The Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) is identified as the Iranian branch of the Turkish-origin Kurdish Movement Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PJAK began its armed activities in 2004 in the Kurdish-populated regions of Iran and kept them up for seven years until August 2011.
Now there are interesting signs that the PKK could re-establish its armed presence in Iran’s Kurdistan region parallel to progress in the peace process between the Turkish government and mainstream PKK.
At the moment, PKK is unarmed in Iran. In Turkey, it is at phase of withdrawing its armed forces. In the near future, we may see an unarmed PKK in Turkey, but a newly armed one in Iran.
This likelihood that must be taken seriously was outlined in the Radikal articles of April 10-11 by Aysel Tugluk, an independent member of parliament from Van and co-chair of “Democratic Society Congress,” a superstructure of Kurdish organizations. Tugluk, one of the leading figures of the Kurdish political movement, had this to say on the political and historical significance of the peace process for the country and the region in her article titled “Road of no return:”
“I think we are at a historic time and on grounds for Kurdish-Turkish peace. Such opportunities arise once in a century and we are now facing that opportunity. We can realize a strategic and updated Kurdish-Turkish alliance. With the ‘Democratic Republic,’ which means winning together, we can achieve a peace-solution model that will be inspiring not only in our country but also in our region.”
Tugluk, in her other article titled ”Process, not the end but the beginning,” offered important clues on how the third parties would be affected by the changing circumstances of the PKK’s armed prowess. Tugluk first said the basis of the process is to extract the guns irreversibly from the relations between the Kurds and the Turks. She added: "At this point, we are faced with the vital question: All is fine, but what will happen to the PKK? At least in the next quarter century, the PKK will be around one way or the other, wherever there are Kurds. This could be armed for a while in Syria, re-armed again in Iran in the near future and institutional in Europe. The PKK will be in Turkey in various shapes with its programs, ideas and political and social institutions in its areas of influence and democratic activities. But in [Abdullah] Ocalan’s vision of the near future, there is an irreversibly movement of the PKK’s armed forces out of Turkey’s political areas.”
It was not surprising to hear that the PKK will again have an armed presence in Iran, not under the name of the armed wing Murat Karayilan but from "unarmed" Aysel Tugluk. That is the nature of politics.
But to understand the parameters what pushes the PKK to become armed again in Iran, we have look into the archives of Karayilan.
In the archives, there is statement by Karayilan on Aug. 10, 2011 to the Euphrates News Agency, known to be close to the PKK, about termination of military activities in Iran and withdrawal of forces from that country. At that time, Karayilan had asked Iran to stop its attacks in return for a cease-fire and withdrawal. Karayilan said:
"We don’t want to fight against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why? Because the goal of the international powers that want to redesign the region is to encircle Iran. Nowadays, they are more preoccupied with Syria. When they are done with that, it will be Iran’s turn. At such a phase, as Kurds, we don’t think being at war with Iran is appropriate."
Between 2004 and 2011, PKK had spent most of its time simultaneously fighting against Turkey and Iran, but it reached a point when this two-front war was becoming unwarranted and too costly for three related reasons:
First, in August 2011, Turkey had just blown up its bridges to the Syrian Baath regime. Ankara’s policy of toppling the Damascus regime — which by then had become perceptible — posed a growing threat to Iran’s vital interests in the region. Turkey’s "zero problem with neighbors" policy had totally collapsed. It was therefore the right time for PKK to resume its friendship with an old, secret friend from the 1990s. The developments in the region directed the PKK again to join the Tehran-Damascus axis.
Second, as of August 2011, there was an all-out war between Turkey and the PKK. The Silvan attack of July 14, in which the PKK killed 13 Turkish soldiers, ended a cease-fire that was reached after a series of secret talks between the Turkish government and the PKK in 2010 and 2011.
Finally, the third reason was the end of the American military presence in Iraq as of the end of 2011. To see the PJAK in its context, it is necessary to analyze what the end of the US military presence in Iraq meant to PKK.
The PJAK is an autonomous body in itself, but its actions have never contradicted the strategic approach and decisions of the mainstream PKK. Naturally, the PJAK’s military struggle against Iran began with a decision of the PKK and as Karayilan said, noted above, ended again with a PKK decision.
There is a special significance of 2004 as the beginning of the PJAK actions. 2004 was also the year when the PKK called off the unilateral cease-fire it had declared immediately after the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya in 1999 and his handing over to the Ankara government.
The PKK’s launching of military operations against both Turkey and Iran was not a coincidence. It was the outcome of the assessment of the PKK’s military staff based in the mountainous Kandil region of Iraqi Kurdistan of a critical change in the region.
This extraordinary change was Iraq’s going under American occupation and tutelage and Turkey’s reaction to it. When Turkey in March 2003 did not permit the US forces to enter Iraq through Turkey, it also gave up its license to intervene in Iraq for a long time to come. The implications of that were that Turkey could no longer launch large-scale operations against the PKK camps in an Iraq under US occupation.
When Turkey lost the prerogative of carrying out across-border operations against Iraq, a negative asymmetry against Turkey was inevitable. The PKK acquired almost total immunity and made use of this perfect situation to resume its war against Turkey.
Of course, to easily deploy in Iraqi Kurdish region under US occupation and tutelage and to be able to threaten NATO-member Turkey, the PKK had to come up with a valid reason for its present existence.
While Turkey found itself outside of the calculus, the PKK, in return for destabilizing Iran via PJAK, found itself a niche in the new regional structure.
This situation persisted more or less until 2011. Now the PKK is giving advance notice of its return to Iran, from which it withdrew in 2011.
We must ask again, why?
With the current peace process, Turkey took the PKK out of Tehran-Damascus axis. If there is going to be the kind of Kurd-Turk alliance Aysel Tugluk spoke of, because of Turkey’s increasing Sunni-Islam policies, it will be on the Sunni side of Sunni/Shiite fault line that is dividing the region. Naturally, Tehran will perceive a threat from this development.
The PKK is again using “armed struggle against Iran” rationale, reminiscent of its logic of 2004-2011, as a justification to keep its main armed force at Kandil — but this time to persuade Turkey, not the US.
Iran is now Turkey’s rival in the region. The prerequisite of existing with arms in Iran’s Kurdish region is to have rear bases at Kandil.
On the other hand, Turkish government wants the total disarming of the PKK, including its elements outside Turkish borders. The PKK, which has structures and manpower in four countries of the Middle East with Kurdish populations, knows well that to preserve its transnational features and unmatched power, it has to maintain its armed forces to an extent. The importance to the PKK of an armed reserve force at Kandil is not prompted only by its distrust of the AKP government but also by the instinct to preserve itself as a power in the Middle East.
In her article, Aysel Tugluk doesn’t even mention whether the PKK will be armed in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is not because she has forgotten it. It doesn’t matter, because to be armed in Iran again means to be armed in Iraq.
Thus we learned that the withdrawal of the armed PKK elements from Turkey doesn’t mean total disarming of the organization. We are sure that their goal is to keep an armed presence at Kandil, but we don’t at the moment know whether this will constitute a serious threat to Iran in practice.
Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.