For 27 years, the Kurds in Iraq and in Iran have, in general, refrained from openly fighting against Tehran. 4 weeks ago, the status quo was broken as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) called on its troops to cross the border from Iraq into Iran to fight the Iranian army and the IRGC leading to dozens of deaths on both sides.
The tense situation is bound to increase as both sides are entrenching themselves further for a major conflict if and when Iranian Kurds join their Kurdish brothers and rise against the oppressive rule of Tehran.
Tehran answers with zero-tolerance
The IRGC’s answer to the Kurds battle-call was as quick as it was arrogant: “If Mr. Barzani (the head of the KDPI) doesn’t act against the anti-revolutionists who enter into our territories, we will destroy them all“. Furthermore, Tehran was quick to develop a conspiracy theory, blaming “foreign influences” (namely Saudi Arabia) for the resurgence of violence by Kurdish “terrorists” (always sounds better to claim fighting terrorists) but the Kurds maintain that their quarrel is directly with Tehran for its oppression of Iranian Kurds: “the rulers in Teheran believe that if they have domestic problems they blame it on Israelis and Saudis, and the problem in Iran is solved! But this is absurd…we are talking about the Kurdish issue in Iran and it has nothing to do with tensions with Iran or the Saudis or other countries“. The problem, the Kurds believe is that “the Shia theocracy in Tehran has never shed its mistrust of minorities, and Kurdish is not taught in school, while the predominantly Sunni Kurds find that the government discriminates against them on religious grounds too. Kurdish political parties remain outlawed, and activists are routinely thrown in jail and tortured“.
The IRGC then threatened to invade Iraq in order to deal with the Kurdish forces, a threat which is being taken very seriously by the Kurds especially since Tehran’s influence over Baghdad is so strong. For now, the Iranians are finding it sufficient to simply bomb Kurdish villages in Iraq, more evidence of meddling by the Iranian army in Iraqi territory since most of the casualties there are civilian in nature. The Kurds have bitterly criticized these attacks: “if they (Iranian forces) are brave, they should come and fight Peshmerga (Kurdish troops) on the battlefield instead of targeting and threatening Kurdish civilians“.
The Kurds are aiming high
For now, the KDPI claims that its troops have entered into Iran and “are now moving around, making contacts with people, and are ready to act in self-defense only if attacked. But in future stages, our forces will move to the attack mode. This is a process that will gradually unfold” as the KDPI is sure that the “Iranian Kurds are ready to rise“. The KDPI insists that this move is justified by the fact that the regime in Tehran “has stepped up pressure on Kurds and has not left space for meaningful civic or political work (inside Iran)”. Without the uprising of the 10 million Kurds in Iran, the skirmishes are not likely to really hurt the Iranian military since its estimated that the Kurdish troops number only 2,000 for now.
The pressure from the Kurds has reached President Hassan Rouhani: at the beginning of last month, Rouhani stated that “the mother tongue of ethnic groups, especially of Kurds, should be respected and recognized and that Kurdish will be taught in schools” adding that “Sunni and Shiite are all brothers, we are all equal…Kurdistan is the eye of Iran“. Unfortunately, statements such as these are seen as “too little too late” by the angry Kurds. In a later speech in a Kurdish area, Rouhani’s speech was interrupted by anti-regime slogans and condemnations of the “oppressive (and) starving policy” of Tehran against the Kurdish people.
The Kurds understand too well that fighting the Iranian forces is useless in open battlefields and that their only hope is to bring the skirmishes to Kurdish-dominated cities in Iran. They hope that such skirmishes, and more importantly, the IRGC’s harsh responses to such skirmishes, are bound to stir up more tension within the Kurdish communities in Iran which would lead to a crackdown on Kurdish activists which would then lead to a counter-backlash on the human rights front and hopefully, an open rebellion. An outbreak of human rights abuses by Tehran against the Iranian Kurds can also help to mobilize international pressure on Iran although the international community has yet to really pressure Iran on the numerous cases of abuses of Kurdish human rights.
A conflict that can blow up or fizzle out
But for now, the Iranian Kurds are maintaining the tense peace with Tehran. The KDPI has called on Iranian Kurds to stage a general strike but the nature of such a strike is still unknown. The KDPI is also initiating terrorist activities such as an armed ambush on Iranian parliamentary officials which killed two and wounded two more.
Tehran must plan its next move well in order to not open up another battlefront, this time within Iran. If it reacts too weakly, the Iranian Kurds might view this as an opportunity to demand equal rights. If it reacts too harshly, tensions are bound to flame up which would lead to open insurgence. The timing for Tehran could not be worse: Tehran is involved in three wars outside its borders (Syria, Iraq and Yemen) for now, as well as efforts at supporting insurgences in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, is being increasingly pressured on its human rights records and is in a top-level power-struggle between Rouhani’s “moderate” government and the regime’s hardliners (including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei).