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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Friday, June 16, 2006

Iran's Kurdish Threat: PJAK

By James Brandon

06/15/2006 - As Iran faces international pressure over its nuclear program, Tehran is growing increasingly concerned by the internal threat posed by a resurgent Kurdish national movement led by the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).

In 2006, PJAK may exceed this total. Already, it has launched dozens of attacks both from its camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and from its underground cells in Iran itself. In one of its latest attacks, PJAK troops killed four Iranian soldiers on May 27 in a clash near the town of Mako in Iranian Kurdistan, the PKK's Roj TV reported. PJAK, however, regards its military operations as merely complementing its wider effort to build a new Kurdish national identity among the four million Kurds who make up seven percent of Iran's population. PJAK has around 3,000 troops based in northern Iraq, but claims tens of thousands of activists working inside Iran to promote a Kurdish identity, democracy and women's rights [1].

As the confrontation between Iran and the West escalates, international attention has increasingly focused on Tehran's internal vulnerability. In particular, analysts point out that Iran's "imperial" past has resulted in ethnic Persians—who make up scarcely half of Iran's 80 million people—holding disproportionate power, wealth and influence. If the crisis with Iran escalates further, Iran's neglected and often resentful Kurdish, Azeri and Arab minorities may increasingly play a key role in global events. At the forefront will likely be Iran's Kurds, and chief among them PJAK, which for nearly a decade has worked to replace Iran's theocratic government with a federal and democratic system, respectful of human rights, sexual equality and freedom of expression.

History of PJAK

The exact history of PJAK is widely disputed. Turkey and Iran claim that PJAK is no more than an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). According to founding members of PJAK, however, the group began in Iran around 1997 as an entirely peaceful student-based human rights movement [2]. The group was inspired by the success of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region and by the PKK's struggle in Turkey. Discouraged by the failure of previous Kurdish revolts, however, PJAK's leaders initially worked only to maintain and build a Kurdish national identity and to thwart the Iranian government's attempts to re-brand Iranian Kurds as ethnic Persians or Aryans.

After a series of government crackdowns against Kurdish activists and intellectuals, the group's leadership moved to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1999. Here they settled in the area controlled by the PKK on the slopes of Mount Qandil—less than 10 miles from the Iranian border [3]. Once established at Qandil and operating under the PKK's security umbrella, PJAK adopted many of the political ideas and military strategies of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose theories had initially inspired PJAK's founders while still in Iran. The PKK's ideological influence also transformed PJAK from a civil rights movement to a more ambitious and multi-directional independence movement, aided by the transfer of many seasoned PKK fighters of Iranian origin into PJAK [4].


Since then, PJAK has adopted many aspects of Abdullah Ocalan's ideology, particularly his renunciation of his earlier communist ideologies in favor of democratic liberalism and his belief that civil activists need to be defended by military "cadres." Yet, PJAK retains many traces of its origins as a non-violent student movement. For instance, while the PKK considers Turkish civilians legitimate targets, PJAK operates "according to the rules of war," according to Akif Zagros, a member of PJAK's seven member leadership council [5]. This claim has been reluctantly endorsed by the Iranian government; although it describes PJAK as a "terrorist group," it has never accused them of attacking civilians. While PJAK's leaders have twice kidnapped groups of Iranian soldiers in 2003 and 2004, in both instances they were released unharmed after being tried and acquitted for crimes against the Kurdish people by ad hoc PJAK courts in Iranian Kurdistan.

Equally, PJAK's vision is less radical than the PKK's. PJAK does not openly promote the creation of a single independent Kurdish state. Instead, they favor replacing Iran's velayat-e-faqih (rule by the jurisprudent) system of clerical government with a democratic and highly federalized system which would effectively grant self-rule not only to Kurds, but also to Azeri, Baloch and Arab regions. Privately, however, since PJAK itself is not exclusively composed of Iranian Kurds and contains Kurds from as far away as Russia, many PJAK members hope for the amalgamation of all Kurdish areas into a single fully independent Kurdish republic.

Yet, perhaps the most striking aspect of PJAK's agenda is their call for the emancipation of women from Islamic law and Middle Eastern cultural norms. Ms. Gulistan Dugan, 36, head of Yerjerika, PJAK's women's branch founded two years ago, says that "45 percent of PJAK are women" and adds that "the daughters of our movement play a part in all our operations. There are many military operations that women have taken part in" [6]. PJAK sees women's freedom as a core part of a Kurdish identity and point to the relative equality enjoyed by Kurdish women historically. At the same time, the issue also usefully affirms their commitment to a modern, liberal and democratic government, while also underscoring their ideological, political and cultural opposition to Tehran.


PJAK activists are inspired by Cold War socialist revolutions, Iran's own 1979 revolution and the experiences of Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. Akif Zagros describes the group's tactics as follows: "The first stage is to spread our ideas amongst the people, especially among women, students and businessmen." He continues, saying that the "second stage is to organize people underground in schools, universities and in civil society" [7].

As the movement developed, however, the Iranian government reacted with increasingly heavy-handed crackdowns. In response, according to Zagros, "we formed a military force to protect ourselves and protect our movement. The rule of our party is to avenge the blood of our marytrs" [8]. The group's first armed attack took place in 2004 in the Meriwan region of Iranian Kurdistan after Iranian security forces fired on a Kurdish demonstration killing 10 people. This, however, did not mark an overall change of strategy toward military confrontation.

Military Operations

Although PJAK regularly engages Iranian troops, the group's attacks are not intended to defeat Iran militarily, but instead to complement and protect PJAK's political activists. In addition, the attacks aim to reinforce Kurdish national pride and to explicitly avenge the death of Kurdish activists and civilians. Ideally, PJAK would like to be strong enough to deter any crackdown against Kurdish civil activists by the Iranian authorities.

