The Factors Behind Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan

CTCSentinel-Vol4Iss3
Author: Chris Zambelis

When viewing Iran, the locus of international attention remains fixed on the quarrelsome condition of U.S.-Iran relations and the tensions surrounding its nuclear program. The domestic political landscape in Iran, specifically the numerous ethnic and sectarian minorities in the country, is also beginning to draw more attention. Through collective displays of peaceful activism to organized campaigns of violence, a number of movements purporting to stand for the interests of ethnic and sectarian minority communities who see themselves as victims of state-directed oppression are increasingly capturing the spotlight. The September 22, 2010 bombing that occurred during the annual festivities surrounding “Sacred Defense Week” in the predominately ethnic Kurdish city of Mahabad appears to illustrate this pattern of dissent.[1] The attack in Mahabad killed 12 bystanders and injured dozens more.[2] Seemingly targeting a procession of soldiers, the victims of the attack were primarily children and women, including two wives of Iranian military commanders.[3]

No individual or group claimed responsibility for the bombing, although Iran quickly named a number of potential culprits, including what Iranian authorities described as “counter-revolutionaries” such as armed Kurdish nationalist militants associated with Partiya Jiyana Azadi Kurdistan (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, PJAK).[4] Mahabad and surrounding regions in northwestern Iran have been the scenes of frequent clashes between PJAK guerrillas and Iranian security forces during the last few years.[5] In spite of the questions surrounding the perpetrators of the attack in Mahabad—PJAK continues to deny any role in the bombing—the trajectory of violence in northwestern Iran between Kurdish militants led by PJAK and state security forces points to a deeper current in Iranian society characterized by growing unrest among Iran’s restive ethnic Kurdish minority.[6]

This article explores the circumstances behind the rise of PJAK in the context of Kurdish identity and nationalism in Iran, the range of tactics and operations employed by PJAK, and weighs the impact of Middle East geopolitics on Kurdish militancy in Iran.

The Regional Landscape
Except for the Kurds residing in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), a federal division of Iraq that exists as a quasi-independent state, upwards of 30 million Kurds live as embattled ethnic minorities who endure varying degrees of political, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural discrimination in a geographic space that encompasses large swaths of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria—territories Kurdish nationalists refer to collectively as “Greater Kurdistan.”[7] Countries that host Kurdish minorities tend to deem demands for greater rights and representation for Kurds and subsequent manifestations of Kurdish nationalism, ranging from separatist aspirations to calls for autonomy, as threats to their respective territorial integrities.

PJAK itself is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), originally based in neighboring Turkey but, more recently, Iraq.[8] Driven by an ideology of Kurdish nationalism imbued with secular and socialist principles that has fluctuated between demands for an independent Kurdistan to securing considerable autonomy for Kurds in Turkey, the PKK has waged a campaign of violence and terrorism against the Turkish state that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984.[9]

Heavy losses incurred at the hands of Turkish forces coupled with the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s founder and leader, in February 1999 drove the remaining PKK factions numbering in the low thousands (from a previous peak of between 15,000-20,000 fighters) to take refuge in northern Iraq with the tacit support of elements of the KRG and local sympathizers.[10] The PKK rooted itself in Iraq’s Qandil Mountain range, located in northeastern Iraq and stretching into Iran. The rugged terrain remains a PKK stronghold. Having abandoned a number of unilateral cease-fires with Ankara over the years, the PKK regrouped and returned to armed struggle following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.[11] The PKK’s presence in the Qandil Mountains also paved the way for PJAK’s rise. The federalization of Iraq, which elevated the political status of Iraqi Kurds, emboldened the cause of Kurdish nationalism in the region, serving to inspire Kurds in Iran to take up arms against Tehran sometime in 2005 to achieve self-rule.[12]

Home to most of its estimated 3,000 fighters, the Qandil Mountains serve as PJAK’s operational hub for launching attacks against Iran.[13] The strategic significance of the Qandil Mountains to PJAK’s capacity to operate cannot be underestimated. Threatened by the prospect of a resurgent Kurdish nationalism, both Turkey and Iran have targeted the region through airstrikes and heavy artillery, and deployed special operations forces to root out Kurdish insurgents representing both the PKK and PJAK.[14]

Iranian Kurdistan
Numbering between five and eleven million, Iran’s Kurdish community represents a significant ethnic minority among Iran’s approximately 72 million people.[15] Most Kurds in Iran reside in the country’s northwestern provinces of Kermanshah, Ilam, Kurdistan, and West Azerbaijan.[16] For Kurdish nationalists, the geographic space occupied by Iranian Kurds represents “Eastern Kurdistan,” in essence the eastern frontier of “Greater Kurdistan.”[17] The territories comprising Iranian Kurdistan hold a special place in the hearts of Kurdish nationalists.[18] Emerging on January 22, 1946, the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, a self-styled Kurdish mini-state supported by the Soviet Union during its occupation of northern Iran in World War II, represented the first Kurdish independent state until it was brought back under Tehran’s fold less than a year later.[19] Iranian Kurds suffered under the regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who went to great lengths to suppress expressions of Kurdish identity and aspirations for achieving autonomy in Iran. As a result, Iranian Kurds of all faiths tended to support the Iranian revolution that ousted the Shah in 1979. The fledgling Islamist regime, however, adopted a similarly harsh plan for suppressing the aspirations of Iranian Kurds, prompting a mass armed uprising that was eventually crushed.[20]

The territories comprising Iranian Kurdistan are among Iran’s poorest and least developed.[21] Iranian Kurds are the frequent victims of human rights abuses. Accused of engaging in terrorist activities, Kurdish activists, including individuals with no ties to PJAK or other militants, are often detained and executed by the regime on terrorism and sedition charges.[22] As a result, many Kurds in Iran see themselves as victims of a genocidal campaign directed by the ethnic Persian-dominated Shi`a Islamist state. Having exhausted all attempts to achieve self-rule for their community in Iran through peaceful means, Iranian Kurds, in the eyes of PJAK, have been left with little choice but to take up arms.[23] PJAK’s stated goals, however, do not include calls for the unification of the region’s disparate Kurdish populations into a single country or the secession of Iran’s Kurdish regions from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead, PJAK claims to be fighting for the rights of Kurds in the context of their predicament as victims of an oppressive order. For PJAK, the establishment of a federal Iran that would guarantee Kurds substantial autonomy—a goal similarly shared by other embattled ethnic and religious minority groups in Iran—would satisfy the demands of Iranian Kurds. Nevertheless, while officially advocating for an autonomous status for Kurds, PJAK is known to boast members keen on seeing the formation of a “Greater Kurdistan” down the road.[24]

Most Iranian Kurds are Sunni, yet sizeable numbers of Shi`a as well as some Christians are represented in the community. The conflict between PJAK and the state is not, however, a sectarian one. Kurds in Iran tend to share a sense of transnational identity with fellow Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria shaped by a historical memory of collective statelessness and persecution. Tribal- and clan-based kinship networks based on local allegiances have nevertheless left Kurds divided politically in Iran and elsewhere. At the same time, the historical persecution experienced by Kurds continues to bind disparate Kurdish populations in the region under a banner of resistance.

Tactics, Targets and Operations
Like its PKK precursor, PJAK has assumed the role of armed guardian of Kurds in Iran. Relying on bases it shares with the PKK on the Iraqi side of the Qandil Mountain range, as well as positions and cells on Iranian soil, PJAK is waging an asymmetric campaign that combines guerrilla-style insurgency operations with terrorist attacks targeting Iranian security forces, especially Iranian police and members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).[25] PJAK’s toolbox of tactics and operations features small unit ambushes, such as the August 12, 2010 attack against a convoy of IRGC officers traveling through the city of Urmia in West Azerbaijan Province that left three officers dead and one wounded.[26]

