16 May 2017
By Franc Milburn for Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)
While the Kurds of Syria, Turkey and Iraq have received significant attention in the wake of a perceived “Kurdish Awakening,” less interest has been directed towards Iran’s Kurds. As Franc Milburn explains in this text, the militants among them officially renewed their insurgency against Tehran in 2016. While bristling under continued repression, they have shown some signs of increased cohesion and unity, which could make them potentially significant players on the Middle East chessboard.
While the Kurds of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq have received significant attention from analysts following a perceived “Kurdish Awakening” as well as their key combat roles in Iraq and Syria, there has been less focus on Iran’s Kurds. Long a source of concern to the Iranian regime, Iranian Kurdish militants officially announced the renewal of their insurgent campaign against Tehran in 2016. Inspired by the increasing assertiveness of Kurds in neighboring countries and bristling under continued repression, these groups have shown some signs of increased cohesion and unity, making them potentially significant players on the regional chessboard.
In March 2017, Komala, the Iranian Kurdish Communist Party, announced that six armed Iranian Kurdish groups opposed to Iran (all labeled “terrorists” by Iran) and seeking Kurdish autonomy would develop cooperation between the parties “aimed at joint military activities.”1 Like their ethnic kin in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and Syria, Iran’s armed Kurdish groups have suffered disunity for decades, making this development potentially the most significant movement toward Iranian Kurdish unity since the short-lived Kurdish Mahabad Republic of 1946 and the 1979 Kurdish uprising against the Mullahs.
In 2016, Kurdish militant groups, which are now largely based in the KRI, rekindled an insurgency that had been largely dormant for decades, partly as a function of a regional Kurdish Awakening and partly because of continued Iranian repression against Kurds within Iran. Komala had effectively ended its insurgent campaign inside Iran in 1990.2
This article explores the following issues: the history of the conflict; the recent renewal of insurgency; the Iranian response; and the motivations, combat effectiveness, and unity of Kurdish groups fighting Iran, as well as their complex relationships with regional powers.
The History of the Conflict
During 1979-1980, Komala fought alongside another principal Iranian Kurdish armed group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI).a The uprising was a response to the wave of Kurdish nationalism following the Iranian Revolution, a perceived opportunity to gain increased autonomy not available under the Shah, the relative disorganization and chaos surrounding the establishment of the Islamic Republic, as well as other armed uprisings against the Mullahs. The Kurds had been effectively excluded from the new constitution with no provision for autonomy. The uprising started in March 1979 when Kurds seized police and military barracks in the towns of Sanandaj, Paveh, Divandarreh, Saqqez, and Mahabad. It then morphed into a wide-scale uprising across northwestern Kurdish majority areas of Iran, which resulted in the brutal suppression and deaths of approximately 6,200 Kurds.3
“Iranian Kurdistan” and “Eastern Kurdistan” are unofficial names for the area inhabited by Kurds in northwestern Iran, bordering Turkey and Iraq. Kurds are present in the Iranian provinces of Kurdistan (Kordestan), Kermanshah, West Azerbaijan, and Illam, including the Zagros mountain range. Official Iranian counts of the Kurdish population are lacking or unreliable—likely out of a desire to underestimate the size of this minority—as are those of Kurdish nationalists for the opposite reason. One scholar from the region has put the Kurdish population in Iran as “somewhere around 10-12 million.”4 In the absence of reliable figures, this scholar estimated a ratio of 70-75 percent Sunni Kurds and 20-25 percent Shi`a, who are further subdivided into Twelver Shiism—the same as Iran’s majority—and other sects that are “under serious repression.”5 Kurdish areas have been neglected by the central government for decades. Kermanshah province, with a population of one million, has repeatedly topped the list of the least developed provinces in Iran, according to Iranian government data.6
Iranian Kurdistan also became a theater of operations in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, with both countries using the Kurds for military and destabilization objectives. The mainly Sunni Kurds were seen as a subversive force ripe for exploitation by hostile external powers to strangle their new state. Saddam Hussein’s regime provided arms to the KDPI in 1981 as part of its efforts to destabilize Iran and deny Iranian forces key terrain.7 The KDPI hoped to use this support to create Kurdish liberated zones, but KDPI activities were suppressed by Iranian forces.b Iran also played the Kurdish card against Baghdad, supporting the Iraqi Kurdish militias KDP and PUK.8 Kurdish nationalist expectations that Iraqi and Iranian Kurds would cooperate were frustrated as a wedge was driven between the KDPI (a group assisted by Saddam) and KDP (a group assisted by Saddam’s foes). The KDPI continued sporadic operations inside Iran until 1983, but their activities and those of other groups petered out as Iran regained control of Kurdish areas.
