Iran’s Impending Military Intervention In Iraqi Kurdistan: Catalysts and Unintended Consequences

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 21

Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) (Source: Rudaw)

The Iranian Foreign Ministry warned on October 4 that its “strategic patience” with what it described as anti-Iranian terrorist groups operating in the Iraqi Kurdistan region had come to an end (Pars Today, October 5). The remarks followed threats by both Iran’s top military commander, Mohammad Bagheri, and minister of intelligence, Esmaeil Khatib, of intensified Iranian military activity in Iraqi Kurdistan if the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi government continued to refuse to confront these anti-Iran groups (Tehran Times, September 25).

In recent years, Turkey has also intensified its military presence in northern Iraq to target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by establishing up to 40 military bases and pushing its buffer zone deeper into KRG territory (The New Arab, June 18). [1] Compared to this, Iran’s military footprint in Iraqi Kurdistan has remained low-profile. However, with Iran now mimicking the “either you do it, or we will” rhetoric used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding Turkey’s extensive military operations against the PKK, it appears that Iran could be laying the groundwork for a similar large-scale military intervention of its own in KRG territory (Shafaq, June 2).

Contextualizing Iran’s Kurdish Conflict

The Iranian threats came after a notable escalation in cross-border hostilities between the Iranian military and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), an Iranian Kurdish political and militant group. In August, the KDPI accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of assassinating a senior party member in Erbil (Rudaw, August 7). The Zagros Eagles, a militant group linked to the KDPI that operates in Iran, subsequently shot an official from Iran’s Basij paramilitary force in Kurdish-populated Mahabad, Iran on August 25 (Rudaw, August 30). The Iranian military then escalated tensions by targeting KDPI militants with drone strikes in the Sidakan and Choman areas of Erbil province on September 9, prior to launching multiple drones, mortar, and airstrike attacks on Iranian-Iraqi border zones, which continued sporadically throughout September (Rudaw, September 9).

Like Turkey, Iran has fought to suppress Kurdish militant insurgencies throughout its modern history.  As the oldest surviving Iranian Kurdish militant and political group seeking greater autonomy for Iran’s roughly ten million Kurds, the KDPI took advantage of the chaos that ensued during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to briefly carve out a degree of autonomy in Mahabad and other Kurdish majority areas in West Iran. [2] However, this period of short-lived autonomy ended after former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared jihad against the KDPI, causing a large IRGC military offensive in 1980 which led to the re-establishment of Iranian government control. [3]

The KDPI waged guerrilla warfare against Iran intermittently throughout the 1980s, before the group relocated to Erbil’s Koysinjaq district in Iraqi Kurdistan, and later announced a ceasefire in 1996. [4] However, following increased Iranian repression of its Kurdish minority, the KDPI announced in March 2016 that it was giving up its two-decade ceasefire with the Iranian government (Al-Monitor, July 1, 2016).

Iran’s Lack of Influence in Iraqi Kurdistan

While the KRG’S Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has regularly criticized the PKK and demanded it leave the Kurdistan region, the KRG leadership has not attempted to exercise the same pressure on the KDPI. Following the escalation of Iranian military operations targeting the KDPI in September, KRG officials called upon the Federal Iraqi authorities to respond to Iran’s bombings rather than condemn the KDPI itself (Al-Arabiya, September 20). If Iran’s escalation of military activity had been aimed at increasing KDP pressure on the KDPI, the most it achieved was condemnation from the Kurdish ambassador in Iran of unspecified “activities” that led to the Iranian military retaliation (VOA, September 23).

Compared to the PKK, the relative laxity of the KDP in its dealings with the KDPI highlights Iran’s limited influence in the Kurdistan region relative to Turkey. While economic relations with Turkey, including the exportation of oil from Erbil to Europe via Turkey, are vital to the KRG, internationally sanctioned Iran is a far less economically attractive partner. [5] The desire to maintain strong economic relations with Turkey has contributed to Turkey’s success in pressuring the KDP to facilitate Turkey’s ongoing military operations against the PKK. [6] Economic relations with Iran are not as economically central to the KRG, and Iran has been forced to wield influence indirectly through Baghdad, using the militant and political organizations it formed and embedded in the Iraqi federal state as a conduit (Terrorism Monitor, February 12).

The KDP is also constrained by domestic opinion to move against the KDPI. The KDP has faced a PKK media campaign criticizing its relationship with Turkey, with the KDP accused of facilitating the Turkish killing of Kurds (ANHA, February 12). If the KDP were to expel or disarm the KDPI in order to appease Iran, accusations that the greater Kurdish struggle for autonomy had been betrayed would multiply, and potentially influence KDP’s domestic support base. The KDP itself is also unlikely to have forgotten how Iranian-backed proxies embedded in the Iraqi state security institution, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), seized control of Kirkuk alongside the Iraqi army from the KDP’s Peshmerga in 2017. Therefore, the KDP is reluctant to move against the KDPI and contribute to furthering Iran’s strategic interests, whether that be in Iran or Iraq.

