Kurdish revolt makes Iran uneasy

For the past year at least, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the backbone of the Islamic Republic in Iran, has been engaged in a bloody war against Kurdish rebels in four provinces bordering Iraq.

Image Credit:Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
Gulf News

For the past year at least, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the backbone of the Islamic Republic in Iran, has been engaged in a bloody war against Kurdish rebels in four provinces bordering Iraq.

Initially, the authorities in Tehran tried to keep the war a secret, referring to it only occasionally as " operations against evil-doers".

However, things changed last February when "evil-doers" destroyed an IRGC combat helicopter killing nine officers, including the regional military commander General Saeed Qahhari. The incident took place in a place called Jahannam-Darreh (Hell Valley) close to Khoy, a town in West Azerbaijan province where Kurds, though present in big numbers, form only a minority.

The IRGC retaliated with a series of attacks against alleged Kurdish rebel positions in the mountainous area around the border town of Salmas in which at least 17 "Kurdish evil-doers", including their overall local commander, a naturalised German citizen of Turkish-Kurdish origin, code-named Doctor Meraat, were killed.

Since then, the IRGC has issued cryptic reports about dozens of other "engagements" in which scores of policemen, border patrols and IRGC members have been killed or wounded while killing at least 100 Kurdish insurgents.

There is no doubt that what is known in Tehran as "the Kurdish threat", represents one of the key security concerns of the Islamic Republic leaders as they prepare for a broader regional war. In response to the insurgency, the IRGC has set up a special command centre at the Hamza Base, near the Iraqi border, and committed one full division plus a unit of airborne Special Forces to curb the insurgency.

The IRGC claims that the rebels are based in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact, however, is that all the fighting reported until earlier this month has taken place well inside Iranian territory, often in areas with a non-Kurdish majority.

In June, the IRGC started shelling Iraqi Kurdish villages. An unknown number of Kurds, both Iraqis and Iranians who had sought refuge in Iraq, were killed. Despite protests by the Iraqi government, including one delivered face-to-face by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki in his meeting with the Iranian "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei in Tehran earlier this summer, the IRGC has continued its attacks on Iraqi villages.

The shelling has forced thousands of Kurdish villagers, both Iranians and Iraqis, to abandon their homes and join the flow of "displaced persons" heading for towns deeper inside Iraq. The areas most affected by the fighting are within the strongholds of Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. Both have a history of close ties with Iran going back four decades. Nevertheless, because both allied themselves with the US in toppling Saddam Hussain in 2003, Tehran suspects them of trying to foment a Kurdish insurgency in Iran as part of a bigger "American plot" to destabilise Iran. However, the three Kurdish groups involved in the insurgency can hardly be regarded as vassals of either of the two Iraqi Kurdish chiefs.

New outfit

The group most active in the recent fighting is a new outfit named Kurdistan Free Life Party, better known under its Kurdish acronym of PJAK. Judging by its literature, PJAK is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a guerrilla movement of Turkish Kurds that has been fighting for a Kurdish state in eastern Anatolia since the 1970s.

Ironically, Tehran has given the PKK shelter and support against Turkey for years, as a means of bleeding Nato's lone regional member. Some analysts claim that Ankara may have decided to repay Tehran in its own currency by creating PJAK. Others, however, regard PJAK as an effort by PKK to expand its constituency beyond the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

What is certain, however, is that most of PJAK's leaders are not Iranian Kurds. Some of the party's key figures are Turkish Kurds who have lived in exile in Germany for at least a quarter of a century. The fact that PJAK has been operating in areas in Iran that are close to PKK strongholds in Turkey and Iraq is another indication that the two parties may well be one with two names.

The areas where PJAK is active in Iran are home to substantial numbers of ethnic Kurds. But in almost all of them the majority of the population consists of ethnic Turkic-speaking Azeris.

In the Kurdish heartland of Iran, the two provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshahan, where ethnic Kurds are in majority, PJAK appears to have little support.

There, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), created 62 years ago, enjoys the largest support, followed by Komalah, a formerly Communist outfit that claims to have converted to democracy after the fall of the Soviet empire.

The PDK, a self-styled social-democratic group, has campaigned for greater autonomy for Iranian Kurds since the 1940s. After the mullahs seized power in 1979, PDK helped their regime in the hope of obtaining concessions. The mullahs, however, banned the PDK and organised the assassination of two successive generations of its leaders in exile in Vienna and Berlin in 1989 and 2002.

Since the murders, the PDK has joined Iranian opposition groups that call for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, but has not preached armed uprising as a means of achieving that goal.

Komalah, however, has waged a guerrilla war against the Islamic Republic for the past 25 years, paying a high price in human terms.

The Tehran rumour mill claims that the replacement of the senior IRGC leaders, including its overall commander, is a sign that the " Supreme Guide" is unhappy about the spreading Kurdish insurgency along the border with Iraq.

As always in the Islamic Republic, however, Tehran's claims of a US-hatched plot to incite the Kurds against the mullahs should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Tehran leadership may be using the claim to justify building a string of fortifications along the border with Iraq in anticipation of conflict with the US. The idea is that, if attacked, Iran would retaliate by entering Iraq from the three Kurdish provinces most loyal to Washington and regarded as the only "safe haven" for American forces there, while inciting the Iraqi Shi'ites to rise in revolt in the central and southern provinces.

Talk of a Kurdish insurgency also helps Tehran impose what amounts to a state of emergency in parts of the four provinces with large Kurdish populations. This has enabled the authorities to arrest hundreds of opponents, including trade unionists, student leaders, journalists, lawyers, and Sunni Muslim clerics without bothering about legal formalities.

There is no doubt that the areas where Iran's estimated 4.5 million ethnic Kurds live are in turmoil, posing a challenge to the leadership in Tehran. The challenge, however, comes from political dissidents, especially working class activists, not guerrillas operating from bases in Iraq.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe and is a member of Benador Associates.