In an unprecedented escalation in the last two decades, Iranian Kurdish rebels have broke a unilateral ceasefire with a series of attacks against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the mountainous Kurdish cities in northwestern Iran.
A series of ongoing attacks by Kurdish rebels from the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (KDPI) on the Revolutionary Guard, dozens from both sides have been killed. (Exact numbers are difficult to come by given competing claims.)
Rostam Jahangiri, a member of the political office of the KDPI confirmed to The Daily Beast that clashes have taken place in the surrounding mountainous areas of Marivan, Saghez, Piranshahr, Sardasht, Oshnavieh, Mahabad, Urmia and Sarvabad—all cities in the West Azerbaijan and Kurdistan Provinces of Iran.
One reason why the KDPI has been stepping up it’s military activities against the Islamic Republic, Mustafa Hijri, the party’s leader, said is that “Iran has been increasingly clamping down on the civic and political activities in the Kurdish area more than elsewhere in Iran” and “Iran has left us no alternative.”
The center-left KDPI, the oldest Kurdish party in Iran, insists that its presence in Iranian territory is defensive in nature. Nevertheless, Hijri told The Daily Beast that the Kurds might turn to an “offensive mode” if conditions continue to deteriorate.
Rostam Jahangiri, a KDPI member who participated in one of the operations, told The Daily Beast, “we used to go to the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan last year too, but [the Revolutionary Guard] didn’t clash with us.” Jahangiri believes the forbearance last year owed to the Obama administration’s landmark deal with the Islamic Republic to curb its rogue nuclear program. This also accounts, KDPI members insist, on U.S. reluctance to speak out against the escalating violence in Iran’s Kurdish region. According to Arash Saleh, a KDPI representative to United States, “the administration is more preoccupied with their concerns about their legacy on Iran deal.”
Kurds are minority in Iran, a mere 10% of the population, according to unofficial figures. Like their stateless ethnic kin in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Iranian Kurds consider themselves inhabitants of a broader Kurdistan region that encompasses all of these modern nation-states. Kurds in Iraq and Syria are enjoying a renewed period of expansionism and autonomy, owing to the coalition campaign against ISIS which has empowered various strains of Kurdish nationalism. And in spite of Turkey’s ongoing war against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, Kurds have also gained considerable political and cultural rights in Turkey in the last decade.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that Iranian Kurds feel their time is now. But many doubt capabilities of Kurdish rebels to do more than create a nuisance for the mullahs — albeit one that will precipitate human rights abuses. Military activity alone “cannot change the formula in Iran,” says Parwez Rahim, a lecturer and specialist on Iranian Kurds at Salahaddin University in Erbil, because the KDPI “don’t have that much force.” However, Rahim believes that the rebels are using insurgency tactics to “give energy to urban Kurds in northwestern Iran [in order to] demand change through peaceful means.”
KDPI rebels are believed to have 2,000 militants—known as peshmerga, much like their Iraqi counterparts—based in remote border communities in northern Iraq. Other Kurdish rebel groups are thought to have between 5,000 and 7,000 fighters. The main rival group to KDPI is known as the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan or (PJAK), which is the Iranian armed wing of the PKK. Some Iranian Kurds have gone off to join the war against ISIS, although analysts say that what they may have gained by way of battlefield experience, they still lack in terms of materiel.
Another complicating factor is their relationship with their host nation of Iraqi Kurdistan, the semiautonomous mountainous region which Iran has shelled, injuring a number of civilians and forcing villagers to flee. The commander the Revolutionary Guards’ Ground Forces, General Mohammad Pakpour, threatened to launch attacks against rebel bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, a threat that risked destabilizing relations between Tehran and Erbil. “Since the main bases of these terrorists are in northern Iraq, if they don’t follow through with commitments to stop these attacks, their bases will be targeted where they are,” he said.
KDPI officials say they take such threats seriously. Rostam Jahangiri thinks the Iranians would invade Iraq, if push came to shove.
And this is why the Kurdistan Regional Government, which runs Iraqi Kurdistan, has officially asked Iran to end its cross-border artillery fire. It has also called on Kurdish rebels to stop using the borderlands to mount campaigns against a neighboring country. On June 29, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani met an Iranian delegation and stressed preventing “the recurrence of such incidents in the future.”
Hijri says that the KDPI is therefore thinking of relocating its forces inside Iranian territory, a move that would seem to escalate rather than diminish tensions with Tehran.
Quite apart from being a perceived national security threat to the notoriously well-guarded Khomeinist regime, Kurdish separatists are also seen through prism of geopolitical sectarianism. Iranian officials have accused their mortal enemy, Saudi Arabia, of supporting KDPI activities since the majority of Kurdish rebels are Sunnis, a fact underscored by a number of Gulf media outlets that have reported on Iranian Kurdish activity, although the Saudi embassy denies any patronage.
Jahangiri, too, denies any backing from Riyadh and a sectarian agenda. “We are striving for national aspirations of Kurds,” he said. “We have both Sunni and Shia within our ranks.” In reality, though, the KDPI has almost no constituency with the Shia Kurdish population.
Others says that it’s Iran that is exacerbating the Sunni-Shia divide. “Iran has exploited the sectarian diversity in the Kurdish areas,” the scholar Parwez Rahim told The Daily Beast, “and has been relatively successful in splitting Kurds.” Iran’s parliament has a total of 43 Kurdish representatives but only 11 are Sunnis.
For democratic societies diversity has been a source of empowerment but in Iran “weak point of the regime is the country's diversity,” Jahangiri said. He is hopeful of the future of his struggle. “Just as the Arab Spring ignited from a small incident, the same will inevitably happen in Iran when the time is right.”