Hamas’s shock slaughter of more than 1,200 Israelis on October 7 reverberates more strongly by the day, with dozens of attacks by Iran’s proxies on America’s outposts across Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. The climax of this is yet to come.

For now, the US plays a careful tit-for-tat game, as both Iran and America hope to avoid a direct escalation. However, America’s regional playbook lacks the deterrence factor needed to curb Iran’s destabilization aims.

For starters, the US neglects the possibility of effective, non-state proxy allies. Iran routinely relies on its proxies to conduct deniable and unconventional attacks on US interests. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria proved able to wipe out ISIS with few American boots on the ground, yet their autonomous entities now teeter on the brink of collapse, thanks to pressures from the Kurds’ pro-Iran and Turkish neighbors.

By dusting off and galvanizing this anti-terror bulwark – and expanding it to include Iran’s Kurds – the US could begin to roll back Iran’s agenda, all without increasing our military presence.

One easy step could be to reverse a short-sighted move that the Obama administration made to placate Iran. In 2009, barely two weeks after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, his Treasury Department designated the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) as a terror organization. Since its founding in 2004, PJAK has never attacked civilians in Iran, or anywhere else. It does not focus its offensive operations against any other government.

PJAK advocates for freedom and democracy in Iran

PJAK gained popularity through appealing to Kurdish nationalism in Iranian Kurdistan, or Rojhelat. Based on a secular ideology, the party is constantly advocating for freedom and democracy in the Islamic Republic. Partly because of PJAK, Kurdish nationalism continues strongly in Iranian Kurdistan compared to the rest of the Kurds across the Middle East.

In fact, the nationwide Women, Life, Freedom protests in Iran were sparked by the strong sentiments of Iranian Kurds. Mahsa Amini, who died in 2022 while being held in Iranian police custody, became an international icon of women’s resistance in Iran. Lesser-known is that her real name is Zhina Amini, because Iranian Kurds are legally prohibited from naming their children in Kurdish.

Vis-a-vis Iran, PJAK has succeeded in inflicting hundreds of casualties against the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – the main organization responsible for coordinating Iran’s worldwide state-sponsored terror operations. The IRGC trains and arms Hamas and the proxies now striking American forces across the region. It was not until the early months of the Trump administration that the US added the IRGC as a terror group alongside PJAK, in 2019.

While the IRGC now enjoys freer reign in the region, intense pressure from Iran and its allies in Iraq forces the Iranian Kurdish opposition into varying degrees of a de facto ceasefire. The Kurdish groups are preparing for the right window of opportunity to resume their offensive. That could come in the form of clearer moral and diplomatic solidarity from the West, renewed Iranian unrest, or foreign support.

PJAK IS not the only armed Kurdish group facing off with Iran. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, the Komala parties, and the Kurdistan Freedom Party are also part of the fray. But PJAK’s terror designation harms all Kurds’ and the overall Iranian opposition’s ability to present a united front against the regime.

PJAK’s leader, Siamand Moeini, explains their goals of replacing the regime with democratic confederalism: “The only way to have an Iran which isn’t threatening is to have a decentralized country in which power is given to the different nations within Iran. Only in that way can it become a normal country rather than an aggressive regime which threatens countries across the region,” Moeini told The Jerusalem Post’s Dr. Jonathan Spyer, in June.

Noteworthy is Moeini’s emphasis on women’s rights and empowering ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Baluchis.

In a 2017 interview, a female senior leader from the party clarified to the author that the terror listing was a “political gift given to the Iranian regime by the US Treasury Department. Only in the US are we unable to operate or to collect donations,” adding an important distinction that PJAK is not in the more serious Foreign Terror Organization roster of the US State Department.
The PKK forces that PJAK affiliates with also warrant a second look

When PJAK was defined as a terror organization, the explicit rationale was that it is an organizational and ideological affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is engaged in a decades-long resistance campaign against the Turkish government.

Yet the Kurdish administration and their soldiers in northeastern Syria maintain some ties to the PKK, but they are the backbone of America’s successful campaign to destroy ISIS. Like PJAK, those PKK-affiliated Kurdish forces in Syria do not target civilians, and have consistently worked to set greater organizational distance from the PKK, while similarly espousing secular and Western values.

Dr. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, last month called on Israel to support the PKK by sending them anti-aircraft and anti-drone capabilities. Rubin even previously urged the US to delist the group as well, after Belgium’s top courts “determined that the PKK was not a terrorist organization, but rather ‘a party in a non-international armed conflict.’”

Turkey, meanwhile, harbors Hamas terrorists as a “liberation” group, despite the latter killing or abducting dozens of American citizens on October 7. Turkey may have facilitated Hamas’s preparations. In mid-September, Israel’s customs authority intercepted 16 tons of explosives bound for Gaza from Turkey, to be used in Hamas’s rockets. Ankara also continues to help Iran and Russia bust international sanctions, after already establishing itself as the main conduit for ISIS in Syria.

Senior US policymakers, such as Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Committee Member Jim Risch (R-ID), and Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Rick Scott (R-FL), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), call Turkey’s future as a NATO ally into question.

Delisting PJAK could help underscore US seriousness and leverage, without causing any threat to Turkey. Additionally, it could help build stronger American rapport with the PKK to further shift their tactics, and open the door to brokering an eventual conclusion to the Turkey-PKK conflict.

Even in a world without the Hamas attacks, the Biden administration’s plan B vs Iran is unclear, following their failures at the nuclear negotiating table. The US is not postured to lead a coalition that could resume the “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions of the Trump administration. It could start by resurrecting and expanding the coalition that successfully ended ISIS’s reign of terror.

Source » jpost