Iran Attempts to Link KDPI to Its Regional Rivals 

With Iran aware that it cannot force the KPD to move against the KDPI, statements by Iranian officials over recent months reflect an attempt to prepare both domestic and international audiences for further unilateral Iranian military intervention against the KDPI. For its domestic audience, Iran has increasingly linked its localized conflict with Kurdish militant groups to its self-proclaimed global struggle against the anti-Islamic US-Israeli axis. On September 9, before launching the first of its drone attacks against the KDPI in Erbil province, the IRGC posted a Quran verse calling to “fight the disbelievers” (IRGC Twitter, September 9). [7]

The weeks that followed saw Iranian officials, while never mentioning the KDPI by name, claim that Iranian military activities were a crushing response to counter-revolutionary and terrorist groups organized by the intelligence services of hostile foreign powers (The National News, September 20). Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme Security Council, linked the increased movement of terrorist groups in the Iraqi Kurdistan region to the alleged new U.S. National Security doctrine in the region (Mehr News Agency, September 12). Iranian General Mohammad Bagheri then directly accused the U.S. of supporting Kurdish militant groups and holding secret meetings at al-Harir air Base in Erbil (al-Monitor, September 22). Unlike in Turkey, Iran’s conflict with Kurdish separatist groups has always been seen as a much more peripheral issue. By labeling the KDPI as disbelievers and promoting the narrative of U.S.-KDPI links, Iran seeks to re-contextualize its suppression of the Kurdish insurgency in a form that would be more relevant to Iran’s domestic audience.

Meanwhile, for an international audience, Iranian officials on several occasions appealed to Iran’s legal right to secure borders and the KRG’s alleged breach of international law for allowing terrorist groups to receive military training to attack Tehran(Press TV, October 6). By anonymizing the KDPI, Iran hopes that the international community will show the same nonchalance towards Iran’s greater military activity in the region as the international community has shown towards Turkey’s military activities in northern Syria and Iraq. [8]

Iranian Intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan: Opportunities and Risks 

Iran’s goals in Iraqi Kurdistan have remained constant over the past decade: secure Iran’s borders from Iranian Kurdish militants, force the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and maintain access to Syria. Iranian-aligned PMU proxies have achieved the latter by controlling border crossings and strategic locations from the Iran-Iraq border through Federal Iraq to the Syrian border. [9] Likewise, with the U.S. confirming plans to withdraw all remaining combat troops from Iraq, Iran’s attention can now focus on border security (Al-Jazeera, July 27).

The concern over Iran’s borders has been amplified following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan in August and increased tensions with Azerbaijan in October. Iran knows that its PMU proxies would be too stretched to launch an offensive against the KDPI while maintaining their current territorial control that facilitates access to Syria. Additionally, with Muqtada al-Sadr becoming the main winner of the Iraqi parliamentary elections on October 10, overstretching PMU resources could strategically backfire. Al-Sadr has already indicated that he would seek to return total state control over the use of armed force in Iraq, thereby casting doubt over the future of the Iranian-aligned militias in the PMUs (Hamdi Malik Twitter, October 11). These concerns make the use of Iran’s own armed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan more pertinent.

For a successful military intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran could seek to replicate Turkey’s military activities in the region. Turkey has reduced PKK cross-border capabilities through its 35–40-kilometer buffer zone and its many military bases throughout the region. There is already some evidence that Iran has begun establishing a direct military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. In September, local Kurdish officials claimed that Iran de-facto annexed the peak of the Cheekha Dar mountain in northern Erbil province to build a military outpost (Rudaw, September 29).

However, it is not clear if Iran could escalate its military activity against the KDPI without threatening the delicate balance of alliances it maintains in the region. Through the PKK aligned Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), which joined the PMU in 2017, Iran is currently in an indirect alliance with the PKK. This alliance has been vital in maintaining Iranian influence through the PMU in Sinjar, which came under threat after the November 2020 Sinjar Agreement between Federal Iraq and the KRG, which aimed, and has so far failed, to re-establish Federal Iraqi control (Terrorism Monitor, December 17, 2020). Sinjar is important for Iran because it diversifies Iran’s routes into Syria. Likewise, the PKK has benefitted from PMU clout throughout 2021 when Turkey threatened to launch military operations against the PKK in Sinjar (Terrorism Monitor, July 16).

Iran’s alliance with the PKK could be threatened by Iranian escalation against Iranian Kurdish militancy. If an Iranian military intervention were to eradicate the KDPI, then it would only be a matter of time before Iran eventually turns on the PKK-aligned Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) that operates in roughly the same area as the KDPI. This would directly threaten the political and military alliance that the PKK has built with Kurdish militias from Syria, Iraq, and Iran, including PJAK, Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and YBS but not Shia militias, and thereby undermining the PKK’s overall reach and operational capability. [10] Therefore, significant Iranian military action in Iraqi Kurdistan would likely encourage the PKK to rethink its alliance with Iran, which could have the unintended consequence of threatening Iran’s influence in Sinjar.


[1] The Turkish presidency issued a map of its ‘military points’ in KRG territory in 2020 (Rudaw, June 7 2020).

[2] See David Mcdowall, A Modern History Of The Kurds, pg. 279-281, (I.B Taurus, 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Gareth Stansfield & Allan Hassaniyan, “Kurdish insurgency in Rojhelat: from Rasan to the Oslo negotiations” (Middle Eastern Studies, 2021).

[5] See Soner Cagaptay & Christina Bache Fidan, “Turkey and the KRG: An Undeclared Economic Commonwealth” (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2015).

[6] This is not to say it is the only factor contributing to KDP-PKK relations, but rather in this author’s opinion it is the most significant. See Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “The complexities of the PKK’s ties to the KRG” (Crisis Response Council, 2021).

[7] Similarly Ba’athist Iraq blasphemously quoted the Quran when naming its genocidal counter-insurgency campaign targeting Iraqi Kurdistan from 1986-1989.

[8] Regular claims of human rights abuses have followed Turkey’s recent campaigns in both countries. See Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Turkish Airstrike Disregards Civilian Loss” (2020).

[9] See Hannah Lynch, “The Budding Kurdish-Iranian Alliance in Northern Iraq” (New Lines Magazine, 2021).

[10] The PKK, PJAK, and PYD are all included in the Kurdistan Communities Union, which is committed to PKK leader’s Abdullah Öcalan’s ideology of democratic confederalism. There is ample evidence of mutual military support and fluid membership between these groups. See Mcdowall pg. 484.