The KDPI renewed its insurgency from 1989 to 1996 in response to the 1989 Iranian assassination of its leader in Vienna9 and to mass Kurdish demonstrations inside Iran in 1990. But targeted Iranian assassinations, cross-border military operations, and Tehran’s cooperation with Turkey against Iranian Kurdish groups caused the KDPI to unilaterally end overt operations in 1996. Sporadic smaller-scale operations and clashes resumed through the period of 2014 to 2015.
In early 2016, the KDPI announced a resumption of conflict,10 citing the repression of Kurds. In making the announcement, the group claimed it had already started operations some time earlier. A senior figure in the KDPI told Al Arabiya that “operations started a year ago in terms of hit-and-run-type opeartions, but now there will be larger and more coordinated operations.”c
The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), a left-leaning nationalist Kurdish political faction with close ties to the KDPI and good relations with the KDP and PUK,11 followed suit, announcing that Iran was facing a widespread Kurdish uprising that would affect all Iranian cities. Iranian Kurd groups have engaged in hit-and-run tactics against Iranian forces, principally the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in the towns of Sardasht,12 Sanandaj,13 and Shno.14 Reports indicate Iranian Kurdish militant groups have only lost a few fighters during these operations.15 d
Iranian Kurdish militant groups have largely use IEDs, RPGs, and small arms.16 These have resulted in low casualty figures on the Iranian side (a dozen or less). There have been no reported civilian casualties as a result of attacks by Iranian Kurdish militant groups, although Iranian-Kurdish reprisals against spies and collaborators may have gone unreported. As of yet, there has been no evidence of sustained urban insurgency in Iranian cities proper.
The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK)—a PKK offshoot composed mainly of Iranian Kurds opposed to Tehran—also initiated insurgent operations in 2016, including participating in various clashes with Iranian forces and attempting a close-quarter assassination on an Iranian MP. The PJAK was not among the six Kurdish groups announcing closer cooperation in March and does not closely cooperate with other groups, according to Kurdish security sources.17 Accounts about the formation of PJAK vary. One is that Iranian Kurds established the party in Iran in the late 1990s and then sought refuge in the PKK-controlled Qandil Mountains where they adopted the tenets of the PKK and its figurehead Abdullah Öcalan. Others believe that the Iranian Kurdish faction split off from the PKK in 2004.18 As with the Syrian YPG, the PKK and PJAK maintain extremely close relations in terms of ideology and fighters, and therefore intelligence. A complicating factor for the PJAK participating in an Iranian Kurdish alliance may be recently reported Iranian overtures to the PKK, which may incentivize the PKK to rein in the PJAK.19
Outside of official sources, the numbers on armed Iranian Kurds remain opaque and should be considered best-guess estimates and averages. The KDPI may have 1,000-1,500 fighters, Komala less than 1,000, and the PJAK 3,000 or less, according to the author’s discussions with knowledgeable sources. Other groups are harder to estimate.e
Most of these fighters are believed to be concentrated in the Zagros mountain range on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.20 This allows them the advantage of conducting cross-border raids into Iranian territory without suffering all-out retaliation from Iranian forces. In launching attacks, it can be presumed based on operations in past campaigns that they link up with local sympathizers acting as scouts and forward operators. This contrasts to the 1980s Kurdish Iranian insurgency, which was launched by militant forces present inside towns and villages in Kurdish majority parts of Iran.
