Meet the Kurdish fighters mobilising against Tehran
Armed groups operating in northern Iraq have recently stationed forces along the Iraqi-Iranian border.
Near Choman, Iraq – Standing in a mountain camp just inside the Iraqi border, the burly commander gestured expansively towards a high pass beyond which lay Iran. “This is the gate to our home,” he said.
Khalid Wanawasha is the commander of the armed wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Iran (KDP-I), a group that for 70 years has campaigned for autonomy for Iranian Kurds. Some of Wanawasha’s fighters are nearly as old.
It’s a struggle with which few outsiders are familiar, but 52-year-old Wanawasha and many of his comrades have devoted most of their lives to the cause.
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For the last 20 years, the KDP-I and other Kurdish groups outlawed in Iran, have pursued their goals politically from exile in Iraq. They watched recently as Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria have attracted international attention, while their own struggle has stalled.
Convinced now that they will never achieve autonomy for Iranian Kurds without force, Iranian Kurdish fighters have once again taken up arms, returning to the mountains of the Iran-Iraq border.
While the newly mobilised fighters are exuberantly confident, observers question whether, despite their grievances, significant numbers of Iranian Kurds will support armed insurrection.
Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera: “I question very much how much support they will find for an armed struggle among the Kurdish people. They see what armed conflict in the Middle East looks like, why on earth would they want to invite that mayhem and destruction?”
Iran’s Kurds have long struggled for greater autonomy. In 1946, they founded the short-lived Mahabad Republic, which foundered the next year after the Soviets withdrew support. It remains the only time Kurds have maintained an independent state.
Kurds again demanded autonomy after the 1979 Iranian revolution, which led to armed conflict with the new Islamist government, and was followed by clashes that continued into the 1990s.
The long-running revolt largely ended in 1996, when government offensives and pressure on the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq encouraged the Iranian Kurdish fighters to withdraw from bases along the Iraqi-Iranian border in the Qandil Mountains to settle in camps within Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
The KDP-I and other Iranian Kurds then reached a tacit agreement with the KRG to continue their struggle politically and not carry out military attacks against Iran from Iraqi territory.
Back in the mountains after a two decade hiatus of military activity, Wanawasha said although some of the several thousand men and women under his command are now crossing into Iran, the KDP-I is not looking for a war. He conceded, though, that their presence could provoke one.
“The Iranians have shown up in massive force since we came here three months ago. They are definitely planning a reaction,” he said, adding that his forces would only act in self defence.
The KDP-I has a separate faction though, which is talking a tougher game. Loghman Ahmedi, an Iranian Kurd raised in Sweden, is head of foreign relations of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI). Ahmedi, who spends up to eight months a year travelling to promote his party’s cause, explained that the original party – formed in Mahabad in 1945 – split in 2006 due to personality clashes.
The PDKI was able to mobilise several thousand fighters, he said, some of whom were now operating in Iran under new rules of engagement. Previously, they were ordered to fire only in self-defence, but he said this has now changed: “We have a clear decision by our party leadership that we will fight this regime by any means possible.”
In recent weeks, local affiliates of these groups have reported carrying out sabotage attacks in Iran and engaging in firefights with the Iranian army.
The KDP-I and other Kurdish dissident parties won't get the full support of people just by going back to the mountains and sporadic fights with some military outpost on the border.
Lack of economic development in Kurdish areas and the Iranian government’s allegedly repressive domestic policies are a major grievance for many of the country’s estimated seven million Kurds, according to these leaders.
So far in 2015, the Iranian government has executed 17 Kurdish political prisoners, the most recent on August 26 when Amnesty International reported the execution of 30-year-old Kurd Behrouz Alkhani – despite the fact that he was awaiting the outcome of a supreme court appeal.
Such executions have convinced many that the government will never truly reconcile with Kurds, said Hajir Sharifi, an Iranian Kurdish human rights activist living in Iraq. “Kurds in Iran simply lost their faith in Tehran’s ability to make any positive changes in its policy towards them.”
While Iran appears to have recently moved closer to Western countries by reaching a deal to limit its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief, the Iranian Kurdish parties remain distrustful.
Ahmedi says he sees signs that Kurds in Iran may be close to the boiling point. In May, predominantly Kurdish cities across Iran erupted in protest after a Kurdish woman in the city of Mahabad died after falling from a balcony, allegedly following a sexual assault by a member of the Iranian security services.
But despite their discontent, some Iranian Kurds question the ability of the fighters to achieve their goals. Hemn, a 28-year-old unemployed Kurdish university graduate from Sanandaj, said he supported the goals of the KDP-I but doubted their current effectiveness.
Declining to give his family name, he said: “The KDP-I and other Kurdish dissident parties won’t get the full support of people just by going back to the mountains and sporadic fights with some military outpost on the border.”
This sentiment is echoed by some observers. Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera: “There is no way they can exploit the internal Iranian discontent, strong as they might be.” Moreover, public discontent in Iran appears to have been much reduced by the recent nuclear deal, she added.
The Iranian government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The KRG in Iraq, for its part, has urged Iranian Kurdish groups to avoid antagonising Iran. “We continue to say that armed conflict won’t help to resolve any problems, and that the Kurdistan area of Iraq should not be an area to settle scores, as it will only lead to instability,” KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Al Jazeera. “Our advice is that all sides should refrain from violence and all forms of conflict.”
For now, the Iranian Kurdish fighters are unperturbed. “There’s a Kurdish saying: ‘If you don’t give up, you won’t lose,'” Ahmedi said.