As Nuclear Deal Stalls, Dissident Kurds Seek U.S. Support Amid Iran Unrest

The head of an Iranian Kurdish dissident group has sought the support of the United States for Iranian resistance movements, as the Islamic Republic they oppose pounds rival positions in northern Iraq and contends with unrest at home.

While President Joe Biden's administration has sought to continue to engage with Tehran diplomatically in order negotiate the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, that effort has yet again stalled, something the Iranian government's opponents see as an opportunity to press for greater backing.

Speaking virtually at an event hosted Thursday by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Abdullah Mohtadi, Secretary General of the Komala Party for Iranian Kurdistan, expressed deep concern over a recent series of missile and drone attacks launched by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against his party and other Iranian Kurdish groups operating in exile out of Iraq's semi-autonomous north, which is under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

"I'm worried, to be honest with you," Mohtadi said. "I'm worried about the pressures that are exerted against us Kurdish political parties in Iraq, and I would very much like the United States to intervene."

Asked by Newsweek what sort of U.S. intervention he was calling for, Mohtadi said he "didn't mean American tanks and American airplanes," but rather "supporting and giving assurances to the KRG and Iraqi Kurdistan that America supports them in resisting the Iranian aggression."

"Apart from that," he said, "it's time the United States engaged with the Iranian Kurdish, or otherwise democratic opposition," adding that such a move "gives a good boost of morale for the Iranian people," and "gives them hope."

Questioned about the potential for armed struggle, Mohtadi said he "can't predict the future," but, for now, "we have ruled it out."

"We want to give the political movement, the civil movement a chance, and we don't want to give pretext to Iran for retaliation against civilians, against people," he said. "So, for the time being, yes, we are not engaged, and we do not intend to engage in armed struggle against the Iranian regime."

He noted that Iran's security apparatus could be "brutal," but said that currently, "it is not in the interest of the general political movement to turn it into struggle between certain groups and the Iranian regime."

"It's better to give the mass movement a chance," he added.

Komala, member, checks, gun, after, Iranian, strike
A Komala party member checks his gun as he stands in the aftermath of missile and drone attacks of Iran on their headquarters in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, on September 28. Hawre Khalid/Getty Images

Komala commands an armed wing of peshmerga fighters with a history of insurgency against the Islamic Republic, as do splinter factions such as the Komala Kurdistan's Organization of the Communist Party of Iran and the Komala of the Toilers of Kurdistan. Komala sided with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his 1980s war against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, and later took refuge in the KRG after its establishment shortly in the wake of the first Gulf War.

Komala officially renounced the armed struggle three decades ago in 1992, but the group acknowledges still having cells within Iran today that have been hunted down by the Revolutionary Guard, and Iranian officials have accused them of targeting security personnel.

The history of Komala's relationship with Washington is also murky. The group has met with past administrations, including that of former President George W. Bush, who oversaw the invasion of Iraq and a particularly bloody era for insurgent and separatist clashes across both sides or the Iran-Iraq border.

But while the group maintains an office in Washington and has had contact with members of Congress, it denies any direct contact with the current White House.

Unlike the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is aimed against Turkey and has been subject to Turkish strikes in both northern Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials "have not designated Komalah Party of Iranian Kurdistan," nor the fellow dissident Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) "as terrorist entities," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek.

Newsweek has also reached out to the U.S. State Department for clarification of Washington's relationship with Komala and other Kurdish dissident groups.

The U.S. has previously worked with Komala's peshmerga as part of the broader Kurdish front against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), a fight in which Iran, its militias and the Iraqi armed forces all played frontline roles. But tensions have arisen in recent years as Tehran extended its influence further into Iraq, while the Islamic Republic's resolve was tested from within amid near-annual protests over social and economic conditions.

Some of these conditions have been widely blamed on the return of U.S. sanctions following former-President Donald Trump's 2018 decision to abandon the multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was forged just three years earlier. Despite more than a year and a half of negotiations set in the Austrian capital of Vienna, the effort to resuscitate the accord has once again stalled, as the parties reached yet another impasse over the summer regarding the wording of a "final" text proposal issued by the European Union.

Iranian officials continue to seek assurances that sanctions relief would be secure against a future U.S. exit from the deal, as well as the closure of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into reported traces of nuclear materials found by inspectors at three inactive sites in Iran. While Tehran has always denied seeking to build a nuclear bomb, U.S. officials have vowed to block the Islamic Republic from any pathway toward developing such a weapon.

As of Friday, State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said he had nothing more to preview on JCPOA deliberations.

