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New Biden Nuclear Deal with Iran Threatens Kurds
Longtime proxy for U.S., Israel spy agencies fear Baghdad will allow Iran attacks on their sanctuary
Pity the poor Kurds.
Numbering some 40 million people who have populated the mountainous border convergence of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran for centuries, they remain the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own.
Over the past 100 years, starting with the new world order that emerged in the aftermath of World War I, both global and regional powers have thwarted the Kurds’ quest for self-determination at every tectonic turn of the Middle East’s historical wheel.
Now thousands of Iranian Kurds living in exile in Iraq face yet another existential crisis. Iran, which accuses these Kurds of staging cross-border raids, collaborating with Israel and stirring up anti-government protests, is now threatening to invade their Iraqi base. The Kurds fear Baghdad will acquiesce to Tehran’s demands for their expulsion from their sanctuary. Further complicating their plight is the Biden administration’s renewed drive for a modified nuclear deal with Iran, which has pushed the plight of the Kurds to the back burner.
The Kurds experienced their first betrayal following the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, in which the victorious World War One allies dismembered the Ottoman Empire and included an independent Kurdish state in a portion of what is now Turkey. But the Turks resisted violently, forcing the Allies, including the United States, to accept Turkish rule over Anatolia, with all of its Kurdish territories. Washington also became a signatory to the alternative 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which gave Kurdish lands in Iraq and Syria to Britain and France, respectively.
But that never stopped the big powers from using the Kurds as pawns in the great game of the region’s rivalries. Indeed, the long list of broken alliances and betrayals since then has more than justified the well-worn Kurdish adage that “they have no friends but the mountains.”
The United States has been a major player in that sad history. Over the years, the CIA trained, armed and paid various Kurds factions to act as proxies against its enemies in the region, only to abandon them repeatedly when their utility conflicted with larger U.S. interests.
The most recent betrayal occurred in 2019, when President Donald Trump, responding to a request from Turkey’s authoritarian President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, obligingly redeployed U.S. troops away from northern Syria, allowing Erdogan to attack the Kurdish militias there, whom he constantly and falsely brands as terrorists for his own domestic political reasons. These were the same Kurdish fighters who helped the United States destroy the real terrorists in the area—the Islamic State militants.
Now, four years later, thousands of Iranian Kurds living in exile in Iraq are hoping the United States won’t betray them again as they face the current Iranian threat amid the Biden administration’s renewed push to limit Tehran’s nuclear program and reduce the risk of a war with Iran.
Iran views the Kurdish exiles in Iraq as a serious threat. Over the past few months, Tehran has quietly amassed artillery, armor and special forces on its western border with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and threatened to invade unless Iraqi officials expel the thousands of the Iranian Kurds living there in exile away from the border to camps in the western part of its autonomous territory, near the Iraqi city of Mosul.
The U.S. has long protected the Kurds—when it suited its interests. Today, however, the Biden administration doesn’t want to allow the concerns of Iranian Kurds to derail a possible unwritten political truce with Tehran on its nuclear program.
Since the early 1990s, many Iranian Kurdish opposition figures, relentlessly oppressed by Tehran’s clerical regime following the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979, uprooted their lives in the historic Kurdish enclave of northwest Iran and fled with their families over the country's mountainous western frontier for sanctuary in the neighboring autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
In Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the self-exiled Iranian Kurdish leaders of the secular democratic Komala Party and the socialist Kurdistan Democracy Party of Iran (KDPI) set up their offices, produced propaganda against the Iranian regime, and occasionally sent armed fighters back into Iran to attack police and military targets. But it has been years since the last cross-border raids, say independent experts. Today, the opposition parties operating from Erbil focus on maintaining their television, radio and websites that provide uncensored news of Tehran’s crackdown on Kurdish opponents both inside and outside of Iran.
“The Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq have only a limited military capacity that could threaten Iran, although they’re a tenacious force and retain supporters in Iran,” says Norman Roule, a 34-year veteran of the CIA who last served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In that role, Roule oversaw all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran.
“Komala has reportedly eschewed violence,” Roule told SpyTalk. “The KDPI reportedly has also rejected violence but it is believed to have kept some military capabilities, primarily for defense purposes.” Neither group, he said, has developed a military force that poses a threat to Iran’s survival.
“But that doesn’t mean that Tehran doesn’t perceive them as some degree of threat,” Roule quickly adds. “In the Middle East, perception can be as potent as reality, and claims of Kurdish aggression bolster Tehran’s conspiracy-focused narrative.”
Ever since last September, when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in police custody soon after her arrest for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly, Iranian officials have accused the Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish groups of fomenting fierce demonstrations against Tehran, particularly in the Kurdish border areas. The Iranian military has responded by opening fire on the demonstrators, killing more than 500 so far, according to human rights groups; arresting tens of thousands of others; and repeatedly shelling the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq with missiles and drones.