PJAK has also executed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks against Iranian security forces. PJAK claimed responsibility for downing two Iranian military helicopters with RPGs in February and August 2007, killing more than 30 Iranian soldiers.[27] In addition to targeting security forces, PJAK also attacks representatives of the Islamic Republic’s legal system, including judges and prosecutors, a pattern that represents a form of retaliation for the large number of arrests and executions of Kurdish political activists.[28] PJAK also frequently targets religious and political officials for assassination, including ethnic Kurds who are seen as collaborators of the regime. While PJAK is careful to avoid civilian casualties, civilian collaborators, such as paid informants or others assisting Tehran’s efforts to root out the group—Kurdish or otherwise—are considered legitimate targets. Critical infrastructure, including energy pipelines, has also been targeted by PJAK in an attempt to disrupt the Iranian economy.[29]

PJAK’s objectives are indirectly bolstered by an organized political network consisting of human rights and lobbying organizations, Iranian Kurdish political parties operating in exile, and independent supporters that advocate on behalf of Iranian Kurds in the diaspora, especially in Europe where the group counts on the sizeable Kurdish diaspora for political, financial, and material support.[30] Organizations operating outside of Iran and united in their advocacy for the federalization of Iran along ethnic and regional lines helps to strengthen PJAK’s cause.

PJAK also operates a sophisticated information campaign that includes a network of websites containing political material framed in human rights and democracy discourse in Kurdish, Farsi, English, and other languages.[31] PJAK uses online and other media venues to claim responsibility for its attacks as well as to publicize its positions on events impacting Kurds in Iran and the wider region. PJAK uses the internet to lionize fallen fighters and to demonstrate solidarity with the plight of Kurds elsewhere. To strengthen its own case regarding the disadvantaged position of the community it claims to represent, the struggles of other besieged minority groups in Iran also receive PJAK’s attention on its website.[32] While devoted to the cause of Iranian Kurds, PJAK’s membership is diverse; in addition to Iranian Kurds, the ranks of PJAK include ethnic Kurds from across the region, including the former Soviet Union.[33] Women also figure prominently in all aspects of PJAK’s operations, including fighting on the front lines. Women are estimated to compose about half of PJAK’s ranks.[34]

A Foreign Hand?
Rooted in local factors and regional currents, Kurdish militancy in Iran is an organic phenomenon. Nevertheless, in an attempt to refute PJAK’s sway among Iranian Kurds, Tehran previously referred to the group as the PKK. To further discredit PJAK’s claims about the position of Iranian Kurds in the Islamic Republic and the legitimacy of its goal of achieving Kurdish self-rule, Iran has accused the group of operating as a proxy of hostile foreign intelligence services, namely the intelligence services of the United States (PJAK leader Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi visited Washington in 2007 under unclear circumstances[35]) as well as those operated by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom.[36] Iran believes that the United States is directing a campaign in conjunction with its allies to instigate domestic social and political dissent and violent upheavals inside Iran. Any potential invasion of Iran by the United States or Israel over its nuclear program, in Iran’s view, would be preceded by a campaign of violence led by the numerous ethno-sectarian insurgent and political opposition groups operating within Iran and abroad.

In light of Iran’s claim of a U.S. role behind PJAK, the United States designated PJAK a terrorist organization on February 5, 2009.[37] The U.S. decision to blacklist PJAK, along with other militant groups targeting Iran in the past, was widely interpreted as a diplomatic gesture to Iran amid the backchannel talks between Washington and Tehran over the latter’s nuclear program and other sensitive issues.[38]