A view of the Zagros Mountains from inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Franc Milburn)
The rekindling of insurgent operations and the coalescing of the various Iranian Kurd armed groups around a shared goal to strike back at Tehran can be seen as a response to a number of factors. These include continued denial of political rights and economic opportunities to Iran’s Kurds, coupled with arbitrary arrests,21 Iran’s greatly expanded role inside Iraq and Syria, and a perceived Kurdish Awakening across the region—from Turkey to Syria, the KRI, and Iran, which has seen the emergence of a de facto state in the KRI and the Syrian YPG taking control of swaths of northern Syria. Another reason for the renewal of the insurgency is what Kurdish activists said was the execution of hundreds of Iranian Kurdish activists and members of Iranian Kurdish opposition parties by the Iranian regime in 2015, an increase on previous years.22
There were also a number of factors that inspired Kurdish groups in Iran to more aggressively assert themselves. They were energized by political gains for Turkey’s Kurds and advancement of Kurdish rights in the years before 2015. They were then angered by the Turkish government crackdown on Kurdish parties and offensive on the PKK that followed, exposing the limits to what Kurds could achieve in the region by political and peaceful means.
A key, galvanizing event for Iranian Kurds occurred in May 2015 when popular discontent against the regime escalated into riots by Iranian Kurds in the city of Mahabad. There, they set a hotel on fire to protest the unexplained death of an ethnic Kurd female. Local Kurds said the 25-year-old chose suicide over an alleged rape attempt against her by an Iranian government official. A brutal regime crackdown brought an end to the civil unrest.23
The Zagros Mountains as seen from inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Franc Milburn)
Iranian Kurdish factions have a range of political views from socialism to Maoism, but what they all share is an ardent sense of Kurdish nationalismf and a desire for political and cultural autonomy within Iran.34 Of all the groups, only the PJAK is designated a terrorist organization by the United States25 g as a result of its close association with the PKK and U.S. sensitivity to its NATO ally Turkey; this is despite the fact that the United States has actively supported the YPG in Syria and shielded it from Turkish military action. PJAK has not publicly espoused enmity or violence against the United States or its Western allies as far as the author is aware, which stands in direct contrast to Iran, deemed by the United States to be a state sponsor of terror.26
Iranian Kurdish groups accuse Iran of responding to the resumption of the Kurdish insurgency with a targeted bombing of KDPI headquarters in Koya, KRI, in December 2016.27 Although no direct link has yet been established between Iran and the bombing, KDPI officials were quick to point the finger, especially given the fact that the twin IEDs against the KDPI headquarters occurred on the birthday of its late leader Abdulrahman Ghassemloo, who was assassinated in Vienna in 1989. Knowledgeable local sources contacted by the author concur that Iran is most likely the culprit, given the target’s attractiveness, Iran’s historical track record of assassinations, and the lack of other plausible enemies targeting the KDPI. One possibility is the attack was carried out by an Iranian proxy such as ethnic Kurdish members of an Iraqi Shi`a militia trained by the IRGC, Hezbollah, or Kurdishh members of a Sunni terrorist group backed by and based in Iran so as to provide Tehran plausible deniability.28 Nevertheless, despite claiming to have arrested two of the alleged perpetrators,29 the KRG has, months later, yet to blame Iran directly or provide any details about the offenders.i What is clear is the bombing has led to greater unification of the various Kurdish militant groups in Iran because it was seen as an attack against them all.j
Early this year, Iran announced that it had greatly increased intelligence and surveillance activities in the KRI. Iranian public statements suggest they have grown increasingly concerned over the threat posed by Kurdish Iranian militant groups operating inside Iraqi territory. In February 2017, IRGC ground forces commander Muhammad Pakpour stated, “in the northeast [of Iran] and on the other side of the border [KRI], many consulates have been opened to revive the dead groupings and stir them against us.”30 Iran has long lambasted the Iraqi government and the KRG for failing to control its side of Iran’s sensitive northwestern border and has accused Saudi Arabia31 (and others) of funding and arming Iranian Kurdish groups, which the KRG and the Iranian Kurdish groups have consistently denied. Iran supporters in the Iraqi parliament’s Shi`a State of Law block, headed by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in early 2017 proposed a motion calling on the Iraqi government to disarm or expel Iranian Kurdish groups operating from the KRI against Iran.32
Iran’s Enemies Eyeing Countermeasures?
