In late June 2023, Iranian-affiliated media outlets reported that the Kurds of Iraq signed a “secret weapons deal with the Devil,” namely, the United States. Responding to a question on this alleged secret deal, Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, said, “We have never trusted the U.S. government, and we will never trust it because it has pursued its relations to create tension between countries. The Iraqi government will definitely clarify this issue, and the regional authorities should also explain it, and we should see what their explanation is in this regard.”1
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has launched multiple attacks on targets in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq for the past two years. The Mullah regime and its affiliated media outlets regularly accuse Iranian Kurdish groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan of inciting unrest in Iran’s Kurdish region; it accuses them of committing “terrorist” activities inside Iran and working with Israel. Iran has also claimed that Mossad has bases in Kurdistan, Iraq.
Randa Slim, a program director at the Middle East Institute, said, “The Iranian regime is in a paranoid mode. They firmly believe Mossad is using the Kurdish territory and Kurdish opposition groups to send weapons and fighters into Kurdish areas in Iran.”2 The Kurdish groups Iran fears include the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), the Komala Party, and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK).
The Iranian regime has repeatedly called on the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to disarm groups like PDKI and PAK, relocate them to refugee camps, and move them away from the Iraqi-Iranian border, a border predominantly populated by Kurds.
In March 2023, Iran and the Iraqi central government signed a border security agreement that would obligate Iraq to disarm Kurdish armed groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s then-Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Ali Shamkhani, who was one of the signatories of the security agreement, said the deal “can completely and fundamentally end the vicious actions of these groups.”3 However, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry still maintains that KRG’s officials are not doing enough to curb the activities of these groups, which Iran labels as “terrorists.”
According to Iranian spokesperson, Kanaani, PAK is one of the terrorist groups which been a source of contention between Tehran and Baghdad. He claimed, “Being a refugee with a weapon shows that the groups stationed there are not refugees, and they have terrorist natures and separatist motives. We expect the Iraqi government and the regional authorities to resolve the concerns and threats.”4
Interview with PAK’s Commander General Hussein Yazdanpanah
Across the border, in Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region, known to Kurds as Southern Kurdistan or Basur, Commander General Hussein Yazdanpanah, whose fighters have been engaged in an armed struggle against the Iranian regime for decades, spoke to The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).5
Gen. Yazdanpanah spoke about the Iranian threat and its mission to turn the Kurdish region into a proxy enclave like Southern Lebanon. He spoke to JCPA about how the Kurds of Rojhalet, or Eastern Kurdistan (the Kurdish region of Iran), have been at the forefront of rejecting the Mullah state and its political system.
Gen. Yazdanpanah told JCPA that the Kurds did not vote for the Islamic Republic and never submitted to Tehran. For the past four decades, Tehran has ruled Kurdistan by force of arms and militarism. “For three decades, Tehran has been trying to put the Kurdistan Region, like Southern Lebanon, under its command. But the Kurdistan Region and Kurds do not take Tehran’s orders. The Iranians do not want a Kurdish entity behind their back. They do not want to have a democratic entity. The Iranians want to occupy the Kurdistan Region using direct pressure from Baghdad. Iranian forces tried to occupy Erbil in 2017, but the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, including PAK forces, defeated the attacks. Now Tehran is using missiles and drones to impose its will and control on the Kurdistan Region.” The general continued, saying that Tehran’s end game is to turn the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq into Southern Lebanon, a region it can control.
The general stated, “I have sent letters to political leaders in the region to warn them about this and asked them to fight Tehran and Baghdad.” According to Yazdanpanah, the United States’ regional absence has allowed Iran to pursue a more aggressive policy. It explains how Iran works with Iraq’s central government using Iraqi courts to implement Iran’s wishes and control over both Kurds and Iraqi Arab citizens.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iran has been deeply involved in Iraq’s political life. It has ties and extorts control over a dozen Iraqi political parties. Iran’s IRGC Quds Forces funds and trains paramilitary groups aligned with these parties. Many of these militias operate under Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), who have pledged allegiance to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Hashd Shaabi, alongside smaller armed Shia militias, used terror and violence towards any Iraqi who opposes Iran.
