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Iranian Kurdistan: A simmering cauldron

by ISN Security Watch Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007 at 6:09 PM

Simmering discontent among Iran's ethnic Kurdish minority - aided by the government's conflict with a Turkish PKK offshoot - could spell major trouble for the Iranian government. The US government is fully aware of these tensions, and, according to published reports, is preparing several contingency plans to capitalize on mass discontent in these areas.

12 November 2007

By Kamal Nazer Yasin in Tehran for ISN Security Watch (12/11/07)

The Iranian government is taking aim at a shadowy branch of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in an attempt to head off rising resentment the country's ethnic Kurdish community.

Iran's ethnic minorities make up around 44 percent of the population. Except for the Azeri minority in the north, which comprises around 22 percent, there is much mutual mistrust between the ethnic groups and the central government. This is partly due to the bloody events of the post-revolutionary days when large-scale uprisings for independence and local autonomy became the norm in most outlying areas. Since that period, the government has come to look at these areas as potential sites of unrest.

While blatant and systematic instances of ethnic discrimination are rarely practiced in Iran, the border areas of Khuzestan, Balochistan and Kurdistan - where the ethnic Arab, Baloch and Kurdish minorities live, respectively - are among the most underdeveloped in the country, thanks to the government's reluctance to allocate much-needed capital and know-how to these regions.

Moreover, practically all mid- to high-level officials are brought in from outside, exacerbating the situation. It does not help that the population is primarily Sunni while the officials hail from the Shia branch of Islam.

The US government is fully aware of these tensions, and, according to published reports, is preparing several contingency plans to capitalize on mass discontent in these areas.

If and when destabilization campaigns against Tehran get underway, experts believe overt or covert support for these three regions will be high on the agenda of whoever will occupy the White House in January 2009. For now though, there seems to be little US direct assistance to any of Iran's ethnic groups.

The Kurdish minority is the Islamic Republic's second largest ethnic group. A mass uprising after the revolution, led by two armed Kurdish groups - the leftist-nationalist Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Maoist Komoleh - managed to cleanse the area of the government presence for a while. This was followed by a mini-civil war that left tens of thousands people dead and wounded and much of the economy in ruins - a situation that has not changed much since.

Today, over 50 percent of young people in Kurdistan are unemployed or semi-employed, while there are only six large-scale factories operating in the whole province. In addition, the Kurdish population lives under heavy repression and militarization, courtesy of the Iranian government.

Change finally came with the fall of Baghdad in 2003, when the US-led invasion precipitated a takeover of the entire Iraqi Kurdish region -including the oil-rich Kirkuk -by two Iraqi Kurdish groups: the Kurdish Patriotic Front led by Jalal Talibani and Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq (KDPI) led by Massood Barzani.

The freedoms and general prosperity of the areas under these two groups created a surge of optimism and hope for Iranian Kurds. In response, Tehran decided to finally loosen somewhat the long-standing repressive measures that had been in place for nearly 25 years. Cross-border visits to friends and relatives were allowed for the first time and a flourishing smuggling trade in goods and contraband was tolerated. This, it was hoped, would reduce the autonomous yearnings of the local population for the time being.

Another major development that followed the US-led invasion was that the two armed guerilla groups, Komoleh and KDPI, unilaterally decided to cease armed struggle, opting to engage in "non-violent means" instead. "This was more a pragmatic decision than anything else," a Kurdish journalist who closely monitors developments within these two groups told ISN Security Watch.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said the two groups were anxious to join a putative US destabilization campaign.

"They hit two birds with one stone," he said. "They could not be accused of terrorism any longer, while by doing so they could maintain their present force level for that anticipated time in the future when an Iran-US confrontation would finally take place."

Instead of armed skirmishes with the regime, their work consists of beaming daily TV and radio programs to Iran from their Iraqi headquarters: in Koi Sanjag, where the KDPI operates under Barzani; and the Zargar Barz, where Komeleh operates under Talibani.

