BAGHDAD (AP) — A senior Iranian military official visiting Baghdad this week threatened Iraq with a ground military operation in the country’s north if the Iraqi army does not fortify the countries’ shared border against Kurdish opposition groups, multiple Iraqi and Kurdish officials said.
Such an offensive, if carried out, would be unprecedented in Iraq, and raise the specter of regional fallout from Iran's domestic unrest, which Tehran has portrayed as a foreign plot without offering evidence.
The warning was delivered this week to Iraqi and Kurdish officials in Baghdad by Iran’s Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, who arrived in the capital Monday on an unannounced two-day visit. The force is an elite unit within Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Iran alleges that Kurdish opposition groups long exiled in northern Iraq are inciting anti-government protests in Iran and smuggling weapons into the country. Iranian authorities have not provided evidence of these allegations which Kurdish groups have denied.
It is unclear how serious the Iranian warning is, but it puts Baghdad in a predicament. It is the first time Iranian officials have publicly threatened a ground operation after months of cross-border tensions and asking Iraq to disarm opposition groups active inside its territories.
Now in their second month, protests demanding the overthrow of Iran's clerical rulers erupted after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in policy custody in Tehran. Thousands have been arrested and hundreds killed as Iranian authorities wield live ammunition to keep control of the streets, but the protests show no signs of abating. Amini's home Kurdish areas have often been at the center of the unrest.
Iran has blamed foreign meddling for instigating the protests, and has pointed the finger at Kurdish opposition groups in northern Iraq, accusing them of direct involvement and having ties to Israel. Tehran has repeatedly launched missile attacks targeting the bases of these groups inside Iraq, killing at least a dozen and wounding many more.
Ghaani arrived in Baghdad a day after the latest Iranian attack targeting opposition bases in Koya, in Irbil province, in which at least three were killed.
He met with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and other leaders of the Coordination Framework alliance, President Abdul Latif Rashid, a Kurd, and Iran-backed militia factions. Sudani came to power as the choice candidate of the Coordination Framework, an alliance made up of mostly Iran-backed parties.
Ghaani's demands were two-fold: Disarm the bases of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in northern Iraq, and fortify the porous borders with Iraqi troops to prevent infiltration.
If Baghdad did not meet the demands, Iran would launch a military sweep with ground forces and continue to bombard opposition bases, Ghaani told his Iraqi counterparts, according to two Shiite political figures, two militia officials and a senior Kurdish official. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media about the sensitive meeting.
The area of Iran’s concern falls under the authority of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and would require Baghdad to negotiate joint coordination.
Iraqi officials said privately that they see no evidence to support Iran’s allegations against the Kurdish groups.
Kurdish opposition parties, while acknowledging deep ties with Kurdish areas in Iran, likewise deny they are smuggling weapons to arm protesters. Amini, the young woman who died in police custody, was from the Kurdish city of Saqqez, the first area to witness protests in September.
Kurdish opposition parties said their involvement does not go beyond providing moral support, raising awareness, and helping to provide medical care to injured protesters arriving from Iran.
Soran Nuri, a leading member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran, or KDPI, said he was aware of Iran’s demands. “We have never smuggled weapons to or from any country," he maintained.
“We are hoping (the Kurdish region) won’t succumb to these threats."
Iraqi security officials have tried repeatedly to persuade Tehran that no weapons are being smuggled from Iraq to Iran, but “Iran ignores this,” according to a senior Kurdish official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
Some Kurdish groups have been engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Tehran ever since the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, leading to many members seeking political exile in neighboring Iraq where they have established bases.
Opposition members in Iraq openly carry medium-sized weapons at the bases, saying it's for self defense.
Tehran has long alleged that agents for Israel's Mossad are active in Iraqi Kurdish areas.
In March, Iran claimed responsibility for a missile barrage that struck near the U.S. consulate in Irbil. Iran said at the time it was targeting an Israeli “strategic center,” Kurdish officials have denied such a center existed.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian reiterated the allegations in a recent tweet, accusing Israel and “some Western politicians” of planning “civil war, destruction and disintegration of Iran.”
“The Iranian regime is in a paranoid mode,” said Randa Slim, a program director at the Middle East Institute. “They firmly believe Mossad is using the Kurdish territory and Kurdish opposition groups to send weapons (and) fighters into Kurdish areas in Iran.”
A sweep operation in northern Iraq, she said, would support the regime’s public narrative that outside forces foment the unrest and would address a lingering dispute Iran has had with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region about the activities of the groups in its territory.