What might make Iranian Kurd armed groups increasingly relevant to the regional chessboard are developing (or deteriorating) relations between Iran and external powers. In March 2017, General Joseph Votel, commander of United States Central Command, stated that “Iran poses the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interests of our partners and allies”33 k while U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has described Iran as “the single and most enduring threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.”34 l U.S. President Donald Trump has also signaled a get-tough approach to Iran. In March 2017, a number of policy centers in Washington D.C. released reports arguing that the United States needed to explore a range of options to confront Iran. A report by analysts at the Institute for the Study of War stated that “a major US-Iran conflict is likely in the next five years” and recommended “lethal” options for dealing with Iran.m A report by analysts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy similarly countenanced “direct action”35 against Iranian proxies and supported militias and strengthening allies’ “offensive and especially defensive capabilities.”36 A report by analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested “covert action … to destabilize hostile states such as the Islamic Republic.”37 Aside from the United States, Iran has plenty of other enemies, including Israel,38 Saudi Arabia,39 Bahrain,40 and the UAE,41 who may be willing to consider unconventional warfare and some of whom are no strangers to supporting insurgency and covert activities against Iran.
Iran’s Achilles’ Heel
The Kurds have a saying: “No friend but the mountains.” For Iran, however, geography presents real vulnerabilities, particularly the strategic, western Zagros Mountain range and the Kurdish armed groups that operate there. From the days of al-Eskandar to Saddam Hussein’s invasion to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Zagros have been the Persians’ Achilles’ Heel. The Kurds of Iran straddle a region of vital importance to Iran for a number of reasons,42 such as territorial defense from adjacent powers including U.S. forces in Iraq and KRI; the prevention of Kurdish autonomy inside Iran and KRG independence in Iraq; Tehran’s hope of reestablishing a land corridor to allies Syria and Hezbollah;43 the projection of terrorist proxies into Iraq,44 and the facilitation of illicit oil and gas supplies in a re-imposition of sanctions scenario.
There is ample historical evidence for the combat effectiveness of Iranian Kurd groups operating in the mountains they know intimately. The PJAK blunted a major IRGC offensive in the summer of 2011 and has also operated deep inside Iran to interdict military supply convoys and sabotage infrastructure. The group also has a pool of motivated and experienced leaders and fighters to call upon, many of whom have recent combat experience fighting with the KRG, PKK, and YPG in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.45 The PJAK also have a relatively secure support base and source of funding in the KRG. Further evidence for the combat effectiveness of the PJAK and other Kurdish Iranian groups is the types of weapons they appear to have access to. Russian, Eastern Block, and locally manufactured small arms, RPGs, and heavy machine guns are featured in PJAK and other groups’ propaganda photos and local media reports. They have access to heavy mortars and recoilless rifles, but there has been no recorded use of MANPADs.n
The head of the Kurdish-Iranian group PAK, Hussein Yazdanpana, told the Associated Press last September that the group had received training from U.S. military instructors between March and September 2015, when PAK fighters were deployed to the Kirkuk front against the Islamic State.46 PAK may also have been present on the Mosul front.o If PAK fighters have indeed received training from the U.S. military, this would seriously concern Iran, where such training would bolster its capabilities against the government. The PAK has claimed good relations with the United States, but has denied being armed by the Americans.47 Fighters from other groups are likely to have fought in KRG Peshmerga units against the Islamic State. Of all the groups, the PJAK is probably the most capable and experienced, given its close links with the YPG and PKK and its significant battles earlier this decade with the IRGC. Unlike the YPG, however, the PJAK, because of its designation as a terrorist group, would not have likely received U.S. equipment directly or had access to the kinds of government war stocks that the YPG obtained in Syria. The KDPI is not involved in the fight against the Islamic State and has reportedly not received the U.S. training claimed by the PAK.48
Iran’s paradox is that as a state that came to power through revolution and insurrection, these are the very forces that it fears the most. It would be highly ironic, given Iran’s preference for lower-cost, asymmetric warfare and operating in the grey zone short of conventional conflict with the United States, GCC states, or Israel, if its numerous enemies were to offer support to Iran’s Kurds. Whether outside actors offer the Iranian Kurdish groups support or not, the Zagros Mountains will likely see an upsurge in insurgency as well as sabotage, assassinations, and civil unrest as the spring-summer military campaigning season gets underway.
