Against the backdrop of the ongoing domestic uprising, Iran launched a spree of attacks on Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. As per sources, the Iranian attacks targeted the Komala Party and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, killing 26 of their members. Iran justified these attacks on the basis of necessary defensive and security measures, however, observers believe that given the intensity and nature of the attacks, Tehran aimed to not only to eliminate Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in northern Iraq but also for other ends, which will be discussed later.
The United States, the European Union and the Gulf states condemned the Iranian cross-border attacks in Iraq. Several international organizations and rights groups also condemned the attacks and called for strong measures against the Iranian . Baghdad also protested against the Iranian attacks on its territory, and in response, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s during his visit to Iran, spoke of his political system’s plan to boost border security. The plan includes the formation of joint military units that will include Iraqi forces, its border guards, and Peshmerga forces; these units will monitor the border areas of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The Iranian attack also coincided with Turkey’s air strikes as part of its Operation Claw-Sword against Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq after the recent bomb attack in Istanbul. Ankara alleged that the PKK had planned the attack. In response to these developments, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Iran hoped that Iraqi land would not be used to threaten the country’s security while some Iranian lawmakers like Esmail Kowsari said that it was necessary to send ground forces to establish security along the shared borders with Iraq. Moreover, Iran’s Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani recently visited Iraq and warned of military action if Iraq did not prevent Kurdish opposition groups from interfering in Iranian affairs and attempting to destabilize the country.
The recent escalation of Iranian cross-border attacks is driven by several motives. Firstly, Iran has frequently used its political and military arms in Iraq to pressurize and attack opposition groups. The friction between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has created opportunities for Iran to penetrate Kurdish politics and the IRGC has frequently pressurized the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to eliminate opposition groups located in KRI. The KDP is largely dominant in the area designated as the Yellow Zone that includes Erbil and Dohuk provinces whereas the PUK is dominant in the Green Zone that encompasses Sulaymaniyah and Halabja provinces. Iran has longstanding ties with the PUK and its president Bafel Talabani recently met Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq Mohammed-Kazem Ale-Sadegh to discuss political developments in the country and expressed concerns over the Iranian attacks. As the KRG is faced with political challenges and is not in a position to guard the borders, the Iranian attacks have further complicated the political and security environment, hence enabling Tehran to exploit the situation for its ends. Secondly, Iran has constantly blamed external interference for the growing domestic protests. By blaming the Kurds, the Iran cast a shadow of doubt over the organic nature of the protests and attempted to delegitimize them regionally and internationally. Thirdly, Iran has used disproportionate cross-border attacks to perpetuate fear among Iranian protestors. As the domestic protests have not lost steam, the Iranian political system has pushed the security dimension to send a message to the domestic front: Iranian security forces will not hesitate from using excessive force as the protests are externally backed for the sake of destabilizing the Iranian state. Fourthly, Iran has invested significant resources to influence Iraqi politics for the sake of achieving its strategic aims, and the attacks on Kurdish groups are an extension of its stratagem in the region. The low to medium-scale cross-border attacks enable Iran to maintain its presence and influence, and escalate at times of internal crisis, primarily to spread fear and distract regional and international attention from its crackdown on protestors and the challenges facing the political system.
After the Iraqi premier’s recent visit, the border security situation with Iran is likely to improve considering various new initiatives such as consolidated patrols and arrangements by the Kurdish and Iraqi forces and improved coordination with Iranian counterparts. For the short term, the summit-level talks will calm tensions, hence providing Tehran with time to curb the unrest on its side.