Kurdish-populated regions are a geopolitical keystone connecting the many parts of the Near East that dominate today’s headlines, from Syria to Iraq to Turkey and Iran.
To discuss the Kurdish factor in the region’s most pressing challenges, The Washington Institute on November 14, 2013, hosted a Policy Forum luncheon with Michael Knights and David Pollock, who provided fresh on-the-ground views gathered during their recent visits to the region.
On Iran and the Kurds of Iran, David Pollock offered a brief overview. He started off with the sensitivity of Iran-KRG relation among senior KRG officials: “I was struck on this visit by how all of these [KRG] senior officials insisted that on this issue [Iran], I not attribute any quote to them by name, only on this issue, only on relations with Iran did everyone of these cabinet ministers and other senior officials in the KRG said, on Iran you cannot quote me by name. That in itself, to me was an interesting signal of just how sensitive, and in fact one might always say how dangerous, how potentially risky this relationship between Iran and the KRG really is.”
David moves on to the extent of Iranian regime presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. He asserts that in his 2011 trip to the region and in talks with deputy leader of Gorran Party, he was told that in Suleimanyeh province alone, Iran had 700 safe houses where it conducts its secret business. David confirms that in his recent visit (2013) he related that anecdote to a very senior KRG official, who said, “well David, that number is even higher today.”
On the core intention of Iran’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, David highlights a very often overlooked reason: “Iran wants to keep taps on Iranians and Kurds in the KRG in order to prevent what it feels could be a terrorist or subversive or ethnically disruptive movement inside its own borders, and there are many Iranian ex-pats or asylum seekers or dissidents or just economic migrants in the KRG, and most of Iran’s agents in the KRG and all of those safe houses are keeping tap on those people. They do it effectively, they scare people because they are nasty and they secretive and they are pretty effective.”
In response to Kurdistan TV reporter Rahim Rashidi on the future of the Kurds in Iran David stated “Although the Kurds in Iran are very numerous, and they are very deserving, in my own view, of greater personal freedom and cultural freedom, and maybe even political decentralization of some kind, unfortunate reality is that, this is not in the horizon because of the policies of the Iranian government, because they have been able to suppress some Kurds and co-opt others to work with them.”
“I am not able to visit Kurds of Iran in their own country, but what I do know from speaking to Iraqi Kurds, in asking everyone I met, what they see as the future of Iran’s Kurds, they were all sadly, but uniformly, inclined to think that the Kurds in Iran would not be able to achieve, even the modest progress, that the Kurds in Syria or Turkey have made, let alone anything like what the Kurds in Iraq have been able to achieve.” David further added in his assessments of the overall situation of Kurds in Iran.
Michael Knights, a Lafer Fellow with the Institute, has worked extensively in Iraq as an advisor to local governments, security forces, and foreign investors. He has just returned from two weeks traveling throughout the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Kirkuk.
David Pollock is the Kaufman Fellow at the Institute, focusing on the political dynamics of Middle Eastern countries. He served previously in several State Department policy advisory positions, including four years as regional expert on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff. He has travelled widely in the region, including recent visits to Azerbaijan and Iraqi Kurdistan.