‘You’re in Iran, now,” the grinning patrol leader nonchalantly informed me as we reached a summit of the Zagros mountain range straddling the border of the Kurdish areas between Iran and Iraq. After a long, overnight journey beyond the final checkpoints on the Iraqi Kurdish side and into the remote border frontier, the surreal feeling of arriving in the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran was strangely matter-of-fact.
My visit to the area marked the first by a journalist embedded with a patrol of Peshmerga fighters of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI). The PDKI has become the most militarily effective of the several armed Kurdish opposition groups operating in Iran. Founded in 1945, the organization was formed amidst the short-lived semi-autonomous Iranian Kurdish republic of Mahabad. Today, it continues its long fight for Kurdish and minority rights as an outlawed political and military organization in Iran’s western provinces.
After a two-decade long hiatus from offensive operations, PDKI has announced its reemergence in recent months with a string of battles against Iranian forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This should bring it to the forefront of America’s strategy to counter Iran. The PDKI’s recent clashes with the IRGC deal a heavy blow to Iranian public perceptions of the regime’s invincibility. And in the Middle East, perception is everything.
Seeing the PDKI as a serious threat, Iran struck back hard, opening a new front against the party. On September 8, the group’s training facility near Koya, 60 miles from the Iranian border inside Iraq, was hit by missiles fired from inside Iran – the deepest such strikes since 1996. The salvo pummeled the two headquarters of the party’s branches, killing 16 and wounding more than 40, including nearby women and children. The unprecedented barrage shows that Tehran increasingly sees these Kurdish groups as a threat and seeks to target their leadership. Earlier the very same morning, Iran executed three Kurdish activists whose high-profile appeal had won support from leading human rights groups like Amnesty International.
On August 16, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of the Iran Action Group, which is intended to coordinate US government actions and strategy against Tehran. Since the US withdrew from the Iran deal in May, Tehran faces increasing pressure on numerous fronts. While regime change is not a stated goal, Brian Hook, director of policy planning for Pompeo, spoke passionately on August 28 at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ National Security Summit about the regime’s economic tailspin, its corruption, suppression of minorities and the internal protests it now faces almost daily. The pressure on the Mullahs is severe – and relentless.
Kurdish groups like the PDKI operate among the estimated six million Kurds in western Iran. Mustafa Hijri, the group’s general secretary, condemned the Iran deal when it was signed, seeing it as legitimizing the regime’s survival and offering it the resources to broaden support for terrorism. In June he traveled to Washington to seek support for the Kurdish struggle. Critically, the PDKI’s goal is increasingly to form a coalition alongside Iran’s other oppressed ethnic and religious minorities to push for a federal democratic system in the country, with an autonomous Kurdish region – essentially, the same rights neighboring Kurds enjoy in their semi-autonomous enclave in northern Iraq. Vitally, this goal aligns perfectly with US reluctance for regime change in Iran.
The PDKI’s clashes with Iran’s IRGC
The PDKI’s clashes against the IRGC are now taking place in western Iran on a weekly basis. A week ago, while in Iranian territory, embedded with PDKI forces, we got so close to the Iranian lines that I was able to observe regime soldiers moving about under the Iranian flags and yellow banners of the IRGC fluttering over a trio of bases on the adjacent summits.
A curious drone buzzed in the distance near our incursion; we had to be ready to disperse and seek cover in a moments’ notice. If the drone itself wasn’t armed, it could have been spotting for imminent artillery fire. Skirting vast Iran-Iraq War-era minefields, I continued on with the patrol for several strenuous hours through the unforgiving mountainous terrain. The only reprieve from the burning midday sun was cool water sipped from streams. Finally, we reached the last hidden outpost in the border area for fighters en route to fight in Iranian territory.
The half-dozen mixed-gender fighters holding the position reflected on the more than 35 skirmishes and assaults they say have happened over the summer.
“This isn’t just a one-time burst of activity, this is only the start,” said Omid S., the commander of the forward operating post. They have resulted in more than 34 IRGC deaths, as the PDKI try to show that they can effectively target its vastly better-equipped soldiers. Specially-trained sleeper cells embedded among the Iranian Kurdish population emerge to target the elite IRGC, which acts as the regime’s ideological vanguard. Not only offensive in nature, hidden units may also act to defend Kurdish civilians from violent crackdowns amid Iran’s heavy-handed martial law in their provinces.
Still, PDKI says they are mindful to avoid targeting rank-and-file soldiers of the Iran’s regular conscript army, which includes many unenthusiastic minorities and others of disadvantaged backgrounds. The party’s senior military echelon hope for a repeat of history, when during the 1979 revolution, the Iranian army largely stood down or even joined in with the popular protests.
PDKI indicates that the number of Kurds entering combat training has quadrupled in recent months. With infrastructure unable to meet demand, the group now has a waiting list of prospective recruits. The proportion of women among the latest trainee cohorts now approaches 30%, in part thanks to the popularity of Kurdish female fighters in social media. Sensing my surprise that so many women would emerge from Iran’s conservative society to take up arms, one female Peshmerga at the outpost put it this way: “Being a woman makes me a second-class citizen. Being a Sunni Kurd in Shia Persian Iran makes me a third-class citizen,” while stressing that the secular PDKI is inclusive of Shia, Jews, and Christians hailing from every ethnic background.
