Kurds remain first in Iran’s firing line

The sorry record of international betrayal of Kurdish aspirations dates back to the end of the World War I. Frankly, betrayal remains at the heart of U.S. policy.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters display their flag. Credit: Flickr.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters display their flag. Credit: Flickr.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Iran’s regime is defying the newly found U.S. resolve to counter its malign influence with whatever means it has at its disposal. On Sept. 8, seven missiles were launched against the headquarters of an Iranian Kurdish rebel group in Koysinjaq, close to the border with Iraq, claiming the lives of at least 15 people—a death toll that the mullahs in Tehran found most satisfying.

The attack on the Kurds was carefully designed to send the region a message. “With a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), our missiles endow the Iranian nation with a unique ability to fight against arrogant foreign powers,” Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), told the semi-official ISNA news agency.

“All those that have forces, bases and equipment within a 2,000-kilometer radius of Iran’s sacred borders should know that (our) missiles are highly accurate,” Jafari continued pointedly. (Tel Aviv, of course, lies 1,900 kilometers to the west of Tehran.) “Our recent vengeance upon terrorists,” he went on, using the official regime term for Iranian Kurds seeking autonomy, “had a very clear message for enemies, especially superpowers who think they can bully us.”

The message is that Iran is not afraid to resort to military force, either through its ongoing ballistic-missile program or through interventions on the ground carried out by Iran’s own forces or their local proxies. As the missile attack on the Kurds demonstrated, that is not idle talk.

It is the Kurds, in fact, whose experiences over the last year are the best—and therefore, the grimmest—evidence of what happens when Iran occupies your territory. The latest ordeal facing this nation of 25 million—by far the largest stateless nation in the Middle East, but receiving only a fraction of the media coverage enjoyed by the 5 million Palestinians—was conceived in Tehran after the independence referendum of September 2017 in the Kurdish region of Iraq. That vote resulted in a 93 percent majority favoring independence, but what should have been a cause for celebration for their Kurds and their allies ended up as a disaster.

Many countries, especially those with Kurdish populations, issued barely veiled threats of invasion before the vote even took place. Turkey, Iran and the Iranian-backed Iraqi government all denounced the vote as an attempt to create a “second Israel” in the region, with the term “fifth column” frequently deployed in the media to describe the alleged status of the Kurds within Israel’s strategic calculations.

An Iranian-backed military offensive, involving Iraqi government forces and the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary organization—the Iraqi equivalent of Lebanon’s Hezbollah—smashed through Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq throughout October and November. That operation was directed by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s “Quds Force,” the notorious military agency that co-ordinates Iran’s regional interventions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

By the time the offensive ended, more than 50 percent of the territory liberated from ISIS by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, including the city of Kirkuk, lay in the hands of the Iraqi government in Baghdad and Hashd al-Shaabi. “This attack, waged by the Iraqi government, Hashd al-Shaabi and forces associated with the Headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, is in retaliation against the people of Kurdistan who have asked for freedom,” a Peshmerga statement declared at the height of the fighting.

Yet the outside world remained shamefully disinterested in the Iraqi Kurdish plight last year. That is a key reason why Iran now believes it can make an example of its own 7 million Kurds with impunity. “We have always considered Iran a danger to us,” Mustafa Muludi, the General Secretary of the Kurdistan Independence Party of Iran (KDPI) told the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw after the Sept. 8 missile attacks. “This bombardment has made our fear stronger.”

Their fear should be our alarm bell. The sorry record of international betrayal of Kurdish aspirations dates back to the end of the First World War, and frankly, betrayal remains at the heart of our policy. The Iranian-led assault last year used artillery and armored vehicles supplied by the U.S. government to the Iraqi government. Our response, as the Iranians openly mocked us by using American-made weapons to attack one of our closest regional allies, was to have the State Department confirm its “One Iraq” policy, effectively closing the door on the Kurdish bid for national sovereignty.

Only Israel came out of last year’s disgrace with any honor, as the one country to warmly welcome the referendum result, and to express the hope that the Kurds would join the Jews as a free nation in the Middle East. Yet as much as Israel has covertly aided the Kurdish national movement over the years, it is not in a position to fight on their behalf. As Kurdish leaders repeatedly state, the task of allies is to ensure that their own seasoned warriors can do that for themselves.

Last year, sadly, the Trump administration helped to tie the Kurds’ hands by equivocating over the referendum and the Iranian onslaught that followed. Iran now seeks to test our resolve by continuing its campaign against the creation of a Kurdish state that would be far more open, far more democratic and far more pacific than any of its neighbors. As yet, there is no sign that our shameful policy is changing.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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