The significance of Turkey and Iran’s military cooperation against the PKK

Turkey and Iran have confirmed for the first time that they are coordinating militarily against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Iranian affiliate the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).

In a joint statement Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both “emphasised that it is incumbent upon both countries to fully utilise the existing cooperation mechanisms against the activities of PKK/PJAK elements and the other terrorist organisations along the common borders” as well as “to take coordinated steps for a result-oriented cooperation including joint operations, in countering terrorism and organised crime.” 

The joint statement is significant. In recent years, and on more than one occasion, Turkey claimed that it was coordinating military operations against the PKK with the Iran only to have Tehran publicly deny that was the case. 

Iran has carried out cross-border artillery strikes against PJAK in tandem with Turkish anti-PKK operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. It did so, for example, in mid-June when Turkey launched operations Claw Eagle and Claw Tiger. 

A mere day after the release of the joint statement, Iran once again shelled suspected PKK/PJAK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

The PKK and PJAK use Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountain and its caves as both a headquarters and sanctuary for their respective campaigns against Turkey and Iran.

With Turkey and Iran having now officially declared they are coordinating their operations against the PKK/PJAK, will anything tangibly change on the ground? 

“Iran and Turkey share a similar national security imperative of seeking to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state within or around their borders, so quiet cooperation against the PKK and its affiliates, likely mostly intelligence sharing, has happened for years,” Emily Hawthorne, the Middle East and North Africa analyst with Stratfor, a RANE company, told Ahval. 

According to Hawthorne, what’s unique about this recent joint statement was that Iran finally decided to go public about its ad-hoc military cooperation with Turkey.

It “means we should expect more public, tactical military-to-military coordination,” she said. “Iran has conducted shelling on Kurdish militant targets in the region in previous years and such actions should be expected again.” 

Nicholas Heras, Director of Government Relations at The Institute for the Study of War, summed up the agreement as Turkey and Iran “saying the quiet part loudly, which is that they have been cooperating against the PKK for years.”  

The key element in the agreement, Heras told Ahval, is the Iraqi Kurdish authorities who have long been “simultaneously pulled into the spheres of influence of both Turkey and Iran.” 

He pointed out that both Ankara and Turkey have been working hard “to create pliable local partners in Iraqi Kurdistan that will accede to, and even support, Turkish and Iranian military operations against the PKK.” 

Heras described the Iraqi Kurds as the “key silent partners in this agreement.” 

Güneş Murat Tezcür, the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies Program at the University of Central Florida, pointed out that while Turkey and Iran are rivals in Syria, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan “they also manage to compartmentalise the areas they have divergent interests from the areas they have common ground.” 

A prime example of this was both countries' coordinated opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendum in 2017.  

On the issue of the PKK and PJAK, Turkey and Iran share some common interests. That being said, Tezcür pointed out that Iran is more comfortable than Turkey with the status-quo on PJAK that has existed since 2011 when the group declared a unilateral cessation of its armed campaign against Tehran. 

“On the one hand, Iran would be content with increased Turkish pressure and operations against PKK units in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also had some damaging impact on PJAK,” Tezcür told Ahval.

On the other hand, Iran also has concerns about the increasing Turkish military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, which grew considerably over the summer shortly after the launch of Claw Eagle/Claw Tiger, particularly in areas controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The PUK has traditionally been closer to Tehran than the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls Iraqi Kurdistan’s west and has closer ties with Ankara. 

“Based on this dualistic dynamic, my reading of the recent developments (there has been a lot of similar news about proposed Turkish-Iranian operations since the 1990s) is that Turkey engages Iran to alleviate its concerns in that regard,” Tezcür said. “I would be surprised to see a major operation coming from the Iranian side other than rather routine artillery shelling and strikes.” 

He concluded by pointing out that since winter is just around the corner, “the window of opportunity for any large land incursions is rather limited.”