Iranian threats to intensify in Iraqi Kurdistan are they more of the wind?

Iran’s demands for US forces to withdraw from a critical airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan, coupled with threats to expand operations against “American and Zionist mercenaries,” shake the Kurdish enclave, with many wondering. how far Tehran will go and what, if anything, the United States will do to stop it.

Mohammed Bagheri, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, appeared emboldened by the controversial US withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it “defeat and embarrassment worse than Vietnam “. In comments to Iran TV Sunday, Bagheri declared: “Iraq and its north [Kurdish] region should not allow America, the Zionist regime and counterrevolutionary armed groups to have training bases, television and radio stations, camps [and] military training, then attack our border regions and assassinate our officers.

Bagheri was referring to the Iranian Kurdish armed opposition groups that have been granted safe haven by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, fearing Tehran’s wrath, Iraqi Kurdish leaders are keeping Iranian Kurdish groups on a tight leash, prohibiting them from cross-border attacks against Iran from Iraqi territory. The main activity of the Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga forces is to collect “taxes” on smugglers crossing parts of the mountainous border between Iraq and Iran assigned to them by the KRG. As such, they have negligible physical impact in Iran, although their network of sympathizers periodically engages with Iranian forces, fueling the cycle of repression against the roughly 8 million Kurds in Iran, Sunnis making the calls. costs.

Bagheri claimed that the United States aided and encouraged the Iranian Kurdish rebels and held secret meetings with them at Harir Air Base.

A senior Iranian Kurdish opposition official contacted via WhatsApp denied that any such postings had taken place. “When there is contact it is more likely to happen in Erbil,” the official said.

Used in coalition missions against Islamic State, among others, Harir has been repeatedly targeted by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, to little effect so far. Bagheri said the base, located 70 km north of Erbil, was to be closed, adding that it was Iran’s “right” under the UN charter to prosecute “terrorists” in the country. – beyond its borders. His comments align with Iran’s longstanding demands that the Americans leave Iraq.

A few days before the Iraqi parliamentary elections, which are due to take place on October 10, the denigration of America and the Kurds could also be calculated to strengthen Iran’s various proteges in the race.

Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah called the accusations of his Iranian counterpart “Unwarranted” in a September 21 statement. Iraq “firmly rejects the use of its territory for the purpose of aggression against its neighbors,” the statement said. He called on “everyone to adhere to the language of brotherhood and cooperation in common relations.”

The threats follow a wave of airstrikes in early September, including drone strikes against Iranian Kurdish fighters positioned for fiscal activities along the border. In August, a worrying sign of the impending escalation, Mousa Babakhani, a senior official of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iran, was found dead in a hotel room in Sulaimaniyah city. His body bore “severe marks of torture,” the party said, accusing the Iranian state of the murder.

Iranian Kurdish groups feel increasingly vulnerable. Many deplore the reluctance of the KRG to defend them publicly, but cannot say so in public because they depend financially on handouts from the KRG. “Drones are very precise. Death threats are on the rise and [KRG] leaders are under increasing pressure to stop supporting us. We no longer feel safe even in Erbil, ”the Iranian Kurdish opposition official told Al-Monitor, who himself has received multiple death threats.

Iraqi Kurdish officials not speaking for the attribution admitted they were concerned about Iran’s saber strikes. “[Bagheri] hasn’t said much in the past. Therefore, his statements must be taken seriously, ”noted one of the officials.

Washington has shown no sign of doing so. The State Department declined to comment on Al-Monitor on this matter. Officials in the Biden administration are privately arguing that Bagheri’s comments are more of the wind.

It’s not surprising. “The administration will push back the narrative that adversaries are emboldened as a side effect for the fiasco in executing its withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Ramzy Mardini, associate at the Pearson Institution at the University of Chicago who studies conflict resolution. “US policymakers will redouble their efforts to reassure allies and downplay aggression from adversaries as ordinary rather than escalation,” Mardini told Al-Monitor.

Some analysts argue that there is nothing ordinary about Iran’s military incursions.

Hamidreza Azizi, visiting researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, agreed with this opinion. “Such attacks occur from time to time, apparently since some of the Kurdish groups decided to resume armed insurgency against Iran. But what makes the latest Iranian strikes different is that they appear to be more comprehensive in terms of preparation of the ground politically and for public opinion, the scope and designated targets, and even the legal justification, ”said Azizi at Al-Monitor. Allegations of covert handovers between Iranian Kurdish rebel groups and US agents at the Harir base can also “serve as a pretext for potential action by Iran or its allied Iraqi groups against Harir.”

Azizi continued, “I think Iran wants to kill two birds with one stone – to warn the Kurdish rebels that they cannot feel safe anywhere in Iraq and at the same time keep the pressure on the KRG and the Iraqi government not to let the United States maintain a military presence in northern Iraq.

“Their habit is pushing and pushing, and if there is no reaction, they will go even further,” the Iraqi Kurdish official said, adding that there was little likelihood of a US reaction. . “Not with this administration,” the official said.

US diplomats and military officials have repeatedly sought to allay Kurdish fears about a possible withdrawal. “The United States remains in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region. We are making this journey with you for the long haul, ”the US Consul General in Erbil said. Robert palladino said at a press conference.

The strategy is straight out of the playbook of Turkey, which has sharply escalated attacks on Kurdistan Workers’ Party rebels in recent months as much of the world, including the United States and Europeans, look away. “It cannot be a coincidence that every time Iranian strikes occur at the same time as a Turkish operation takes place in northern Iraq,” Azizi observed. “There has to be a level of coordination between the two parties. “

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