Iran has also linked PJAK and Kurdish nationalists more broadly to violent Sunni Salafists, including al-Qa`ida and al-Qa`ida-aligned or inspired Kurdish groups, based in northern Iraq. For example, while accompanying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his October 2010 trip to Lebanon, Iranian intelligence minister Heidar Moslehi implicated “Kurdish Salafi groups” in the September 2010 attack in Mahabad and other strikes in Iranian Kurdistan.[39] Tehran also blamed the September 2009 assassination of Mamousta Sheikholeslam, the Kurdistan Province’s representative in Iran’s Assembly of Experts, as well as a spate of similar assassination attempts targeting government and religious officials on al-Qa`ida elements based in northern Iraq. Al-Qa`ida factions originating in northern Iraq were also blamed for the attempt on the life of an Iranian judge and the September 2009 murder of a Sunni Kurdish cleric supportive of Tehran.[40] In addition to eliciting confessions for the assassination by the alleged perpetrators, Iranian authorities also claimed to have uncovered a cache of weapons and explosives that included suicide vests destined to be used in future attacks against public officials in Iran directed by al-Qa`ida in northern Iraq.[41] Furthermore, Iran also announced on December 30, 2010 that it had detained alleged members of al-Qa`ida in West Azerbaijan Province.[42]

The potential role of foreign state actors keen on destabilizing the Islamic Republic by sowing internal unrest, or involvement by Sunni extremist groups in militancy in Iranian Kurdistan, cannot be ruled out. At the same time, the available evidence indicates that the persistent grievances felt by Iranian Kurds are what fuel PJAK and other Kurdish opposition movements.  In this context, if outside forces—both state actors hostile to the Islamic Republic and radical Sunni extremists—are involved, they are exacerbating an already tenuous situation on the ground.

Conclusion
Violent rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan led by PJAK will continue to test the domestic stability of the Islamic Republic in its Kurdish regions. In light of the myriad challenges facing Iran in both the domestic and regional spheres, however, there are no indications to suggest that PJAK in and of itself can pose a serious threat to the overall durability of the regime. In this regard, the nature of the threat posed by PJAK to Tehran should be considered in the larger context of domestic tensions stemming from ethno-religious strife among Iran’s numerous ethnic and religious minority communities and other centers of political opposition to the incumbent Islamist authorities. Geopolitical turbulence related to the delicate position of Kurds in neighboring countries, especially Iraq, as well as the troubled state of U.S.-Iran (and Israel-Iran) relations will also profoundly impact PJAK’s reach. The empowerment of their kin in Iraq will continue to inspire PJAK to maintain pressure on Iran. Likewise, in spite of the U.S. decision to blacklist it as a terrorist organization, PJAK will continue to exploit hostilities between the United States and Iran as a window of opportunity to further its cause on the ground and within international public opinion.

In the near-term, Iran is likely to deal with Kurdish dissent through harsher repression, an approach that is sure to provoke more determined resistance. Ultimately, alleviating the entrenched grievances and mistrust Kurds feel toward the state will require a sustained commitment by Tehran to improve the lives of Iranian Kurds by implementing far-reaching social, political, and economic reforms in Iranian Kurdistan.

Chris Zambelis is a researcher with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Helios Global, Inc.

[1] Mahabad is located 40 miles east of the Iraqi border in Iran’s northwestern province of West Azerbaijan.

[2] “Iran Terror Attack Kills 12, Injures 80,” Press TV [Tehran], September 22, 2010.

[3] Borzou Daragahi, “Bombing at Parade in Iran Kills 12, Including a Child,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2010.

[4] In addition to implicating Kurdish militants in the attack at Mahabad, Iran has also fingered hostile foreign intelligence services in the operation. See “Iran Arrests 2 Over Mahabad Attack,” Press TV, September 22, 2010. Also see Tom A. Peter, “Iran Blames ‘Terrorist Attack’ On Kurdish Separatists,” Christian Science Monitor, September 22, 2010.

[5] The armed wing of PJAK is known as the East Kurdistan Defense Forces.

[6] In a statement by Kardo Bokani, an activist associated with PJAK, published on the group’s official website (www.pjak.org), PJAK denies any role in the September 22, 2010 bombing in Mahabad. Instead, PJAK accuses Iran of masterminding the attack in an effort to use it to tarnish the reputation of PJAK and Kurdish causes in Iran. See Kardo Bokani, “Iran is Behind the Explosion in Mahabad,” PJAK.org, September 27, 2010.

