A Concrete Gesture Toward Iran?

As pointed out in this post by Rasmus Christian Elling of the University of Copenhagen, the U.S. Treasury — notably Stuart Levey, whose zeal in trying to make it difficult for Iranian banking interests to do business outside their borders has been widely remarked — just designated the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) a terrorist group, or, more accurately, a group controlled by the better known Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey. PJAK, of course, was named by Seymour Hersh, among others, as a likely beneficiary of alleged U.S. covert aid designed to harass the Islamic Republic two years ago after it claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and other regime targets. Tehran itself has long claimed that PJAK is supported by the U.S. and Israel. Like the PKK, it is based in Iraqi Kurdistan.

While designating PJAK a terrorist group is unlikely to have any immediate practical impact on its operations, it raises the question, as noted by Dr. Elling, whether this marks the first concrete gesture — or token of good faith — by the Obama administration toward Iran or whether this was simply the coincidental fruition of a bureaucratic process that may have been set in motion by the publication by the New York Times of a front-page article on the relationship between PJAK and the PKK back in October, 2007. I don’t have a clear answer as yet, but the timing and the fact that Levey, who is being retained by the Obama administration in his current position as Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, has strong political instincts argues in favor of the more purposeful interpretation.

Here’s the release put out by Treasury:

February 4, 2009

Treasury Designates Free Life Party of Kurdistan a Terrorist Organization

Washington, DC – The U.S. Department of the Treasury today designated the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a Kurdish group operating in the border region between Iraq and Iran, under Executive Order 13224 for being controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, aka the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK).

“With today’s action, we are exposing PJAK’s terrorist ties to the KGK and supporting Turkey’s efforts to protect its citizens from attack,” said Stuart Levey, Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

Designated in December 2002 under E.O. 13224, KGK has been involved for more than 20 years in targeting Turkish government security forces, local Turkish officials, and villagers who oppose the KGK in Turkey. Turkish authorities have confirmed or suspect that KGK is also responsible for dozens of bombings since 2004 in western Turkey.

The KGK leadership authorized certain Iranian-Kurdish KGK members to create a KGK splinter group that would portray itself as independent from but allied with KGK. PJAK was created to appeal to Iranian Kurds. KGK formally institutionalized PJAK in 2004 and selected five KGK members to serve as PJAK leaders, including Hajji Ahmadi, a KGK affiliate who became PJAK’s General Secretary. KGK leaders also selected the members of PJAK’s 40-person central committee. Although certain PJAK members objected to the KGK selecting their leaders, the KGK advised that PJAK had no choice.

As of April 2008, KGK leadership controlled PJAK and allocated personnel to the group. Separately, PJAK members have carried out their activities in accordance with orders received from KGK senior leaders. In one instance, PJAK’s armed wing, the East Kurdistan Defense Forces, had been acting independently in Iran. KGK senior leaders immediately intervened, however, and recalled the responsible PJAK officials to northern Iraq.

Under E.O. 13224, any assets PJAK has under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in any transactions with PJAK.

Identifying Information
Kurdistan Free Life Party
Party of Free Life of Kurdistan Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane

Qandil Mountain, Irbil Governorate, Iraq

Alt, Location:
Razgah, Iran

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. When I read the title of this news piece (while searching google), I started wondering if this was actually a deliberate move to show goodwill towards Iran. When I read the Treasury Department’s explanation, It became obvious that this was actually done to designate that group (as terrorist) for being a surrogate of the PKK (whose activities are directed towards Turkey). Question is: How would this be perceived by the Iranians?! I think very positively. Also, Iran’s AhmadiNejad statement today, offering to hep the US solve global problems, could be a good signal. Hope this means the wheels, of de-escalation, are finally being set in motion.

  2. I still cannot see how this can be perceived as a gesture exclusively addressed to Ankara. Let us not forget that PJAK has been fighting Iran. Yes, it is part of PKK – and therefore it is /also/ a gesture to the Turks. However, the main activity of PJAK has been to harass Iran. The Treasury Department has, in its explanation, clearly tried to disguise the dual nature of the decision. However one should be able to read between the lines in such a statement.
    Indeed, the Iranians are seeing this as a positive signal. See this article from ‘Asr-e Irân:
    Rasmus Elling.

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