As protests flare up across Iran over the death of young Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, the Kurdistan region of neighboring Iraq has paid a price by being bombed by Islamic Republic forces.
Their target is the long-exiled Kurdish opposition from Iran, installed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran in the 1980s.
Tehran regards these armed groups as “terrorists” and accuses them of attacking its territory.
A general in Iran has accused Kurdish opposition groups of instigating the Mahsa Amini protests in Iranian Kurdistan amid a deadly crackdown by security forces.
Amini, 22, was pronounced dead on September 16, days after Iran’s notorious Morality Police arrested her for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women.
According to Adel Bakawan, director of the French Research Center for Iraq (CFRI), Iran “must find an enemy” to blame for fomenting the nationwide protests.
“The weakest link that could be attacked without provoking consequences were the Iranian Kurds,” he said.
On September 28, Iran unleashed a barrage of fire on Kurdish militant positions in northern Iraq, killing 14 and wounding 58, including civilians. Less bloody attacks followed.
On Monday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani repeated Tehran’s accusations against these groups, saying they threaten the country’s national security.
However, according to experts, the far-left groups have ceased virtually all military activities, focusing instead on political action.
– Protected Presence –
Any fighters they have left could be considered reservists continuing their training.
Iranian Kurdish journalist Raza Manochari said there has been an agreement between such groups and the government of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region since the 1990s.
It protects their operations, “and in return they don’t engage in military activities so as not to cause problems for relations with Iran,” he said.
Manochari, who has lived in Iraq for eight years, emphasized the bond between the Kurds in both countries: They speak the same Sorani dialect and many have relatives on both sides of the border.
Massud Barzani, leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party and former President of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, was born in Iran in 1946.
He is the son of legendary Kurdish nationalist leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, a head of the only breakaway state in Kurdish history that was established in the Iranian city of Mahabad until it was crushed by Iranian troops after a year in 1946.
Today, the Kurdish minority in Iran – about 10 million people out of a population of 83 million – complain about exclusion.
“In Iran, the Kurds don’t have many basic cultural and political rights,” said Shivan Fazil, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The right to education in their mother tongue remains forbidden,” he said.
– ‘Never use Iraqi soil’ –
Their situation is grimmer than that of Kurds elsewhere in the region, Fazil said, citing Kurds in Turkey’s parliament since 2015, de facto autonomy in northeastern Syria and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.
Aso Saleh, a board member of Iran’s Kurdish party KDPI, which was targeted by Tehran last month, said the party “never used Iraqi soil or territory to launch an attack on Iranian forces.”
Sweden-based Saleh said the movement is “predominantly based in Iranian Kurdistan,” where its activities must remain “covert.”
Only “the leadership and the bureaucratic apparatus” are present in Iraq.
“This movement is trying to bring democracy and federalism to Iran,” he told AFP of the party, founded in Iran in 1945.
Edris Abdi of the Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish nationalist group Komala told AFP: “We are not involved in military activities.”
Hardi Mahdi Mika, a political scientist at Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah University, points to the marginalization of the Kurdish minority.
“In terms of economic growth and unemployment, the Kurdish regions are the poorest” in Iran, he said. “The government is neglecting these regions.”
Kurdish workers cross the border every day in search of casual jobs in Iraq that pay better than back home in sanctions-hit Iran.
Even in the Iranian provinces, where they are in the majority, “the Kurds have no say in local government,” Mika said.