(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When a regional power wants to assert itself and intimidate its rivals, it has several options: Stage a military exercise, test a missile, maybe even have a high-ranking general deliver a threatening speech. Rarely does signaling deterrence mean killing innocents.
Yet this is exactly what Iran did earlier this month when it launched a barrage of missiles at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, or KDPI, during a meeting of its 21-member central committee. Six of its members were killed, according to one of the survivors, Khalid Azizi, a member of the committee.
The strike was significant for a few reasons. First, its location: outside of Iranian territory, in northern Iraq. Iran has supported militias that have killed Iraqis and coalition forces in Iraq since the U.S.- led invasion in 2003. But it has not launched a direct military strike into Iraqi territory since the mid-1990s, during the Kurdish civil war.
More important, Iran faces no real danger from the Kurds, especially the KDPI. Some Kurdish separatists in Iran have conducted attacks on Iranian targets over the years. But the KDPI has pursued a nonviolent strategy for equal political rights in Iran. There is “no evidence” that the KDPI was launching terrorist attacks, said Michael Rubin, an expert on Iran and Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute. He called the group “basically a coffee klatch for Iranian Kurdish exiles.”
Even after the missile strike, the KDPI has refrained from calling for a violent response. Instead, it announced a general strike for the Iranian Kurdish region. “We don't want weapons or training from other countries,” Azizi said. Instead, he said, the organization seeks a political solution. “The best revenge is to organize Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan against the regime,” he said, and “to find a common agenda among all of the Iranian opposition.”
Iranian state media initially described the strike as a successful act of counterterrorism. Later, however, the mask slipped. In a television interview, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the missile strike was intended as a warning to America. “The attack against the terrorists in Iraq’s Kurdistan conveys a message to the enemies, particularly those superpowers who think they can impose their evil plots on Iran and bully us,” said Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari.
That’s a not-so-veiled threat to military bases in the Iraqi Kurdish region that host U.S. special operations forces and intelligence officers. In fact, Iranian-backed militias have recently fired at the airport compound in Basra, where there is also a U.S. consulate. The White House subsequently warned Iran that it would be held responsible for any attack on U.S. personnel.
Finally, the missile strike is notable for its precision. Eleven years ago I visited this very compound, which is sprawling. That Iran was able to hit the room where the KDPI central committee was meeting suggests they had both valuable intelligence and the technology to exploit it.
For his part, Azizi seemed resigned to the uncomfortable position in which his organization finds itself. “Iran is trying to provoke a war so they can kill more of us,” he said. “They want to divert the attention of the people in Iran to say we are the enemy.”
That’s undoubtedly correct, and Iran's Kurds are also wise to refrain from responding in kind to Iranian aggression. The West, however, need not show such restraint. The U.S. and European leaders should schedule a summit with a delegation of Iranian Kurds to discuss how the free world can help their struggle. Iran’s leaders would certainly get that message.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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