Why is Iran hitting Erbil in Kurdistan so often?

 Iranian air strikes earlier this week mainly in Northern Iraq are intensifying regional tensions. One of the three “retaliatory” missile strikes by Iran on January 15-16, 2024, was on Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan local government in Iraq. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced that the air strikes were for “the destruction of espionage headquarters and places of anti-Iranian terrorist groups”. This resulted in the killing of Kurdish business magnate Peshraw Majeed Agha Dezaei and his infant daughter and the destruction of their palatial mansion. The Iraqi government and Kurdish sources have denied Dezaei’s involvement in any intelligence activities.

Iran hit neighbours Iraq and Syra first and then Pakistan stirring up an already tense region. The focus of the missile strikes has been Erbil in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

The Iraqi government and Kurdish sources have denied Dezaei’s involvement in any intelligence activities

America’s CBS News said on January 16 that this was the second time since March 2022 that IRGC had directly hit Erbil, and “both times they used the same justification”. In 2022, the home of another Kurdish businessman was targeted with eight ballistic missiles. “The New Arab”, a well-known English language news website, said that it was aimed at showing the Kurds “their vulnerabilities” and forcing the Kurdistan Regional Government, particularly Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to align with Iran’s regional interests and priorities.

Erbil, an ancient city dating back to 2300BCE, has always been considered very important since the early 1900s by the great powers for watching the volatile regional politics in the South Caucasus region. Consequently, it also became a “spy” centre like Beirut or Istanbul. 

Apart from CIA veteran Archie Roosevelt’s “For Lust of Knowing” (1988), a recent book “The CIA War in Kurdistan” (2021) by Sam Faddis, a former CIA operations officer, enumerates how this region was exploited by conflicting powers like Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia, and US for their intelligence interests. 

Erbil, an ancient city dating back to 2300BCE, has always been considered very important since the early 1900s by the great powers for watching the volatile regional politics in the South Caucasus region

A declassified CIA “National Intelligence Estimate” of September 1992 released in November 2000 frankly says that the international community “generally has resisted the idea of a Kurdish State although Western governments have exploited Kurdish aspirations to serve their Middle East interests”. 

Margaret Macmillan, the legendary Oxford historian said the same thing in her “Paris-1919” (2001) that at the end of the First World War the big powers abandoned the Kurds to the mercy of “Ataturk’s Turkey, Reja Shah’s Persia and Feisal’s Iraq - none of which had any tolerance for Kurdish autonomy”. She said that the British, who created Iraq, toyed with the idea of having a separate administration for the Kurdish areas, recognising that the Kurds did not like being under Arab rule. “In the end, the British preferred to do nothing”. 

The international community “generally has resisted the idea of a Kurdish State although Western governments have exploited Kurdish aspirations to serve their Middle East interests”

On June 20, 2004, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker(“Plan-B”) that Israeli intelligence and military operatives were working in the Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria to provide training. Hersh said, “Israel feels particularly threatened by Iran, whose position in the region has been strengthened by the (Gulf) war”.  Israeli operatives included members of the Mossad, Israel’s clandestine foreign-intelligence service, “who work undercover in Kurdistan as businessmen and, in some cases, do not carry Israeli passports.”   

On 20 September 2006 BBC released “News Night” which showed graphic evidence of Israeli operatives providing military training to Kurdish militia members.  It said: “When the former Israeli special forces soldiers were sent to Iraq in 2004, they were told they would be disowned if they were discovered”.  

Israeli intelligence agents were recruiting and training Iranian dissidents in clandestine bases located in Iraq’s Kurdish region

According to BBC, their role was to train two groups of Kurdish fighters: One to act as a security force for the new Hawler International Airport (Erbil) and to train about 100 peshmerga or Kurdish fighters for "special assignments" through an Israeli consulting firm “Interop”. Till 2003 its chairman was Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad. Yatom had told BBC: "I was not aware of what was done in 2004 and 2005 because I cut all contacts with the company when I entered the Israeli parliament in 2003.”

The programme aired video footage showing Israeli experts drilling members of Kurdish armed groups in shooting techniques and guerrilla tactics. The Israeli government denied having authorised any such training, while Iraqi Kurdish officials refused to comment on the report. But Israeli security experts told the BBC that it would be virtually impossible for their trainers to operate inside Iraqi Kurdistan “without the knowledge of the Kurdish authorities”. 

BBC also quoted Khaled Salih, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government: "These are not new allegations for us. Back in the sixties and seventies we were called ‘The second Israel' in the region and we were supposed to be eliminated by Islamist nationalist and now Islamist groups”.

On 9 January 2012 Le Figaro, the second most popular French newspaper carried a report “Iran defies America”, which interalia said that Israeli intelligence agents were recruiting and training Iranian dissidents in clandestine bases located in Iraq’s Kurdish region. This was reproduced by “Intelnews” in its issue dated January 11, 2012. A Baghdad source told the French daily that part of Israel’s sabotage programme was against sensitive Iranian nuclear facilities, which included targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear experts.

On March 18, 2022, The Cradle, an online news magazine covering the geopolitics of West Asia, quoted Azad Jolla, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as saying that Mossad was using Erbil as the base for anti-Iranian operations. It said: “The comments of the Kurdish official occur in the wake of a precision missile strike by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on 13 March on a secret Mossad compound in Erbil, which left three Israeli officials dead and seven others severely wounded”. It added that on 27 previous occasions Iran or the groups supporting Iran had “launched attacks on Erbil, ostensibly against Israeli targets”.

The web site also quoted Iraq’s Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sad calling for an enquiry into Mossad’s activities on March 14. This was after a claim in September 2021 that an Iranian counter-terrorist operation against a training centre had killed two US and Israeli operatives “who were involved in the assassination of Iran's Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Deputy Commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes”. 
It also said: “The IRGC's attack on the Mossad training facility has sent shockwaves across the region, as Iraq does not allow Israeli nationals to visit the country and has strict laws, reinforced last year, that prohibit any Iraqi interaction with the State of Israel”.