Iran steps up quest to dominate Iraq with attack on Kurds
Although Iran’s rising influence in the region is in the spotlight, Tehran’s treatment of Kurds has been receiving less attention. Interactions between the Iranian regime and the Kurdish population have been mainly subject to political polemics rather than scholarly work.
Iran has ratcheted up its anti-Kurdish policy in recent months. Most recently, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked a Kurdish base in Koysinjaq, located east of Irbil in northern Iraq, killing at least 12 people and wounding 50 others. According to a statement by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), “Iran used long-range missiles in a coordinated attack on PDKI’s bases and adjacent refugee camps.”
The Iranian regime strikes also hit the headquarters of a different Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI).
Such deadly assaults point to the regime’s hypocrisy and a double standards-based policy toward the Kurds, as the Iranian leaders frequently boast about their efforts to defend the Kurds and justify their military presence in various parts of Iraq for the sake of protecting the Kurdish population. Previously, President Hassan Rouhani famously pointed out: “Iran protects Irbil and Baghdad just as it protects Iranian Kurdistan. Without Iran’s help, Irbil and Baghdad would be in the hands of terrorist groups right now. Just as we protect Sanandaj, we also protect Sulaimani and Duhok.”
Iran’s strikes also point to the regime’s increasing concerns. Domestic pressure against the political establishment has increased to an unprecedented level due to the failing economy and devaluation of Iran’s currency, the rial.
Iranian leaders fear that Kurdish groups, such as the PDKI and KDPI, may rally Iran’s Kurdistan against the ruling mullahs. The regime cannot afford widespread protests in Tehran as well as in Kurdistan.
In addition, the large scope and intensity of Iran’s attacks, as well as the use of drones in the assault, are the first of their kind against Kurds residing outside of Iran.
For the Kurdish people, this is most likely also a reminder of Iran’s attack against them in 1996, when Tehran dispatched 3,000 troops to enter Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, killing dozens of people and displacing many families. In addition, Iranian agents exploded a car-bomb close to KDPI refugee camps.
Without a doubt, Iran’s missile assault against the Kurds was not reactionary in nature, due to the fact that the Kurds have not launched any attack against Tehran in recent months.
Attacking Sunni groups in Iraq and arming Iraqi Shiite militias is part of Tehran’s larger strategy of firming up its arc of influence in the region.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Instead, the accuracy and characteristic of Tehran’s assault highlights the notion that the senior cadre of the IRGC and the Quds Force — the elite branch of the IRGC that operates in foreign territories to advance Iran’s revolutionary ideals — had most likely planned, coordinated and organized the missile and drone attack in advance.
From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, they have scored a victory not only in terms of dealing a serious blow to the Kurdish opposition, but also in terms of having enhanced their military capabilities to such an extent that they can carry out ballistic missile attacks with great accuracy and precision.
In addition, it is worth noting that the Iranian regime is pursuing two-pronged policies in Iraq at the same time. On the one hand, Tehran is undermining and weakening the Kurds by attacking their bases in northern Iraq.
On the other, the theocratic establishment has recently been increasing its efforts to arm the Iraqi Shiite militias with much more advanced weapons. According to the latest information, Iran has sent ballistic missiles to these militias. Based on intelligence from Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources, Tehran is also “developing the capacity to build more (ballistic missiles) there (Iraq) to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes.”
Such a two-dimensional policy is extremely effective in tipping Iraq’s balance of power further in favor of Iranian-backed militias, which would subsequently advance Tehran’s geopolitical, economic and strategic interests in Baghdad.
Attacking Sunni groups in Iraq and arming Iraqi Shiite militias is also part of Tehran’s larger strategy of firming up its arc of influence in the region by strengthening and expanding the “Shiite Crescent.” This is the reason that the Iranian regime has also escalated its attempts to smuggle weapons to other Shiite militia groups through new routes, such as using civilian airlines.
In a nutshell, Iran’s recent missile assault against the Kurdish people in Iraq points to Tehran’s relentless quest to dominate Iraq through any means, including hard power. The Iranian leaders also appear determined to continue showing defiance in the face of international and regional demands that it must scale back on its military adventurism carried out through the IRGC, the Quds Force, and local militia and terror groups. If the international community has decided to disregard Iran’s latest belligerence against the Kurds, it ought to realize that it is allowing the Iranian leaders to further destabilize, radicalize and militarize the region.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council.