As a rule, to make their power and influence felt in Iran, armed bands from these groups sometimes enter Iranian Kurdish cities at night, where they issue leaflets against known drug smugglers, threatening them with summary execution if they refuse to cease and desist. They return the next night to pass their sentence if the smuggler has not left the area.

The birth of a new rival

Under the aegis and supervision of the PKK, a new political-military entity, the Kurdish Party of Free Life, entered the scene in 2004. Known by its Kurdish acronym, PJAK, the group has changed the regional equation in unexpected ways. Led by the charismatic Rahman Haj Ahmadi, it managed to attract a goodly number of fighters and sympathizers from around Kurdistan in very short order, including disaffected KDPI and Komoleh members angry at the abandonment of the armed struggle.

At first the Iranian government did not consider the PJAK a serious threat. According to reliable sources, the Revolutionary Guards of Iran even created PJAK contingents of their own to infiltrate other groups and establish covert programs against Turkish interests in the area.

However, the first armed skirmishes with the PJAK in 2005 soon changed the government's complacency. The group proved far more adept at hit-and-run tactics and in propaganda against the government than had been anticipated.

Today, the PJAK's armed units freely roam the countryside, ambush patrols, hold "people's trials" against notorious collaborators or drug smugglers and make recruiting runs with great daring.

In August, the government ran out of patience and launched a heavy bombardment of PJAK camps in the rugged mountains of Qandil, where the PKK shares facilities and fortifications with PJAK, less than 20 miles from the Iraqi side of the border. In response, the PJAK started a robust guerilla counter-offensive that was so intense Kurdish sources claim that a large number of Revolutionary Guards recruits deserted.

Everyone's quandary

The surprising resiliency of the PJAK confounds most local and regional players. Aside from the Iranian government, which had unwittingly aided PJAK growth by creating rogue contingents of the group, the Iranian Kurdish groups are hard pressed to find a viable strategy in dealing with this new entrant.

The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Authorities, particularly the Kurdish Patriotic Front, which has close links with Iran, are embarrassed by the PJAK's activities, which technically originate from their areas of control.

The US government is rather reluctant to give assistance to the PJAK at present, as it may complicate its efforts to force Iran to disengage from its support for groups like Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq.

According to newspaper reports, US State Department officials refused to meet PJAK leader Haj Ahmadi last summer when he traveled to Washington for face-to-face talks, although unconfirmed reports indicated he may have met with mid-level Pentagon officials in DC.

A surprising, alleged player

When asked about the possible sources of PJAK funding and support, a noted Iranian political scientist who is an expert in regional geopolitics told ISN Security Watch that one need look no further than Israel.

"Israel is definitely in on it," he said, offering no tangible proof, but pointing to several reports of a heavy Mossad (Israeli intelligence) presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and the fact that Israel considers Iran as an existential threat to its security.

"Look, the Israelis supported the Kurds as early as 1965 when it suited their regional interests. The situation right now is far more propitious [...] than it was in 1966," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

All indications are that the PJAK's strength will only grow in the future. Many Iranian Kurds are likely to secretly sympathize with PJAK's actions. A casual roundup of these opinions by this author in Kurdistan showed general support for the group's aim and motives, though some disparaged its methods.

Aware of this fact, the Iranian government closed the border for several weeks in September to increase the cost for political sympathy. This was ostensibly to protest the arrest of a high-ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer by US Special Forces in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who was visiting the area with permission from Kurdish authorities. The border closure caused severe hardship for Iranian Kurds whose sustenance is reliant on the border trade and smuggling.

Most experts believe that the PJAK's fate is closely bound to its parent, the Turkish PKK. The two Iraqi Kurdish groups have found in the PKK an important bargaining chip against both Turkey and the US that could be used for gaining full sovereignty over Kirkuk oil fields when the time for negotiating finally arrives.

And despite much pressure from the Turkish government to disband the Qandil camps, or Iran's pressure tactics against other regional powers, nothing will change the situation as long as Iraqi Kurdish authorities refuse to move against the PKK - and PJAK - positions.

Kamal Nazer Yasin is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist reporting for ISN Security Watch from Tehran.

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