Were outside actors to become involved, more advanced weaponry and equipment might be transferred to Iran’s Kurds, which could turn the Zagros into even more hostile terrain for Tehran. Iran’s Kurds present a much more formidable enemy to Iran when united than when acting independently. But it should be pointed out that since Komala’s announcement last month that all anti-Tehran Kurdish-Iranian groups would develop joint military operations, there is not yet much open source evidence of coordinated activity.p In April 2017, a number of exiled Kurdish political parties jointly called for a boycott of the May 19, 2017, Iranian presidential election, suggesting continued cooperation among Iranian-Kurdish actors.49 The jury is still out on whether Iranian Kurdish groups, as with their Iraqi Kurdish brethren, will find that conflict with Iran masks deeper political and ideological differences that cannot be reconciled over the long term.
The principal concern for the Iranian Kurdish militant groups in the coming years will be the question of continued support from the KRG. In a post-Mosul/caliphate scenario where the United States disengages again from Iraq, the KRG may find itself under increasing pressure from Iran and its allies in Baghdad to end support for Iranian Kurdish groups opposed to Tehran.
Appendix: Acronyms and Organizations
IRGC: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
KDP: Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rules Dohuk and Erbil provinces on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq; dominates the KRG.
KDPI: Kurdistan Democratic Party Iran, an Iranian Kurdish group seeking autonomy from Iran; sometimes referred to as PDKI.
Komala: Iranian Kurdish Communist/Maoist party
KRG: Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil and consisting of various Iraqi Kurdish political parties but dominated by the KDP
KRI: Kurdistan Region of Iraq; de facto statelet based on the provinces of Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah
PAK: Kurdistan Freedom Party, a left-leaning, nationalist Kurdish Iranian group with a presence in Kurdish areas of Iran and Iraq that has fought alongside Peshmerga against the Islamic State. It was previously called the Revolutionary Union of Kurdistan.
PMF: Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of Iraqi, mostly Shi`a militias, many of which are controlled by Iran
PJAK: Kurdistan Free Life Party; a PKK offshoot, composed mainly of Iranian Kurds opposed to Tehran
PKK: Kurdistan Workers Party, a far-left Kurdish group fighting Turkey and also active in Syria and the KRI; sister party to the PJAK and PYD.
PUK: Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the KRI’s other main political party with armed forces ruling Sulaymaniyah province. The PUK has much warmer relations with Iran than the KDP.
YPG: People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Syrian Kurd PYD, an offshoot of the PKK
[a] The KDPI was originally founded in Mahabad in August 1945, but many of its leaders were arrested or executed after the Imperial Iranian Army effectively ended the Kurd Mahabad Republic in August 1946. The KDPI fought periodically against the Shah’s regime until the revolution of 1979. Komala, founded in 1969, was also repressed under the Shah.
[b] Saddam Hussein’s support of the KDPI had a precedent. In the early to mid-1970s, the Shah, the United States, and Israel had supported Iraq’s Kurds against Saddam. David Plotz, “The Kurds,” Slate, September 28, 1996; Dexter Filkins, “The Fight of Their Lives,” New Yorker, September 29, 2014.
[c] The KDPI also cited the Iran nuclear deal as a reason for the conflict, reportedly stating, “since Iran has signed the atomic agreement, Iran thinks whatever they do. The outside world does not care. That is why we were forced to choose this approach.” The fear was that unless they acted, the Iranian position would grow stronger as a result of sanctions being lifted and an improvement of relations between the Iranian government and the United States. “Iran’s nuclear deal forced us to end two-decade ceasefire, says Iranian Kurdish group,” Rudaw, September 25, 2016.
[d] Casualty claims by Iranian Kurdish militant groups tend to be more accurate as they publicize their “martyrs.”
[e] Editor’s note: The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) is estimated to have a few hundred fighters. Paul Cruickshank interview, Zana Gulmohamad, May 2017.
