In July, 2011, as the world focused on the bright hopes raised by the Arab Spring, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps launched a large-scale assault across the Iran-Iraq border. Their intention was to wipe out an armed challenge to the Islamist regime in Teheran. The target was PJAK (Party for a Free Life In Kurdistan), an Iranian Kurdish organization engaged in both political and military struggle against the regime. PJAK, closely aligned with the PKK, maintains bases in the southern Qandil mountain area, from where its fighters launched raids across the border into Iran. The intention of the Revolutionary Guards forces was to destroy this infrastructure. The operation would continue, an Iranian official told state television, ‘until all PJAK members were killed.’
The subsequent fighting was fierce, with heavy losses on both sides. For two months, the IRGC shelled the Qandil area. Hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes in the Choman and Qalat Diza districts, close to the border.
This conflict was almost entirely ignored by the international media, which was chasing the phantom of democracy across the Arab Middle East at the time.
The battle ended inconclusively. A ceasefire was restored on September 12th. Iranian official propaganda claimed to have captured three PJAK camps and to have destroyed PJAK’s military capability. The organization dismissed this, asserting that its fighters had defeated an Iranian attempt to seize the Qandil area.
Amid claim and counter-claim, a number of facts were clear. The Revolutionary Guards had crossed an international border in force. The Iraqi government had said nothing in protest. Civilians had been targeted and killed. The world had remained silent.
It is also clear that despite the claims of the Iranians to have destroyed PJAK, the organization has survived the assault. It is now reported to be engaged in the construction of new defensive positions close to the border.
Two months after the renewed ceasefire, I traveled to a European city to interview the leader of PJAK, Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi. Haji-Ahmadi is officially a resident of Cologne, Germany. We did not meet in that city, however – the PJAK leader having departed it after indications that the Iranian regime were seeking to assassinate him there.
Concerns regarding security are not an idle conceit where opponents of the Iranian regime are concerned. The mullahs have a history of killing their exiled opponents. Kurdish activists have formed a particular target for its attentions. In September, 1992, three prominent Iranian Kurdish leaders, Sadegh Sharafkandi, Fattah Abdoli and Homayoun Ardalan, and their translator were shot dead in a restaurant in Berlin. A mixed Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah team in the employ of the Islamic Republic of Iran was responsible.
These killings form part of a longer story of resistance by Iranian Kurds to the regime of the mullahs. PJAK has been active since 2004. Iran’s 12 million Kurds, however, have stood against and been targeted by the Islamist regime since its inception. And,of course, the Kurdish fight for recognition and rights precedes the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Haji-Ahmadi, however, was concerned with the here and now, as we began our conversation in a quiet side-room in the bustling offices of a Kurdish political organization. First and foremost, he wanted to communicate the little-documented reality of life for the inhabitants of Iranian Kurdistan.
The picture he painted was a grim, disturbing and unfamiliar one. Speaking in Kurdish, via an interpreter, Haji-Ahmadi described an impoverished, isolated region, in which the imprint of the Revolutionary Guards extends far beyond political repression. The IRGC controls key economic concerns in the area, giving the organization leverage over the inhabitants. Those wishing to improve their own lives and that of their families are required to collaborate with the organization. Economic dependence is supposed to produce political quiescence. It works, however, only partially – so the heavy hand of repression is also required.
The IRGC regularly executes impoverished Iranian Kurds seeking to make a living by smuggling across the Iran-Iraq border. The Corps’ enthusiasm for killing doesn’t stop with smugglers. Earlier this year, a wave of executions of incarcerated Kurdish activists took place. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: “Execution of Kurdish activists, without fair trials and following torture, increasingly appears as a systematic, politically motivated process.”
Haji-Ahmadi stressed that his movement sees itself as part of the larger Iranian opposition. He noted the generally dire situation for national minorities in Iran – listing Baluchis, Turks, Azeris and Arabs – and dismissed claims that the regime enjoys support among broad sections of the Iranian population: ‘There are 75 million people in Iran – and 70 million support the opposition,’ he told me. The problem, however, is organization. The opposition are ‘not united, not organized.’ And the ‘organizations of the Iranian opposition are outside Iran, and Iran itself is organized among them.’
