The artillery-scorched mountainside of this border area bears evidence of Iran’s effort to combat Kurdish rebels—just one of several groups who are now more vigorously fighting for greater autonomy within the Islamic Republic.

The Kurdish group operating here fled Iran more than two decades ago, but like other militants is now seeking to use international pressure on Tehran, particularly from the U.S. and its Gulf allies, to advance its struggle.

With minorities including Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis accounting for at least 30% of Iran’s population, their grievances make for tinder that Iran is worried its enemies will try to ignite.

Such challenges create another pressure point on Tehran alongside antigovernment protests focused on economic troubles renewed with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from a nuclear deal that gave Iran a reprieve from sanctions.

As minority groups seek influence, some with insurgency and others with grass-roots campaigns, Tehran is lashing out. On Sept. 8, Iran hanged three Kurds after convicting them of armed rebellion; hours later, it fired seven ballistic missiles at Kurdish bases more than 40 miles inside Iraq.

Missiles struck a room where the leadership of a Kurdish opposition group was discussing how to capitalize on international pressures on Tehran, according to a person who was dialed in to the meeting.

The strikes killed 16 people and were cast by Iran as an indication that it is prepared to punish rebels beyond its borders. “All those who have forces, bases and equipment within a 2,000-kilometer radius should know that our missiles are highly precise,” Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told state TV afterward.

Tehran will strike again, warned armed forces chief of staff Mohammed Baqeri, unless action is taken to stop “separatist terrorists” he claimed were spurred by the U.S. and regional powers.

Within Iran, the unrest has continued.

Kurdish groups have been clashing with Iranian forces with increasing frequency in the northwest, where most of Iran’s roughly 8 million Kurds live.

To the south, Arab separatists hailed a Sept. 22 attack on a military parade in Iran’s main oil hub as a victory for their struggle; Iran blamed the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for the attack, which killed 25 people. Riyadh refuted the accusation. In Washington, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week dismissed suggestions that the U.S. or Saudi Arabia were behind the attack, telling reporters at the Pentagon that he hoped “cooler heads would prevail.”

And to the east, insurgents fighting for greater autonomy or independence for the Baluch people of Iran have hit military posts in an area bordering Pakistan.

Here in the scrub-covered mountains across the Iraqi border, from which Revolutionary Guard Corps positions are visible to the naked eye, rebels sense an opportunity.

“The current state of the Islamic Republic spurs us to conduct more operations inside Iran,” said Diyako Masoudi, a local deputy commander of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI, which has challenged successive Iranian governments for more than seven decades.

Iran has repeatedly warned authorities in Iraq’s Kurdish region, with which it shares a 217-mile border, that it won’t tolerate its neighbor’s territory being used for hostile activities.

The head of an Iranian Kurdish opposition group in Iraq survived an assassination attempt in April, but the following month, a PDKI member was killed by a bomb attached to his car. Two other Iranian Kurdish dissidents have since been shot and killed.

At home, Iranian authorities have executed dozens of Kurds accused of links with opposition groups.

Baghdad, which has limited control over its northern Kurdish region, condemned the Sept. 8 missile attack as a violation of sovereignty, but also condemned the rebels’ use of its territory to threaten neighboring countries.

Vice President Mike Pence condemned the attack as an attempt to destabilize Iraq’s Kurdish region, whose leadership has close ties to the U.S.

In 2017, John Bolton—not yet national security adviser—recommended in a memo to President Trump that the U.S. support “internal resistance” and minorities inside Iran. Mr. Bolton has been an advocate of regime change in Iran in the past, but has said that it is not the policy of the Trump administration.

For Iran’s Kurds, recent history offers an encouraging precedent for gaining favor with the U.S. Kurds in Syria emerged from obscurity to become a key partner in the war against Islamic State and are now in control of their own affairs and territory.

The Trump administration’s aggressive posture toward Tehran has been welcomed by the Kurds and other minorities in Iran that felt the nuclear deal signed under President Obama gave Tehran a license to crack down on them.

But so far, they have little to show for the U.S. policy shift. PDKI leader Mustafa Hijri returned empty-handed from a visit to Washington in June to gauge interest in supporting his group, according to a senior member of the party.

On the ground, there is little sign the PDKI has received meaningful material support from abroad. Its fighters, known as Peshmerga—both men and women—wield old AK-47s and are volunteers, receiving a modest monthly stipend to buy basics like cigarettes and shampoo.

Loghman Ahmedi, a member of the PDKI executive board, said funding came from the Iranian Kurdish diaspora and wealthy Kurdish businessmen sympathetic to the party, which succeeded in establishing a short-lived Kurdish republic in Iran in 1946.

“A lot of actors in this region would like Iran to suffer, but it hasn’t translated into any regional support, or even regular contacts,” he said.

The PDKI, which remobilized its Peshmerga in 2015 after a two-decade hiatus, is now deploying more of them into Iran to support civil activism and embolden Kurds to resist, rather than wage an insurgency.

During a recent mission to Iran, 22-year-old Peshmerga Milad Pirsaheb said Iranian forces were often on their tail but didn’t confront them. He managed to spend several weeks in dozens of Kurdish villages to explain his group’s aim to secure Kurdish rights within a federal, democratic Iran.

“They received us very warmly,” he said.

Kurdish opposition groups cast Iran’s escalating response to their activities as an encouraging sign of regime weakness.

“We believe these acts [of civil disobedience] will increase in future,” said PDKI official Mohammed Ghaderi. “The wall of fear has been broken.”

Source » wsj