[f] While the Iranian Kurdish groups are largely secular, one group that has traditionally operated in the Halabja area near the border with Iran is the Sunni jihadi group Ansar al-Islam. The group, which was aligned with al-Qa`ida in Iraq and then with the Islamic State, has included Kurds, Arabs, and some foreigners. Although, according to author interviews, U.S. Special Forces helped the PUK to root out the group from the Halabja area, the group found a degree of sanctuary on the Iranian side of the border. In 2014, much of the group aligned with the Islamic State while some continued to operate as Ansar al-Islam. For more on the group, see Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “A Complete History of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam,” aymennjawad.org, December 15, 2015.
[g] The PJAK is also designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and Iran, but not by the European Union.
[h] The Parastin u Zanyari, a collective of the PUK and KDP’s intelligence services, together with both parties’ Assayish security police, are highly adept at HUMINT—and probably more so than some of their western counterparts in many respects. This is likely due to previous years of operations without sophisticated technical means, making use of ethnic Kurd operatives by Iran the most plausible scenario.
[i] The KRG is extremely reluctant to offend Iran, given the latter’s pivotal role in the fight against the Islamic State and the fact that Iran has traditionally backed the PUK against the KDP inside the KRI to stymie Iraqi Kurdish unity. The KRG, especially the KDP element, seeks a long-term military commitment by the United States to base military forces permanently in the KRI to offset Iran, Iraq, and Turkey—one of the KRG’s strategic objectives—toward securing de jure independence and security from neighbors. The KRG also has to balance its stance and support toward Iran’s Kurds, who are held in high estimation by the KRI’s population and who have fought alongside KRG forces against the Islamic State.
[j] There have also been unsubstantiated press report sourced to the PJAK, which claim Iranian use of chemical weapons against them near the town of Salasbajani in Kermanshah province. The PJAK claimed 12 fatalities. Unlike the recent chemical attack in Syria in April 2017, there has been no independent verification of the claims. “Kurdish guerrillas suspect Iran used chemical weapons against them,” Rudaw, October 11, 2016.
[k] General Votel noted a lack of “improvement in Iran’s behavior” since the nuclear deal was finalized; that Iran aspires to be “a regional hegemon;” and that “its forces and proxies oppose U.S. interests” across the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. “They also are working to subvert the GoI [government of Iraq] by establishing a long-term presence within Iraq’s security forces … Iran exerts influence and a degree of control over the majority of the nearly 100,000 Shia militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Furthermore, Iran has expanded cooperation with Russia in Syria in ways that threaten U.S. interests in the region.” “Statement Of General Joseph L. Votel, Commander U.S. Central Command Before The Senate Armed Services Committee On The Posture of U.S. Central Command,” March 9, 2017.
[l] General Mattis lists five Iran threats: nuclear, maritime, cyber, ballistic missile, and proxy. One might add cruise missiles to these. “The Middle East at an Inflection Point with Gen. Mattis,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 22, 2016.
[m] The report notes that “Russia and Iran deny the US freedom of action in Syria and the Mediterranean and can threaten three of seven major global maritime trade chokepoints—the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al Mandab Strait—in the next five years.” Jennifer Cafarella, Kimberly Kagan, and Frederick W. Kagan, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Four, America’s Way Ahead In Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2017, p. 8.
[n] This is based on the author’s analysis and knowledge of the local arms market and interviews with informed sources in 2017. It is quite possible that Iranian Kurdish groups have obtained more advanced anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), particularly with the region awash with new arms deliveries due to the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.
[o] Editor’s note: According to Zana Gulmohamad, who outlined the constellation of forces taking part in the Mosul campaign in an October 2016 article in this publication, there are a number of Iranian Kurdish armed groups opposed to the Iranian regime operating around Mosul, where they have fought alongside Kurdish Peshmerga and against the Islamic State. The locations where they have been present, according to Gulmohamad, include Bashiqa and the area around Kirkuk. One such group that has been fighting against the Islamic State in the Mosul campaign is the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). Its presence has created tensions with Shi`a militias; the Pro-Iranian Shi`a militia “League of the Righteous” Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) has threatened to attack them and have expressed anger against Iraqi Kurdish leaders (particularly the KDP) for allowing them to take part in operations. Paul Cruickshank interview, Zana Gulmohamad, May 2017.
[p] In April 2017, local media featured fighters from Komala and KDPI jointly preparing a defensive position in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. “Iran Kurdish party resumes armed struggle against Iran, third party to do so,” Rudaw, April 30, 2017.
