‘We’re not looking for condemnations on Twitter’: Kurdish opposition groups feel wrath of under-pressure Iran

Dissidents in Iraq once fought side by side with US forces. Now they are alone as they face Iranian attacks

Curled scraps of charred metal and piles of rubble litter the lonely camp of Iranian Kurdish dissidents on the road to Kirkuk, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Eight militiamen recently lost their lives here, hit by kamikaze drones and long-range ballistic missiles launched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from over the border.

It was all part of a campaign code-named “the Prophet of God”, targeting exiled Kurdish opposition groups. The Islamic Republic claims these groups have driven the unprecedented wave of unrest sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa “Zhina” Amini, a Kurdish woman. The attacks came within close range of US forces stationed near Erbil airport – a clear warning to an enemy dubbed the “Great Satan”, accused by Iran’s army chief of helping to turn Kurdistan into a “safe haven” for armed Kurdish groups.

We’re not looking for condemnations on Twitter. We need action as soon as possible on the front line. We’re calling for air cover and for Iran’s artillery to be hit

Facing the greatest threat to its survival in more than four decades, the beleaguered regime has resorted to blaming the foreign enemy, says Shukriya Bradost, a researcher on international security at Virginia Tech, who hails from Iran’s Kurdish region. The Kurds, at the epicentre of protests over the death of Amini, who had been arrested for wearing her headscarf in a way that revealed hair, are “an easy target,” she says. “[Iraqi] Kurdistan is the weakest actor in the region, an easy bag to punch.”

In the regime’s eyes, foreign support for Kurdish opposition groups – alternately American, Saudi or Israeli – is but one of a number of foreign plots aimed at smashing Iranian sovereignty. Granted, such claims have not emerged from a vacuum. Recent examples of foreign hostility towards Iran include the US assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in January 2020, and Israel’s satellite-controlled shooting of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, chief of Iran’s nuclear programme, one of a series of killings of the country’s nuclear scientists since 2007.

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But pointing the finger abroad has blinded the regime to its own role in troubles that may eventually prove to be its undoing. Frustrations have been mounting since the 2009 green revolution, which saw voters take to the street after rigged elections. Last year’s election saw regime hardliners openly engineer the victory of protege Ebrahim Raisi, a man accused of grave human rights abuses, including lethal crackdowns on protesters in 2009 and 2019. Now, tired of a lack of political accountability and economic hardship, fed up with morality police and security crackdowns, protesters have simply lost faith in the system.

How is it possible for the US to allow this to happen after we fought with them against the world’s biggest terror organisation?

What began as a protest against mandatory hijab rules quickly turned into calls for an end to the regime, with chants of “death to the dictator” ringing across the country, bringing together people of all classes and ethnicities. In this context, attacks on Kurdish dissidents in Iraq provide a much-needed distraction. “The regime is looking for a war outside Iran to change the situation and divert people’s attention. They’re trying to use that feeling to manipulate people. If you don’t have war, then you have to develop the country, find jobs for the young,” says Bradost.

“In a strange way, sometimes regimes believe their own propaganda,” says Brenda Shaffer, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, author of upcoming book, Iran is More than Persia. But, she says, the Islamic Republic has created its own security issues. “Instead of dealing with local contentions and complaints, they just blame the foreigners.”

Ironically, far from being bolstered by foreign powers, Iran’s Kurdish dissidents seem rather isolated. Groups hit by the recent attacks – namely, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and Komala – have been calling for international air cover over Iran’s Kurdistan region, help that is unlikely to be forthcoming. It’s clear that a few thousand fighters with dusty Kalashnikovs would be no match for the regime’s military might.

Back at Altun Kupri, PAK’s general, Hussein Yazdanpanah, is livid. He remembers when this used to be the frontline against Islamic State, a war PAK had fought alongside the US. All eight soldiers killed in the IRGC attack had risked their lives in that war, he says.

“How is it possible for the US to allow this to happen after we fought with them against the world’s biggest terror organisation? How come we saw no stances from the US?” he says. “We’re not looking for condemnations on Twitter. We need action as soon as possible on the front line. We’re calling for air cover and for Iran’s artillery to be hit.”

From their lookout posts, PAK’s fighters scan the hazy hills in the distance. Sheets of corrugated iron flap in the wind from the bombed-out ruins. A dog barks as it picks its way through the rubble. Surreally, lying face up amid all the destruction is a clock.

It remains to be seen if the regime’s time is up. Either way, exiled Kurdish opposition groups are facing the bombs on their own right now. Signs of a foreign plot are nowhere to be seen in this barren landscape.