Armed militants clashed with Iranian security forces and killed two border guards in West Azerbaijan Province close to Iran’s border with the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Iranian media reported. The gunfight occurred on Tuesday night at a border post near the city of Sardasht. First Lieutenant Yousef Praneh and warrant office Mahboub Qorbani were reportedly killed when militants attacked their checkpoint. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack and Iranian authorities have not revealed whether the gunmen attacked the border post from inside Iran or crossed the border from the Iraqi Kurdistan. In recent months, Kurdish militant groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan have reportedly carried out several attacks against Iranian security forces in the western provinces of Kermanshah, Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has also claimed that its intelligence personnel has foiled several attacks organized by the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an Iranian Kurdish opposition group based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran calls Kurdish separatist and militant groups terrorist. But these groups say they are fighting for the plight of Iran’s Kurdish minority.
Comment: Iran’s western and southeastern provinces, home to the country’s marginalized ethnic minorities, have seen an uptick in violence over the past one year. In January, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said its agents had seized two large caches of weapons and explosives intended for “terrorist operations” in public places close to border areas. Two months prior to that, eight Iranian border guards were also killed in skirmishes with an armed group in West Azerbaijan. Similarly in November, the IRGC announced that its forces had “dismantled a terrorist team” in Chaldoran, a district which has about 45,000 population and is located near Iran’s border with Turkey. IRGC officials often link these groups with the United States and its regional allies. Several other clashes between militant groups and security forces took place in August and September in West Azerbaijan.
Moreover, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry last year revealed that the country’s security forces had disbanded nearly 100 “terrorist groups” across the country. “Highly serious measures have been taken in the Southern, Southeastern and Western parts of Iran and nearly 100 teams have been confronted," the deputy Iranian intelligence minister said.
When the anti-regime protests broke out across Iran in late December, four Iranian Kurdish political parties and militant groups voiced support for the protests. The groups urged the international community to back the Iranian people’s “legitimate demands.”
Security situation in Iran’s southeast is also tense and volatile. With a sizable yet largely marginalized Sunni population, the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan can be a breeding ground for local militant and separatist movements, as well as regional and international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Sunni Baluchs, who constitute a plurality of the population in the province, have long suffered state-sanctioned discrimination, economic marginalization, cultural repression, disproportionate executions, torture, detention without trials and extra-judicial killings. Sistan and Baluchestan also borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Islamic State has gained a foothold recently.