Iran Moves Against PJAK in Northern Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 29

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s most recent campaign of shelling Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, which allegedly targeted members of the outlawed Kurdish opposition group the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), eventually culminated with Iranian troops entering Iraqi Kurdish territory on August 23. According to Iraqi TV Channel al- Sharqiya on August 24, the most recent bombardments by Revolutionary Guard commandos (Pasdaran) led to the evacuation of more than 10,000 Kurds from their villages in the Pishar, Penjwin, Khurmal, Hajj Umaran and Qandil mountain range areas in the Iraqi governorates of Arbil and Sulaymaniyah (Asharq al-Awsat, August 24).

The Pasdaran’s hunt for PJAK fighters and activists comes at a critical juncture in Iran’s foreign relations and domestic politics. The Iranian government is increasingly isolated internationally over the nuclear issue as well as faces widespread domestic dissent over economic mismanagement, increased political repression and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy track record. Far from fulfilling his election promises of ending the country’s crony capitalist structures and corruption and thus actually catering to those who had voted for him, Ahmadinejad maintained the economic and political status quo of the country and brought the Pasdaran closer to the government than any other president has done before him. Far from only representing an elite military unit, the Pasdaran now constitute a significant political and economic power in Iran, with an estimated control of more than $12 billion in business, construction and energy ventures (Asharq al-Awsat, August 24).

While sporadic violence in the Kurdish-populated provinces of Iran is nothing new, the Pasdaran’s most recent incursion into Iraqi territory, which according to a Kurdish official destroyed several villages, demonstrates the top brass and elite’s willingness to defend the integrity of Iran’s central government at all costs (Kurd Sat TV, August 23). As a result of the PKK’s alleged relations with the United States and relative Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, the “Kurdish threat” ranks very high among government cabinet members. In fact, a number of ministers served as military or security officials in the Kurdish regions. Mostafa Najjar, the defense minister, is a former Pasdaran officer who took part in the crackdown against Kurdish separatists in the 1979 rebellion. Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi served as a Revolutionary Guard prosecutor in Kermanshah during the Iran-Iraq war, while Justice Minister Jamal Karimi-Rad served as public prosecutor in Kordestan.

The ethnic Kurds’ dissatisfaction and alienation was apparent in the Iranian presidential election in June 2005. Whereas the average national voter turnout was almost 60 percent, turnout in many predominantly Kurdish municipalities were below 20 percent. The same pattern recurred during the December 2006 elections, which were largely boycotted by Kurds and were followed by large-scale demonstrations condemning the arbitrary arrests and killings of Kurdish human rights activists. In 2006 alone, security forces reportedly killed up to 21 ethnic Kurds, injured scores more and arrested at least 190 (Amnesty International Report, 2006). Before the incursions by Iranian commandos in August this year, Operation “Cleansing of Salmas Region” resulted in the deaths of 10 Kurdish fighters at the hands of the Pasdaran in May this year (ISNA, May 30). It is evident that relations between the central government and the country’s ethnic Kurds reached an unprecedented volatile level.

Although earlier raids by the Pasdaran were confined to direct engagements with PJAK fighters, the shelling and incursions into Kurdish villages in August seemed to have been concerted efforts, intended to weaken and destroy the entire Kurdish military infrastructure. Villagers in the Hajj Umran District claimed that the Pasdaran distributed warning leaflets, ordering them to leave their homes. It read in part: “Our enemies, and in particular the United States, are trying to obstruct the security situation in our country [Iran] and are helped in this by a group of agents in the Qandil and Khanirah areas and the Islamic Republic of Iran authorities will act to purge them of these elements” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 22). Iranian fears of possible U.S. military actions against nuclear installations only exacerbate the plight of Iran’s Kurdish population.

The recent appointment of Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari as the new commander of the Revolutionary Guard by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei highlights to what extent the Iranian leadership is preparing for a possible attack. Jafari, who has strong strategic, military credentials and less of a political agenda, already announced that the Pasdaran “is fully prepared to confront any foreign threat” (Iran Daily, September 3).

Iran’s willingness to cross the border into Iraq now seriously raises the possibility of a broader conflict that could draw the Iraqi authorities as well as U.S. forces into direct confrontation with Iranian troops. Given the White House’s directive from February this year authorizing U.S. troops “to kill Iranian agents in Iraq” as well as the most recent decision by the Bush administration to designate the Pasdaran as a “specially designated global terrorist” organization, this could be a potential scenario.

In fact, Iran’s stepped up defense posture may owe more to the Pasdaran’s vow to retaliate against U.S. troops for capturing five Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops earlier this year in Erbil than actually to a perceived Kurdish threat. While PJAK killed several Pasdaran servicemen in skirmishes during the last six months, the Kurds inside Iran are actually too fragmented themselves in order to form a united front against Tehran. As Iranian Kurdish PJAK member Briyar Gabar attested prior to the most recent attacks: “We have to unify our common goals and merge our identical views. We have to come close together so that we will be able to strengthen the Kurdish cause and affect the enemy [Iran]” (Aso, August 13).

By all accounts, bombardments and incursions into Kurdish territory in Iraq seem to serve three interrelated purposes for the Iranians: a) destroying PJAK and other Kurdish military infrastructure; b) destabilizing Iraqi national integrity and Kurdish autonomy; c) provoking U.S. troops into direct confrontation. Evidently, the Revolutionary Guard’s ever-increasing political and economic clout and close alliance with President Ahmadinejad gives them a dangerous mandate. Together with Turkey’s June incursion into northern Iraq to pursue members of the PKK, the Pasdaran’s campaign not only violates Iraqi sovereignty, but also seriously jeopardizes regional security.

If Iran continues with the sporadic shelling of Katyusha rockets and particularly with incursions into Iraqi territory, the region of Kurdistan, so far Iraq’s most stable region, will ultimately be subject to violent ethnic unrest and violence. Although Tehran does not want to see the disintegration of Iraq, Iran’s short-term tactic is to meddle in Iraq not only to maintain a political and economic stake but also to “expedite” the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Since officials in Washington are still advocating the possibility of a military strike against Iran, the Pasdaran’s decision to “strike back” could, however, well provide the casus belli for the United States.