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Are Turkey and Iran Uniting Against the Iraqi Kurds?

Feb 07, 2024

From Ankara and Tehran’s perspective, a subservient or weakened Iraqi Kurdish region must be achieved.

On August 11, Turkey mounted a series of cross-border drone attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan against alleged targets of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has been recognized as a “terrorist” organization by the United States, the European Union, and Turkey itself. The group is known to maintain bases in the border areas.

The recent attacks signal a new page in the relationships between Ankara and Tehran, and the prospect that they have sealed a new clandestine deal to cooperate on undermining undermine Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.

It is necessary to consider the region’s recent political developments to understand why Turkey has recently intensified its cross-border drone attacks in the Sulaimani region specifically close to the Iranian border.

In April 2023, Ankara targeted Sulaimani international airport in an unprecedented drone strike, and recent attacks have targeted places heavily used by civilians.

Since its inception, Iraqi Kurdistan has been politically divided between two rival ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In order to sustain their power politics, especially during the Kurdish civil war from 1994 to 1998, the KDP has forged close ties with Ankara; in contrast, the PUK sided with Tehran, despite the fact that these ties date back further.

As a result of the civil war, Ankara and Tehran have significant influence over Kurdish politics in Iraq. PUK-controlled Sulaimani has become the spotlight, where Tehran has long attempted to counter Ankara’s influence and expansions in the region. Meanwhile, Ankara has done the same through the KDP-controlled Duhok and Erbil provinces.

Despite the fact that Turkey and Iran are two rivals, their rivalry has never reached direct conflict. Instead, the two countries have fought mainly through proxy forces and in indirect conflicts. It’s already well-known that both Iran and Turkey are fighting for influence in the Middle East by supporting opposing proxies in states trapped in conflicts and civil war.

Ankara attempts to fight the PKK militants in Iraqi Kurdistan as part of its proxy warfare by pushing the KPD to use military force against them. The most recent example of this was on August 13, during which KDP-affiliated Peshmerga forces engaged in an armed clash with the PKK militants in the border areas of Duhok province. The KDP immediately blamed the PKK for the fighting.

The PKK once was a conduit for pressuring Turkey, due to an unofficial deal between a pro-PKK Iranian group known as PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party). Yet that appears less important today: Ankara’s increasing attacks in Tehran’s sphere of influence stand testament to the fact that the potency of Iran and Turkey’s regional rivalry has weakened as economic ties have grown. Turkish energy needs and Iran’s vast oil and natural gas resources have been important drivers of the increasing Turkish-Iranian cooperation in the recent decade. Given its dependence on Iranian energy, especially natural gas, Ankara will seek to retain a degree of flexibility regarding its policy toward Iran. Turkey has a serious interest in preventing relations with Iran from deteriorating too badly and in not taking actions that could give Tehran an excuse to step up support for the PKK.

Iran, on the other hand, has launched a spate of missile and drone attacks deep into Erbil province, where Ankara’s sphere of influence that stretches from the Duhok area ends. In 2022, the Iranian attacks witnessed serious escalations. It’s difficult to believe that the two regional powers could so openly interfere in such a contested area as Iraqi Kurdistan without some sort of agreement.

In March 2022, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps unleashed a missile attack on Erbil, targeting an alleged Mossad headquarters in the province, according to official Iranian media said. In November of the same year, the Revolutionary Guards once again unleashed several attacks on Erbil’s Koya town with kamikaze drones and missiles against the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) headquarters, leading to several deaths and casualties.

Iranian officials have repeatedly warned the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to disarm the Iranian-Kurdish groups, threatening to launch a military attack deep into the region's territory if no action is taken.

In the fractious Middle East, there is one thing that most of the rival regional countries now agree on: an independent Kurdistan is a bad idea. This is especially true for Turkey, whose 15-million-strong Kurdish population comprises between 15-20 percent of the country’s population.

Currently, Ankara and Tehran have come to the conclusion that a Kurdish autonomous region anywhere in the world, but especially in a place such as Iraq, would encourage Kurdish independence movements everywhere. Both states consider the repercussions of such an Iraqi Kurdish quasi-state to be unacceptable.

Turkey and Iran already face their own nationalist Kurdish movements, some of them armed such as the PKK and KDPI. Both groups maintain a large number of bases in Iraqi Kurdish territory. Tehran accused the KDPI of fomenting the nationwide protests that swept the country for months over the death of the Kurdish woman in the custody of the Iranian morality police.

Last year, John Bolton, a former U.S. national security advisor, claimed that weapons were being smuggled from the Iraqi Kurdish region to Kurdish opposition parties in Iran, a claim that was subsequently denied by the KRG.

An autonomous Kurdish region would be a model for those fighting to free the remaining parts of what is known as Kurdistan, which have been long divided between Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Governments have been and remain afraid that any concessions to Kurdish demands will result in further demands for independence. Therefore, from Ankara and Tehran’s perspective, a subservient or weakened Iraqi Kurdish region must be achieved.

Shad Sherko is a journalist working in Iraqi Kurdistan. He has studied politics and international relations at the University of Sulaimani. He is currently working as a senior English editor at Sulaimani-based Esta Media Network.

Image: Shutterstock.