Iraq-Iran border.

Iranian Kurdish opposition groups stare into the void as Tehran turns the screw

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The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has summoned representatives of major Kurdish opposition groups to Erbil, relaying Tehran’s demand for these groups to disarm by September 18—a deadline Iran insists will not be extended. The move adds to the mounting tensions between Iran and Kurdish groups in Iraq, set against a backdrop of protests and internal divisions within the opposition. As the deadline looms, Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region are caught in a web of geopolitics and internal strife, navigating immense pressures from Tehran even as public sentiment shifts toward demanding more assertive action against the Islamic regime.

Tehran doubles down on crackdown 

In recent months, tensions between Iran and Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region have been thickening. Earlier this year, Tehran issued these groups a six-month ultimatum to disarm, dated September 18, adding another layer of complexity to an already turbulent relationship marked by sporadic military skirmishes. Having maintained bases in Iraq’s Kurdistan since the 1980s, these groups now find themselves at a precarious crossroads, dealing with pressures from a weakened KRG and, by proxy, Iran.

Amid this geopolitical tension, protests over the killing of Jina [Mahsa] Amini have erupted in Iran, requiring these opposition groups to walk a fine line. Keen to advocate for Kurdish rights yet wary of poking Tehran and alienating the KRG, they have also been addressing broader Iranian socio-political issues. Despite these diplomatic maneuvers, skepticism has grown within their ranks, as Iran continues to exert both diplomatic and military pressure.

On Monday, Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, issued a fresh warning to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, stating that Iran would intensify its military operations against Kurdish armed groups based in Kurdistan Region if Iraq fails to disarm groups hostile to Iran by September 18, a deadline it had set for the Kurdistan Region and Iraq earlier this year. On the same day, Nasser Kanani, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said that Baghdad has ‘agreed to disarm’ Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in the Kurdistan Region by deadline imposed by Tehran

Internal divisions 

Amid Tehran’s growing pressure, the major Kurdish opposition groups are battling on another front: internal divisions that are further weakening their positions. 

Meanwhile, public sentiment is becoming less forgiving too. Videos of young Kurds in Iran are going viral, calling for more assertive action from major Kurdish opposition outfits like the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Komala. While public opinion isn’t monolithic, the prevailing view suggests these groups are falling short of effectively representing their constituencies.

Komala, an important player within the Iranian Kurdish opposition, encapsulates this internal and external struggle. Founded in 1969, the group underwent a painful split in 2007, dividing into factions led by Abdullah Mohtadi and his cousin Omar Ilkhanizade. The November reunification, although sparked by public pressure from the Jina Amini protests, did not smooth over all the wrinkles.

Abdullah Mohtadi has emerged as a prominent face of the Kurdish opposition, especially in the West. His participation in the Georgetown Institute Forum alongside major Iranian opposition figures was a pivotal moment that generated internal debate within Komala. Members of the Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan (Zahmatkeshan) faction saw this as Mohtadi’s tacit acceptance of mainstream Iranian opposition viewpoints, going so far as to declare it a damaging move that could sever the fragile unity within the party.

On June 22, simmering tensions boiled over into fatal clashes between Komala’s two factions. The violence revealed the shallowness of their proclaimed reunification, as blame and justifications flew from both sides. Media statements from Zahmatkeshan continued to scrutinize Mohtadi’s Georgetown appearance and his leadership approach. Further muddying the waters, a video surfaced showing Komala fighters questioning the group’s current trajectory and calling for a return to foundational principles established by “Kak Fuad,” one of the party’s founders. 

Though recent interventions by local Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces and other Kurdish opposition groups have cooled immediate hostilities, the long-term stability of the situation remains an open question. With the six-month disarmament deadline looming, Zahmatkeshan has announced an upcoming conference, heightening concerns of deepening internal rifts. Resistance to disarmament isn’t confined to Komala; other armed groups have also rejected the idea.

To disarm or not to disarm? 

