US: PJAK are terrorists – Obama Iran overture?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Yesterday, the US Treasury branded the Kurdish guerilla group PJAK a terrorist group. PJAK has been a menace to the Islamic Republic for years. Is this a sign of the Obama administration’s overture to the Iranians?

Even though it has tried to present itself as an independent organization and as a pro-democratic grassroots movement, the PJAK is clearly an integrated part of the militant Kurdish organization PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for 25 years. PJAK is seen as the ‘Iranian version’ of PKK. For years, it has waged a war of skirmishes and ambushes against Iran, killing scores of Revolutionary Guards and border patrols. In 2005, PJAK killed more than a hundred Iranian soldiers; and on April 3, 2006, alone, it killed 24 members of the Islamic Republic’s security forces in retaliation for the killing of Kurdish demonstrators. The declared aim – at least until recently – has been to fight for the rights of Iran’s Kurds, who make up some 7% of the population.

Now, the US– after years of Iranian accusations of US support for anti-Iranian groups such as the PJAK – has branded the organization as terrorist. The US Treasury stated yesterday that it had

“… designated the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a Kurdish group operating in the border region between Iraq and Iran, under Executive Order 13224 for being controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, aka the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK)

The KGK leadership authorized certain Iranian-Kurdish KGK members to create a KGK splinter group that would portray itself as independent from but allied with KGK. PJAK was created to appeal to Iranian Kurds. KGK formally institutionalized PJAK in 2004 and selected five KGK members to serve as PJAK leaders, including Hajji Ahmadi, a KGK affiliate who became PJAK’s General Secretary. KGK leaders also selected the members of PJAK’s 40-person central committee. Although certain PJAK members objected to the KGK selecting their leaders, the KGK advised that PJAK had no choice.

As of April 2008, KGK leadership controlled PJAK and allocated personnel to the group. Separately, PJAK members have carried out their activities in accordance with orders received from KGK senior leaders. In one instance, PJAK’s armed wing, the East Kurdistan Defense Forces, had been acting independently in Iran. KGK senior leaders immediately intervened, however, and recalled the responsible PJAK officials to northern Iraq.”

According to this statement, the US will freeze the group’s assets and prohibit American citizens from doing business with it.

Seen as a common threat, ‘Axis of Evil’ member Iran and NATO-member Turkey have actually been cooperating in the fight against PKK/PJAK. Since 2006, this has led to Iranian and Turkish air and land raid across the border and well into Iraq, where the Kurds are enjoying near-autonomy. The PJAK base at Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq has been the main target for these attacks – but there have also been signs that Ankara and Tehran have cooperated in the border between Turkey and Iran. Experts have feared that Iranian incursions into Iraq could escalate into an open confrontation between US/Iraqi/Kurdish forces on one side, and the Iranian forces on the other. Iranian media even reported last year that the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan had appealed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i to stop shelling Kurdish villages in Iraq.

It is furthermore interesting (but maybe not that surprising) that this US Treasury declaration has been framed within the context of US-Turkish relations, not US-Iran relations. While it is true that a broad segment of the Turkish population harbors increasingly hostile sentiments towards the US – in particular over the question of US support for the Kurds in Iraq – and while it is true that PJAK is a part of the PKK and therefore an enemy of the Turkish state, it is important to remember that the PJAK’s declared goal has been to fight Iran: it is Iran’s citizens (or military forces), not Turkey’s, that are (or were) PJAK’s targets. Therefore, the decision to brand PJAK a terrorist group can be interpreted more as a present to the Iranians than to the Turks.

However, the US decision also raises many questions. It is, for example, very odd how it is stated in the press release that “in one instance”, the PJAK had acted independently in Iran. What did the Treasury mean by “in one instance”, “independently” and “as of April 2008”? It seems to suggest that PJAK foot soldiers have tried to separate itself from PKK command.

Nonetheless, the (PKK?) decision to withdraw PJAK from Iran has been surfaced before. Since fall 2008, there have been reports of a decline in PJAK activities. On January 13, 2009, Iranian Entekhâb News quoted a report in the Turkish Aksam daily that Iran had “destroyed” the PJAK and that therefore, the group had declared an end to its “separatist activities”. Indeed, Entekhâb claimed that PJAK would not aim at the secession of Kurds from the states of Iran, Turkey, Iraq or Syria any longer.

Iranian state media has of course picked up the story. The state-run news agency added to its report that

“The PJAK party is, after the Hypocrite Group [that is, Mojahedin-e Khalq], the second anti-Iranian terrorist group to be placed on US lists over terrorist groups”

Under the heading “The US government’s belated confession to the terrorist nature of PJAK”, Rafsanjani-affiliated Shahâb News wrote that

“While news are published about CIA’s financial and military aid to groups such as PJAK and Abdolmalek Rigi’s [that is, Jondollah, described later in the article as “the Iranian division of Al-Qaeda”], the US government has placed the PJAK group on terror lists”

In the article, the Shahâb writer claims that the US decision to call PJAK a terrorist group is due to the fact that the group had suffered severe defeats at the hands of Iranian forces recently, making it unable to function.

With the Iranian media already buzzing with rumors of secret talks between Washington and Tehran, it is not hard to imagine that Iranians will see this decision as a positive sign. So, could the decision be seen as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to reach out to the Iranians and maybe prepare the ground for a grand bargain? Some Kurdish proponents certainly think so – and they are and will most certainly be opposed to “appeasing” the “Mullahs”.

What do you think? Please comment!

4 responses to “US: PJAK are terrorists – Obama Iran overture?

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » A Concrete Gesture Toward Iran?

  2. Frank Rettenberg

    The conclusion that the Treasury’s action was intended for an Iranian, not a Turkish, audience is doubtless correct. Indeed, the Istanbul newspaper ZAMAN called it a “gesture towards Iran.” Nevertheless, this development will go down well in Turkey. With the PJAK and PKK so closely interrelated, Turks have assumed that whatever aid the US may or may not have been providing the PJAK in its struggle against Iran was inevitably being shared with the PKK, presumably with the full knowledge of the US, thus increasing Turkish suspicions of US intentions in the area. This putative avenue of US support to the PKK, real or imagined, is now closed, which ought to make Turks happy. Turkish apprehensions over US policy were also assuaged in late 2008 by Defense Secretary Gates’ decision to provide “actionable” intelligence to the Turkish Armed Forces in support of its anti-PKK operations. Chief of General Staff Basbug has publicly indicated his satisfaction with this arrangement. Finally, a general comment about Turkish anti-Americanism. Turkish feelings towards the US will always be ambivalent, a legacy of the ingrained suspicion of the West fostered by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But ordinary Turks like ordinary Americans! It is our governments they mistrust, most particularly the Bush Administration. Presidnt Obama has a clear opportunity to improver atmospherics between the two countries, perhaps dramatically.

  3. You are right: this is clearly also a gesture towards the Turks. However, it is not – as the Treasury statement seems to suggest – just the Turkish citizens who have suffered from PJAK’s attacks. Therefore, the primary recipient of this overture is Iran.

    Reg. ‘anti-American’ sentiments: I agree with you (and should maybe have formulated it more precisely in my entry). What I have experienced in Turkey is exactly what I saw in Iran: that people are very positive (or even extremely enthusiastic) towards US culture and tthe American people, while at the same time being very hostile towards the US government (of Bush – maybe this will change?). Most people, and in particular young Iranians and Turks, seem to be very clear in making this distinction.

    It will be interesting to see how Turkish-Iranian relations develop over the next couple of months – in particular within the context of worsening relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara. As you probably know, Erdogan has just been named honorary citizen of Tehran by major Qalibaf. It seems the Iranian government is increasingly positive towards their western neighbors whom they used to view as morally corrupt wanna-be Europeans.

    What we should not forget, however, is the plight of Iran’s Kurds. While PJAK is no doubt a violent organization with little sympathy amongst Iranians, there are also many peaceful human rights organizations and ethnic awareness proponents who are suffering from a severe state clampdown.

  4. It has been brought to my attention that at least one Iranian media outlet, ‘Asr-e Irân, has interpreted the US Treasury decision as a ‘positive signal’ from Obama to Tehran:

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