Kurdish issues have been an important part of the myriad political and socioeconomic problems that have preoccupied the Islamic Republic of Iran since its inception. The Kurdish factor has also been an important determinant of Iran’s regional foreign policy in the past three decades. Shortly after the onset of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Iraqi government began to woo the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) as potential leverage in its war effort. In January 1981, Saddam Husayn’s regime established its first major weapons supply route to the KDPI near the Iranian cities of Nowdesheh and Qasr-e Shirin. Securing Nowdesheh was Iraq’s prime objective, as the city’s strategic location would deny Iran the use of the Baghdad-Tehran highway. The KDPI, for its part, had hoped to create “Kurdish liberated zones” throughout Iranian Kurdistan by relying on Iraqi-supplied weapons and those captured from military depots inside Iran. The tide, however, began to turn against both the KDPI and Iraq by later 1981 as Iranian forces managed to inflict heavy casualties on Iraqi forces in the northern front and push them across the border. Consequently, the Iranian forces launched a series of debilitating attacks against the KDPI, rendering them a marginal military factor during much of the Iran-Iraq War.
By 1983, Iran began to play its own Kurdish card against Saddam Husayn’s forces. Having secured the support of both Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and forming a united front against the Iraqi regime, Saddam Husayn, in a last ditch effort to untangle the Iranian-Kurdish threat in the north, opened a secret channel of negotiations with the Kurds by promising them greater autonomy in their internal affairs. Baghdad was also concerned about possible Kurdish attacks against a strategic and highly lucrative pipeline that connected the Kirkuk oilfields to the port of Iskenderun in Turkey. Given Iraq’s numerous attacks against Iranian oil installations, Tehran felt compelled to threaten the safety of the Kirkuk-Iskenderun pipeline. Although Iran never carried out its threat against this pipeline, Iraq remained highly vigilant against a potential Iranian-supported Kurdish attack on one of its most important economic assets.
After the end of the Iran-Iraq War and following Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the regional strategic calculations changed dramatically. With the establishment of a “safe haven” in northern Iraq and the creation of a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel, upwards of 8,000 Western troops were stationed in or around this zone with the ostensible goal of protecting the Iraqi Kurds from reprisals by Saddam’s forces. From the start, Iran opposed Western operations inside Iraq and feared that the no-fly zone could be used by the United States to threaten Iran’s territorial integrity or simply become a protected enclave for a variety of anti-Iranian opposition forces. In particular, Tehran became highly concerned about the United States using the KDPI to destabilize the border regions in the country’s northwest. Beginning in March 1993, Tehran thus launched a series of bombing raids against the KDPI and its supporters inside the no-fly zone. However, as the Kurdish Autonomous Region developed semi-autonomous governing entities, Tehran opened up channels of communication with both the KDP and PUK, engaged in lucrative trade with Iraqi Kurdistan, and opened representative offices inside the Kurdish region of Iraq, allowing the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties to do likewise in Iran.
The US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Ba‘thist government in Baghdad presented yet another opportunity and challenge to Iran to devise a new approach to Iraqi Kurdistan. Economically, Iran’s importance to Iraqi Kurdistan has increased exponentially since 2003, with the volume of trade and investment between the two sides having reached over $2 billion. Notwithstanding generally good ties between Tehran and Iraqi Kurdistan, political obstacles remain. On several occasions, Iran has accused the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of allowing Israeli agents to operate against Iranian interests from the Kurdish territory. Israel’s presence, although not openly acknowledged by the Kurdish authorities, has remained a source of tension between the two sides. As reported by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in the June 28, 2004 issue of the New Yorker magazine, Israel has established a “significant presence” in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Israeli Mossad agents work undercover as businessmen in the area. The Israeli agents have reportedly been involved in providing direct and indirect aid to the newly-formed Kurdish Independent Life Party (PJAK), an off-shoot of Turkey’s Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), whose forces have been engaged in a guerrilla campaign and acts of terrorism inside Iranian Kurdistan. Iranian retaliatory attacks against PJAK and other hostile forces inside Iraqi Kurdistan continue to be a major source of friction between Tehran and the KRG.
The capture and subsequent imprisonment of Iranian officials by US forces inside Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2007 have affected routine relations between the two sides. For example, when the US military raided the Iranian Liaison Office in Arbil and detained five mid-level diplomats working there, KRG officials reacted angrily, accusing American forces of violating their trust and attacking a liaison office that had been, for all practical purposes, operating as a consular office since 1992. Similarly, in September 2007, the US military raided a hotel in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan and arrested Mahmud Farhady, the head of an Iranian trade delegation that had been invited by the Kurdish authorities to negotiate a series of wide-ranging agreements between the two trading partners. In protest, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, sent an angry letter to US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, then chief US military commander in Iraq, demanding, to no avail, the release of the Iranian trade delegate. This incident caused a diplomatic rift between Iran and the KRG and led to retaliatory measures by Iran. For example, Tehran intensified its bombing raids in the border areas and against the suspected PJAK bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic temporarily closed an important border crossing between Iran and the Kurdish region. Given the fact that 50% of goods imported into Iraqi Kurdistan were crossing from Iran, the closure of the border post caused extensive hardship inside Kurdistan. The assault on the Iranian trade delegation also jeopardized years of delicate negotiations between Iran and the KRG to establish an overland trade route between Iran’s Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf to a border crossing near Suleymaniyeh.
Finally, Iran’s Kurdish policy is affected by domestic developments in Iraq. In particular, Iran’s foreign policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan is a function of its broader foreign policy towards Baghdad. So long as Iraq’s territorial boundaries are not challenged and its internal cohesion is not threatened by Kurdish political demands, Tehran can afford to maintain cordial relations with the Iraqi government and the KRG. However, if Iraq’s viability is challenged, Iran’s outlook towards the KRG will change and Tehran’s policies towards Iraqi Kurdistan will be calibrated to minimize any negative spill-over effects of turmoil into Iran’s national and regional interests.