Tuesday, February 20, 2007


"Once I was making my way across the border when a couple Revolutionary Guards came bearing down on me. I promised to God that I would never smuggle again if I could just escape this one time. I escaped. That was five years and 100 trips ago."
~ Abdul Hamed Sadeq Qader, Kurdish smuggler.

There's a good article on smugglers and others in Rojhelat, from AsiaTimes:

PAVEH, Western Iran - Learning English was a hard struggle for Hassan Arinadi. The thickly bearded son of a respected dervish [1] grew up in an isolated Sunni-dominated Kurdish village that is also a mystical center for Iran's remote and volatile Kordestan province. Long days and nights of study paid off, and now Arinadi is the local English teacher, imparting long strings of grammatically sound if old-fashioned English sentences to his Kurdish pupils.

[ . . . ]

While visually stunning - it ought to be on the tourist trail - the village's position next to civil-war-torn Iraq and restive Sunni Muslim Kurdish inhabitants dictates its isolation. The prevailing government philosophy ever since a Kurdish rebellion soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution was violently suppressed is out of sight, out of mind. During Ashura, Shi'ite Islam's most important festival and the commemoration of the slaying of the Prophet's grandson Hossein by his political opponents, there were none of the black shrouds of mourning, self-flagellating crowds that filled most of Iran's other cities.

It is a time when the struggle by Iraq's already autonomous Kurds for their own state is providing inspiration to Kurds in neighboring countries. In the region, a simmering Sunni-Shi'ite enmity has spilled over into a covert war. So it is unsurprising that Iranian Kordestan's Sunni Kurds inhabit one of the least developed areas of the country and are politically unrepresented in Tehran.

"If there was a Shi'ite shrine here, the government would have built a huge mosque on its site and asphalted all roads leading to it," said Abu Bakr, the driver of an antique Nissan flatbed truck as he negotiated the snowed-in mountain paths connecting far-flung mountain villages.

In Paveh, the biggest city in the area, the state makes its presence felt through the armed guards standing sentry at the fortress-like police station built atop a hill close to the center of town. Most public signs are in Persian and Shi'ite imagery and names are given to schools and hospitals with predominantly Sunni pupils and patients. Many of the Revolutionary Guards entrusted to control the frontier from the rampant smuggling in goods that cuts across Iran and Iraq come from Iran's dominant Persian ethnic majority.

"Guerrillas from the Komala or Democrats [banned anti-Islamic Republic Kurdish secessionist groups] would throw stones at our sentries at night to bait them out in order to shoot at them," said a Kurdish soldier who served in Paveh in the early 1990s ferrying water to the border outposts. He was dismissed from duty after his superiors discovered that he had been selling water to locals whose villages had yet to have piping installed.

Many of the politically active Kurds are forced to lie low or flee across the border to Iraq. There, they can pick up military training and political indoctrination at a camp run by Pejak - the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan - on the inaccessible Mount Qandil. Pejak subscribes to the teachings of now-imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, the former leader of Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Pejak's cadres are mostly educated male and female activists, and it emerged as a force in northern Iraq as a result of the collapse of the Iraqi state. Ever since then, reports have emerged linking US and Israeli covert operations with these anti-Tehran groups.

"If reports are true that we have third-party agents and even a few Special Forces teams of our own inside Iran, why isn't Tehran screaming bloody murder about that?" asked Ray Close, a former US Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Saudi Arabia. "Perhaps in the past this was because they were embarrassed to admit that they had not caught any of our agents. But now that we have done so in Iraq, wouldn't you expect that the Iranians are probably launching a major campaign to grab some American and display him on TV as an infiltrator? Stay tuned."

Last May, a top Kurdish guerrilla threatened to launch hit-and-run attacks on Iran after Iranian artillery shelling of Mount Qandil.

