by İdris Okuducu
A prominent cadre of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which is based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and faces frequent attacks by Iran, was recently assassinated in Erbil, the KRI capital. Iran has subsequently demanded of Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister that Iraq no longer host the group. The potential full US withdrawal from Iraq, with combat forces scheduled to leave by the end of the year, as in Afghanistan, may give Iran’s new President the chance to benefit from the power vacuum in Iraq and remove the Erbil-based KDPI forces from the country. In this case, the KDPI may meet the same fate as the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), which was dismissed from Iraq years ago.
After the US intervention toppled the Saddam regime in 2003, Iraq increasingly came under Iranian influence, owing to Iran’s historical relations with Shi’a militias and political groups in the country. Tehran’s military influence in Iraq was institutionally consolidated when the Shi’a-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known as the Hashd al-Sha’abi, were formed following the emergence of ISIS. In order to end the US military presence in Iraq, which Tehran considers a threat to its national security, there has been serious pressure on the Baghdad government and repeat attacks on US military bases in the country since the defeat of ISIS in 2018. The KRI has also received its share of these attacks at times. Considering the US withdrawal from Iraq, though its details remain uncertain, any power vacuum arising during that period may give Iran an opportunity to launch a series of potentially deadly attacks against the KDPI.
Founded in Mahabad, Iran, in the 1940s and politically and militarily active since then, in the 1990s the KDPI had to relocate to Erbil’s Koysinjaq district due to Iranian regime pressure. The KDPI has avoided an active military campaign in order not to harm the KRI or damage KRI-Iran relations, but has continued its political activities, training its members and periodically infiltrating inside Iran. In return, Iran assassinated the charismatic KDPI leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1987, carried out continuous assassination and sabotage campaigns against the KDPI’s leading cadres, and targeted KDPI camps in Erbil with katyusha rockets. 22 years after the last Iranian attack against the KDPI, in 2018 Tehran targeted the party’s camp in Erbil with scud missiles. Claiming that the Iranian Kurdish group’s activities were backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Israel and the US, Iran’s security advisors underlined that the KDPI has always been one of Tehran’s primary targets. KDPI’s presence in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region has been at the forefront of the Iranian authorities’ security talks with Baghdad.
The KDPI’s future thus hinges upon whether Iran becomes the most powerful actor in Iraq following the US withdrawal, as it was in 2011. That year, another group opposed to Tehran experienced very similar challenges while operating in Iraq. After the US withdrawal, deadly attacks targeted the PMOI, which had settled in Baghdad during the Saddam period from where it launched attacks against Iran. With the help of Iraq’s then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’a politician whose rise to power was facilitated by Iran, Tehran killed several PMOI members by infiltrating the group’s camps in 2013. After the Iranian attacks, the US and UN relocated PMOI members to camps in a third country in 2015. During that time, the KDPI also faced Iranian pressure, but Tehran prioritised attacks on the PMOI as it was easy to reach through the Iran-backed Baghdad government. While the KDPI remained among Iran’s priorities, the Syrian war that then broke out altered the picture. Today, the KDPI is once again among Iran’s priorities in its policy towards Iraq, given the PMOI no longer has a presence there.
In the event of a US withdrawal from Iraq in 2021, Iran could put serious pressure on the KRI to shut the KDPI camps in Erbil, and may also organise assassinations against group leaders and members. Iran, who would be the most powerful and politically/militarily influential actor in Iraq after the US withdrawal, has a long border with the Kurdistan Region and several instruments to use against Erbil. Tehran can lean heavily on Iraq’s central government to force the KRI to close down the KDPI camps. In the first instance, Iran could instrumentalise the budget crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, knowing that the latter cannot make ends meet without the central government’s financial payments. Accordingly, Iran could easily have Erbil’s budget cut through Tehran-allied Shi’a politicians in Baghdad. Therefore, the possible victory of the Iranian front in the elections to be held in October or the appointment of an Iranian-backed prime minister in Baghdad would strengthen this possibility. In addition to cutting Erbil’s budget share within Iraq, Iran may bring its former policy to the agenda again in which it forced Erbil to hand over gates, dams and airports to Baghdad, and exposed KRI to serious economic pressures after the failed Kurdish independence referendum in 2017. Iran can also organise attacks against the Erbil-based KDPI camps through its allied Shi’a militias located in Kirkuk. Additionally, Iran has been supplying Iraqi Shi’a militias with long-range missiles and launchpads since 2018. These militias also have Iranian-made armed drones. Were attacks like this to occur, the KDPI camps would become an important pressure point for Erbil, which currently has a pro-US and pro-Western orientation. This pressure will probably result in Erbil being diplomatically weakened against Baghdad and Tehran. If Erbil is exposed to budget cuts, loss of political interests and – most importantly – military attacks due to the KDPI camps, it is highly likely to close the Iranian Kurdish groups’ camps.
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