"We've been quite clear that if Iran continues to take positions that it knows neither we nor our E3 partners can possibly accept, then things are going to continue on the current course," Patel said. "And this means strictly enforcing our sanctions and increasing Iran's international isolationism. And the choice is ultimately theirs."

Burning, motorcycle, women's, rights, protests, Tehran, Iran
People gather next to a burning motorcycle in the capital Tehran on October 8. Iran has been torn by the biggest wave of social unrest in almost three years, which has seen protesters, including university students and even young schoolgirls chant "Woman, Life, Freedom" in protest of the death of an Iranian Kurdish woman and in support of greater women's rights. AFP/Getty Images

The current demonstrations sweeping Iran have a social focus, however, specifically targeting the Islamic Republic's strict moral code amid a wave of outraged sparked last month by the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman who was reportedly detained after being accused of violating laws mandating that women cover their heads in public.

Critics of the government, along with eyewitnesses, have alleged she was killed while in police custody. Among those who have accused Iran of torturing Amini is her cousin, Erfan Mortezaei, a peshmerga fighter aligned with one of Komala's splinter groups in northern Iraq.

Iranian officials have so far rejected this account. The preliminary results of an ongoing probe published Monday by the Iranian Foreign Ministry further denied any signs of assault or battery and attributed her death to an underlying medical condition.

Nonetheless, demonstrations have erupted in multiple parts of the country, resulting in violent clashes that have resulted in the deaths of what some Western human rights groups such as the Norway-based Iran Human Rights have estimated to be up to 185 protesters along with what Tehran counts as up to 20 security personnel, including members of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij paramilitary force.

U.S. officials, including Biden, have condemned Iran's crackdown on the demonstrations, with the president vowing last week to impose "further costs on perpetrators of violence against peaceful protestors."

Notably, he made no mention of the ongoing JCPOA deliberations, something Mohtadi felt was "something new" in the administration's messaging, even if "it is still too early to decide whether it is a radical shift from full appeasement of the Iranian regime."

"Whether we have connections with the Americans outside or inside America, not that much," he added. "Unfortunately, the administration was not very prepared in recent years to engage with Iranian opposition, Kurdish or otherwise. I hope this will change."

For Iran, however, any open collaboration between Komala and Washington would validate years of accusations that such Iranian Kurdish dissidents received external backing.

Recalling the country's difficult history of insurrection, the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations told Newsweek that the "Komala Party is identified as an active terrorist group that has martyred hundreds of people in Mahabad and other cities in Iran."

The New York-based mission, which has served as the only official center of Iranian representation in the U.S. since the two nations severed ties more than four decades ago, cautioned against offering any haven to such dissident forces.

"If the US administration is committed to fighting terrorism," the mission added, "there should not be any adequate means and facilities for political activities and meetings at the disposal of this group."

Komala, Party, Iranian, Kurdistan, peshmerga, recruits, ceremony
Members of the Komala Party for Iranian Kurdistan's peshmerga forces attend a recruitment ceremony in this image shared on September 10, two weeks before Iran launched a series of missile and drone attacks against the group's facilities in northern Iraq. Rojhelat TV/Media Center of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan

As the dust settled from the latest round of Iranian strikes in northern Iraq last week, Iranian officials signaled they would give diplomacy another chance before unleashing a new round of operations.

Addressing a press conference Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani defended Iran's cross-border strikes as part of "official and transparent measures" that Tehran has taken to address the presence of rival groups, after authorities in the KRG capital of Erbil and the national capital of Baghdad apparently failed to take action, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

"Despite the Iranian side's emphasis on respecting Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Kanaani said, "Iran's expectations were clearly expressed that the Iraqi government should exercise its sovereignty over its entire territory and prevent the conversion of parts of this country's territory to attack its borders and border guards."

While the Iranian attacks were condemned in Erbil and Baghdad, Kanaani said that Iraqi officials have provided assurances that they would move to address the issue on their side of the border.

The apparent understanding reached by the two nations after recent consultations has led to a ceasefire by the Revolutionary Guards, according to Iran's semi-official Tasnim News Agency. The measure was reportedly contingent, however, on practical measures taken by local and national authorities in Iraq to remove the presence of Komala and other parties.

Meanwhile, the KRG representative to Iran, Nazem Dabbagh, has stated in recent interviews with Iranian and Kurdish media that Iranian Kurdish dissident groups must evacuate from region's near Iraq's border with Iran. If they refuse to comply, Dabbagh told Kurdish outlet Rudaw on Sunday that Iran has communicated that it "will consider other options" to combat their presence.

Taking note of Iran's build-up of military forces along the border, Dabbagh said he did not anticipate a full-scale ground campaign, but warned more serious Iranian intervention "was not unlikely" to target those dissident bases that remained near the border.