PJAK Intensifies Its Struggle for Iranian Kurdistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 23

A recent upsurge of violence in northwestern Iran between ethnic Kurdish rebels and Iranian Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) forces represents the latest chapter in the ongoing tensions between the nationalist dissidents and Tehran. Iranian and Kurdish sources report that the armed wing of the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) mounted a series of attacks against Iranian security forces in northwestern Iran between late May and early June. PJAK forces are reported to have set a series of explosive traps targeting Iranian patrols in the predominantly Kurdish town of Sardasht, located near the Iran-Iraq border in West Azerbaijan province, setting off armed skirmishes between the rebels and retaliatory strikes by the Pasdaran across northwestern Iran. In addition, the armed wing of Komeleh, another ethnic Kurdish nationalist group operating in Iran, claimed responsibility for attacks against Iranian security forces in the region. The Kurdish towns of Kamyaran and Baneh in Kurdistan province and Kermanshah in Kermanshah province also experienced fighting between insurgents and Iranian security forces (Rooz, June 5; Fars, June 7).

Iranian Kurdish rebels have been engaged in an insurgency to assert ethnic Kurdish rights in what they see as an ethnic Persian-dominated Shia Islamist order that stifles their cultural identity. Iran is home to a sizeable ethnic Kurdish minority numbering between four and seven million. Fighting between the rebels and the authorities is generally contained within Iran’s mountainous northwestern provinces where the frontiers of Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet. Kurdish nationalists advocating the establishment of a Kurdish homeland in the Middle East refer to this region as Eastern Kurdistan. In an apparent escalation in its insurgency, however, PJAK forces are reported to have attacked the Command Headquarters of the Iranian Air Force in the capital of Tehran. This attack represents the first time Kurdish insurgents have used violence in the capital (Rooz, June 5). This move may signify a strategic escalation of PJAK’s campaign to include striking at targets outside of Iranian Kurdistan. Kurdish and Iranian assessments of casualties sustained by both sides differ dramatically. PJAK sources claim to have killed over 90 members of the Iranian security forces [1]. Official Iranian sources, however, report far fewer casualties (Fars, June 5).

Although ethnic Kurdish dissident groups have a history of political activism and violence in Iran, Tehran accuses PJAK and Komeleh of acting at the behest of foreign interests seeking to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, Iran implicates the United States in allowing PJAK to operate from Iraq, where it is alleged to be enjoying support from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As a group engaged in its own violent nationalist struggle against Turkey, the PKK is widely regarded as PJAK’s ideological inspiration and its operational partner—a claim PJAK denies. Unlike PJAK, however, the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. In fact, many observers believe that the creation of PJAK represents an effort to circumvent the restrictions on the PKK due to its designation as a terrorist organization (see Terrorism Monitor, May 15).

Tehran considers the low-key visit of exiled PJAK leader Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi to Washington in 2007 as proof of a U.S. hand in PJAK’s armed struggle (Iran Daily, September 12, 2007). Iranian concerns about foreign meddling in its internal affairs are exacerbated by the belief that vocal American elements advocating violent regime change in Iran see groups such as PJAK as leverage over the Islamic Republic, possibly in the run-up to a future military campaign. Ironically, in a May 7 press release, PJAK criticized the United States for providing Turkey with intelligence used to attack PJAK positions during missions targeting PKK positions in northern Iraq. The statement went as far as to threaten retaliatory strikes against the United States for its support for Turkey [2]. The group later denied making what was apparently an unauthorized statement (see Terrorism Monitor, May 15; Today’s Zaman, May 5). Kurdish rebels in Iran are also concerned about growing Turkish-Iranian cooperation in the military sphere, especially in regards to their respective operations against the PKK and PJAK (see Terrorism Focus, June 10).

In addition to its claim that PJAK serves as a U.S. proxy, Iran believes that the United States is providing moral, financial and operational support to other armed dissidents on its territory and in the diaspora, including ethnic Baloch rebels in its southeastern Sistan-Balochistan province and ethnic Arab (Ahvazi) insurgents in its southwestern Khuzestan (Arabistan) province. Iran also accuses the United States of supporting the bizarre cult-like Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) and opposition monarchists who recently claimed responsibility for the bombing of a mosque in Shiraz in April in its southwestern Fars province (see Terrorism Focus, May 20). A great deal of mystery surrounds these claims. Nevertheless, PJAK and other Iranian rebel groups may be preparing to seize what they see as a closing window of opportunity to escalate their armed campaigns amid the waning months of the Bush Administration; opposition dissidents are surely considering the possibility that a new administration in Washington will initiate a different approach in its dealings with Iran. Any potential rapprochement between Washington and Tehran will surely result in diminished support for Iranian opposition groups, a possibility that would devastate PJAK and other dissident movements.

Notes

1. See PJAK official press release for June 4, 2008 detailing the list of alleged attacks by Kurdish insurgents against Iranian security forces in late May and early June culminating in over 90 Iranian casualties at http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2008/6/irankurdistan386.htm (accessed June 2008).

2. See PJAK official press release for May 5, 2007 at http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2008/5/turkeykurdistan1833.htm (accessed June 2008).