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Jul 29, 2016 | 13:37 GMT

Iranian Kurds Return to Arms

A member of the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) at a base in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region in 2014. Kurdish groups in the Middle East are newly empowered because of the support they received to fight the Islamic State.
(SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Renewed Kurdish insurgencies will be a persistent nuisance for Iran but will only slightly threaten its firm control over Iranian Kurdistan.
  • Once the Islamic State has been defeated, competing Iranian Kurdish groups will become more susceptible to outside interference as they jostle for dominance.
  • Iran will use its influence in Iraq and in the Kurdistan Regional Government to prevent KRG-based Kurdish groups from causing too much trouble.

Though the Islamic State's core territory is now shrinking, its rapid rise as a global enemy and its quick territorial expansion in 2013 and 2014 shook the Middle East, instigating a series of realignments of military power. As the militant group claimed Mosul, Tikrit, Sinjar, Zumar and Kobani, Kurdish peshmerga units of Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian nationality deployed to try to stop it. Today, the multi-country front against the Islamic State is more secure and stable in those areas where territory held by the group abuts traditionally Kurdish territory.

At the same time, however, the Kurdish groups' involvement in the fight against the Islamic State has once again empowered them militarily. In Iran, home to a substantial Kurdish minority population, the side effects of this newfound might are visible. The fight against a common enemy has begun to unite Iran's disparate Kurdish groups, though various factions will inevitably jostle for dominance. Meanwhile, as the Kurds have gained prominence on the battlefield, external powers have taken a greater interest in them. Combined, these factors help to explain the revival of Kurdish insurgencies in Iran.

An Insurgent Resurgence

When Iran's new military chief alluded in his July 5 opening address to the "internal aggressors" threatening the Islamic republic, he was referring in large part to the country's Kurds. For the past decade, Iran has faced only sporadic attacks from Kurdish groups, usually perpetrated by the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). But over the past few months, various Kurdish groups have launched a spate of small strikes against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) outposts in Iran's northwestern regions. Along with PJAK, the country's oldest and most prominent Kurdish party, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, has resumed its armed resistance against Tehran, and a smaller group, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), has also staged offensives on IRGC forces.

Containing Kurdish insurgency, as well as other minority rebellions, has long been a priority for Iran's armed forces. Iran's military has been well positioned and equipped to quell such uprisings, which spring from the Kurdish populations mostly clustered along Iran's mountainous border with Iraq and Turkey. Now that rival Kurdish factions are joining forces — though they are far from unified — Iran will have a harder time ensuring that the Kurds' claims do not cause conflict with other minorities, such as the Balochis, Azeris or Ahwazis. But Iran has one thing working in its favor, other than the Kurds' perpetual fragmentation. Because Iranian Kurdish groups base their operations across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran can use its influence in Iraq to keep the Kurds from interfering too much in foreign and domestic conflicts outside of their region of dominance.

Different Groups, a Similar Grievance

Iran's Kurdish population, estimated at 6 million, is mostly Sunni and leads several political parties along with those parties' associated militant groups and paramilitary peshmerga forces. The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) was founded more than 70 years ago to defend Kurdish independence in the short-lived Republic of Mahabad. Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan, sprang from the KDPI in 1946, and the two parties have remained close over the years, exchanging ideology and leaders. After its establishment in 1991, Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government provided the KDPI a neutral space from which to operate. In 1996, the party renounced most of its armed resistance against Iran and has since operated quietly, seldom conducting attacks in Iran. The smaller PAK, founded in 1991 after Iraqi Kurdistan gained its independence, seeks the establishment of a democratic, federal Iran. Both groups have affirmed that they are abandoning their cease-fire agreement with the Iranian government to renew the fight for Kurdish freedom. By contrast, PJAK, which is historically associated with Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), never established such a truce after its founding in 2004.

Like other minority groups in Iran, Kurdish groups live mostly outside the urban economic centers in the country. Despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's assurances that Iran's nuclear agreement with the West would lead to economic growth and rejuvenation, the benefits have not yet trickled down to the Kurds. On a recent trip — which most members of parliament boycotted — to Kermanshah province in Iranian Kurdistan, Rouhani attempted to quiet leaders' concerns over economic inequality, promising $1 billion in aid. Although nothing tangible has been delivered so far, the government is clearly trying to mollify its minority populations as 2017 elections approach and insurgent activity rises.

A Call for Help

That Kurdish militant groups are attacking Iranian state forces is not unusual. But thanks to their role in the battle against the Islamic State, the Kurdish groups have gained unity and international prominence. Now they hope to channel some of the external support that has been extended to them to fight the Islamic State to forward their struggle for autonomy. In July, PAK stated that international aid would enable Kurds to end "Iranian influence in the region." The KDPI, too, has been forthcoming about its desire to build ties with external partners, announcing in a July statement its campaign to find allies to counter the threats it faces from Iran. Yet their calls for funding and equipment from foreign backers will go unfulfilled as long as the KDPI and PAK continue to wage their insurgency. After all, funding efforts against the Islamic State and facilitating a separatist rebellion against a sovereign country are two entirely different endeavors.

Even so, countries with a vested interest in exacerbating Iran's domestic problems — such as Saudi Arabia and Israel — may agree to help the Kurds. Rumor has it that Saudi Arabia has been providing financial support to all three Kurdish insurgent groups through its newly opened consulate in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Moreover, KDPI and PAK have appealed directly to Riyadh in their calls for funding, much to Tehran's dismay.

An Insurgency Greater Than the Kurds

More than advancing their own separatist cause, Iran's Kurdish insurgent forces will reinforce other ethnic minority groups' demands for independence. In fact, this is one of the Kurdish groups' stated reasons for ramping up their rebellion. In a statement pledging the group's solidarity with other separatist movements in Iran, KDPI's leader announced that it had joined with Arab, Azeri, Baloch, Turkmen and Kurdish organizations to form the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran.

As attacks continue, Iran's armed forces will work to impede any efforts toward federalism in Iran. Meanwhile, the more Kurdish groups come together in the struggle for independence, the more competition between them will impede their fight against Iran. As Turkey's PKK insurgency has illustrated, overcoming internal divides to mount an effective offensive against a strong state is easier said than done. But so long as the rebellion continues, Iran's opponents will be tempted to lend their support.

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