We speak with independent journalist Reese Erlich about his report on Iranian Kurdish guerrillas based among their Kurdish brethren in northern Iraq. Erlich writes, “Kurdish and American sources say the United States has been supporting guerrilla raids against Iran, channeling the money through organizations in Iraqi Kurdistan.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Reese Erlich, an independent radio producer and journalist, who reports on Iran in the latest issue of Mother Jones and is author of the forthcoming book, The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis. I spoke with him yesterday in San Francisco and asked what effect the Security Council sanctions will have on Iran.
REESE ERLICH: I think the newest U.N. sanctions were clearly sponsored and passed only because of U.S. pressure. They don’t do a lot to actually effectively impact Iran that much. They increase the freezing of some Iranian individuals’ assets, a few other things. They also, it might be noted, reiterate the U.N. call to make all of the Middle East nuclear-free, and that includes Israel. And I’m sure that’s not something the Bush administration is going to trumpet when it talks about those latest U.N. sanctions. Again, I think, in the wider context, the sanctions that passed by the U.N. are part of an escalating effort to pressure Iran to basically toe the line for U.S. interests in the area.
AMY GOODMAN: In the latest edition of Mother Jones, you have a piece where you talk about the Iranian Kurdish guerrillas. Explain who and where they are.
REESE ERLICH: In northern Iraq, there are three Iranian Kurdish groups that operate, that have compounds, that do political organizing. Keep in mind that the Kurdish people of Iran face a great deal of oppression. They’re not allowed to learn in their own language in the schools, face discrimination, a great deal poorer than the rest of Iran. So the Kurdish people have very legitimate grievances against the government in Tehran.
The U.S. has taken advantage of that, in the case of one group, the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and they are, along with Israel, sponsoring them to carry out guerrilla raids inside Iran. And it’s part of a much wider plan by the United States to foment discontent and actual terrorist activities by ethnic Iranians in various parts of Iran. And when I was in northern Iraq, I was able to determine that that kind of activity is going on from Iraqi soil, under the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, into Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get to the guerrilla camps?
REESE ERLICH: Well, it’s quite interesting. Two cellphone calls and a drive up into the mountains. One of the arguments by the Kurdish regional government of Iraq and the United States is that they can’t find these guerrillas because it’s so inhospitable territory that no one can find them, or they’re operating from secret bases, etc. But all I did was drive up into the closest Iraqi village and ask the local drivers, and they said, “Oh, yeah, which of the guerrilla camps do you want to go to? We’ll take you right up.” So, they’re very easy to find.
AMY GOODMAN: So, now, explain the difference. Explain the PKK and the PJAK.
REESE ERLICH: The PKK is the mother organization, if you will. It was founded by Ocalan, the Turkish Kurd who’s now in jail, charged with terrorism. The PKK, by the way, is listed on the United States State Department list of terrorist organizations. The PJAK, the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan, is the Iranian affiliate. The PKK, about two years ago, split into four parties in each of the countries where the Kurds live—in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. So the PJAK is the Iranian affiliate. And basically they’re still part of the same organization. In order to get to the PJAK interviews that I did, you had to go through two PKK base camps with walkie-talkies and soldiers and guerrillas and so on. So, for all intents and purposes, they’re the same thing.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain the U.S. relationship with these organizations?
REESE ERLICH: Well, it’s very complicated, because, on the one hand, the United States very much opposes to the PKK’s actions in Turkey; on the other hand, they’re supporting the PKK’s attacks on Iran. And this is kind of typical of the clandestine efforts by the United States. We saw it when the U.S. supported the Mujahideen against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They sided with some pretty nefarious characters who ended up forming al-Qaeda and bombing New York. So, once again, the U.S. is allying with one faction of this party, but not with the other, playing a very dangerous game. And they’re playing a very similar game with the Mujahideen al-Khalq, another Iranian group, and with groups in Balochistan, which is near the Pakistan-Iranian border, where some Revolutionary Guard bus was blown up. It’s a very, very dangerous, duplicitous game that the United States is playing.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about how Ocalan’s political organization, the Radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. And then PJAK’s relationship with the party is supposed to be arm’s length, but that you had to pass through two PKK checkpoints on your way to the guerrilla camps, each of them relaying information up the line via walkie-talkie.
REESE ERLICH: That’s exactly right. No—among other Kurdish groups that I spoke to, no one thinks the PKK and the PJAK, as it’s called, are really separate organizations. At a minimum, they very clearly coordinate their activities, get funding, weapons, etc. But I think, in practice, their function is one organization.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Kurdish organizing at the University of Sulaimani?