A limited US-PDKI partnership already appears to exist. According to a choreographed confession in a 2013 documentary by Iran’s Press TV, an alleged collaborator with PDKI fed intelligence to the US and Israel on the Arak Nuclear Complex, Iran’s heavy water production site, a cornerstone of any weapons program.
Along with several other armed Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) and Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), all of which have increased activity in recent months, the PDKI pursues a comprehensive political campaign in conjunction with military action. Their strategy is as simple as their slogan: “In the mountains and the cities” – armed resistance in rural areas; civil activism in urban areas.
The PDKI’s momentum is galvanizing Kurdish nationalism. Kurds point to videos of young men holding Kurdish flags, large funerals for fallen activists in Kurdish cities like Marivan, and spontaneous protests over the last year in other population centers. When an oil truck from Iraq crashed into a bus in largely Kurdish Sanandaj in July, rioters immediately targeted Iranian security forces, blaming them for the carnage.
THE MAIN question is what all of this will amount to. Could groups like PDKI have a meaningful impact on US policy?
For starters, it’s worth noting that PDKI already helped topple an Iranian government once before, when it fought alongside the Marxist and Islamist-led 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah and established the present-day regime. Despite their support of the coup, the secular PDKI didn’t win long-denied rights for Kurds – and a Kurdish revolt was in full swing within two months. Iran’s nascent supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, proclaimed a fatwa of jihad against the Kurdish uprisings, the beginnings of the ongoing conflict.
The time to assist Kurdish groups in Iran is now, but the success of pro-Iranian parties in Iraq’s May election means they are under pressure to desist from continued action emanating from Iraq’s border. They also meet increasing hostility from Turkey, as the relationship between Ankara and Tehran grows over joint opposition to US policy in Syria. Washington has been reticent to mention the Kurds of Iran specifically when detailing Teheran’s abuses. This indicates that Kurdish activists have an uphill struggle ahead of them to convince the US and others that their goal is realistic.
So what should Washington do?
No sober assessment would suggest Iran’s Kurdish groups are a panacea, given some real but surmountable challenges. The some half-dozen groups are fraught with internal schisms and competition, but similar behavior by feuding Kurds in Iraq and Syria didn’t keep the US from forging vital partnerships in those arenas.
For their part, the Iranian Kurds are showing some encouraging initiative: in January, five of the parties established a joint intelligence and communications center to combat threats. PJAK, which is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is noticeably absent from the new center. PJAK is the Iranian Kurdish parallel of the PKK-affiliated, US-backed YPG forces in Syria. But unlike the YPG, PJAK isn’t receiving US arms and air support. One of the Obama administration’s first acts was to sanction PJAK as a terrorist organization for its ties to the PKK, “to protect [Turkish] citizens from attack” – despite PJAK never conducting operations within Turkey nor against any civilians. In stark contrast, the Trump Administration prioritized sanctioning the IRGC for terrorist activities around the globe – and just as the YPG is not seen as a terrorist organization for its links to the PKK, a policy review would find that neither is PJAK. The willingness to continue support for the YPG in spite of harsh Turkish criticism may offer hope for PJAK. To lay the groundwork for a successful Iran policy pivot, America must reassess the role of Iranian Kurdish parties, work to mediate their disputes and help unify them against the regime.
Concomitantly, meaningful support for the parties goes beyond reconciliation talks and establishing an intelligence funnel. With only small arms and worn-out tennis shoes, the Iranian Kurdish guerrillas lack the logistical support, equipment, funds and advanced training needed to maximize their potential. Meanwhile, Iran’s professional proxies function with impunity across the Middle East – with operatives capable of attacks and assassinations on every continent. What holds America back from aligning itself with freedom movements within Iran, in kind? Will America name names, and sanction Iranians operating against Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria? The United States says it will not depart from Syria until Iran does, but what of Iraq? A year ago, the Trump Administration stood idle as Iran-backed militants seized key Iraqi Kurdish areas. Moving forward, Iran must be denied this tacit license to operate how and where it likes, or rhetoric about forthcoming “rollback” and “containment” is just empty bluster.
The sooner the inevitable disintegration of Iran’s tyranny along domestic ethnic and religious fault lines, the fewer lives will be lost in the metastasizing carnage of proxy wars now raging across Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The action, or inaction, of tentatively stable Sunni Arab states will also have dramatic consequences. Concerned regional actors, from Jordan to Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, must consider the potential reward in backing Iran’s increasingly restless Kurdish population – just as they’ve become invested in the open-ended conflicts in Yemen and Syria being waged far from Iran’s borders but near their own.
There is now a desperate need for policy clarity. Washington has a unique opportunity to support allies in Iran who share its interests, values and enemies. Support for Kurdish groups must form part of a resolute and decisive strategy for the containment and rollback of Iran. Among the Iranian Kurdish guerrilla fighters of the PDKI out there in the remote border area between Iraq and Iran, the US has its perfect ally. It must use them – and sooner rather than later. The writer is a Kurdish affairs expert and field researcher for the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.
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