For centuries, the Kurdish people have maintained their unique identity as a distinct community within Iran, but their interaction with the regime has often been tense.
Last year, the situation escalated further when Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman, died under suspicious circumstances following her arrest by Iran’s morality police. The aftermath of her death saw unprecedented anti-regime protests, highlighting the Kurds’ prolonged struggle for representation.
According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, this struggle serves as a reflection of the challenges faced by millions of other marginalized Iranians seeking recognition and empowerment.
The majority of Iran’s 10 million Kurds reside in the western regions of the country, where Iranian security forces continue to oppress them. The area has experienced multiple violent protests, which the regime has responded to with harsh crackdowns. Hundreds of people are believed to have lost their lives due to state-sanctioned violence.
According to the Washington Kurdish Institute, a research and educational organization based in Washington, D.C., in July Iran arrested “dozens of protestors in West Azerbaijan Province’s Aqdara village and severely wounded three. The raid on Aqdara began when several Kurdish men gathered in front of a gold mine and demanded employment. Iranian security forces and municipal officials in Ilam destroyed a Kurdish home, broke up a small demonstration, wounded three Kurds, and arrested six more. The regime also arrested a number of activists across Iranian Kurdistan.”
According to Jonathan Spyer, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, the suffering endured by many populations in the Middle East “tends to be generally ignored in the West, unless and until it blows up into a level of protest that cannot be ignored.”
“The Iranian Kurds, unfortunately, lack powerful friends and major countries who want to amplify their cause,” Spyer told JNS. For this reason, it “tends to get ignored, despite its obvious justice.”
Iran also continues to target Iraqi Kurdistan, where U.S. bases and Iranian Kurdish opposition groups are located, through a series of drone and missile attacks. The Iranian government is issuing warnings of further strikes unless Iraq takes action against armed Iranian dissidents who have sought refuge in the country.
Last September, Iran bombarded Kurdish opposition groups in northern Iraq for supporting anti-government protests in Iran. Tehran attributes domestic unrest to interference by foreign governments, as well as several exiled Kurdish political parties. The missile and drone strikes killed at least 20 people in a two-month period, and injured dozens more.
Abdullah Mohtadi, the secretary general of the Komala Party for Iranian Kurdistan, voiced grave concern at the time regarding the missile and drone attacks conducted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on his party and other Iranian Kurdish groups operating in exile from Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern region, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He appealed to the United States to “intervene” and extend support to the KRG and Iraqi Kurdistan in their efforts to counter Iranian aggression.
A U.S. congressional committee has called for a plan to deploy air defenses in Iraqi Kurdistan. If signed into law, the amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will cover equipment and training.
But it may not be enough.
Spyer noted that Iranian forces have struck Iranian Kurdish groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan, using drones and missiles on several occasions in recent months. The last major attack, which Spyer witnessed, was in late November of 2022. But the Iranian regime’s harassment of Iranian Kurdish dissidents continues, and the regime recently carried out some targeted killings.
According to the United States Institute of Peace, countering Iran’s drones has been a challenge for the United States and its allies since the 2010s. Iran has been increasingly using unmanned aircraft to harass adversaries in the Middle East. The situation became even more contentious when Iran exported drones to Russia in August 2022 for use in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Reportedly, Iran agreed to provide Russia with at least 1,700 drones.
In response, the United States imposed eight rounds of sanctions between September 2022 and April 2023. These sanctions targeted over two dozen individuals and entities, including Iranian drone manufacturers, the IRGC Aerospace Force and the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force with close ties to the Kremlin. Transportation firms in Iran and the United Arab Emirates were also sanctioned.
By January 2023, Russia had deployed hundreds of Iranian drones, including two types of so-called suicide drones, the “Shahed-131” and the “Shahed-136,” as well as the “Mohajer-6,” capable of conducting both strikes and surveillance. These drones targeted Ukrainian military positions, residential buildings, power stations, bridges, playgrounds, sewage treatment plants and other infrastructure, resulting in civilian casualties.
Iran’s decision to assist Russia indicates a deepening strategic alliance between Tehran and Moscow.
Bilal Wahab, a Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Kurdish affairs, told JNS that Iran “has been using Iraq as target practice to perfect its drone arsenal before it could sell them to Russia.”
Wahab said it “indeed is a puzzle” that no one seems to care about the Iranian Kurds.
He noted that Washington ceased to engage with Iranian Kurdish opposition groups when it entered the negotiations that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement.
“This trend continued even during the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” he said.
“Moreover,” he added, “Kurdish opposition groups are cornered politically and under attack militarily,” while the KRG “seeks to avoid confrontation with Iran.”
Now, said Wahab, Iran has given the KRG an ultimatum to disarm these groups by September or face a ground invasion.
Iranian Kurdish opposition groups are themselves divided politically, and this is part of the reason the international community has not managed to latch on to their cause, according to Wahab.
Unfortunately, he noted, instead of uniting and fighting for their cause, Iranian Kurdish opposition groups “are further weakened by internal divisions and a lack of unity, which prevents them from playing a significant role.”