Interplay of Security Dynamics: Iran’s Response to Kurdish Secessionism and External Alliances

Kurdish nationalism
A symbol of Kurdish nationalism was visible during 2017 manifestation in support of pro-Kurdistan referendum and pro-Kurdistan independence rally (Credits: Levi Clancy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Persian Files ISSN 2975-0598 Volume 15 Issue 1
Author: Silvia Boltuc

The complex landscape of Iran’s struggle with Kurdish nationalism unfolds as the Iranian leadership confronts secessionist groups along its borders. Amidst international interests and internal challenges, the fight against terrorism, potential destabilisation, and regional alliances shape Tehran’s multifaceted approach to counter these issues.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran’s spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, stated on August 28th, 2023 that Tehran is at the vanguard of the fight against terrorism and is also one of the country which suffered most significant casualties caused by this phenomenon.

During his address, Kanaani recounted the agreement reached with the Iraqi government, which obligated them to disarm the armed separatists in the regions of Iraq and Kurdistan, evacuate the military barracks they established, and relocate to the camps designated by the Iraqi government by September 19th, 2023.

Allegedly, the Iraqi government has notified the terms of this Memorandum of Understanding to the authorities of the Kurdistan Region for implementation. Several Iranian government’s representatives reiterated that the September 19th, 2023, deadline will not be extended in any way.

According to Kanaani statements, the UN Secretary General’s special representative in Iraq and the representative of the High Commissioner for Refugees are aware of Iran’s views. The spokesman further added that for Iran security is important and, after the deadline, if the agreement is not implemented, Tehran will fulfil its responsibilities within the framework of the country’s security.

History of Kurds’ insurgent activities against the Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran has a multi-ethnic nature. The most numerous ethnic groups are the Persians, the Arabs, the Turkmen, the Azeris, the Balochis and the Kurds. There are mainly two Sunni ethnic groups in Iran that are involved in insurgent activities against the government: the Kurds and the Balochis.

It is noteworthy to mention that while other ethnic groups, including Arabs, Azeris, and Turkmen, have autonomous lands (Gulf countries, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Turkey), the same cannot be said for the Kurds and Baluchis.

The Kurds live in a mountainous region of southwest Asia, known as ‘Kurdistan’, which is part of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire created several new nation-states, but not an independent Kurdistan.

Over the years, tensions have flared between different Kurdish factions in different countries. While the two Iraqi Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani were fighting a civil war (1994-1998), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was waging a guerrilla insurgency in southeastern Turkey, and was against the idea of a local self-government within Iraq.

As for the Iranian Kurds, there were two historical autonomy attempts. The first one was in 1946, backed by the Soviet Union, when the Kurds establish the Republic of Mahabad. The second was in 1979 when, thanks to the destabilisation caused by the Iranian Revolution, they could establish an unofficial border area free from Iranian government control.

The Iranian Kurdish Communist Party (Komala) and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) fought trying to take advantage of the Shah’s deposition to gain more autonomy. In both cases, these attempts didn’t last long.

Shortly after the onset of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Baghdad used the KDPI as an army towards the newly established Islamic Republic. In January 1981, Saddam Husayn’s regime established its first major weapons supply route to the KDPI near the Iranian cities of Nowdesheh and Qasr-e Shirin.

Securing Nowdesheh was Iraq’s prime aim, as the city’s strategic location would deny Iran the use of the Baghdad-Tehran highway. The dream of the KDPI to obtain freedom through Iraqi-supplied weapons soon ended as the Iranian forces inflicted heavy defeats on Saddam’s forces and the Kurdish group.

Notably, between the 1980s and the 1990s, Tehran’s cooperated with Turkey against Iranian Kurdish groups, which, together with cross-border military operations, further weakened these factions’ activities.

For decades, Iran’s armed Kurdish groups have suffered disunity. Iranian Kurdish militants officially announced the renewal of their insurgent campaign against Tehran in 2016. In March 2017, Komala announced six armed Iranian Kurdish groups pursuing autonomy would develop cooperation between the parties aimed at joint military activities.

The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), a left-leaning nationalist Kurdish political faction, affirmed that widespread Kurdish uprising would affect all Iranian cities. Nevertheless, the hit-and-run tactics exploit by Iranian Kurdish groups against Iranian forces proved not to be effective in achieving the ultimate goal of freedom, although the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) suffered several losses.

Another Kurdish faction, not part of the joint group announced in 2016, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) also started insurgent operations in the same period. Remarkably, they attempt the assassination of an Iranian member of Parliament. The PJAK is labelled as a terrorist group also by the United States.

In recent times, the IRGC has launched a series of aerial operations at the headquarters of Iraqi Kurdistan-based terrorist groups. The military operation followed the illegal entry of armed teams linked with the Kurdish terrorist groups into the Iranian border cities.

One of the more recent insurgents’ activities was the coordinated drone attack on January 28th, 2023, which damaged an Iranian government weapons factory in the central city of Isfahan. Nour News reported that terrorists, ordered by a foreign intelligence service, smuggled the constituent parts of a micro aerial vehicle and explosive materials from the Kurdistan region into Iran. A US official stated that apparently Israel was behind the drone attack.

It should be mentioned that terrorist attacks targeting Iranian defence facilities are not the only strategy of Kurdish factions. Supporting the Iranian Kurds during the recent country’s protests and smuggling weapons has been part of their struggle to achieve political independence from Tehran.

