Days before last week's Kurdistan referendum, Iran took steps to isolate and punish the Iraqi Kurdistan region and the government in Erbil (KRG). This included closing Iranian airspace to northern Iraq's two international airports and sending Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard forces to conduct drills along the northwest border with Kurdistan, but in the early hours of Monday Iran dramatically escalated its military build-up along the border by deploying dozens of tanks supported by artillery - this according to a Kurdish government official and Iranian state television.
The Kurdish official confirmed the tank build-up, saying "The tanks can be seen from the Kurdish side.” And Iranian state TV on Saturday indicated that Iran and Iraq would cooperate in joint drills and the establishment of heightened border security, to the point that Iran would "receive Iraqi forces that are to be stationed at border posts”.
Iranian government officials had warned just prior to last week's referendum that, “The republic of Iran has opened its legitimate border gates on the premise of the consent of the federal government of the Iraqi state. If such an event [referendum] happens, these border gates from the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran would lose its legitimacy." It appears Iran is now making good on its threats as it worries that an independent Kurdistan at its border would be a destabilizing force concerning Iran's own sizable Kurdish minority.
Last week multiple videos and images surfaced in Iranian social media purporting to show Iranian state police and security forces deploying to the Kurdish towns in Iran's north. Multiple reports indicate pro-Kurdistan demonstrations took place in various Kurdish Iranian towns in response to the Erbil government's referendum, something strictly banned and thus a rarity in the Islamic Republic. Iran's Kurdish population numbers over 6 million out of a total population of about 80 million people - most of which are concentrated in a northwest strip of land which runs along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan as well as in a small northeast pocket.
According to Iraqi Kurdish network Rudaw English, Iran launched a major crackdown with dozens of arrests reported in Iran's northwest region in the days following the referendum:
Two Iranian Kurdish political parties and a human rights watchdog all reported “scores” of arrests after thousands took to the streets in Kurdish cities of Iran chanting Biji Kurdistan, long live Kurdistan, and waving Kurdistan flags to celebrate the success of the independence referendum next door. Flying the Kurdistan flag and singing the national anthem are forbidden in Iran.
Iranian intelligence and security forces have set up a joint command center “for the purpose of identifying and arresting the organizers of the demonstrations,” the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) stated. They are reportedly analyzing video footage of the gatherings.
Furthermore it appears that Iranian TV sent a message to its broader Kurdish population indicating that all activities were being monitored by authorities:
The Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported that Iranian police were closely monitoring the demonstrations that attracted rare attention in the country. “Iranian state television on Tuesday acknowledged the rallies, a rarity in the Islamic Republic broadcast,” the group stated.
As we previously explained, the Kurdish referendum pushed Iraq into the arms of Iran when the relationship between the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and Iranian officials was at its lowest level. But after the KRG's insistence on pushing forward with moves toward independence, Abadi sees in Iran the only sincere partner to count on, and can rely on the Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the case of any military escalation against Kurdistan, particularly in the disputed Iraqi cities, with Kirkuk at the top of the list.
Map source: Iran Times
Baghdad is confident that Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani didn’t take this step without a blessing from the Americans, despite official US opposition to the referendum. It seems Washington decided to swap its relationship with Baghdad with that of Erbil because it won’t be able to support both at the same time.
Supporting Erbil is more attractive to the US and its regional allies (particularly Saudi Arabia), in the hope that the Kurdish Iraqi move would trigger the appetite of the Kurdish Iranians (and the Syrian Kurds who are already on this same path). If this happens and we observe an uprising in Iran, which the Saudis would certainly support, the Iranian economy and that of the government of Baghdad will both be under severe pressure.
Iran supported Barzani in 2014 and provided him with weapons (at a time when the US was denying any support to Iraq, during the 6 months after the fall of Mosul in 2014), but it is today in an undeclared war against Erbil, fully behind Baghdad’s measures and supporting future escalation and punitive steps.