"We have the right to launch attacks against Iranian forces," said Cemil "Cuma" Bayik, the de facto leader of the PKK, a quasi-socialist rebel movement entrenched in a decades-long guerrilla war for independence in the majority-Kurdish southeast of Turkey. In 2005, Pejak killed at least 120 Iranian soldiers in Iran, according to the Jamestown Foundation. In 2006, the guerrilla attacks continued undiminished. Also active is the left-wing Komala (Revolutionary Toilers of Iran) group that was founded in 1969 and was affiliated with the also-banned Communist Party of Iran. Last year, a senior Komala representative, Abdullah Muhtadi, traveled to Washington for a conference of Iranian minority groups amid speculation that the US administration was exploring a way of working with the group against Tehran.

[ . . . ]

With the region kept underdeveloped, smuggling provides a lucrative source of income. The Kurds' unmatched knowledge of the bandit-infested mountain passes connecting Iran with Iraq allows them to feed their neighbor's thirst for gasoline while bringing in Western electrical goods, weapons and alcohol.

If the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are smuggling weapons into Iraq, it is more likely to be happening through the southern border crossing areas of Mehran and Basra, which connect large Revolutionary Guard infrastructure projects with majority-Shi'ite, pro-Tehran southern Iraq. Any arms smuggling happening through the Kurdish areas is more likely to be Kurdish-orchestrated and private, rather than government-led.

"The fact that serial numbers were found [on weapons in Iraq] and that they could be traced to Iran production factories is not completely out of the question," said Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics at National Defense University in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. "However, this does not necessarily prove Iranian culpability. These could have rather easily been sold on black markets, smuggled etc."

The Iranian government tries to stop the fuel-smuggling by posting armed guards at gasoline stations, noting license plates (a pointless action as the system is not computerized) and rationing fuel to 30 liters (half the full-tank capacity of a Nissan flatbed truck, the smugglers' favorite mode of transport) per day

"You have to get used to sleeping in the snow at night when bringing in a shipment," said Umar, a driver who uses his truck to bring goods into Iraq. "We know where the checkpoints are and carry the goods by hand across mountain paths before depositing them again on the other side of the checkpoint and bringing the empty truck to carry them the rest of the way."

Soldiers are also co-opted, and many look forward to a stint turning a blind eye at mountain checkpoints or gasoline pumps in Kordestan as a lucrative form of income.

"However pure a guard or a fuel attendant is, they become corrupted within a day when they are given the opportunity to make in one month enough money to be able to marry when their duty finishes," said one Kurdish official who requested anonymity.

Many of the most successful Kurdish smugglers are collaborators with the government in Tehran. The state allows them to conduct their own activities unmolested in return for their loyalty. One Kurdish family in the inaccessible village of Oraman has grown wealthy from smuggling but lost one of its sons, who was in the Revolutionary Guard when he was killed in a guerrilla attack.

It should be remembered, too, that last August one Kurdish pasdaran killed his comrades and then escaped to join PJAK.

A good backgrounder on PJAK can be found at MotherJones from last year. Also for those who need it, there's a reminder of what has gone on so far with alleged US support for PJAK. For more on smuggling, there's a pre-war article from The Scotsman.

For what it's worth, Lukery has a round up of news on the recent bombings in Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan region, near Afghanistan. Chinese media has reported that "Iranians have evidence linking the attacks to the United States." I agree with this statement:

Even if the United States were behind the operation, it is unlikely the Iranians would find weapons and materials that would be identifiable as American. US organizations that are involved in covert operations are very good about not leaving signatures that can be traced.

That goes back to the article on smuggling and American accusations that Iranians are supplying weapons to the Iraq insurgency:

"The fact that serial numbers were found [on weapons in Iraq] and that they could be traced to Iran production factories is not completely out of the question," said Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics at National Defense University in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. "However, this does not necessarily prove Iranian culpability. These could have rather easily been sold on black markets, smuggled etc."

What is noted as significant at Lukery's post is the fact that "[T]he Iranians are choosing to make an issue" of their claim that Americans are behind the Sistan-Baluchestan attacks. What I think is significant is that the Chinese are choosing to make an issue of it as well . . . at least in their media.

Think: Bigger picture.

1 comment:

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