As renewed calls for disarming and relocating the groups were circulating in the media, representatives of two of the main opposition groups were summoned in Erbil to relay mounting pressures from Tehran, according to a source close to the matter. The source, who was present at the meeting, told The Citadel that the KRG is facing huge pressures to relocate fighters into designated camps and to disarm them. The source also said that while the opposition groups are generally amenable to moving to new camps, they reject calls to surrender their arms.

Now, thorny questions hang in the air: what happens if these groups don’t disarm, and how will the Iraqi Kurdistan Regon’s dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and PUK respond, given the sensitive public sentiment around this issue? Bilal Wahab, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, frames the dilemma: “Kurdish opposition groups are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Though they might be unhappy with laying down their arms, they don’t have a lot of options. It is unlikely they have the will to resist KDP and PUK if they were adamant about disarming the opposition parties.”

Adding another layer of intricacy to the already complex tableau is the shifting stance of the United States. Bilal Wahab observes, “The United States’ priorities have been shifting away from the Middle East, and the current administration puts a premium on quiet in the region.” He adds, “It is unlikely for the US government to directly intervene in this issue.”

Finally, there’s the spectre of Iran’s military threats. Although generals have more than once spoken of a possible land incursion into Kurdistan, Bilal counters, “It is simply not Iran’s modus operandi. A land incursion will come at a significant political cost, and the country has more effective tools at its disposal: the country’s targeted assassination program, for example, faces little federal or international pushback.”

Navigating the intricate dynamics between Iran and its Kurdish opposition groups involves a journey through key historical phases. Initially allied following the 1979 revolution, the relationship has oscillated through periods of peace and hostility. Milestone events continue to influence this volatile relationship, making the current unrest in Iran a possible tipping point.

After a 2011 ceasefire led PJAK—the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan—to retreat to Iraq, the following decade saw relative calm. Both Komala and the PDKI generally avoided armed conflict, and Iran’s incursions into Iraqi territory were sporadic. But the calm began disintegrating in 2016. Citing increased security measures and oppression, the PDKI reignited its armed struggle. Soon after, both Komala factions and PDKI followed suit, marking a new phase of deteriorating relations with Tehran.

Tension escalated dramatically in September 2018 when Iran fired seven Fateh-110 missiles at an opposition base in Koya, Kurdistan. The attack killed 18 and injured 50, including civilians, foreshadowing a more hostile relationship between Iran and its Kurdish opposition as we moved into 2022.

From Tehran to Erbil via Baghdad

Fast-forward to September 16, 2022: social media images of Jina Amini in intensive care sparked outrage. Accused of “improper hijab wearing” and allegedly beaten, her death ignited protests that transcended ethnic and class barriers. Despite a brutal crackdown leading to over 500 deaths, the Iranian government appeared unsuccessful in stifling the groundswell of unrest—ironically, even as it unofficially relaxed its hijab policy.

Given Amini’s Kurdish ethnicity, the spotlight naturally shifted to Kurdish-majority regions in Iran as unrest spread throughout the country. Cities erupted in marches, slogans, and strikes. Although Kurdish opposition groups claim to have instigated some of the unrest, the massive demonstrations mostly reveal a deep-rooted dissatisfaction among the Kurdish populace.

By September 28, Iran had retaliated by targeting Kurdish opposition bases in Iraqi Kurdistan with drone strikes, killing at least nine and wounding 32. Whether Tehran genuinely believes that these groups are behind the escalating tensions or merely seeks to scapegoat them remains ambiguous.

On October 4, an anonymous senior KRG official told Voice of America Kurdish that Iran had issued threats of a cross-border invasion against the Iranian Kurdish opposition. Soon after, Mustafa Hijri, leader of the PDKI, confirmed in a Rudaw interview that Iran had been leaning on the KDP and PUK to exert control over the PDKI, prompting them to shift their forces away from sensitive border regions.

From there, Iran doubled down. In a landmark meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei on November 29, Khamenei pressed for an Iraqi crackdown on areas harboring entities disruptive to Iran’s internal security. This discussion followed the Iraqi Council of Ministers’ resolution to deploy more troops to the Iran-Iraq Kurdistan border—a decision that remained unexecuted but signaled Iran’s mounting demands.