[7] Accurate figures for Kurdish populations in the Middle East are difficult to discern, as estimates are often politicized. Kurds, for instance, are widely believed to inflate their actual numbers in an effort to exaggerate their significance; regional governments, on the other hand, are known to deliberately undercount the number of Kurds living within their borders to diminish their perceived influence. See Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds Ascending: The Evolving Solution to the Kurdish Problem in Iraq and Turkey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 2.

[8] Statements made by PJAK members confirm the group’s operational links to the PKK; however, there appears to be a dispute as to whether PJAK operates as a section of the PKK or as an independent movement that seeks inspiration from the PKK. See Derek Henry Flood, “The ‘Other’ Kurdistan Seethes with Rage,” Asia Times Online, October 16, 2009.

[9] “Turkish Troops Killed in PKK Attack,” al-Jazira, June 19, 2010. While the PKK resorted to armed resistance in 1984, the group emerged on the scene in the late 1970s.

[10] Current estimates of PKK strength vary from as low as 2,000 core members to as high as 8,000 fighters. Also see Thomas Seibert, “PKK Attacks Turkish Position from Iraq,” The National, October 4, 2008; Yahya Ahmed, “Iraq Kurds Back PKK Despite Hardships,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, April 28, 2008.

[11] Francesco Milan, “Turkey Battles Resurgent PKK,” International Relations and Security Network, February 2, 2011.

[12] Although PJAK’s resort to arms is believed to have first occurred sometime in 2005, the group claims to have operated as a political movement as early as 1997. See James Brandon, “Iran’s Kurdish Threat: PJAK,” Terrorism Monitor 4:12 (2006).

[13] “Five PJAK Rebels, Two Revolutionary Guards Killed in Iran Clashes,” Ekurd.net, August 26, 2010.

[14] Susan Fraser, “Turkey, Iran Launch Coordinated Attacks on Kurds,” Associated Press, June 5, 2008.

[15] According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), the Kurdish population in Iran is between 8-11 million. Some Kurdish sources estimate the number of Kurds in Iran to be as high as 12 million.

[16] The eastern province of Khorasan is also home to a small Kurdish community. Smaller Kurdish populations are present in other parts of Iran.

[17] PJAK and other Kurdish nationalists often refer to the lands dominated by ethnic Kurds in Iran as Eastern or East Kurdistan.

[18] In spite of the existence of a Kurdistan Province, predominantly Kurdish regions of Iran are often referred to collectively as Iranian Kurdistan.

[19] Wadie Jwaideh, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Its Origins and Development (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006), pp. 243-267.

[20] Kamal Nazer Yasin, “Iranian Kurdistan: A Simmering Cauldron,” International Relations and Security Network, November 12, 2007.

[21] Only Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which is home to most of Iran’s ethnic Baluch minority, suffers from greater poverty and underdevelopment. Incidentally, Sistan-Baluchistan is also in the throes of its own ethno-nationalist insurgency led by Jundallah (Soldiers of God), a group claiming to act on behalf of the Baluch, a predominantly Sunni population that sees itself, much like the Kurds, as victims of state-led repression. For more background on the Baluch insurgency in Iran, see Chris Zambelis, “Resistance and Insurgency in Iranian Baluchistan,” CTC Sentinel 2:7 (2009).

[22] For an assessment of the human rights situation in Iranian Kurdistan, see “Iran: Human Rights Abuses Against the Kurdish Minority,” Amnesty International, 2008.

[23] In addition to PJAK, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Kurdish Communist Party of Iran (Komoleh), the two main Iranian Kurdish opposition parties that have abandoned armed resistance against Tehran in favor of political activism and which operate openly in Iraq and beyond, also helped give rise to PJAK. See Reese Erlich, “Brad Pitt and the Girl Guerrillas,” Mother Jones, March-April 2007.

[24]  Brandon.