1 “Iranian Kurdish opposition groups to accelerate military cooperation,” Rudaw, March 3, 2017.
2 “Interview with Mr Abdullah Mohtadi, the Secretary General of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan,” Washington Kurdish Institute, November 2015.
3 R.S. Ward, Immortal: A Military History of Iran and its Armed Forces (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009), p. 231.
4 “Interview with Professor Abbas Vali,” Washington Kurdish Institute, February 10, 2016.
6 “Iran’s Kurdish opposition call for boycott of May election,” Rudaw, April 28, 2017.
7 Nader Entressar, “The Kurdish Factor in Iran-Iraq Relations,” Middle East Institute, January 29, 2009.
9 Dan Geist, “‘A Darker Horizon’: The Assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar,” PBS Frontline, August 6, 2011.
10 “Al- Kurdistani al-Irani Yasta’nif al-`Amal al-Musallah Didda Iran [Iranian Kurdistan to resume armed action against Iran],” Al Arabiya, March 23, 2016. “Iran is facing a ‘wide-scale armed uprising’ as Kurdish insurgents have started targeting the Revolutionary Guard,” Business Insider, May 5, 2016; Jonathan Spycer and Benjamin Weinthal, “Iranian Kurds join the Fight,” American Interest, December 15, 2016.
11 “Kurdish PAK forces attack Iranian government troops in Sanandaj,” ARA News, April 20, 2016. For more on the PAK see Kim Deen, First IS, then Iran: Kurdish-Iranian leader has eyes on ultimate goal,” Middle East Eye, October 1, 2016; Balint Slanko, “Iranian faction among Kurds trained by US against militants,” Associated Press, September 8, 2016; “Iranian Kurdish fighters trained by US military against ISIS,” Rudaw, September 9, 2016.
12 “Ten Iranian soldiers killed in clashes with Kurdish militants near Iraq border,” Daily Sabah, May 5, 2016.
13 “Kurdish PAK forces attack Iranian government troops in Sanandaj,” ARA News, April 20, 2016.
14 “6 Iranian soldiers and deputy commander killed by Kurdish fighters,” Rudaw, June 16, 2016. See also “KDPI: 6 Peshmerga killed in clashes with Iranian army in Shno,” Rudaw, June 18, 2016.
15 “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards kill five Kurdish PJAK militants,” Rudaw, June 13, 2016.
16 Author’s tracking of local media reports.
17 “Iranian MP survives assassination attempt,” Rudaw, July 10, 2016; Paul Cruickshank interview, Zana Gulmohamad, May 2017.
18 “Interview with Professor Abbas Vali,” Washington Kurdish Institute, February 10, 2016.
19 See Christopher Moede, “Iranian Support for Kurds Threatens US Security Interests; Here’s How the US Can Respond,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, March 17, 2017. See also “Iraq SITREP 2017-03-20,” Institute for the Study of War; “Iran’s Soleimani asks PKK to take part in Mosul battle: report,” NOW, November 8, 2016; “PKK affiliate group threatens war in the Kurdistan Region,” Rudaw, March 25, 2017; and “PM Barzani: KRG expects PKK to act ‘reasonably’ and leave Shingal,” Rudaw, March 13, 2017.
20 Author’s interviews with knowledgeable sources.
21 See “Amnesty International Report 2016/2017, Iran 2016/2017,” Amnesty International, and “Joint Letter: To Permanent Representatives of Member States of the Human Rights Council, Council Cross-regional Civil Society Organizations in Support of United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution to Renew Mandate of Special Rapporteur in Iran,” Human Rights Watch, March 16, 2017.
22 “Ahzab Kurdiyya Iraniyya: Tahran A`damat Khilal al-Ashhur al-Tis`a al-Madiya Mi’at al-Akrad [Iranian Kurdish parties: Iran executed hundreds of Kurds over past nine months],” Asharq al-Awsat, January 4, 2016.
23 “Kurdish woman commits suicide to avoid rape by Iranian intelligence,” ANF News, May 7, 2015.
24 For an insightful discourse on Iran’s Kurds, see “Interview with Professor Abbas Vali.”
25 “Treasury Designates Free Life Party of Kurdistan a Terrorist Organization” U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 4, 2009.
