On Monday, Reuters reported that the Iranian military had positioned a dozen tanks on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, in what Kurdish authorities described as a dangerous escalation of tensions. Those tensions began in earnest last week after the Iraqi Kurds held an independence referendum, which has caused the governments of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran to band together in opposition to the push for Kurdish independence. Prior to the tank deployment, Iran also reportedly stationed missiles near the border of the Kurdish region of Turkey, as well as carrying out threatening military maneuvers in coordination with the Turkish military.
In previous reporting on this situation, Iran News Update described Tehran’s declarations of solidarity with Baghdad and Ankara as an outlet for longstanding Iranian imperialist ambitions, which have escalated in recent years as the Iranian regime participated directly in civil wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as building upon foreign proxy forces in these and other countries.
This expansion of Iranian influence in the broader Middle East has contributed to a range of human rights issues. One of these – the use of child soldiers – was given renewed attention on Sunday in a New York Times report detailing recent findings from Human Rights Watch. The non-government organization was able to confirm eight cases of teenagers dying the Syria after being recruited from the Afghan refugee community in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran has used propaganda aimed at Shiite Muslim militants in order to drive recruitment for the Syrian Civil War, where Iranian forces ostensibly defend Shiite shrines. But in the case of recruitment of Afghanis and some other ethnic minorities, the main driving force seems to be promises of legal residency and working papers in Iran, where life can be very difficult for refugees and citizenship is exceptionally difficult to obtain. This exploitation of poverty has contributed to the recruitment of Afghans as young as 14, and also to countless casualties from among those communities more broadly.
Insofar as this situation reflects the Iranian regime’s relationship with ethnic minorities, it has substantial bearing upon the issue of Kurdish independence. Numerous protests have taken place in the Kurdish region of Iran over examples of governmental neglect, discriminatory law enforcement activities, and even outright violence against the largely Sunni ethnic minority. Mass protests emerged last month after it was reported that two cross-border porters had been killed by security agents. And in 2015, riots erupted in the Iranian Kurdish capital of Mahabad after it was claimed that a member of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry was responsible for the death of a Kurdish hotel chambermaid.
These and other incidents no doubt fuel the separatist movement in Iran as well as in the other countries with prominent Kurdish minorities. But Tehran’s domestic response to this has often been violent, as in the case of the suppression of the 2015 protests, numerous clashes with Kurdish political groups, and instance of missile launches into Kurdish territory. The recent escalations on the Turkish and Iraqi borders only reflect the expansion of this existing strategy, which predates any recent, broad-based push for independence.
And the Kurds are not the only ethnic group with which Tehran has strained relations both at home and abroad. Ethnic Arabs inside the Islamic Republic are among the groups that reportedly face legal discrimination, especially when their Arab identity overlaps with the practice of Sunni Islam, a minority sect in the Shiite theocracy. At the same time, Iran maintains a well-known rivalry with many of its Arab neighbors, chiefly the Sunni-led Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Of course, the close relationship between Tehran and Baghdad is representative of Iranian efforts to expand influence over Arab regions, both before and during the Kurdish crisis. Now, the Islamic Republic is evidently expanding its efforts to exploit another crisis – this one resulting more directly from Iran’s policies – in order to gain a deeper foothold nearby Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, Al Jazeera reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had departed from a trip to Oman, with plans to visit Qatar as well. Oman, a notably impoverished kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula, has long maintained uncommonly friendly relations with the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, Qatar has only recently begun to gravitate in that direction, but this has sparked a major crisis among Arab nations while Saudi Arabia and its closest allies are working to contain Iranian imperialism.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain all cut ties with Qatar in June after it was reported that Qatari officials had spoken out against the policy of containment and had instead urged engagement with Iran as a fellow “Islamic power.” The Saudis and others have cut off the supply of food and other goods and have issued ultimatums demanding, among other things, the closure of Qatari media outlets. But Al Jazeera notes that critics of this response have seen it as pushing Qatar further into the orbit of Iran, which has made compensatory food deliveries while expressing public support for the small Arab nation.
This is, however, the first visit that Zarif has made to Qatar since the crisis has begun. At the same time, much of his focus has been occupied with the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. The controversy over that deal can also be viewed as a crisis that Tehran is striving to support in order to broaden its influence among relatively neutral powers, in hopes of exerting leverage over traditional enemies.
The BBC reports that Zarif’s latest commentary on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action includes the prediction that US President Donald Trump will decertify Iran’s compliance when he is required to update Congress on the status of the deal in mid-October. But Zarif went on to urge the European signatories of the deal – Britain, France, and Germany – to preserve it regardless of American actions.
Although the Europeans have stood by the agreement up to this point, they have also followed the Trump administration in criticizing the Islamic Republic for its broader activities in the region. These criticisms are likely to grow as Iranian military activities expand against the Kurds and others. Furthermore, Iranian officials have undermined their own claims of innocence regarding the JCPOA, both by continuing to spread militarist rhetoric and by specifically claiming, as Zarif did in his comments to the British press, that the country’s nuclear research and development has continued to the point that Iran is now able to walk away from the nuclear deal “with better technology.”