Peshmerga of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Photo: Marta Senk
In a recent piece in the journal Al-Monitor, freelance journalist Fazel Hawramy suggests that the reignited conflict between Iran and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI, PDKI) is proof that the Kurdistan Region's independence referendum will not produce stability nor good relations between Erbil and its neighbour. This argument is flawed for many reasons.
“The recent [PDKI-Iran] clashes contradict claims by Iraqi Kurdish officials that the Sept. 25 independence referendum will not lead to instability,” Hawramy writes. “It also refutes their insistence that Erbil wishes to enjoy cordial relations with its neighbours, including Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara.”
This assertion is at best highly questionable. Hawramy's piece is clearly attempting to directly link the PDKI 's restarted campaign against Tehran last year to the upcoming referendum. The fact that Iran may wish to connect them as a pretext to interfere in the referendum, which it staunchly opposes, doesn't mean they are in reality connected.
The leader of PDKI himself, Mustafa Hijri, has said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is against his group fighting Iran from the Kurdistan Region. KRG officials, he confirmed, have even asked his group, and other Kurdish opposition groups based in the autonomous region, “to stop armed attacks inside Iran, to avoid giving the Islamic Republic of Iran excuses to create problems for the Kurdistan Region.”
He added that he rejected this demand, making it clear that he and the PDKI are operating against the wishes of the KRG.
Hawramy also writes that Tehran is fearful that “the Kurds may use foreign assistance from countries such as Saudi Arabia to cause havoc inside Iran.”
The implication that the KRG would acquiesce to, or support, a Saudi proxy conflict with Iran from its territory is not at all likely given its record.
During the Iraq War the Americans raided the Iranian consulate in Erbil without notifying the KRG beforehand, alleging that it was a hub for supporting militias killing American soldiers in Iraq. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani condemned the Americans for the action and affirmed that Erbil is not a place where such plots are permitted. There is no reason to believe the same is not true today vis-a-vis the Saudi consulate
As Hawramy correctly notes, while Hijri has solicited foreign assistance for his efforts against Iran, he has denied receiving any to date.
Hawramy also points to the issue of logistics on the Iranian side when it comes to combating the PDKI along the KRG-Iran border.
“It should be noted that the weakest link for Iran is its long border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where thousands of armed members of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups are based,” he writes.
However he doesn't mention the salient fact that the Peshmerga armed forces of the KRG have much less manpower and equipment than Iran and would find it much more difficult to completely close off that border to groups fighting Iran. This is particularly true after its three year war with ISIS, when the Peshmerga protected a front that extended 1,000 kilometers against the ruthless and well-armed militants.
The idea that the independence referendum will somehow exacerbate this current border conflict also doesn't hold water. After all, even if Kurdistan remains part of Iraq there is little if anything Baghdad can actually do to quell this border conflict.
It's worth recalling that back in 2008 the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) helped the Iranians in their campaign against the Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK) group. At the time Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani also, on several occasions, condemned PJAK for using KRG territory as a launchpad to attack Iran. In October 2011 President Barzani visited Tehran and announced a ceasefire deal reached between the KRG and PJAK to end border hostilities.
This PJAK precedent is an important one to consider when discussing the PDKI campaign today. Erbil has not given support to the PDKI's campaign and only criticizes Tehran when its cross-border attacks harm civilians caught in the crossfire.
Also, as pointed out here before, the KRG has consistently stressed
that it has no intention to interfere in the Kurdish territories of its neighbours. Kurdish groups such as PJAK in the past and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) today do not advocate independence for the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, or Iran in adherence to Abdullah Ocalan's promotion of the democratic confederalism political system.
At present what the PDKI appears to be doing is trying to co-opt the KRG referendum for its own means, by stepping up clashes in tandem with it, in an attempt to reinvigorate its insurgency against Iran which, hitherto 2015, was in ceasefire mode for two decades.
Postponing or canceling the September referendum is not likely to do anything to solve this conflict. Consequently instead of issuing veiled threats against the Kurds for seeking their right of self-determination, Iran should instead voice its more legitimate concerns to Erbil about the PDKI campaign and work with the KRG to broker a ceasefire, end the bloodshed, and stabilize the volatile border.