REESE ERLICH: Well, that’s very interesting. The political parties in northern Iraq, the Iranian Kurdish political parties, include the KDPI, which is the Iranian Kurdish party — sorry, the Kurdish party of Iran — let’s try that again, KDPI is the Kurdish Party — Democratic Kurdish Party of Iran — and Komala are two long-standing organizations. They carry out political organizing among Iranian Kurds. As I mentioned, the situation is very difficult for Kurds living in Iran. They cross over into the — cross the border into Iraq sometimes. It’s very easy to get across the smugglers’ trails. So those two parties have peshmerga guerrilla groups, but they are not engaged in armed activity against the United States. So, when you go to the University of Sulaymaniyah, the different Kurdish parties have their supporters, and they organize house meetings and various kinds of political activity to support their demands within Iranian Kurdistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Reese Erlich, The Guardian newspaper recently reported that the Bush administration is scrambling to prevent Turkey from attacking Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq. U.S. officials fear such an attack would open up a third front in the battle to save Iraq from disintegration. Turkish sources said special forces operations have already begun in northern Iraq to target fighters connected to the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party. This would not be the first time Turkey has invaded northern Iraq. Ten years ago, Turkey sent 40,000 troops into Iraq. But there has been no large-scale Turkish intervention since the U.S. invasion. The U.S. has vowed to crack down on the PKK, but Turkey accuses the U.S. of playing a double game in northern Iraq. Officials say the CIA is covertly funding and arming the PKK sister organization, the Iran-based Kurdistan Free Life Party, to destabilize the Iranian government.
REESE ERLICH: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was alluding to earlier, which is, the U.S. plays a very, very dangerous game by supporting some in the ethnic communities who have legitimate grievances against Iran. So the Turks know exactly what’s going on. They don’t believe the disclaimers issued by the United States. They have got their own agenda to pursue. The Kurds of Turkey face a great deal of oppression, probably even worse than inside Iran. There have been horrendous crimes committed by the Turkish government against the Kurdish population, and for some, the PKK is seen as a legitimate resistance organization. The problem, of course, is that it’s more or less a cult, formed around Ocalan, and you’ve got two — the Turkish government, on the one hand, and the PKK, on the other, neither of which offer a real great alternative for the Kurdish people. So, Turkey has indeed invaded northern Iraq in the ’90s in an attempt to wipe out the PKK, which was unsuccessful. At a time when the U.S. is escalating the war in Baghdad, threatening to attack Iran, suddenly Turkey could get involved in clashes with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. So what is now a mess will become an incredibly bigger mess.
AMY GOODMAN: And, finally, Reese Erlich, the relationship of Britain and Israel, both U.S. allies, with these parties?
REESE ERLICH: Israel is backing various Kurdish groups, both among the Iraqi Kurds, as well as the PJAK among the Iranian Kurds. For Israel, they have a long history of supporting non-Arab countries in an effort to divide the Arab world. So they supported the Shah of Iran, Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. Turkey, they were allied with Turkey for many years. And they see trying to use the Kurds in the same way. So, you have Israeli security officials training the guards at the Erbil airport in northern Iraq, training special antiterrorism squads. I think they’re working with PJAK, although this is all denied by PJAK. And the Israelis are also playing a very dangerous game because they are intervening in the affairs of Iraq and causing a great deal of trouble both for Iran, and now they’re on the outs with Turkey, who was their longtime ally.
AMY GOODMAN: You describe in your forthcoming book about Israel participating actively in — with Mossad agents posing as businessmen setting up shop in the KRG soon after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and BBC TV discovering Israeli former special forces soldiers training Kurdish security at the airport. Say more about that.
REESE ERLICH: Yeah, exactly. The BBC did a very good television special in which they interviewed these former Israeli intelligence agents, who are now allegedly working as private contractors, much like the CIA does with its agents around the world. So it was on TV, and when I asked the Irani — sorry, the Iraqi officials about this, they denied everything, even though it had been on TV through an obviously reputable news organization. I had talked to various people who had met with supposed Israeli businessmen, who were much more interested in arms trades and intelligence and that sort of thing.
So, the Israelis have significantly stepped up their activities in northern Iraq. I think if ultimately the Iraq War goes very badly for the United States, as all indications are that it will, eventually Iraq will split into three countries, including an independent Kurdistan in the north, and the Israelis hope to benefit from that by having a beachhead against the Sunni and the Shia Arab parts of Iraq and as well as the other neighboring Arab countries. I think that’s the long-term goal of the Israelis.
AMY GOODMAN: Reese Erlich is an independent radio producer and journalist. He reports on Iran in the latest issue of Mother Jones magazine. He is author of the forthcoming book, The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis. I spoke to him in San Francisco. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be joined by peace activist Kathy Kelly. Stay with us.