The Silent Force That Could Break Iran - From the Inside

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Kurdish fighter from Iran outside Kirkuk, October 2014.Credit: Eddie Gerald

What has made the Kurds in Iran wake up suddenly? Do they want autonomy too? What’s clear is that their fellow Kurds in Iraq prefer to have them sit by quietly.

The violent clash last month between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Kurdish forces fell under the journalistic radar. Only about a dozen Kurdish fighters were killed, along with several fighters from the Revolutionary Guards. Ostensibly, a small-scale skirmish relative to the wars raging in the region.

But because the quiet between the Kurds in Iran and the regime has been maintained for 20 years – the question now is whether that incident attests to the fact that the eight million Kurds living in Iran have suddenly developed aspirations for autonomy like those in neighboring Iraq. Are they trying to join the other Kurdish forces? Is this awakening part of a greater international plan to forge an anti-Iranian Kurdish force – or is this an internal Kurdish matter?

Iraqi Kurdish female fighter Haseba Nauzad and Yazidi female fighter Asema Dahir aim their weapon during a deployment near the frontline of the fight against ISIS, Nawaran, Iraq, April 20, 2016. Credit: Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters

For over two decades the rebellion of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran has been conducted from within the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDPI has about 2,000 fighters, who live in refugee camps and are not part of the Iraqi Kurdish population. The party aspires to establish an autonomous region and is the oldest organization representing the Kurds in Iran, having been founded in 1945.

Alongside it, or to be more exact, in opposition to it, is the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, which is considered the Iranian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization.

Thus, two parties claim to represent the Kurds in Iran, but there is no proof that the Kurdish population in Iran really supports either of them.

Iraqi Kurds in traditional dress. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran has about 2,000 fighters in Iraq but they are not part of the local Kurdish community.Credit: Safin Hamed/AFP

And that’s the “small” dispute. The really important conflict is the one between the KDPI and the leadership of the Kurdish region in Iraq, which is opposed to the KDPI’s violent activities against the Iranian regime.

As opposed to the prevailing view that all Kurds share a common ideology that is motivated by the desire to establish an independent state of their own – the agenda and strategy of each of the Kurdish groups is actually determined by harsh political disputes and economic interests.

For example, the Kurdish regime in Iraq is working to strengthen ties with Turkey, so that it will be able to continue to sell Kurdish oil via the Jihan port in Turkey to its customers worldwide, without disruptions. At the same time, the regime is diligently creating ties with Iran: This week it is expected to sign a memorandum of understandings with Tehran regarding construction of an oil pipeline through which it will be able to sell about 600,000 barrels of oil a day, via Iran, to the Persian Gulf and the rest of the world.

Turkish Kurds look towards the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from the top of a hill close to the border line between Turkey and Syria near Mursitpinar bordergate October 10, 2014. Credit: Reuters

The pipeline will constitute an additional boost to economic ties between the Kurdish region and Iran, designed to reduce dependence on Turkey in the event that Ankara decides to discontinue oil-related activities via its territory.

The connection between the Kurds in Iraq and those in Iran is liable to suffer if the Kurdish party in the latter country continues to clash with the government.

As KDPI deputy secretary general, Hassan Sharafi, said last week: “We cannot sit by idly for the sake of the interests of Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s not fair for one part of Kurdistan to sacrifice its interests for the sake of other parts.”

But the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan has the region’s economic and diplomatic interest in mind, and recently even demanded that the Iranian Kurdish party desist from clashes with the Revolutionary Guards, for fear that Iran will invade Iraqi Kurdish territory in order to attack the party's bases located in the northern part of the region.

A source in the Iraqi Kurdistan regime told Haaretz that if the KDPI fighters don’t accede to this demand, “We may have no choice but to expel them from the region. If they want to wage wars, let them do so in Iran and not via our territory.”

He added that he doesn’t understand “what happened to them all of a sudden After all, they know that they have no chance against the Iranian forces. If they want to remind the world that they exist, there are ways of doing so without endangering the interests of the Kurdish people.”

Meanwhile, as usual, there are conspiracy theories emerging to the effect that the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel are behind the Kurdish-Iranian conflict, with the goal of forming a “Kurdish bloc” to keep Iran preoccupied and pressure it to remove its forces from Syria. This is a groundless theory, since the military challenge the Iranian Kurdish Party can present to the Iranian regime is virtually nonexistent. True, it started this month to send representatives to Kurdish communities in Iran in order to mobilize support, but so far there has been little success.

The more reasonable assessment is that, in light of the strategic importance that the United States attributes to the Kurds in Syria, in the context of the war against Islamic State, or ISIS, and on the backdrop of the war being waged by Turkey against the Kurds – the Iranian Kurdish party wants to position itself as a part of the same pro-Western, anti-Iranian Kurdish bloc, and perhaps to benefit from some of the U.S. financial support provided to the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.