In recent months, Iran has broadened its accusations against the exiled opposition parties , alleging they helped facilitate the Israeli Mossad’s decade-long campaign of sabotage against several Iranian nuclear facilities and its liquidation of a half dozen Iranian nuclear scientists. Tehran also has alleged the Mossad maintains a presence in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region—not a far fetched notion given its long ties to the Kurds. Last year, Iranian intelligence officials said they had arrested a Kurdish sabotage team working for Israel that planned to blow up a sensitive defense facility in the city of Isfahan. Israel rarely comments on such Iranian allegations.
The Iranian bombardments finally forced the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in Baghdad to the negotiating table. In March, Iranian and Iraqi officials signed a border security accord aimed at tightening the frontier with Iraq’s Kurdish region and preventing what both countries described as cross-border attacks by Iraqi-based Kurdish militants. The Iraqi Kurds running the KRG, weakened by infighting and an international ruling that placed their oil exports under Baghdad’s control, were forced to submit to al-Sudani’s authority.
To the dismay of the Iranian Kurdish opposition, the United States, which led the U.N. effort that created the autonomous region in Iraq as a safe haven for the Kurds in 1992, has declined to comment on the agreement or the most recent Iranian threats. In his June 14 briefing, State Department spokesman Matt Miller referred reporters to the Iraqi government for comment, adding only: “. . . broadly we support Iraq’s stability, security, and sovereignty.” In diplomatic parlance, that’s about as cautious and anodyne a statement as an official can make.
Salah Bayaziddi, the U.S. representative of the Iranian Kurdish Komala Party, met recently with U.S. officials to sound out their views on the Iranian military build-up along the Iran-Iraq border. He said the officials told him they had voiced their concerns over the buildup and a possible increase in Iran’s influence over the KRG to officials in both Baghdad and Erbil. It was unclear, however, whether U.S. officials conveyed any similar warnings to Iran.
Roule, the intelligence community’s former top official on Iran, says the international community isn’t paying close enough attention to the years of Iranian aggression and threats against Iraq’s Kurdish population.”
“The legitimate security and humanitarian issues facing the Kurdish population in Iraq are too often understated, he said. “Iranian aggression touches the lives of innocent civilians as well as Tehran’s perceived adversaries in the Kurdish political and paramilitary organizations. The international community’s response to attacks against Kurds has been muted. They tend to leave diplomacy on this issue to Baghdad.”
And the world's silence, Roule adds, inevitably encourages the Islamic Republic to believe that it can blame the Kurds for Iran’s domestic turmoil and attack them without consequences.”
Last month, Iran strengthened its standing in the region by re-establishing diplomatic relations with its arch-foe in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates recently ceased its participation in the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces, a Gulf security coalition that was used to counter Iran’s military presence in the strategic waterway.
No Answer to Missiles
Further bolstering Iranian confidence, Roule said, has been the lack of a robust U.S. or European response to its missile attacks on multiple civilian targets ranging from Saudi and Emirati oil installations in past years to its more recent bombardment of Iranian Kurdish targets in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.
“It isn’t unreasonable to believe that Iran will continue to follow a more assertive foreign policy to increase its regional influence until it believes the international community will adopt a more rigorous policy of consequences for its past actions,” Roule says. “The danger here is that if Iran believes its policies have led to détente with the Gulf Arabs, weakened economic sanctions, and muted reaction to threats against Israel, then why wouldn’t it believe it also can be more aggressive against the Kurds.”
Iran received another major shot in the arm earlier this month when Iraq agreed to pay Iran $2.76 billion in gas and electricity debts after receiving a sanctions waiver from the United States.
The waiver coincided with the Biden administration's resumption of indirect talks with Iran through Omani intermediaries. The United States insists the waiver is unrelated to the talks, but many observers say it could be the harbinger of an emerging agreement or at least further evidence of the Biden administration’s willingness to allow meaningful sanctions against Iran to fade.
U.S. and Israeli reports say a deal is near that would, among other things, limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for the freeing of billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in a number of countries due to U.S. sanctions. The reports say Iran also would free several American prisoners, halt its ballistic missile sales to Russia and order its regional proxies to stop its attacks on U.S. contractors in Syria and Iraq.
But while Iraq's debt payment offers Iran the promise of domestic and economic political benefits, Roule says it remains unclear whether the deal will place meaningful constraints on Iran regarding its actions against Iraqi Kurds.
“If Iran were to follow with a military strike on Iraq’s Kurdish elements after that deal, it would represent a profound slap in the face of the Biden administration,” he said, adding: “But there isn’t much reason to believe that Tehran believes doing so brings a long-term cost.”
His prediction: Iran most likely will not invade Iraq, but will once again use missile strikes or sabotage on the Iranian Kurdish exiles living in the KRG.
“That’s a much better way than sending in troops,” Roule said. “What would the troops do—occupy territory? Missiles and terrorism are much better tools. Each sends a loud message to regional actors in terms of Iran’s capabilities.
“Keep in mind that Iran already has fired lots of missiles into Iraq, and no one has cared,” he adds.
“That tells Iran that ballistic missile use in the region is no longer a red line.”