Iran has supplied weapons and ammunition to Iraqi Kurdish forces, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani said Tuesday at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Arbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
The direct arming of Kurdish forces is a contentious issue because some Iraqi politicians have said they suspect Kurdish leaders have aspirations to break away from the central government completely.
The move could also be seen by some as a prelude to Iran taking a more direct role in broader Iraqi conflict.
“We asked for weapons and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition,” Barzani said.
Insurgents from the Islamic State have clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in recent weeks and taken control of some areas on the periphery of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mordechai Zaken, an Israeli expert of minorities in the Middle East and a former Arab affairs adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that the Iranians have been present in Kurdistan and pushing for their interests for a long time.
Zaken pointed out that there are many Kurdish Iranian refugees and fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan due to longterm tensions and fighting with the Iranian government.
However, the Kurdish rebellion against the Iranian government has stopped for now.
Iran does not want to use its soldiers to fight the Islamic State so it prefers to send weapons to the Kurds to help do the job, he added.
Zarif met on Sunday with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the highest ranking Kurdish minister, who is also the uncle of Kurdistan president Barzani, Zaken said. This meeting probably facilitated the current deal, he added.
“The Obama administration is hesitating in supporting the Kurds and so the Iranians were quick to engage and strengthen their regional position,” Zaken said.
Arif Bawecani, head of the Kurdistan Independent Party (PSK), told the Post on Tuesday that he distrusts Iran’s motives,- saying that it “has had a detrimental role in the area.”
The liberal, democratic-oriented PSK Party, founded in February 2006, has offices in Oslo, Norway, and in Arbil.
Bawecani is a Kurd originating from land that Kurds consider to be occupied Iranian territory.
Iran is trying to destroy the Kurdish national project, Bawecani argued, adding that credible sources told him that Iran has sent 350 commandos inside the Kurdish area to defend the Shi’ite-dominated government.
Bawecani added that he hopes that the Kurdistan government will reject any kind of aid from Iran.
“Iran is a factory in the world that creates terrorists,” he said.
Earlier in the day, a car bomb was detonated in a mainly Shi’ite district of eastern Baghdad, killing 12 people and wounding 28, police and medical sources said.
The bombing in the New Baghdad neighborhood followed a series of blasts in the Iraqi capital on Monday that killed more than 20 people.
The Islamic State, which controls large swathes of northern and western Iraq, claimed responsibility for the Monday suicide bombing in the New Baghdad neighborhood and said that the attack was carried out as revenge for an attack against a Sunni mosque in Diyala on Friday that killed 68 and wounded dozens.
The Iranian foreign minister held talks with Barzani on Tuesday, one day after visiting senior Shi’ite clerics in southern Iraq. Zarif acknowledged giving military assistance to Iraqi security forces, but said the cooperation did not include deploying ground troops in the country.
“We have no military presence in Iraq,” Zarif said. “We do have military cooperation with both the central government and the Kurds in different arenas.”
Neither Zarif nor Barzani gave any details whether weapons supplied to Kurdish forces had been routed through the central government or given directly to Kurdish forces.
Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the IDC in Herzliya, told the Post, “Iran is arming the Kurds first and foremost because the Peshmerga are seen as being the most disciplined local militia that can take on the Islamic State.”
“Iran takes the threat posed by the Islamic State on its border and against Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq very seriously,” he said. “Iran’s other motive for supplying weapons to Kurds is to increase the political weight of those inside Iraqi Kurdistan who are against improved relations between Kurdistan and Israel.”
Iran’s improving relations with the Kurds will come at the expense of two of its regional competitors, namely the US and Turkey, he added.
Reuters contributed to this report.