Iranian Kurds fear regime’s threat of incursion

BEHIND THE LINES: Why is Iran choosing to target small, exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition organizations in northern Iraq, at a time when unrest within Iran itself is ongoing?

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran, September 19, 2022. (photo credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran, September 19, 2022.
(photo credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

The crisis in western Iran is intensifying. As Sanandaj and other cities burn, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) last weekend issued a curious statement threatening a military incursion into Kurdish northern Iraq.

The statement read: “In case of inability of some neighbors in expelling elements of separatist terrorists and hypocrites stationed in the border areas... the armored and special forces units of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces are ready to be deployed to free this region of these evils forever.”

A report at Voice of America on October 4, meanwhile, quoted a senior Kurdish Region of Iraq official who noted a buildup of Iranian forces on the border, and said that the Iranian regime had sent a message to the KRI confirming that Iran may launch a ground operation into northern Iraq, if Iranian Kurdish forces do not withdraw from the border area. In response, according to the official, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have demanded that Iranian Kurdish fighters withdraw from their positions along the border.

These threats follow a number of attacks carried out by Iranian regime forces on facilities belonging to Iranian Kurdish opposition parties on Iraqi soil, beginning on September 28. Sixteen people lost their lives in these attacks, including one American citizen. All this comes amid the rising death toll in the majority Kurdish provinces of western Iran, as Tehran seeks to crush the protests against the regime.

Why the rage against Kurdish organizers in Iraq?

Why is Iran choosing to target small, exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition organizations in northern Iraq, at a time when unrest within Iran itself is ongoing?

A woman holds a placard during a protest following the death of Mahsa Amini and Iranian attack in Iraq's Kurdistan region, in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, September 28, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED JALAL)A woman holds a placard during a protest following the death of Mahsa Amini and Iranian attack in Iraq's Kurdistan region, in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, September 28, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED JALAL)

IRANIAN KURDS suspect the regime intends a repeat of events that took place shortly after the revolution of 1979, when majority Kurdish areas were isolated and then subjected to massacres. The targeting of Kurdish organizations would form part of an effort to “brand” the protests as a separatist Kurdish uprising, which would then be crushed using maximum force.

The Kurdish organizations in question – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Kurdistan Freedom Party, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, and Komala – are not engaged in active insurgency against the Iranian regime. These parties maintain armed wings, but their small and lightly armed forces engage only in training and some patrolling along the borderline. They are forbidden by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities from launching armed actions across the border. The Iraqi Kurds are aware of the dangers of provoking Iran.

Arash Saleh, a senior activist with the KDPI, told The Jerusalem Post that “the regime wants to distract international attention from what is currently going on in Iran by spilling its crisis over to the neighboring countries. For years, this regime’s remedy for the crisis it was facing has been creating new crises and specifically the ones with an international dimension.”

A source from the Iranian Kurdish city of Sanandaj, epicenter of the current protests, meanwhile, suggested that “the regime claims that Iranian Kurdish opposition in Iraqi Kurdistan are fueling the protests in Iran and specifically in Iranian Kurdistan and they plot for separation. In this way, they want to provoke the demonstrators in other provinces to stop protesting and stop the risk of Kurdistan province separating from Iran.”

The current unrest in Iran has spread to all 31 provinces of the country, but its origins are in the province of Kurdistan, home to the majority of Iran’s Kurds. Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, whose killing at the hands of the regime sparked the current unrest, was Kurdish, and hailed from the town of Saqqez, in Kurdistan province. The slogan that has become the symbol of the current protests, “Jin, jiyan, azadi” – Kurdish for “Women, life, freedom” – was coined by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdish PKK.

Kurdistan province is among the most impoverished and underdeveloped of Iranian governorates. The Kurdish population of Iran, numbering nine to 10 million in a country of 84 million and concentrated in the western part of the country, is doubly oppressed. In addition to facing the travails known to all Iranians, living under the stifling and repressive rule of the Islamic regime, Iran’s Kurds are the object of the regime’s particular attention as an ethnic minority suspected of separatist tendencies.

In the period immediately following the revolution of 1979, the then-fledgling IRGC fought a bloody campaign in Kurdistan province against Kurdish rebels seeking greater autonomy.

The fighting reached its peak in mid-1980, with a massive offensive by the regime’s armed forces, accompanied by the summary executions of thousands of Iranian Kurds. The main Kurdish movements engaged at that time against the regime were the KDPI and the leftist Komala Party. Following the repression, these movements reestablished themselves across the border in northern Iraq.

Both these movements still exist, and their facilities were among the targets of the Iranian attacks in recent days.

The Iranian regime has, since the 1980s, maintained a tight and repressive hold on the province. Imprisonment or worse remains the common fate of those who seek to organize against the regime. Tehran has in recent years also frequently turned to the use of execution by hanging as a means of enforcing its authority. From January 1 to June 30 this year, 251 people have been hanged in Iran, compared to 117 in the first half of last year, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO. Iranian Kurds and Balochis are disproportionately represented among those executed. The roster includes Kurdish political activists convicted of membership in one or another of the Kurdish political organizations listed above, which the Iranian regime considers “terrorist” organizations.

AS OF now, Kurdistan province and particularly the focal city of Sanandaj, along with parts of Tehran and Mahabad, remain the epicenter of the protests. Intensified demonstrations over the weekend led to the use of live ammunition against protesters for the first time in Sanandaj. An unknown number of people have been killed and wounded in the city, where the protests are continuing.

Reluctancy to attack protesters in Sanandaj

In Sanandaj, some evidence is emerging of reluctance on the part of Kurdish members of the security forces to take part in the worst of the repression.

A source from Sanandaj, who is in constant touch with protesters in the city, told the Post that “witnesses say they [the regime] deployed Kurdish repressive forces from Kermanshah province but they refused to attack people. The people from Kermanshah are mainly Shia Kurds. So they tend to be closer to the regime, and the regime trusts them more. So the regime had tried to deploy them to repress demonstrations.

“Then, in the last few nights, they deployed 15 buses of special guards from Yazd. Yazd is far from Sanandaj, in central Iran. The people there are Persian, religious, and affiliated with the regime.”

Video evidence has since emerged suggesting that the Iranian authorities have begun, in the last days, to use live fire against protesters in Sanandaj. The video clips included what appeared to be evidence of the firing of armor piercing 50-caliber bullets on private homes.

The Iranian Kurds fear a repeat of the slaughter of 40 years ago, with the world similarly looking aside. The possibility of an Iranian cross-border operation to accompany this should not be ruled out. The protests are, according to our Sanandaj source, “the most intense since 1980.” The Iranian regime appears to be preparing the ground for them to end in a similar way.