were engaged with battles against Iranian forces with Ayatollah Khomeini declaring Jihad against the Kurdish people.
The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) and the leftist Komala (Revolutionary Organization of Kurdish Toilers) held the flagship of the Kurdish armed resistance at the time. Although the KDPI has long withdrawn from its military struggle, its new quest of achieving goals through diplomacy and non-violent means has hardly borne great fruit proving Iran’s lack of real desire for a sincere reach-out to the Kurds as it simultaneously tries to crush the rebels but offer little alternative in return.
PJAK is a part of the Kurdistan Democratic Confederation (Koma Civakên Kurdistan or KCK) umbrella along with the PKK and affectively share common ideology and command structure. Whereas the PKK has been strongly condemned by the US, for years there were reports of US contact and support with the PJAK rebels much to the annoyance of the Iranians.
With Iranian proxy cells causing chaos for the US at the height of the Iraqi insurgency, the PJAK was one tool that the Americans could use against Tehran.
However, perhaps owed to Obama’s vision of soothing ties with Iran and repairing the damaged US foreign image, Obama was quick to declare PJAK a terrorist organization and froze its assets to appease Tehran.
Furthermore, the PJAK and PKK issue has somewhat given Turkey and Iran a further incentive in their recent warming of ties.
As we have seen with Turkey, decades old problems will not disappear with a continuation of out-dated policies. Tehran must embrace the Kurds as a key component of their landscape and not continuously as a threat due to ethnic and sectarian differences.
With the might of the Turkish military on the one side and the Iranian forces on the other, the Kurdish region is somewhat caught in the middle and in a tenuous position. It relies on both powers heavily for economic and political prosperity but the at the same time its land cannot be used as a board for Iranian and Turkish military games.
Even with Iranian military commanders claiming that Iranian security forces took control of three bases and inflicted heavy losses on PJAK rebels, the end game does not change. Neither the PKK nor PJAK is here to go away anytime soon. Iran needs more comprehensive measures to deal with its internal problems and the US and European powers should play their part in embracing increased rights for the Kurds and condemning Iranian aggression.
The KRG leadership must continue to strongly denounce any incursion into their territory. The Kurdistan Region aims to become a formidable regional power in its own right and must at a minimum not succumb to been used as pawns for the agenda of their neighbours against their respective Kurdish populations.
The wider message is simple. The Kurds are here to stay and have every right to live in peace, freedom and prosperity as their Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian or Turkish counterparts.
Turkey and Iran has worked hard to pressure the Iraqi Kurds into conflict with the PKK and PJAK through their baseless political mind games. PKK and PJAK are not and never have been Iraqi Kurdish issues. They are both the by-product of years of oppression and denial of rights in both respective countries.
The KRG leadership must stand firm against Turkish or Iranian bullying but crucially provide diplomatic support for their Kurdish brethren. The Kurds were divided not through choice but by brute force. A Kurd is no different whether in Syria, Turkey or Iran.
The Kurds in Iraq must not be weary of conceding relations with Iran by taking a firm stance.