Kurdish nationalism and the Kurds as a strategic asset in Israel’s strategy

The relations between Kurdistan (especially the KDP) and Israel dates to the mid-1960s, when Israel sought support from the Kurds to weaken the Iraqi regime. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, Israel secretly backed a Kurdish insurgency against Iraq as part of its Middle East geopolitical strategy to forge alliances with non-Arabs. At the present time, this strategic alliance might be redirected to contrast Iran.

During the pro-independence rallies in Erbil, it was possible to see Kurdish people publicly expressing their appreciation for Israeli support by waving the flag of the Jewish state. At the same time, Israel became the first country in the world to endorse Kurdish independence on September 9th, 2017. Moreover, Tel Aviv strongly condemned the Turkish incursion into Kurdish areas in Syria, showing support to the entire Kurdish population, not only to the ones living in Iraq.

While in 2006, Iraqi Kurdistan president and KDP leader Massoud Barzani said in a statement that it was not a crime to establish relations with Israel, expressing its readiness to open a consulate in Erbil, Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2022, that makes it a crime to normalise ties with Israel.

Countering Iran has been the primary goal of Israeli strategy in the region. According to a report produced by Seymour Hersh, already in 2004, Israeli military and intelligence operatives were active in Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria and Iraq, providing training for commando units and running covert operations.

Israel’s aim was to create a base in Iran from which Tel Aviv could spy on Tehran’s activities. Indeed, in recent years, Iran reported multiple terrorists’ attacks or attempt carried out inside the Islamic Republic by regional Israeli allies.

In 2022, for example, the Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said that members of a terrorist group affiliated with Mossad were identified and arrested by Iranian security forces before they could take any action to conduct acts of sabotage. The ministry added the terrorists were in contact with Mossad agents through one of the neighbouring countries and had sneaked into Iran from Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He also underlined that they had the most up-to-date equipment as well as powerful explosives.

Although Tel Aviv has also invested in the Iraqi Kurdistan region and relies on Erbil for part of its crude oil imports, the most significant achievement by establishing deep ties with the Kurds is to have eyes and ears in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Enhance the ethnicity movements in Iran has been part of an Israeli strategy to destabilise the Islamic Republic from the inside.

Another vital aspect to mention is how Israel is favouring its regional allies and vice versa. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq pumps the aforementioned oil supplies across southern Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. As a result, producing and selling this oil has helped Iraqi Kurdistan maintain partial autonomy from the Iraqi federal government.

But it should be added that recent Israeli allies, Turkey and Azerbaijan, both interested in countering Iran’s power, are also enhancing their ties with Erbil. As Israel helped Azerbaijan’s forceful expansion at the expense of Armenia delivering weapons to Baku, it can be suggested that it might support Azerbaijan also in his claims to achieve the independence of the Turkic-speaking minority inside Iran.

Indeed, allegedly it would not be the first time that Tel Aviv have supported an ethnic minority group inside the Islamic Republic in its struggle for independence with the last goal of hitting the Iranian government. During the trial of Habib Farajollah Chaab, the ringleader of Al-Ahwaziah, an Arab separatist movement active since 1999 that advocates for the separation of Khuzestan Province from Iran, the prosecutor presented evidence revealing his ties to Saudi Arabia and Israel.


In the last decades, Iraqi Kurdistan has represented a continuous challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Home to US bases, exploit by Israel for undercover operations targeting Iran and base for Kurdish factions backing Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, Iraqi Kurdistan is now the epicentre of Tehran’s counterterrorism efforts.

The need to ensure its borders and to avoid terrorist attacks and weapons smuggling, which might lead to the destabilisation of Iran, pushed Tehran to address these secessionist groups with drone and missile attacks. The Iranian leadership in the last years warned multiple times the local government of renewed strikes unless Iraq acts to ensure the area inhabited by exiled armed Iranian dissidents.

Notably, being some of the major international powers keen to reduce Iran’s influence in the region or, sometimes, willing to make the country collapse from the inside, players such as Israel, the US and Turkey exploit the Kurds.

The US and European military advisers have trained members of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) alongside Peshmerga forces in weapons and explosives for fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), tools the Kurds subsequently employed to conduct offensives against Iran.

While the primary goal for the Western military was the fight against terrorist activities and stabilise Iraq, for Israel enhancing ties with the Kurdish groups had a more specific goal. There were both opportunities and challenges arising from the 2003 military intervention of Iraq.

For Tel Aviv it represented the possibility of increasing its presence thanks to the weakening of the Iraqi central government’s power. For Tehran, it represented a major threat to its borders, although the Islamic Republic benefited from the changing political landscape in terms of alliances.

Still, having Israel and the US increasing their presence and activities in Iran’s lebensraum (vital space) is a direct threat for the Islamic Republic. Remarkably, it was Iraq, the place where the killing of Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iranian Quds Force, took stage by order of the US President.

Furthermore, recently the US House Armed Services Committee last week passed an amendment by Republican Congressman Don Bacon supporting the transfer of air defence systems to the KRG Peshmerga forces. The US Senate must approve the amendment before it can officially be included in the fiscal 2024 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), which is the law that determines the Pentagon’s annual budget.

In conclusion, this can hardly be considered the last stage of Iranian struggle with Kurdish nationalism. Still, as the recent domestic riots underlined, the issue of the Kurdish secessionist group might become one tool exploited by Iran’s enemy to destabilise the Islamic Republic from the inside and, therefore, it cannot be underestimated. As long as this armed group will exist along Iran’s border, we can expect Tehran to develop severe countermeasures.

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