[25]  Guillaume Perrier, “Iraqi Kurdistan-based Kurdish PJAK Guerrillas Do Battle with Tehran,” Guardian, August 31, 2010.

[26] “In PJAK Ambush, 3 Iranians Killed,” Press TV, August 13, 2010.

[27] Damien McElroy, “Kurdish Guerillas Launch Clandestine War in Iran,” Telegraph, September 10, 2007.

[28]  “Three IRGC Troops Killed in NW Iran,” Press TV, April 21, 2010.

[29] “Iran Accuses PKK of Thursday’s Gas Pipeline Attack,” The Journal of Turkish Weekly, October 2, 2006.

[30] Thomas Renard, “Kurdish Activism in Europe: Terrorism Versus Europeanization,” Terrorism Monitor 6:13 (2008). PJAK commander Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi, along with other senior PJAK leaders, helped coordinate the group’s activities from their base in Germany. See Stefan Buchen, John Goetz, and Sven Robel, “Germany Concerned About PJAK Activities,” Der Spiegel, April 14, 2008; “PJAK Ringleader Arrested in Germany,” Fars News Agency, March 7, 2010.

[31] More details can be found on PJAK’s official website at http://www.pjak.org.

[32] For instance, PJAK broadcasts reports issued by pro-Baluch nationalist sources advocating on behalf of ethnic Baluch in Sistan-Baluchistan.

[33] Brandon.

[34] Erlich.

[35] Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Kurdish Militants’ Other Front: Iran,” New York Times, October 22, 2007.

[36] Yaakov Katz, “Dagan Urged Support for Iranian Minorities to Oust Iranian Regime,” Jerusalem Post, November 29, 2010. The disclosure of classified U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks contain alleged statements made by Meir Dagan, the former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, to U.S. officials in August 2007 calling for the support of Kurdish opposition groups, as well as Baluch, Azeri, and student opposition movements, against Tehran. Israel’s relations with Kurds date back to the implementation of its “periphery strategy,” a foreign policy that saw Israel aim to establish open and secret relations with non-Arab countries as well as ethnic and sectarian minorities in the region in an effort to outflank Arab countries around it. Israel is also known to maintain business ties to Kurds in Iraq. See Anat Tal-Shir, “Israelis Trained Kurds in Iraq,” Yedioth Ahronoth, December 12, 2005. Incidentally, Tehran also implicated Israel in the September 22, 2010 attack in Mahabad. See “Iran Blames Mahabad Attack on Israel,” Press TV, September 22, 2010. Also see Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 1 Television [Tehran], November 10, 2010.

[37] “Treasury Designates Free Life Party of Kurdistan a Terrorist Organization,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 4, 2009.

[38] In a similar move, the United States announced on November 3, 2010 that it designated Jundallah a terrorist organization. The People’s Mujahidin of Iran (PMOI), more commonly known as the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MEK)—another militant group Iran sees as acting at the behest of U.S. and hostile intelligence agencies—was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997.

[39]  Kaveh Ghoreishi, “This Time, Salafi Kurds are Suspects,” Rooz Online, October 18, 2010.

[40] “Attempt on Iranian Judge’s Life,” Press TV, September 16, 2009; “Pro-Ahmadinejad Cleric Killed in West Iran,” Reuters, September 13, 2009.

[41] “Al-Qaeda Terrorists Confess to Recent Attacks in Iran,” Fars News Agency, October 11, 2009.

[42] The most radical Sunni extremists, particularly violent Salafists, tend to view Shi`a Muslims—who they often refer to as rafida (rejectionists)—and, by extension, Iran, as heretical and apostate. See “Iran Arrests Seven Al Qaeda Members,” Reuters, December 31, 2010. In a related point, Iran also accuses its regional rival Saudi Arabia of actively supporting Sunni extremists targeting the Islamic Republic. Iran’s claim that Jundallah receives support from Saudi Arabia is a case in point. See Scott Peterson, “Iran, Still Haunted by Jundallah Attacks, Blames West,” Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 2010.

Source: CTC

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