Kali Robinson, an editor at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote, “Iran’s meddling was one cause of widespread anti-government demonstrations that began in Iraq in 2019, when protesters denounced Tehran for propping up the corrupt government system established in the post-Saddam era and condemned repression by Iran-backed militias.”6
Iran is not only in control of Iraq’s political life but also controls a significant aspect of Iraq’s economy: Iraq is Iran’s second-biggest partner after China. Iranian-made low-quality goods flood the Iraqi market and kill off local businesses. Iran also controls a significant section of Iraq’s energy sector and has positioned itself as the unofficial protector of Iraqi Shia Shrines in Najaf and Karbala. Shrines bring millions of pilgrims and, with it, a vast financial enterprise. No wonder Iraq’s Kurdish President Barham Salih said in 2021, “You simply cannot move Iraq and Iran apart.”7
However, General Yazdanpanah argues that Iran and its proxies within the Iraqi government will never succeed in their conquest to occupy Iraq’s Kurdish region. On the subject of disarming and relocating PAK and other Kurdish dissident groups, the general declared:
PAK has played an essential role in protecting the structure of Southern Kurdistan (the Iraqi Kurdish region) and its communities. Our forces played an important role in the three-year fight against ISIS. They also played a major role in defeating the joint attacks of Hashd Shaabi and the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force that wanted to occupy Erbil in 2017. The KRG and the international community know this. Therefore, the Iranians, who are now in a hurry to end the structure of the Kurdistan Region before the presidential elections in the United States, are trying to cut us off from supporting Southern Kurdistan. They want to isolate it from its friends and supporters. They even want to cut off the region from the support of the international coalition.
The general is confident that KRG will never abandon PAK: “KRG will never make such a mistake. We have always supported the Kurds in Iraq and have given our blood to protect them. The KRG greatly respects us and acknowledges our role in the fight against ISIS. I am telling you that’s not going to happen. But if the situation gets to that point, we will turn Rojhalet to the Border Mountains of East Kurdistan.”
JCPA asked the general about the Iraqi central government’s security agreement with the Iranian regime regarding demilitarizing Iraqi Kurdistan and disarming dissident Kurdish groups like PAK. He answered, “Unfortunately, Iraq is not a sovereign state; it is ruled and dictated to by Tehran. This agreement is a conspiracy against the Kurdish Region and us. We have not used the Kurdish Region’s borders to launch attacks against Iran. From the very beginning, our struggle has been within our country (the Kurdish region in Iran). Our future is the unity of all Kurds (…). We and the KRG must fight Bagdad and Tehran together, defend our people, values, dignity, and nationality, and not succumb to their unjust, oppressive, and terrorist policies.”
JCPA asked the general about a recently published IRGC report which claimed that an unnamed “foreign intelligence service” was commanding PAK fighters’ attacks in Iran. He totally rejected the accusation and said, “Iranians are used to lying about foreign involvement.” He continued: “Iran is carrying out military attacks in our land, Kurdistan. Kurdistan has never been part of Persian territory, nor its inhabitants Persians. The Iranian regime has occupied Kurdistan by brutal military force and imposed a collectivist system on the Kurdish people.” The general asserted that “the Kurdish people have the right to fight Tehran for their freedom in any way they can, apart from terrorism.” The general rejected the Iranian narrative that links Kurdish struggle to “foreign states… there is no foreign state or hand behind our struggle. Of course, we welcome any state that supports us, provided it does not interfere in our private affairs or harm our path to independence.”
General Yazdanpanah explained why the Iranian regime views PAK as a threat, and the reasons are many. “It could be because we are calling for dissolving the Iranian state. Iran is not a natural state; it was not formed by the consent of the people it is ruling. It was established through oppressive means of genocide and forced assimilation of millions of non-Persian ethnic and religious minorities. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not only a threat to the enslaved population but also to the entire Middle East’s security and world peace. Therefore, the best solution is to dissolve it like what happened in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.”
On Israel, the general stated, “Israel has never helped us at PAK. I wish it could support the Kurds and our struggle.”
More than 300,000 Jewish Israeli Kurds are living in Israel. JCPA asked the general what kind of support he like to see from them. He said that before establishing the State of Israel, “they lived among us in Kurdish cities and villages. We lived together without discrimination. Among the 300,000, there is a family who once stayed with my grandfather before they decided to go to their homeland, Israel. The Kurdish community in Israel knows how Kurdistan has been subjected to oppression, occupation, looting, and killings under the rule of occupying states (Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey). I expect my brothers and sisters in Israel to support Kurdistan for its freedom and statehood. They can influence the policy of their country’s government. They can raise the Kurdistan issue, make it a criterion in the elections, and vote for a candidate who supports Kurdish statehood,” said the general.
On Kurdish Statehood, the general said, “I see two opportunities missed. One is that in 2003, when the Iraqi state collapsed, the Kurds should have declared independence. The second was when ISIS was established on the Kurdistan borders. I supported the Kurdistan Independence Referendum (September 2017) with all my might.”
As the interview drew to a close, Gen. Yazdanpanah was asked what he hopes to achieve. The answer was firm and immediate: “The right to freely decide the political destiny of my oppressed nation, an independent and democratic Kurdish State.”
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In-depth interview with the General Commander of PAK, Gen. Hussein Yazdanpana, June 2, 2023↩︎