Hersh: US, Israel support PKK's Iran wing

Thursday , 04 January 2007

Ankara, which has been pressing the United States for action to eliminate the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq, responded with caution to a fresh report by leading U.S. investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that Washington was backing the group's Iranian wing to destabilize the Islamic republic.

“This requires a cautious approach,” said a Turkish diplomat requesting anonymity of the report that appeared on the New Yorker magazine's latest issue. He warned against possible “speculative elements” in the report and questioned the potential effectiveness of a policy of supporting a terrorist organization operating only in border areas as a serious means to destabilize Iran or deter the country from pursuing its contentious nuclear program.

The diplomat also dismissed any plans to ask Washington about the reported supportive policy towards the group. Israel and the United States have been “working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan,” wrote Hersh, whose 2004 reports on the U.S. military's treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison gained much attention worldwide. Quoting a government consultant with close ties to Pentagon civilian leadership, Hersh asserted that this was “part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.”

The Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) is known to be operating as the Iranian wing of the PKK, designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. More than 100 Iranian police were reportedly killed and scores injured in attacks by Iranian Kurds last year, notably by PJAK.

Turkey has long been pressing the United States for concrete action against the PKK, which has bases in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq. Iran has reportedly shelled the same area over the past months to destroy PJAK bases there.

Iran has criticized U.S. policy towards the PKK in the past, with one senior official, Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, saying during a visit to Turkey in May that U.S. military officials had secret talks with the PKK in Iraq. At the time, the United States dismissed Larijani's remarks, saying it does not negotiate with terrorists.

The PKK issue has been an irritant in Turkey's relationship with the United States. Many, including top officials in the government, are convinced that a U.S. step to eliminate the PKK bases in northern Iraq could be a magic wand that could quickly reverse growing anti-U.S. feelings here in Turkey.

But tension over the PKK has eased considerably since the recent appointment by Turkey of special anti-PKK envoys, and many in Ankara believe that the focus should remain on the PKK presence in Iraq, not on “speculative” claims like Hersh's article about U.S. and Israeli support for PJAK.

Suat Kınıklıoğlu, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's office in Turkey said there was little possibility that the report could be confirmed and warned against “unnecessary tension” in Turkish-U.S. ties over such claims.

He admitted, though, that the United States is left now with limited options to deter Iran from pursuing its contentious nuclear program and therefore it can rely on methods similar to those Hersh mentions in his lengthy article.

Cengiz Çandar, a leading political analyst, also played down the report, saying Hersh was aiming to undermine the George W. Bush administration by putting its Iran policy in the spotlight and raising public concerns about it.

Iran undeterred:

The United States leads international efforts to deter Iran from pursuing its atomic development program and has said all options, including military ones, were on the table.

Commenting on the New Yorker report, an Iranian official told the Turkish Daily News that the U.S. use of PJAK or other groups to increase pressure on Iran would not work, saying Iran was well capable of combating terrorism. The official also said confidently that the PKK or PJAK does not have support among Iranian Kurds.

Turkey and Iran share concerns over Kurdish aspirations for an independent state next to their borders and have found common ground in denouncing any Iraqi Kurdish aspiration for statehood.

The Iranian official said Turkey and Iran had mechanisms in place to discuss security matters, including the threat posed by the PKK, but did not elaborate.

In the article, Hersh reported that Vice President Dick Cheney attended a national-security discussion a month before the Nov. 7 congressional elections that touched on the impact of a possible Democratic victory on Iran policy.

“If the Democrats won on Nov. 7th, the vice president said, that victory would not stop the administration from pursuing a military option with Iran,” Hersh wrote, citing a source familiar with the discussion.

In Washington, the White House has dismissed Hersh's article.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino derided the article on Sunday as “riddled with inaccuracies” and charged that “once again he is creating a story to satisfy his own radical views.”

Excerpts from "The Next Act" by Seymour M. Hersh in Monday

“A retired four-star general who worked closely with the first Bush Administration told me that the Gates nomination means that Scowcroft, Baker, the elder Bush, and his son “are saying that winning the election in 2008 is more important than the individual. The issue for them is how to preserve the Republican agenda. The Old Guard wants to isolate Cheney and give their girl, Condoleezza Rice”—the Secretary of State—“a chance to perform.” The combination of Scowcroft, Baker, and the senior Bush working together is, the general added, “tough enough to take on Cheney. One guy can’t do it.”

“Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State in Bush’s first term, told me that he believed the Democratic election victory, followed by Rumsfeld’s dismissal, meant that the Administration “has backed off,” in terms of the pace of its planning for a military campaign against Iran. Gates and other decision-makers would now have more time to push for a diplomatic solution in Iran and deal with other, arguably more immediate issues. “Iraq is as bad as it looks, and Afghanistan is worse than it looks,” Armitage said. “A year ago, the Taliban were fighting us in units of eight to twelve, and now they’re sometimes in company-size, and even larger.” Bombing Iran and expecting the Iranian public “to rise up” and overthrow the government, as some in the White House believe, Armitage added, “’is a fool’s errand.’ ‘Iraq is the disaster we have to get rid of, and Iran is the disaster we have to avoid,” Joseph Cirincione, the vice-president for national security at the liberal Center for American Progress, said. “Gates will be in favor of talking to Iran and listening to the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the neoconservatives are still there”—in the White House—“and still believe that chaos would be a small price for getting rid of the threat. The danger is that Gates could be the new Colin Powell—the one who opposes the policy but ends up briefing the Congress and publicly supporting it.’”

"Another critical issue for (Robert) Gates will be the Pentagon’s expanding effort to conduct clandestine and covert intelligence missions overseas. Such activity has traditionally been the C.I.A.’s responsibility, but, as the result of a systematic push by Rumsfeld, military covert actions have been substantially increased. In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as “part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.” (The Pentagon has established covert relationships with Kurdish, Azeri, and Baluchi tribesmen, and has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran.) The government consultant said that Israel is giving the Kurdish group “equipment and training.” The group has also been given “a list of targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S.” (An Israeli government spokesman denied that Israel was involved.)

Such activities, if they are considered military rather than intelligence operations, do not require congressional briefings. For a similar C.I.A. operation, the President would, by law, have to issue a formal finding that the mission was necessary, and the Administration would have to brief the senior leadership of the House and the Senate. The lack of such consultation annoyed some Democrats in Congress. "

"The main Middle East expert on the Vice-President’s staff is David Wurmser, a neoconservative who was a strident advocate for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like many in Washington, Wurmser “believes that, so far, there’s been no price tag on Iran for its nuclear efforts and for its continuing agitation and intervention inside Iraq,” the consultant said. But, unlike those in the Administration who are calling for limited strikes, Wurmser and others in Cheney’s office “want to end the regime,” the consultant said. “They argue that there can be no settlement of the Iraq war without regime change in Iran.”

"In late October, Olmert appointed Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, to serve as Deputy Defense Minister. Sneh, who served previously in that position under Ehud Barak, has for years insisted that action be taken to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. In an interview this month with the Jerusalem Post, Sneh expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of diplomacy or international sanctions in curbing Iran: The danger isn’t as much Ahmadinejad’s deciding to launch an attack but Israel’s living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction . . . . Most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who can live abroad will . . . I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That’s why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.

A similar message was delivered by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, in a speech in Los Angeles last week. “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” he said, adding that there was “still time” to stop the Iranians.The Pentagon consultant told me that, while there may be pressure from the Israelis, “they won’t do anything on their own without our green light.” That assurance, he said, “comes from the Cheney shop. It’s Cheney himself who is saying, ‘We’re not going to leave you high and dry, but don’t go without us.’ ” A senior European diplomat agreed: “For Israel, it is a question of life or death. The United States does not want to go into Iran, but, if Israel feels more and more cornered, there may be no other choice.”

"'Iran is emerging as a dominant power in the Middle East,' I was told by a Middle East expert and former senior Administration official. 'With a nuclear program, and an ability to interfere throughout the region, it’s basically calling the shots. Why should they cooperate with us over Iraq?' He recounted a recent meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who challenged Bush’s right to tell Iran that it could not enrich uranium. 'Why doesn’t America stop enriching uranium?” the Iranian President asked. He laughed, and added, 'We’ll enrich it for you and sell it to you at a fifty-per-cent discount.'"