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Iran-Iraq ties on edge as deadline to disarm, relocate armed groups looms

September 18, 2023 at 2:40 pm

Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir (not seen) and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Baghdad, Iraq on August 24, 2023 [Murtadha J. A. Al-sudani – Anadolu Agency]

Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, landed in Tehran last week, days before the 19 September deadline to implement a bilateral security agreement, carrying an important message for Iranian authorities: armed groups operating in northern Iraq will be disarmed and relocated in time, Anadolu Agency reports.

At a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Hussein reiterated that message, asserting that the objective would be achieved in a matter of days.

He said the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) authorities are working in tandem to execute a plan under which these groups would be moved to camps in far away locations.

Amir-Abdollahian welcomed the “positive” news and stressed that giving “even one hour” to these groups is detrimental to the security of Iraq, Iran and the wider region.

This is all part of a deal Iran and Iraq signed in late August, which focuses on disarming and relocating exiled “armed terrorist groups” in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region by Tuesday.

READ: Iran urges Iraq to expel opposition ‘terrorists’ from Kurdistan region

It came five months after the security chiefs of the two countries held talks in Baghdad that ended with a comprehensive accord on securing their joint border.

At his weekly presser last Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, said the country’s stance is clear and the ultimatum issued to Iraqi authorities will not be extended.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, however, sought guarantees from the Iranian side that the “language of violence and aggression” would not be employed between the two sides, amid reports that Iran had dispatched military equipment to the north-western border with the Iraqi Kurdish region.

Just a day before reaching Tehran last Wednesday, Hussein told reporters in Baghdad that the process of relocating the armed groups has commenced, which was also corroborated by Iranian media.

Flurry of meetings

Before the top Iraqi diplomat’s visit to Tehran, a series of meetings took place between Iranian and KRG officials, both in Tehran and Erbil, to work out the modalities of the security agreement.

Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, on Saturday, said “acts of provocation by terrorist and separatist groups” undermine regional security, a reference to exiled Iranian Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.

Bafel Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), also dashed off to Tehran for meetings with Iranian officials, including Amir-Abdollahian.

Iran’s top diplomat said the “presence of terrorists” in the region is “at odds with the Iraqi Constitution and friendly ties between the two nations”, while Talabani affirmed that their goal is to “achieve stability and co-existence in the region,” according to statements by their respective offices.

In Erbil, top officials of the KRG, including President Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, held separate meetings with Mohammad Kazem Al-Sadeq, Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad.

On Wednesday, Barzani said both Baghdad and Erbil have taken measures in recent weeks to disarm exiled groups along the border, adding that they would not leave room for a military operation.

Groups active in northern Iraq include the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KPIK), Komala Organisation of the Iranian Communist Party (KOICP) and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), whom Tehran accuses of carrying out “terrorist attacks” on Iranian soil.

READ: Iran vows to use ‘deterrent military measures’ against Kurds

There is also the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an offshoot of the PKK terror group designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkiye, Iran and the US.

Ebrahim Azizi, deputy chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, told Anadolu that evidence suggests that the Iraqi government and KRG authorities are trying to adhere to their commitments by pushing terrorist groups away from border areas.

The deployment of the ground force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the Iran-Iraq border region, he asserted, shows the country is fully ready to give a “rapid and crushing response” if the deal is not implemented.

Anniversary of Iran protests

The ultimatum to implement the security pact coincides with the first anniversary of protests that were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old who died in Iranian police custody.

As protests raged in the country last year, the IRGC carried out artillery attacks on positions of exiled armed groups in northern Iraq, accusing them of smuggling weapons into Iran to foment unrest.

Later in November, the IRGC launched another series of drone and missile strikes, prompting strong reactions from authorities in Baghdad and Erbil at the time.

In January this year, Iran accused these groups of attacking a military facility in the central city of Isfahan with support from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, allegations that Israel neither confirmed nor denied.

Since the start of the year, calls for disarming and relocating these groups have grown louder, with Iran’s military chief, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Bagheri issuing a stern warning in July over their “continued presence and activities” in border areas.

If the deadline passes and they remain armed or carry out operations (against Iran), our operations against those groups will definitely re-occur more severely

the top military official said.

Earlier this month, Abbas Nilforoushan, a senior IRGC Commander, also warned that Iran would resume operations if the groups were not disarmed in time, stressing that Tehran will do all it has to “protect the interests of the Iranian people,” according to the Iranian Tasnim News Agency.

Azizi, the senior Iranian lawmaker, told Anadolu that Tehran has urged authorities in Baghdad and Erbil “not to sit idle in the face of subversive activities of anti-Iran groups” who seek to damage bilateral ties.

Relocation and resistance

While Iran has made it clear that the deadline will not be extended, some groups are reportedly putting up resistance.

However, according to local sources in Iraq’s Kurdish region, most groups have agreed to disarm and are being transferred to undisclosed camps by the Iraqi and KRG authorities.

Hossein Kanaani Moghaddam, an expert on West Asia affairs, told Anadolu that some of the groups have heeded calls to move to the western regions of Iraq.

According to the arrangements, they are required to surrender their heavy and semi-heavy weapons, followed by light weapons, Moghaddam said, while also confirming that some groups have resisted the calls.

“Iran is building up forces in the border region and this might deter these groups and push them to accept the agreement to be relocated to other regions,” he said.

READ: Unlike Iran and Turkiye, Iraq and Syria are vulnerable to Kurdish separatism