The Free Life Party of Kurdistan (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê - PJAK) is a Kurdish armed group fighting against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Founded in 2004, its goals are to obtain political and cultural rights for Kurds in Iran, and to replace the Iranian state with a highly decentralized administration. It is a member of the Kurdistan Committees Union (KCK), the umbrella organization for all PKK affiliated Kurdish groups.
History & Foundations
Following years of organization and protests by leftist and Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched its war against the Turkish state in 1984 and its influence among Kurds across the region grew. Although Komala and PDKI dominated Kurdish politics and militancy in Iran for decades, there were still many disaffected Kurds who maintained sympathy towards the PKK. To close this gap, PJAK was established in 2004, adding its name to the list of varied Iranian Kurdish opposition groups.
It caught the attention of the Iranian government quickly due to their many raids against military and police targets. In 2011, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched an offensive against PJAK targets, forcing them across the border into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after months of fighting. Despite the ceasefire which followed, clashes between PJAK and its enemies in the IRGC continued. Due to its armed activity and affiliation with the PKK, PJAK is a frequent target for both the IRGC and Turkish armed forces (Stansfield, Hassaniyan 2021).
Ideology & Objectives
As a sister party of the PKK, PJAK is a proponent of democratic confederalism, an ideology devised by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, and influenced by American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. Democratic confederalism is a libertarian socialist doctrine that emphasizes bottom-up organization and decision making, environmentalism, cooperative based socialism, and women’s liberation.
Under these tenets, PJAK does not seek the creation of an independent Kurdish state - for they view nation-states as inherently flawed and oppressive. Instead, they advocate a form of stateless direct democracy, where local communities have the most influence over governing. Each group is allowed to organize and express its own language and culture as they see fit, with additional input from civil society in creating laws and solving problems (Matin, 2019).
Women’s rights is an equally important aspect of democratic confederalism. Women hold a great deal of autonomy in KCK organizations, maintaining their own parallel political military structures. The phrase “women, life, liberty” (jin, jiyan, azadi) which spread through Iran as a chant during the Jina Amini protests is a PKK slogan emblematic of this belief (Bayram, 2022).
Like other KCK organizations, PJAK has two separate armed wings: a mixed, but primarily male fighting group (the YRK) and one exclusively for women (the HPJ). Estimates place the combined fighting force of these two groups around 3,000, with about half being women. Many of their members have combat experience, if not in Iran then in Syria. Due to their designation as a terrorist group by the U.S., coming by heavy arms like their counterparts in the YPG is more difficult. (Milburn, 2017). In 2014, PJAK formed KODAR (Society for a Free and Democratic East Kurdistan) with the stated purpose of solving problems through dialogue (Milliyet, 2014).
Approach to Resistance
PJAK continues to use violence as part of its strategy. Using the Zagros mountains as cover, PJAK launches cross border attacks against IRGC bases and border guards, and even attempted to assassinate Iranian MP Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh. The terrain and ability to link up with sympathizers in Iran helps PJAK fighters carry out hit and run attacks (Milburn, 2017). PJAK also attempts to mobilize Kurds in Iran through statements urging action, such as their September 2022 call for a general strike in wake of the Jina Amini killing (Arknews, 2022).
International Relations and Potential Alliances
In coordination with its NATO ally, Turkey, the United States joined Ankara in designating PJAK as a foreign terrorist organization due to its ties with the PKK in 2009 (Milburn 2017). In the years since, however, the United States has funded and trained the YPG - the armed wing of the KCK in Syria. This has resulted in damaged ties between the U.S. and Turkey, making future possible support for PJAK difficult to determine. Outside of other KCK groups, the biggest potential allies for PJAK are other Iranian Kurdish groups. Rivalry exists between the different factions, but the left-leaning Komala may have areas of ideological overlap with PJAK, making cooperation possible if they can put their differences aside (Hawez, 2022).
Works Cited (MLA-style)
Bayram, S., & Mohtasham, D. (2022, October 27). Iran's protesters find inspiration in a Kurdish revolutionary slogan. NPR. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2022/10/27/1131436766/kurdish-roots-iran-protest-slogan
Abdulla Hawez on May 26, 2022. (2022, May 26). A new strategy for Kurds as changes sweep Iran. Kurdish Peace Institute. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.kurdishpeace.org/research/conflict-resolution-and-peacebuilding/a-new-strategy-for-kurds-as-changes-sweep-iran/
Matin, K. (2019, November 15). Democratic confederalism and societal multiplicity: A sympathetic critique of Abdullah öcalan's state theory. Sussex Research Online : Sussex Research Online. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/89349/
Milburn, F. (2017, May). Objective relevant May 2017 volume 10, issue 5 - ctc.westpoint.edu. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://ctc.westpoint.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/CTC-Sentinel_Vol10Iss515.pdf
PJAK, KJAR, and Kodar call for participation in the general strike in Iran-Ark News. الرئيسية. (2022, October 4). Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.arknews.net/en/node/39156
PJAK kodar'ı kurdu. Milliyet. (2014, May 5). Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.milliyet.com.tr/gundem/pjak-kodari-kurdu-1877857
Stansfield, G., & Hassaniyan, A. (2021, May 3). Kurdish insurgency in Rojhelat: From rasan to the Oslo Negotiations. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00263206.2021.1918116