Though the KDP and PUK publicly endorsed these troop deployments, facts on the ground saw little change. Iran ramped up its rhetoric and initiated a flurry of high-level meetings between Iranian, Kurdish, and Iraqi officials. The result was a “Security Agreement” signed on March 19. According to a statement from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office, the deal aimed for “coordination in protecting common borders and enhancing cooperation in various security sectors.”

Yet the tensions didn’t ease. In a diplomatic faux pas, the KDP invited PDKI leaders to the Barzani National Memorial inauguration, prompting the Iranian consul to exit the event in protest.

Iran’s patience seemingly ran out. Its Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi ambassador to protest “the presence of terrorist groups,” while its intelligence minister openly threatened new attacks inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

A diplomatic whirlwind followed in May, led by Qasim Al-Araji, the Iraqi National Security Advisor. Meetings occurred with KRG and party officials like Interior Minister Reber Ahmed and PUK leader Bafel Talabani, followed by a Tehran visit featuring high-level discussions with Iranian officials. Although this diplomatic blitz appeared to be Iraq’s last-ditch effort to broker a semblance of quiet if not peace, its effectiveness remains uncertain. Hengaw, a Norwegian-based Kurdish human rights organization, reported just a week later that Iran was transporting heavy equipment toward its border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

With the situation becoming increasingly precarious, the KDP and PUK seemed to acquiesce to the escalating pressures, both diplomatic and military. VoA Kurdish and local outlets like Hawlati reported that the KRG gave Iranian Kurdish opposition groups a grim ultimatum: disarm within six months or leave the Kurdistan Region entirely.

Nazim Dabbagh, the KRG’s Representative to Tehran, confirmed on July 13 that Iran had indeed requested the expulsion of these groups. This paralleled Iran’s earlier demands to expel the MEK from Iraq. However, Dabbagh pointed out that a scenario like the MEK expulsion would be far more complicated, given the scale and organizational capabilities of these Kurdish groups. His remarks suggested that the most pragmatic approach could be restricting these groups to “cultural, political, and social activities” within designated camps.

Nazim Dabbagh, the KRG’s Representative to Tehran, sheds further light on the complex dynamics at play. Speaking to The Citadel, Dabbagh offered insight into the Kurdistan Regional Government’s stance. “The KRG Interior Ministry and a joint committee from the KRG have participated in the INSC [Iraqi National Security Council] meetings and have surely given some sort of commitment that they protect neighboring countries’ security, meaning no group should have the ability to cause problems [for them],” he said.

The situation has left the KRG walking a diplomatic tightrope, a challenge Dabbagh readily acknowledges. “The Kurdistan Regional Government has a difficult task ahead of it … it’ll be difficult for it to ignore an agreement between the Iranian and Iraqi governments that they’re trying to enforce,” Dabbagh cautioned. He also emphasized Iran’s unwavering stance: “The way I see it, today, Iran is more committed than ever to ensuring these agreements are followed through.”

When asked about the feasibility of relocating and disarming these opposition groups, Dabbagh provided a potential scenario. “What has been suggested, though I’m not sure how successful this [proposal] will be, is for [these groups] to be [both] transferred to Western Iraq, close to the Syrian border, and get disarmed,” Dabbagh concluded by underlining the gravity of the KRG’s commitments. “Any commitments it has agreed to during the INSC meetings, the KRG shouldn’t consider reneging on them.”

In a volatile landscape of geopolitics and internal strife, the clock is ticking for Kurdish opposition groups as the September 18 disarmament deadline looms large. Last year’s anti-government protests offered a fleeting glimpse at more hopeful futures. However, these hopes have dimmed as the anniversary of Jina Amini’s death approaches. Tehran’s unyielding stance and the KRG’s diplomatic balancing act add layers of complexity to the already fraught position in which the opposition groups find themselves. As Tehran turns the screw in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, Iranian Kurdish opposition groups find themselves staring into the void.