Mary E. Stonaker: Iran and the Kurdish Spring

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Killing 50 is unfortunately only the beginning of Iran’s offensive against the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) in the northwest region of Iran. Kurdistan is a unique ethnic region which spans four sovereign territories -- northern Iraq, western Turkey, southern Syria, and northwest Iran.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq is maintained as an autonomous government under the federal government. The existence and recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan (IK) was not looked upon kindly by Ankara and Tehran.

Iraqi Kurdistan is home to valuable energy deposits as oil exports of 180,000 barrels per day (expected to increase to 200,000 barrels per day by year’s end) comprise 95 percent of the federal government’s budget.

“We reserve the right to attack and destroy terrorist bases in border areas” across the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan the AFP quoted an unnamed senior Iranian official.

Iran has regularly shelled across the Iraqi border but this larger scale attack is signaling a move in the wrong direction.

The autonomy of the Kurdish people in Iraqi territory inevitably worries their neighbors, especially with the wealth being accumulated by the KRG. The PJAK, according to the central government in Tehran, has been illegally operating along both sides of the Iranian-Iraqi border. If successfully united with the KRG, the PJAK could lead a revolution and call for more freedoms and rights within Iran, including calling for its own autonomous state within Iran.

Further, in the future, Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria could be inspired to stand up for their rights and recognition as the largest minority group.

Since January 2011, a renewed sense of human worth has swept the Middle East and North Africa, inspiring uprisings and protests around the world. Chinese calls for protests arose in February, though with little results. In May, Georgian police forcibly ended anti-government protests. In Africa, South Sudan successfully, though after three civil wars, celebrated its internationally recognized independence from North Sudan and Khartoum.

The idea that the Kurds may rally together and fight for a unified independent nation seems extremely logical in this context. However, there are many other intricate details that may prolong or delay such a move. First, the Kurdish ethnic group stretches across vast swathes of land, separated by mountain ranges and distance. Second, the Kurds as a rebel group against their respective governments are extremely disjointed.

While the continued struggle for additional human rights will continue, it is important that not only Iraq stand up against Iranian shelling of Kurdish areas in Iran and Iraq but also take steps to stop Iran.

On the uranium enrichment front, sanctions and other international measures have not prevented Iran from publicly announcing its intentions to enrich uranium to weapon-grade percentage.

Fuel smuggling from the Iraqi border has become rampant. However, with the official recognition of both the KRG and the ability to export oil to gain revenues has caused Iraqis to combat such black market activity. Still, until Iran’s economy is functioning properly, this black market will exist and thrive.

Mass migration into Iraqi Kurdistan is likely amidst the calls for more independence and support from the international community, which Iraqi Kurdistan is receiving. Still, there is much development needed in IK to support its current citizens plus a large influx of people searching for human to human recognition.

Unfortunately, Iran’s continued shelling of the area and its most recent attack costing 50 lives demonstrates that Iran will do anything, Khartoum including killing innocents, to remain in power over the current territorial borders of Iran.

(Mary E Stonaker is an independent scholar, most recently with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She can be contacted at [email protected])