PJAK has adopted hit-and-run assault tactics against Iranian forces, carrying them out with "small arms and grenades," according to Zagros. Afterward, PJAK fighters may either melt back into Iranian society or re-cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. PJAK is believed to have some heavier weaponry in its Mount Qandil camp such as RPGs and heavy machine-guns [9]. PJAK's military operations are believed to be funded by Kurdish immigrant communities in Europe and Kurdish businessmen in Iran. Despite Iranian accusations, there is no evidence of any foreign funding.


During early 2006, a cycle of Kurdish demonstrations, Iranian repression and Kurdish counterattacks developed in Iranian Kurdistan. This peaked in February when 10 Kurdish demonstrators were killed by police in the city of Maku. PJAK responded with "three attacks against two [Iranian] bases," says Zagros [10]. Shortly afterward, on April 21, and again a week later, Iranian troops fired nearly 100 artillery shells at PJAK positions near Mount Qandil and briefly crossed the Iraqi border, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. "In the second violation, there was bombing against the positions of the PKK," Major-General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad, director of the joint operation center in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense told al-Jazeera, incorrectly assuming that PKK and not PJAK bases had been attacked. "The Iranian troops reached five kilometers into Iraqi territory before they withdrew" (al-Jazeera, May 3).

The Iranian attack is believed to have killed no more than 10 PJAK fighters, but it sent out a clear message that PJAK's camp was not invulnerable. The U.S. and Kurdish governments barely responded. "If those reports are true, I would expect that the Iraqi government would have something to say to the Iranian government," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a May 1 press conference when asked about the raid.

PJAK and the PKK

One reason for the failure of the U.S., Iraqi or even the Kurdish governments to take action against Iran's April border incursion is the close relationship between PJAK and the PKK. The European Union and the United States officially classify the PKK as a "terrorist organization." Both Iraqis and Kurds believe the PKK presence in northern Iraq damages ties with Turkey, Iraq's best armed and most economically advanced neighbor.

Although PJAK is administratively, military and politically separate from the PKK, strong links remain. PJAK uses some PKK facilities—such as hospitals—and remain based inside the PKK's defensive perimeter on Mount Qandil. Additionally, the two groups evidently share common goals [11]. Of course, if PJAK's links with the PKK damages its standing in the West, the close relationship has other advantages. As well as benefiting from the PKK's military expertise, a close relationship also wins PJAK instant respect among the region's Kurds. Nevertheless, PJAK's complete failure to engage with Western governments or media means that Iran has successfully sown confusion by referring to PJAK attacks as being carried out by the PKK.


PJAK has taken a long-term approach. Its core strategy is to promote Kurdish identity and to fight only in order to defend and avenge its civil activists. PJAK's leaders believe that if they can prevent Kurds from losing their ethnic and historic identity, then there will someday be a chance for Kurds to break free from Tehran's rule. Today, however, PJAK's followers believe that a historic opportunity is fast approaching. They point out that civil and insurgent Kurdish groups in Turkey are again vibrant and that Turkey's response is constrained by its ambitions to join the European Union. At the same time, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated their position while anti-Kurdish governments in Iran and Syria are under increasing international scrutiny and pressure. In addition, Kurds, including PJAK, after re-branding themselves as opponents of political Islam and partisans of human rights, women's rights and democracy, are well-positioned to ride out coming geopolitical shifts in the Middle East and any fragmentation of Middle Eastern states.

PJAK's independent and non-state sources of funding and well-established underground network means that Iran will struggle to defeat either PJAK or the Kurdish nationalism it fosters. Yet, given Iran's proven ability to absorb massive casualties, PJAK's ambitions to create a military balance of power and deter future Iranian crackdowns on PJAK activists seem optimistic. In addition, Iran recently adopted the successful Turkish system of employing rural Kurds as "village guards" in an attempt to force PJAK into fighting its own people. Since most PJAK attacks occur in cities, however, this tactic may fail, especially if Iran does not address wider Kurdish grievances through either investment or political reforms.

While PJAK lacks Western support, this has made the group self-reliant, flexible and open to compromise. For instance, PJAK currently talks mainly of reforming Iran's political system and aims to "create a coalition of all democratic and Kurdish parties," according to Zagros. If PJAK can succeed in creating a broader movement, then they might reach a position to challenge Tehran. In particular, PJAK regards Iran's 20 million Azeris as natural allies against Tehran, despite the fact that many Azeris hold key posts in the Islamic regime. In recent weeks, this strategy has become more plausible after the Azeris of Eastern Iran held widespread demonstrations after a Persian cartoonist compared them to cockroaches—perhaps hinting at deeper underlying tensions within Iran. In the meantime, however, as long as Iranian Kurds continue to consider themselves Kurds, rather than Persians or Iranians, then PJAK will consider itself successful.


1. Akif Zagros, member of PJAK leadership council, interview with author, PJAK Camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 21.
2. Akif Zagros and Gulistan Dugan, members of PJAK leadership council, interview with author, PJAK Camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 21.
3. Zagros, March 21.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Dugan, March 21.
7. Zagros, March 21.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid. Allegations of heavier weaponry come from photographs on PJAK's website PJAK.com and Max Chamka's article "PJAK, the unknown entity of the Kurdish resistance in Iran," http://www.caucaz.com/home_eng/breve_contenu.php?id=183, August 31, 2005.
10. Zagros, March 21.
11. Assad Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, member of PKK leadership council, interview with author, PKK base camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 22.
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