Compounding the bleak situation facing the Iranian opposition, said Haji-Ahmadi, is what he considers to be the mistaken strategy employed by the international community regarding the country. The PJAK leader is critical of what he regards as the exclusive emphasis on the Iranian nuclear issue, at the expense of a focus on the broader crimes of the regime. ‘You cant’, he asserted, ‘turn the Iranian population against the regime with the nuclear issue.’ Instead, he recommends that the international focus on Iran concentrate on ‘human rights, minority rights and national rights.’
Later, our discussion turned to broader regional issues – Syria, Turkey, and Israel.
On Turkey’s current role as the US Administration’s preferred regional partner, Haji Ahmed was predictably scathing. ‘America,’ he noted, ‘cites Turkey as a model for regional democracy – Turkey, with its use of chemical weapons against Kurds and its napalm bombs and its internment of thousands of people. This is the model for democracy?’ He also dismisses claims by the Turkish government that the Kurds have been assisting the Syrian regime as ‘Turkish propaganda.’
He notes Israel’s (now discontinued) provision of drone aircraft to Turkey, and their replacement by US equipment. How, he asked, can Israel repair relations with the ‘AKP and its so-called ‘modern-Islamic’ approach. The AKP and Gulen groups, he suggested, are ‘apparently modern now – tomorrow, who knows?’
On Israel, the PJAK leader expressed his support for the ‘right of the Jewish People to have their own nation and their own country.’ ‘Our success,’ he added, ‘will be useful also for you.’ He dismissed, however, the oft-made claims by the Iranian state media of Israeli assistance to PJAK. ‘Anyone in Iran who is against theocracy,’ he says, ‘is immediately accused of being a US or Israeli agent.’
Given the recently emergent evidence of someone or other engaging in paramilitary operations deep inside Iran, it is of course impossible to draw any clear conclusions regarding possible links between armed opposition groups in Iran and Iran’s external enemies.
It is usual for Kurdish leaders to speak in warm and supportive terms about Israel, but the terms Haji-Ahmed used were ones I had never heard before. He stressed the similarity of the situation facing the Kurds and the Israelis. Both Kurds and Israeli Jews, he suggested, were ‘surrounded on all sides by states that are opposed to them.’ And ‘Persians, Arabs and Turks,’ will never be ‘friends’ to either people.
Such a comparison might appear tenuous, given the vastly differing levels of strength of these two peoples. Still, the Kurds today command a semi-sovereign enclave in northern Iraq. The rulers of the Kurdish Regional Government may have little common ground with the socialist PJAK and PKK. But on the national level, the activities of these organizations against the Iranian and Turkish regimes are made possible only because of the tacit tolerance afforded them by the Kurdish authorities. There is an underlying shared national hope.
The stakes are very high. With the US departed from Iraq, the Kurds find themselves at the center of a complex strategic game – and, as ever, surrounded by enemies. Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad to the south, and the beleaguered, Iran-aligned regime in Damascus to the west. They have few allies. Yet Haji-Ahmadi is not pessimistic.
He considers that in the long term, the Islamist regime in Iran is doomed. In the shorter term, if the Iranian Revolutionary Guards cross the border again – well, as he told me by way of conclusion, his movement will fight them once more. As in summer 2011.
With the Middle East currently in flux, the Iranian Kurds are poised between hope and trepidation. The concerns are detailed above and are well-justified. The hope is that the latest shift in the tectonic plates of the Middle East may finally result in the creation of a sovereign space for the people of Kurdistan. In the meantime, PJAK is rebuilding – in the Qandil mountains on the Iraq-Iran border, and in its offices on quiet side streets in European cities. Rebuilding and waiting.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He served in a front-line unit of the Israel Defense Forces in 1992-3, and fought in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. Between 1996 and 2000, Spyer was an employee of the Israel Prime Minister's Office.