By: Christopher Moede, Guest Contributor
Photo Credit: The Daily Beast
Complex relationships among state and non-state actors in the Middle East require due diligence for the United States to effectively employ the full range of its national instruments of power. These interests, protected through a nuanced application of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power, lead to manageable ground conditions and create a favorable strategic security environment in a dynamic region. One critical strategic relationship of note for US national security interests is that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC) and Iranian Kurds, populations of whom extend into northern Iraq.
The Quds Force, the paramilitary arm of the IRGC tasked with extraterritorial operations, is akin to a quasi-CIA and Special Forces hybrid.[i] Led by long-serving General Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force has “built an international network of assets, some of them drawing from the Iranian diaspora, who can be called on to support missions.”[ii] These missions, conducted to export and protect the Iranian revolution, often include payoffs for politicians, intimidation, coercion, and even assassination.[iii] The most notorious of alleged Quds Force activities was a foiled 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US in a “restaurant a few miles from the White House.”[iv]
US interest in the Kurds is paramount given their prominent role supporting ongoing counter-Islamic State (ISIS) operations in Iraq and Syria, currently centered in or around the two remaining major strongholds of the group, Mosul and Raqqa. Interest in the Kurds also extends to the unique geopolitical environment in which various ethnic Kurds find themselves, be it in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northeastern Iraq, or northwest Iran. To complicate matters, various elements of Kurdish populations lend themselves towards causes that are sometimes at odds with US national security interests, be it the State Department-designated[v] terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or its Iran-based offshoot, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK).[vi]
While the US organizes, trains, and equips predominantly Syrian Kurdish forces to counter ISIS[vii], IRGC Quds Force activities seek also to exert influence over and provide support to elements of the Kurds, but in ways that depart from the immediate operational fight that occupies the designated counter-ISIS coalition.[viii] Despite current operational efforts by Western and coalition nations, Iran maintains a consistent strategic preference for destabilization of any long-term threats to its hegemony. This is to be expected from an Islamic Republic bent on maintaining regional hegemony, which it does primarily through extensive covert and overt support for proxy forces such as Lebanese Hizballah or its Iraq-based Popular Mobilization Force Shi’a militias.[ix] At the risk of losing strategic advantage and a favorable security environment post-ISIS, greater scrutiny of Iranian support to various Kurds is warranted.
As a first order of business, the actual scope and intent of IRGC support to Kurdish elements must be determined. According to a local Kurdish media outlet in northern Iraq, General Qassem Soleimani reportedly met with high-ranking PKK officials in a “city in the east of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.”[x] This meeting, which occurred in mid-November 2016, was ostensibly to obtain PKK support for ongoing counter-ISIS operations in the region, particularly in the Mosul offensive. While this primary rationale complies with current US security objectives, its second and third-order effects are a definite cause for concern when considering the PKK’s tenuous relationship with Turkey and US requirements to carefully manage US-Turkish relations—relations that are already tense given US support for the primarily Syrian Kurd alliance of counter-ISIS fighters advancing on Raqqa.[xi]
Looking past US-Turkish relations, enhanced Kurdish-Iranian alignment would “provide Tehran with more widespread influence in Iraq and Syria, fundamentally altering the region’s geopolitical chessboard… [providing Iran] with influence across a quarter of Turkey’s territory.”[xii] It is paramount the United States not provide further strategic space for Iranian support of proxy forces that enhance its already extensive influence in the region. One viable course of action to stem this influence is to support exiled Iranian Kurdish populations living in northern Iraq, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (KDPI), already a long-standing insurgent thorn in Tehran’s side since its inception over 70 years ago.[xiii]
The KDPI, as of spring last year, elected to forego a nearly two decades-long ceasefire with the Iranian government, culminating in a series of violent clashes with the IRGC in northwestern Iran.[xiv] These clashes, the restart of the group’s “armed resistance against the Islamic Republic of Iran”[xv], reignite clear tensions in a region where Soleimani himself once served as a lower-ranking member of the IRGC during previous Kurdish uprisings. The KDPI maintains a force whose organizational history is deeply rooted in insurgent activities against the Iranian regime, and one in need of additional external support.
Addressing the extent of covert and overt Iranian support to various extraterritorial proxies is a strategic engagement US national security interests cannot afford to continuously miss. IRGC activities have historically remained consistent with Iran’s desire for regional hegemony, and have enabled a series of devastating blows to US interests since its inception after the revolution. Among the various assassination attempts, kidnappings, or targeting of US forces in Iraq, IRGC activities destabilize any US attempts to maintain a favorable strategic security environment. With the resurgent KPDI, taken in context with the general increased geopolitical relevance of Kurdish populations across the region due to counter-ISIS operations, support for Iranian Kurds provides a reasonable course of action for a strategic balancing effect.
Christopher Moede is a postgraduate student at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
[i] “Qods (Jerusalem) Force,” FAS, August 21, 1998, accessed March 12, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20121020171540/http://www.fas.org/irp/world/iran/qods/.
[ii] Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2013, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander.
[iii] “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” Counter Extremism Project, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps-irgc.
[iv] Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2013, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander.
[v] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations”, US Department of State, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm.
[vi] Abdulla Hawez, “Iranian Kurds Are Rising Up Against the Mullahs,” The Daily Beast, July 7, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/07/iranian-kurds-are-rising-up-against-the-mullahs.html.
[vii] Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung, “Ignoring Turkey, U.S. backs Kurds in drive against ISIS in Syria, The Washington Post, June 1, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-backs-kurds-in-drive-against-isis-in-syria-despite-turkish-objections/2016/06/01/7bacf6fa-2808-11e6-8329-6104954928d2_story.html?utm_term=.d8e4ae0621d3.
[viii] Albin Szakola, “Iran’s Soleimani asks PKK to take part in Mosul battle: report,“ Now. Media, August 11, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/567489-irans-soleimani-asks-pkk-to-take-part-in-mosul-battle-report.
[ix] Amir Toumaj, “Analysis: Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces in Iran’s game plan,” The Long War Journal, November 23, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/11/analysis-iraqi-popular-mobilization-forces-in-irans-game-plan.php.
[x] Albin Szakola, “Iran’s Soleimani asks PKK to take part in Mosul battle: report,“ Now. Media, August 11, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/567489-irans-soleimani-asks-pkk-to-take-part-in-mosul-battle-report.
[xi] Tom Perry, “U.S.-backed SDF says it can capture Syrian city of Raqqa,” Reuters, March 10, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-raqqa-idUSKBN16H0WP.
[xii] Galip Dalay, “Where do Iranian Kurds Fit in Iran’s Kurdish policy?,” The World Post, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/galip-dalay/iranian-kurds-policy_b_8006488.html.
[xiii] “Iranian Kurds Return to Arms,” Stratfor, July 29, 2016, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/iranian-kurds-return-arms.
[xiv] Albin Szakola, “Iran is facing a wide-scale armed uprising as Kurdish insurgents have started targeting the Revolutionary Guard,” Business Insider, May 5, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/iran-facing-a-wide-scale-armed-uprising-2016-5.