Tehran’s strategy has been to use its Shia militias to assist the PKK and exploit the terror group against Turkey, which it views as a threat in Iraq.

Immediately after Turkey started Operation Claw-Eagle 2 in northern Iraq to rescue 13 Turkish prisoners in the hands of the PKK, the US-designated terrorist group Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba published a statement threatening to attack Turkey just as they did the US if Turkey does not change its position.

Shortly after, another Shia militia controlled by Iran, Asaib al Khayf, published a video of the launch of a missile targeting the Turkish military base in Bashiqa, Iraq. Moreover, Shia militias attacked the Erbil airport and killed one civilian contractor, and injured nine others, amongst them one US service member. 

In the meantime, Iran-backed Shia militias sent reinforcements to the Sinjar region torpedoing the agreement between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG).

All of these incidents are part of Iran’s strategy to shield the PKK and exploit the terror group against Turkey.

Iran’s aid to the PKK

The Iranian relationship with the PKK is nothing new. The PKK’s main bastion in northern Iraq is the Qandil Mountains, of which a part is located inside Iran. PKK's high cadres survived Turkish airstrikes by taking refuge on the Iranian side.

Despite Turkish pressure, Iran never engaged in a real attempt to crack down against the PKK. In contrast, the KDP-aligned Kurdish Demoratic Party of Iran (KDPI) was heavily targeted by the Iranian security forces.

Even though Iran has problems with its own Kurdish minority, according to the thinking in Tehran the PKK is Turkish and, therefore, Turkey’s problem. The scale of PKK attacks against Turkey on the one hand and its disinterest in Iran on the other, shows that Iran’s assessment is right.

Therefore, Iran has always been sympathetic to the PKK and only engaged in limited military cooperation with Turkey. Every time the PKK was under heavy pressure by Turkey, Iran came to its aid.

In the past, this aid was to provide a safe-haven to the PKK but nowadays it is manifested via Iran-led Shia militias from Syria to Iraq.

In Syria, when Turkey and the Syrian opposition launched Operation Olive Branch against the YPG/PKK in Afrin, it was Iran that had to send soldiers, weapons, and ammunition against the Syrian National Army and the Turkish Armed Forces. At that time, Turkish drones successfully conducted strikes against the Iranian militias trying to go into Afrin.

In Iraq, the Shia militias have gained a lot of strength and influence. US policy had the side-effect of empowering Iran in Iraq, which is now used by Iran to threaten Turkey, undermine the Sinjar agreement, and prevent the PKK from collapse.

Contending threat perception

The region of Sinjar has become a hotbed for the PKK after many Yazidis were unable to return home and stayed in KRG camps. The Turkish government conducted precise drone attacks against the PKK in Sinjar in an attempt to curb the region of the group’s presence. Under the Sinjar deal between the KRG and Baghdad, the Baghdad government would take control and expel the PKK and Shia militias in the region.

In the meantime, Turkey managed to block off the PKK’s supply routes into Turkey and eliminated several PKK camps near the Turkish border. These developments would minimise PKK presence to just the Gara and Qandil Mountains.

When Turkey started a rescue operation, Iran feared that Turkey would clean the Gara mountains from the PKK and that the group would be on the verge of collapse. That fear prompted Iran to show some teeth against Turkey via its proxies.

The open threat by Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba and their comparison of Turkey with the US indicate that for Iran, Turkey is an equal competitor to the US in Iraq. Moreover, the attack of the smaller and lesser-known Shia militia towards the Turkish military base is an Iranian attempt to ‘warn’ Turkey by maintaining plausible deniability.

Turkey and Iran have been engaged in a rivalry over Iraq both in the past and the present. From the Iranian perspective, elimination of the PKK would mean that Turkey could use its resources to compete with Iran for influence in Iraq. Additionally, the large Turkish minority in Iran is a source of concern for Iran. Therefore, Iran wants to keep Turkey at bay by guaranteeing the survival of the PKK.

If Turkish moves against the PKK were not enough, the active cooperation of the KRG with Turkey to block PKK supply routes within northern Iraq and the KRG’s pressure vis-a-vis Sinjar made it worse for Iran. Iranian proxies also ‘warned’ the KRG by attacking the Erbil airport, a heinous attack condemned by the US, Turkey, and many other states.

Turkey’s perception of the threat posed by the PKK is viewed as more imminent than the one posed by Shia militias. More than ever, it is clear that if Ankara wishes to eliminate the PKK threat, it has also to focus on the presence of Iranian-controlled Shia militias in Iraq.

The attitude of Iran’s militias and the simultaneous attacks against the KRG, Turkey, and the US indicate that all the three governments have to work together to limit Iranian aggression in Iraq.

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