KOYA, Iraq – The main Kurdish insurgent group in Iran will keep up its guerrilla campaign against security forces "to protect and defend" Kurds living there, its deputy leader said, calling the fight necessary after the Islamic Republic's nuclear deal with world powers.
A string of recent attacks by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan mark the end of a 20-year cease-fire between its fighters and Iran, though Kurdish separatists have agitated for freedom for decades in the country's northwest.
This campaign comes as Kurdish power has grown elsewhere. Syrian Kurds have carved out a swatch of territory amid that country's civil war. Iraq's Kurds have also effectively expanded their autonomous zone as well by capturing towns and villages from the Islamic State group.
Kurds represent about 10 percent of Iran's population of 80 million people, many living in the country's mountainous northwest that borders Iraq and Turkey.
The area had been largely quiet since the 1990s under the cease-fire. But Kurdish resentments grew recently. In one incident, the death of a Kurdish maid at a hotel in the northwestern city of Mahabad in May 2015 sparked unrest by local Kurds as opposition groups alleged Iranian security forces somehow had a hand in it.
This year, clashes have erupted between Kurdish fighters and Iranian security forces, including the elite Revolutionary Guard, leading to casualties on both sides. The Democratic Party, which is known by its Kurdish acronym PDKI and operates out of the northern Iraq, claimed many of those attacks, which saw Iranian forces shell Kurdish positions just across the Iraqi border in response.
The PDKI's deputy secretary-general Hassan Sharafi said Iran's "repression" of Kurds forced it to respond.
"We see that they are being arrested, tortured, interrogated and jailed," he told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday in Koya, an Iraqi city near the Iranian border. "In order to protect and defend these people, we have decided to have a presence in the area instead of launching a regular war."
When Iran "signed the agreement with Europe and America on the nuclear program, they came to believe that whatever they do the outside world will not criticize them," he said. "Therefore, we were forced to take this path."
Iran's mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment about the PDKI. Iranian official media have reported on the clashes as caused by armed groups backed by Iran's enemies, including Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, largely avoiding pointing to their Kurdish identity, apparently to avoid any sign of ethnic tensions.
Iran also faces occasional attacks from Baloch militant groups on its eastern border with Pakistan and ethnic Arab separatists in its oil-producing Khuzestan province.
The government of the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous zone has called for a halt to any attacks into Iran by Kurds in Iraqi territory. Meanwhile, a U.S.-led coalition also has been training Iraqi Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, to fight the Islamic State group. One Iranian Kurdish faction fighting IS has also been among those trained.
Sharafi, however, said his group is not receiving any foreign aid or support in its fight, which he repeatedly sought to describe as self-defense.
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that while the PDKI campaign is an upsurge in violence, he did not expect it to spiral out of control because everyone's focus is on the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
"Tehran, the Iranian Kurds and Iraqi Kurdish leadership all have more pressing concerns to worry about," he said.
The Mahabad region saw a breakaway Kurdish republic backed by the Soviets briefly emerge after World War II and a Kurdish uprising in the years after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
A guerrilla campaign by PDKI fighters in Iran continued into the mid-1990s, while assassins a German court later said were directed by Iran's government killed the PDKI's leader and others at a Berlin restaurant in 1992. Ultimately, the PDKI declared a unilateral cease-fire with Iran in 1996 after fighting in northern Iraq between warring Kurdish forces backed by Iraq and Iran.
The new fighting now adds yet another combustible force in wider Middle East. For Bahnam Qadri, an 18-year-old recent recruit, the fight is essential and proves the presence of Kurdish fighters in Iran.
"I want to send a message to the Iranians that the injustice done to our people in Iran has to end," he said. "That the discrimination and the mistreatment has to end."
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Dubai also contributed to this report.