Qassem Suleimani, the man in charge of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ external operations and one of the most effective operatives in the entire Middle East, is again going out of his way to show that he’s operating inside Iraq. In early September, official Iranian sources made a point of sharing the fact that Suleimani had been present for the crucial battle of Amerli, a city on the border of Iraq’s Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’ite areas.
This time, Suleimani’s been photographed surrounded by Kurdish peshmerga fighters operating in Iraq.
The Kurds are on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State, and Iran has provided fighters from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government with arms and other forms of assistance.
Iran wants to appear committed Kurds for a very simple reason: they’re a handy force multiplier in teh fight against ISIS. The more fighting and dying the Kurds do against ISIS, the less of a commitment Iran itself has to make to a potential quagmire in Iraq. It’s a canny strategic calculation, and propaganda opportunities like Suleymani’s latest Iraq photo-op help to emphasise fellow-feeling between Tehran and the Kurds — as if to claim that assistance from Iran is about something more than just tactical convenience.
But Iran has its own tortured relationship with the Kurds. Ten per cent of the Iranian population is Kurdish, and in its early days, the Islamic Republic jailed and assassinated the country’s Kurdish leadership — including, most likely, the killing of the exiled head of Iran’s Kurdish Democratic Party in Paris in 1989. Iran is one of the main constraints on a future Iraqi Kurdish declaration of independence. Like Turkey, Iran is worried about what its own Kurdish minority might do if the world’s largest stateless ethnic group were stateless no more. Iran is even home to its own low-level Kurdish insurgency.
But Tehran still sees the value in seeming invested in the Kurds’ well being. It gives them a partner in the trenches against ISIS. And it conceivably increases Tehran’s influence across the border while forestalling Iraqi Kurdistan’s perhaps-inevitable attempts at full independence once the ISIS threat subsides.
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