Iran Uses Cross-Border Incursions to Pressure Iraqi Kurds to End PJAK Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 33

An Iraqi Kurdish border guard stands near the closed gates of the Iranian side of the Iraq-Iran border post

Iran has recently shelled border villages and launched cross-border raids into northern Iraq to step up pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to stop the anti-Iranian operations of the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane (PJAK – Party of Free Life of Iranian Kurdistan). Iran has furthermore diverted the water flow of the al-Wand river that is the lifeline of the Kurdish area of Khanaqin in the Diyala province (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 5). Iran has stated that the KRG or other Iraqi security forces should control the border or Iran would continue operations to destroy PJAK (Siyasat-e Ruz, July 28). For now the shelling and operations have stopped, but Iranian officials have indicated military operations will continue.

PJAK was founded by the larger and older Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in 2004 as an Iranian-Kurdish equivalent to the PKK insurgency against the Turkish government after the United States toppled the Ba’athist regime in Iraq in 2003. Iran retaliated to PJAK attacks in 2006 with cross-border shelling to press the KRG to act against the group.

There were signs earlier this year that Iran was preparing for the recent cross-border operations. In March, PJAK’s intelligence division claimed Iran was dispatching thousands of Basij auxiliary forces to the border (, March 9). In June, Kurdish media reported Iran was building local roads leading to the Kurdistan region of Iraq and military camps in the border region (Peyamner, June 27).

Iranian media reported there was ongoing frustration in Iran over the PJAK operations targeting the police and border guards in January and March (Siyasat-e Ruz, July 8). In April a committee was formed by the Iranian parliament to probe the PJAK attacks (Fars News Agency, April 7). This committee likely played a role in the decision to launch military operations.

KRG president Massoud Barzani denounced Iran’s shelling of the border region in early July after increased disaffection among the Kurdish population over the bombardment of civilian areas. Barzani called on Baghdad to act and warned Iran that the bombing could hurt relations (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 6). A high-ranking Iranian military official responded on July 11 by accusing Barzani’s government of allocating 300,000 hectares of land to the PJAK, and supporting PJAK operations (Jaam-e Jam, July 12).  Contrary to these claims, however, the PKK camps used by PJAK were already established in 1991, and not given to the PKK by the KRG (see Terrorism Monitor, September 21, 2006). [1]

After making these allegations, Tehran  deployed 5,000 troops in the northwest corner of Iran along its common border with the Iraqi Kurdistan region, though PJAK claimed the number was closer to 50,000  (Press TV, July 13; al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 2). On July 13 there were reports that Iranian forces had entered 150-300 meters inside Iraqi territory in order to prepare operations and warn locals to evacuate their villages ( [Sulaymaniyah], July 14).

On July 16, Iran launched cross border operations against PJAK, leading to clashes between Iranian security forces and PJAK (Ajansa Nuceyan a Firate [ANF], July 27). According to the PKK, these operations ended on July 31 (ANF, August 2). Iranian media reported two operations on July 17 and July 25 that destroyed several PJAK camps (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting [IRIB], August 11).

Both sides claimed moral victories while sustaining significant losses. However, Iran wasn’t able to destroy PJAK’s ability to carry out operations within Iran, as shown by the late July killing of a number of Revolutionary Guard officers,  an attack on a Basij base in Sarvabad province  and August 11 attacks on the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline (Fars News Agency, July 25;  Jomhuri-Ye Eslami [Tehran], July 30; AP, August 12).

KRG officials have asserted that they will not allow their soil to be used to threaten neighboring countries and urged the PKK and PJAK to end their armed struggle (, August 12). In reality the KRG did nothing to stop the attacks launched from their soil; Kurdish officials admitted to an Iranian newspaper that they don’t have the military capability to stop PJAK (Tehran Times, July 27). Iran recognized the KRG’s inability to combat the PKK and suggested that PJAK disarm itself, end its operations and settle in the Kurdistan region like other Iranian opposition parties such as Komala and the Parti Demokirati Kurdistani Iran (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan – PDKI), which do not carry out armed operations against Iran (, August 2). PJAK leader Hadji Ahmadi responded by saying PJAK is ready to lay down arms if Iran accepts it as a legal political party in Iran (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 2). PJAK, however, doesn’t accept being settled in KRG territory.

Any attempt by the KRG to assert its authority over the mountainous areas by launching military operations against PJAK would result in major casualties and public opposition in Kurdistan.  Kurdish officials have therefore emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution.

It is unlikely that Iran would allow PJAK to operate as a legal party in Iran, nor is it likely that PJAK will lay down its arms. PJAK’s commitment to a military solution to its conflict with Iran is seen in its attacks on the Revolutionary Guard and the sabotage of the Tabriz-Ankar pipeline even while Iran’s Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi stated PJAK is on the verge of collapse (Fars News Agency, August 12).

On August 9, the acting leader of the PKK, Murat Karayilan, said that Iran had stopped the attacks, and that PJAK forces will be replaced by guerrillas of the PKK’s Hezen Parastina Gel (People’s Defense Forces – HPG). “Our movement doesn’t consider it right to fight against Iran, who is the second target to be besieged after Syria. For the present, we don’t have an agenda to battle against Iran but we will have to take a decision to fight if Iran attacks on our positions and exhibits a hostile attitude to the Kurdish people” (, August 9).

However, Iranian officials warned operations would continue. According to Sayed Azim Husseini, Iran’s consul in Erbil:  “As long as there is activity of the PJAK-militants against Iran on the common border between Iran and Iraq, Iran will not halt its bombardments of these areas” (, August 17). This was echoed by Revolutionary Guards’ spokesman Hamid Ahmedi, who added that the Guards will not retreat from the borders (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 17).

Turkish jets bombed PKK camps on August 17 after a PKK ambush killed between eight to ten soldiers (Hurriyet, August 17, August 18). After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the PKK that Turkey would launch more operations, PKK media claimed Turkey and Iran were planning joint operations against the PKK and PJAK (Today’s Zaman, August 15; ANF, August 15 2011).

Despite all the speculation in the Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, and Iraqi media about the goals of the military operations in the border region, it is clear the clashes will continue. The most important question is whether Turkey will conduct its operations on its own, or will cooperate with Iran in fighting the PKK in the future and share U.S. intelligence about the PKK with Iran.


[1] The PJAK camps are no different from those of the PKK. One could say the camps were given to PJAK by the PKK. A compiled “martyrs” list of PJAK-insurgents from the PJAK and affiliated Hezen Rizgariye Kurdistan (HRK) websites show that of the 173 listed martyrs, 116 are from Iran (67%), 43 from Turkey (25%), 12 from Syria (7%) and two from Iraq (1%). Although the data identifying where the insurgents were killed is inaccurate, it still shows a large number of PJAK-insurgents were killed in Turkey, which suggests they were part of PKK operations against Turkey. This means there is no difference between the fighting units of the PKK and that PJAK that consists of insurgents from Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The website of the HRK also shows a portrait of “leader Apo” (PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan).