PJAK, Iran and the United States: Kurdish Militants Designated Terrorists by the United States

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 7

PJAK militants (Photo: NYTimes)

The United States Treasury Department added the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (Parti bo Jiyani Azadi la Kurdistan – PJAK) to its list of designated terrorist groups on February 4. [1] Operating on the Iranian-Iraqi border under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan – PKK), PJAK has sought to create an autonomous Kurdish region within Iran since its formation in 2004, though the relationship between Iran and the PKK dates back to the creation of the Islamic State of Iran in 1979. This development also highlights unique dynamics of the relationship between a terrorist organization (the PKK) and a state sponsor (Iran).  

The decision to designate PJAK as a terrorist group brought to the forefront the trajectory of Iran-PKK ties, which traditionally have oscillated between sponsorship and enmity. In this article, we will look at the ebb and flow of sponsorship-enmity dynamics between Iran and the PKK, and put this relationship into the context of regional developments.

The PKK established contacts with Iranian Kurds who rebelled against Tehran following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Since then, the PKK’s relationship with the Islamic Republic has gone through several phases that can be analytically divided into five distinct periods. The first period (1980-1982) covers the immediate aftermath of the Islamic revolution. The establishment of the Iran-Syria alliance and Iran’s war with Iraq marked the second era (1982-1988), during which a sponsorship relationship gradually took root. During the third period (1988-1997), Iran and the PKK redefined the sponsorship relationship to adjust it to the new geopolitics brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fourth period (1997-2003) can best be described as controlled cooperation, during which the parties struggled to maintain a fragile partnership under the pressure of the rapidly shifting regional balances of power. During the fifth era (2003-2009), starting with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a rather adversarial relationship emerged between the parties, which occasionally turned into open confrontation.

First period

Initial encounters between the PKK and the Islamic Republic date back to the first years of the revolution. The Iranian Kurds, seeking to take advantage of the post-revolutionary turmoil and the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, initiated a rebellion against Tehran. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, tasked some of his militants with establishing contacts with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, which was leading the rebellion against Tehran at the time. Ocalan was reportedly urged by Jalal al-Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to engage Iranian Kurds. [2]

The initial years of the PKK-Iran relationship were characterized by enmity, developing as they did under the shadow of the new Iranian regime’s Islamic credentials and the PKK’s Marxist agenda. Moreover, the possibility that the PKK might ignite a desire for independence among Iranian Kurds further exacerbated Iran’s suspicions of the PKK. However, subsequent developments replaced this short-lived period of ideological antagonism with a spirit of pragmatism dictated by changes in regional diplomacy that provided a fertile ground for the emergence of a sponsorship-alliance relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Marxist PKK.  

Second period

The emergence of the Iran-Syria strategic alliance in 1982 had direct repercussions for Iranian-PKK ties as well. In response to the geopolitical shifts brought about by the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, including the deterioration of U.S.-Iranian relations, Tehran and Damascus were increasingly drawn towards each other. A shared interest of this new alliance was the undermining of two pro-Western countries in the region through subversive activities, namely Turkey and Israel. To do this, the Tehran-Damascus axis decided to support the PKK and Hezbollah. [3] Following this agreement, Iran dispatched its Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon through Syria to train Hezbollah fighters. The PKK froze its ties to al-Talabani and signed a partnership agreement with Barzani. [4] This agreement allowed the PKK to relocate its militants in Syria to northern Iraq through Iranian facilitation.

From Iran’s perspective, it had many incentives to engage in such a relationship:

• Tehran and Ankara were involved in an enduring rivalry.

• The Islamic revolution increasingly pitted Tehran against the secular regime in Ankara, adding an ideological fervor to the competition.

• The close ties between Ankara and Washington exacerbated Tehran’s fears of Ankara. As part of American plans to contain the Islamic regime, some airfields in Turkish territory close to the Iranian border were expanded (Cumhuriyet, November 16, 1982). Moreover, the United States relocated some of the listening stations it had to withdraw from Iran to eastern Turkey, raising Iranian concerns about Turkey.

• Following the revolution, many supporters of the Shah’s regime, seeking to reach Western countries, first flew to Turkey. Revolutionary leaders were worried that these refugees, whose numbers were in the millions, could organize themselves in Turkey to undermine the new regime.

• The Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to world markets through Turkish territory brought extra revenue to Baghdad, helping it to finance its war against Iran.
These pragmatic reasons led Iran to support the Marxist PKK in its efforts to undermine Turkey. Nonetheless, Iran always denied its support for the PKK, which was partly a reflection of the fact that Iran needed to maintain relations with Turkey (Cumhuriyet, May 3, 1987). For instance, it had to use Turkish territory to ensure a flow of logistical supplies to maintain its war against Iraq.
Despite Tehran’s official denial of any support to the PKK, its sponsorship gradually increased towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war. As the senior partner, Iran exerted some limitations on the PKK. [5] The PKK could not attack Turkish targets within fifty kilometers of the Turkish-Iranian border and would refrain from operating among Iranian Kurds. It also agreed to share the intelligence it gathered about Turkey and American bases there with Tehran. In return, Iran provided the PKK with weapons, medical assistance and logistical facilities. Through entering this relationship, the PKK gained access to a wider area of operability and eventually expanded its influence into the Turkish interior.
Third period

Concerned about the growing influence of the PKK among Iranian Kurds after the Iran-Iraq war, Iran changed its attitude towards the PKK and arrested some of its militants. [6] Nonetheless, this situation soon changed. Although Iran’s Kurdish population posed a challenge, it was not a vital threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. Since the Sunni Kurds were a numerically small minority dwelling in the periphery of the Iranian political system, Iran regarded the problem as manageable. A more serious threat was presented by Azeri nationalism, especially after Azerbaijan emerged as an independent country. Turkey’s increasing profile in the Caucasus and Central Asia (backed by the United States) and the growth of Azeri nationalism within Iran became major issues of concern for Tehran, which found itself forced to restore its ties with the PKK. Indeed, a growing number of PKK activities during the 1990s took place mostly around Turkey’s northeastern and Caucasus borders. [7] In this way, Iran sought to hinder Turkey’s ties to the Caucasus and Central Asia and limit its influence in the region. One direct effect of this policy was that the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline had to be postponed for another nine to ten years. The intensification of PKK terrorist activities consumed much of Turkey’s energy, turning its attention inward.

Fourth period

In this stage, Iran gradually reduced its support to the PKK parallel to a declining threat perception. The Turkish-Iranian competition lost its intensity as Azerbaijan and Azeri nationalism were no longer perceived as major challenges. Similarly, Syria’s diminishing support of the PKK following the capture of Abdullah Ocalan resulted in Tehran reconsidering its ties to the PKK. Iran adopted a wait-and-see approach given that the regional balance of power was full of uncertainties. Last but not least, the 9/11 terror attacks and the Global War on Terrorism made Tehran more cautious as it sought to avoid being labeled as a sponsor of terrorism.

Fifth period

The Iran-PKK relationship, which started to deteriorate following the capture of Ocalan, turned into one of open confrontation in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The extensions of the PKK operating among the Iranian Kurds declared the founding of PJAK in 2004 (see Terrorism Monitor, June 15, 2006).  Drawing on its past networks, the PKK consolidated its power among Iranian Kurds within a short period. It capitalized on the legacy of Kurdish nationalism and resistance to Tehran introduced to the region before the local Kurdish movement was crushed by Iran, while building its own economic and political networks. To give PJAK a local character, some Iranian Kurds were recruited to its leadership cadres. Despite PJAK’s claim to the contrary, it operated under the PKK umbrella and sought refuge in the Kandil Mountain region. As an indication of these organic ties, militants recruited from Turkey were sometimes deployed in Iran, while militants of Iranian origin sometimes took part in PKK operations inside Turkey. [8]  

The PKK’s growing visibility in Iran and an acquiescent American attitude towards the PKK presence in northern Iraq (which came to be perceived as a de facto rapprochement between Washington and the PKK) pitted Iran and the PKK against each other. PJAK has increasingly engaged Iranian military personnel since 2003 in a bid to gain media attention. In response, Iran has occasionally shelled PJAK positions in the Kandil Mountain region. There were also unconfirmed reports from Kurdish sources of cross-border operations by Iranian security forces in September, 2007 (Today’s Zaman, August 24, 2007; McClatchy, August 23, 2007). Like Turkey, Iran preferred to present PJAK as an extension of the PKK and lent support to Turkey’s fight against the PKK. In this way it sought to boost its own popularity among the Turkish public and to undercut Turkish-American ties.  

Although the Bush administration added the PKK to the list of designated terrorist organizations, it was more tolerant toward PJAK, which led to allegations that America and Israel supported PJAK as a way to destabilize Iran. [9] Shortly after coming to power, the Obama administration designated PJAK as a terrorist organization controlled by the PKK. By this decision, Washington signaled that it would adopt a more principled approach in the fight against terrorism. This development also signifies a change in the American attitude towards the intricate relationships between Turkey, Iran and the PKK. Turkey welcomed the decision and saw it as the fruit of its new policy of building international coalitions to eradicate PKK terror, particularly through closer collaboration with the United States and northern Iraqi Kurdish authorities. A statement from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs underlined Ankara’s satisfaction with the U.S. acknowledgment of PKK-PJAK ties (Anadolu Ajansi, February 6).

The PKK, in contrast, increasingly feels that it is being encircled as a result of recent developments. PJAK officials condemned the U.S. designation and claimed that for over a year the United States already had a de facto policy of pleasing Turkey and Iran by intensifying pressure on PKK and PJAK. The organization noted that northern Iraqi authorities were also supportive of this new policy (Gundem Online, February 12; February 17). PJAK challenged the Obama administration, arguing that the terrorist designation would not deter their struggle.


Iran is carefully observing developments in Iraq and the evolution of Turkish-American relations. The next stage in the sponsorship-enmity cycle between Iran and the PKK will depend on Iran’s assessment of the changes in the regional balance of power and threats to its national security. To escape the pressures exerted by close coordination between Turkey, the United States and the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq, the PKK will have an incentive to redefine its relationship with Iran. Despite Iranian-PJAK border clashes, PKK leaders are already sending warm messages to Tehran (Gundem Online, February 24). Whereas playing the “Iran card” might increase the PKK’s bargaining power, Iran also has reasons to maintain the continued availability of the “PKK card.” Considering the ongoing uncertainty over the future of the region (especially northern Iraq) in the wake of a partial U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and discussions over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran might not want to see the PKK disappear from the game completely.


1. www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/tg14.htm.
2. Cemil Bayik, Parti Tarihi, Damascus, 1996, p.58.
3. For the background of this relationship, see: Huccetulislam Hasimi Muhtesemi’s (former Iranian ambassador to Damascus) memoirs. Turkish translation: Dunya ve Islam, 1990, pp.53-64.
4. Bayik, op.cit. pp.75,77.
5. Abdullah Ocalan, Parti Tarihimiz Boyunca Disaridan Dayatilan Tasfiyecilik Uzerine (Damascus, 1991), p.17
6. Bayik, op.cit. p.92.
7. Reports submitted to PKK’s Fifth Congress, Damascus, 1995, p.283.
8. For the personal records of PKK militants killed see: www.hpg-online.com/sehit/sehit_kunyeleri/2008_a.html .
9. Seymour Hersh, “The Next Act,” The New Yorker, November 27, 2006. The U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, Ross Wilson, denied those allegations; See www.cnnturk.com, June 30, 2008.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/12/AR2007091201133.html