26 “U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis says Iran continues to sponsor terrorism,” Reuters, March 31, 2017.
27 “Death toll for Koya bombing rise to 7, KRG calls it act of terror,” Rudaw, December 21, 2016.
28 See Franc Milburn, “IRGC-QF in Northern Iraq & The Kurdistan Region,” July 15, 2014, and Franc Milburn, “Beyond IS: The KRG’s Radical Islamist Threats,” July 11, 2014.
29 “Two arrested in bombing of Iranian Kurdish party, perpetrator on the run,” Rudaw, December 26, 2016.
30 “Iran has nearly doubled its intelligence gathering in Kurdistan Region, official says,” Rudaw, February 19, 2017.
31 Babak Dehghanpisheh, “To Iranian eyes, Kurdish unrest spells Saudi incitement,” Reuters, September 4, 2016.
32 “Iranian Kurdish groups urge Iraqi parliament to reject call for their expulsion,” Rudaw, March 2, 2017.
33 “Statement Of General Joseph L. Votel, Commander U.S. Central Command Before The Senate Armed Services Committee On The Posture of U.S. Central Command,” March 9, 2017, p. 27.
34 “The Middle East at an Inflection Point with Gen. Mattis,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 22, 2016.
35 Michael Singh, “The View from Congress: U.S. Policy on Iran,” Testimony submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 28, 2017, pp. 9-10.
36 Ibid., p. 5.
37 Kathleen H. Hicks and Melissa C. Dalton, “Deterring Iran After The Nuclear Deal,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2017, p. 71.
38 See “Israel and Hezbollah: The Prospect of Renewed Hostilities Ten Years after War,” The Hudson Institute, July 26, 2017, for a discussion of Israeli “red lines” as regards Iran and proxies. See also Jonathan Schanzer, Tony Badran, and David Daoud, “The Third Lebanon War The Coming Clash Between Hezbollah and Israel in the Shadow of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Foundation For Defence of Democracies, July 2016; Amir Toumaj, “IRGC-controlled Iraqi militia forms ‘Golan Liberation Brigade,’” Long War Journal, March 12, 2017; and “Israel behind assassinations of Iran nuclear scientists, Ya’alon hints,” Jerusalem Post, August 7, 2015.
39 Sam LaGrone, “Navy: Saudi Frigate Attacked by Unmanned Bomb Boat, Likely Iranian,” U.S. Naval Institute, February 20, 2017.
40 Amir Toumaj and Caleb Weiss, “US designates Iran-backed Bahrainis as terrorists,” Long War Journal, March 21, 2017.
41 “Yemen: Houthis claim attack on UAE military vessel,” Al Jazeera, October 2, 2016.
42 See Franc Milburn’s LinkedIn blog posting “Iran’s Kurds: Charlie Wilson’s War Part Two?” from June 25, 2015, for a detailed account of how the PJAK blunted a major IRGC offensive in 2011.
43 “Train line to connect Iran to Mediterranean Sea through Kurdistan Region, Syria,” Rudaw, March 26, 2017.
44 Thomas Joscelyn, “Treasury targets Iran’s ‘secret deal’ with al Qaeda,” Long War Journal, July 28, 2011.
45 Author interviews with informed sources KRI, 2011.
46 “Iranian Kurdish fighters trained by US military against ISIS,” Rudaw, September 9, 2016. See also Balint Szlanko, “Iranian faction among Kurds trained by U.S. against militants,” Associated Press, September 8, 2016; Kim Deen, “First IS, then Iran: Kurdish-Iranian leader has eyes on ultimate goal,” Middle East Eye, October 1, 2016.
47 “Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga fighters deny arming by US,” Kurdistan 24, September 10, 2016.
48 Balint Szlanko, “Iranian faction among Kurds trained by U.S. against militants,” Associated Press, September 8, 2016.
49 “Iran’s Kurdish opposition call for boycott of May elections,” Rudaw, April 28, 2017.
About the Author
Franc Milburn is a strategic advisor, political risk analyst, and corporate security specialist. He has held senior oil and gas and security positions across the Middle East and North Africa, with three years living and working in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq