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Biting the Hand That Fed Them
Kurdish Insurgency Tests Iranian Conventional Military Power
By ALI KOKNAR 08/24/2007 10:16 AM ET
There is much speculation in Washington these days about whether Iran will respond to a preemptive strike by the United States and/or Israel in order to damage or destroy its nuclear weapons program. The deficiencies in the human intelligence collection and analysis capability of the United States resulting in the confusion about Iran’s war fighting ability is a major factor in this current speculation. American experts are finding it hard to gauge Iran’s military strength and effectiveness. One way to measure Iran’s might with some degree of accuracy is to study how it has been fighting recently. Iran has not fought a conventional campaign since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, almost two decades ago. Since then, Iran’s military industrial complex and manpower evolved significantly. Some of this new technology and training has been put into action by the Tehran regime in a limited extent at Iran’s periphery, which offers a window to peek at the Iranian military under actual combat conditions. Except for the two proxy campaigns in Lebanon and Iraq which Iranian military and intelligence are engaged in, Iran’s only direct military action on its enemies has materialized in the form of a few surface-to-surface missile attacks on Mojahedin-e-Khalq camps in Iraq in the late 1990s and its ongoing conflict with the Kurdish terrorist organization PKK (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan-Workers’ Party of Kurdistan) inside Iran and in Northern Iraq at present, which this analysis is about.

Starting in 1979, the Islamic regime continued the Shah’s policy of attacking the armed ethnic Kurds (as represented by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and Komala, the Marxists) with conventional military forces. These clashes continued during the Iran-Iraq War, until the mid 1990s and resulted in the deaths of around 10 thousand Kurdish insurgents, 50 thousand Kurdish civilians and thousands of troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-Pasdaran). A de facto cease-fire came into effect in 1995. Paradoxically, the Islamic regime in Tehran harbored and supported the Maoist PKK against Turkey in the 1980s but especially after the removal of PKK’s leader from Syria in 1998. The Iranian intelligence service (Ettelaat-SAVAMA) managed the PKK presence inside Iran and the infiltration of PKK terrorists into Turkey. Interestingly enough, during the same period of time Ettelaat supported the activities of the Islamist Turkish Hezbollah, an ethnically Kurdish organization which organized itself in the 1980s to oppose the PKK in southeast Turkey. In fact, the Turkish intelligence services believe that the Ettelaat engineered a truce between the PKK and the Turkish-Kurdish Hezbollah in the late 1990s. At the peak of its relations with the Iranian regime in 1995, the PKK maintained about 1,200 of its members at around 50 locations in Iran. The Ettelaat even used the PKK against other Kurdish groups in Iran such as Komala, eight leaders of which the PKK ambushed and killed in June 1998. Fed up with Iran’s harboring the PKK, Turkey sent a direct message to Tehran in July 1999, when Turkish F16s attacking a PKK camp in Iran, accidentally bombed a Pasdaran base, killing a Pasdar officer and four Pasdaran troops and wounding ten. A new Turkish government elected at the end of 2002, developed a détente with Tehran in 2003, making it possible for Ankara to press Tehran into cutting off its support to the PKK.

With its charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan captured by Turkey in 1999, the PKK withdrew about 3,000 of its 4,000 field cadres from Turkey and Iran to its dozen or so camps strewn along the Qandil mountain range which straddles the Iran-Iraq border across from Turkey. The PKK used the period between 1999 and 2003 to reorganize its command structure, recruit new members and especially after Saddam’s quick defeat in April 2003, to acquire ex-Iraqi Army weapons and explosives. They also set up a front, Partîya Jîyane Azadîya Kurdistan (Kurdistan Free Life Party-PJAK) in Iran (heretofore referred to as simply “PKK” for practicality). Despite sporting its own leader, Haji Ahmedi, its operations are conducted under orders from PKK’s strongman, Murat Karayilan, and like other PKK teams operating in Turkey, its armed cadres are ethnic Kurds recruited from Iran, Iraq and Turkey. The PKK operates camps housing about 500 of these on Mount Asos, which is on the Iranian side of the Qandil Range. In 2004, from their Asos bases the PKK terrorist started operating in northwestern Iran, near the Iranian towns of Selmas, Mahabad, Serdest, Bane, Pîranshahr, Merîwan, Sine, and Hewraman. By July that year, the Pasdaran started mounting battalion-level operations in the area against the PKK, to total about eight such operations by the end of the year. In 2004, the PKK claimed killing about 20 Pasdaran troops, but did not admit its own casualties as a result of a brigade-level Pasdaran operation near Xoye/Urumiyeh in October, during which the Pasdaran deployed Katyusha artillery rockets.

A Pasdaran brigade, accompanied by hundreds of Basej paramilitaries, conducted sweep operations in the sector between the Iraqi border and the town of Piranshahr in late May and early June 2005 using AH-1J Cobra attack helicopters, but did not report any PKK terrorists killed or captured. As they did in Turkey, the PKK made attempts to foment a Kurdish uprising in Iran in 2005 to affect the outcome of the presidential elections. As if in response to the Pasdaran/Basej sweep a month earlier, in July, these attempts materialized in the ethnically Kurdish populated Mahabad and clashes between armed PKK terrorists, their civilian Kurdish supporters and the Pasdaran and Basej resulted in the declaration of martial law and curfew. The PKK claimed that they had killed 16 Pasdaran and Basej for a loss of four of their own during the July clashes.

The seasonal nature of contacts between the PKK and Iranian security forces was somewhat altered in 2006 as the PKK mounted attacks in Iran during the snowy winter months just as they did inside Turkey. In February, there were about a dozen PKK and Pasdaran on each side killed in action and at least a dozen wounded. In March the Pasdaran staged heliborne assaults killing at least 2 PKK terrorists. The PKK claimed they killed seven Pasdaran. As the weather improved in April, the Pasdaran launched a division-level operation against the PKK for the first time, deploying towed howitzers. The PKK also claimed that the Iranian Air Force fighters bombed one of its camps near Xinira next to the Haji Umran Iran-Iraq border crossing. The Pasdaran also hit a PKK camp near Sidakan, about 50 miles north of the Iraqi city of Arbil and about 6 miles from the Iranian border, with Katyusha artillery rockets. These attacks killed at least three PKK terrorists (as admitted by them) and probably up to a dozen more. The PKK claimed that they engaged the Pasdaran along the border and killed six and wounded eight, which the Pasdaran did not admit. The Pasdaran did admit however, that they lost 100 troops between 2003 and 2006 in contacts with the PKK. The PKK admits losing no less than 50 terrorists in contacts with the Pasdaran between July 2005 and March 2006.

The cyclical nature of the PKK operations to date in Iran suggest that the coming months will bring more contacts with Iranian security forces. Based on the escalation of the conflict in the last three years, it is plausible that the size of the Iranian troop movements will be large (from battalion-level in 2004 to division-level in 2006) and will involve heavy weapons such as artillery pieces and may also be conducted as combined-arms operations with the participation of regular Iranian Army units in addition to the Pasdaran. These developments will offer a unique opportunity to observe the Iranian military in action using its inventory against a real enemy, as opposed to the recent war games they conducted in the Persian Gulf during which reverse-engineered Russian weapons systems were showcased. Iran’s success or failure against an insurgent force of no more than a battalion or two will be indicative of its conventional warfighting ability against a larger opposing force, such as the United States Army or Marines.

Ali M. Koknar, a private security consultant in Washington, DC, specializing in counterterrorism and international organized crime, is an Associate of the Terrorism Research Center. His e-mail is


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