Photo’s source:; Iraqi Kurds wave Israeli and Kurdish flags during an event in Erbil, northern Iraq, on Sept. 16, 2017. (Photo via Getty Images)


On January 15th, 2024, news broke out (Wright & Gritten, 2024) that Iranian missile strikes targeted alleged Mossad assets in Erbil – capital city of the Iraqi province Kurdistan[1]. This rare instance offered the opportunity for certain Kurdish actors to deny the presence of mentioned Israeli (as secret as it can be) agency in Kurdistan, while Baghdad even recalled its ambassador from Iran for consultations following these developments (Euronews with AP, 2024).

In an era of social media and digital media, distinguishing facts and reporting from stance taking has probably become more than a challenge itself and related implications do not represent the object of this study. However, this necessary distinction represents the main research direction of this article. While stances on this matter have the potential to alienate public opinion partially or totally from Israeli presence in Iraqi Kurdistan or the Israeli-Iraqi Kurdistan relations, data sources indicate long-term developments that prove the denials to be merely a communication exercise, aiming probably to tackle an acute phase of the chronic regional instability. As such, the study will analyze steps in the Israel – Iraqi Kurdistan relations after World War II and Kurds necessity to maintain a strategic ambiguity on this matter at discourse level, at least on short-term as the events unfold.

Milestones and circumstances in the Israel – Iraqi Kurdistan relations

Despite the presence of Jewish population throughout the Middle East prior to 1948, Israel’s path in the “tough neighborhood” formerly dominated by the Ottoman Empire for centuries has not been an easy one. The struggle, however, has probably been accentuated by the fight for dominance rather than any other factor. There are clear arguments that indicate the dangers Israel as a state faced unless it had taken bold steps into confronting aggressive actions of certain Arab neighbors, but the extent to which strategic confrontation and hard power deployment had been used represented a matter of discussion in research on Middle East history, politics, and security.

Before proceeding with the Israel – Iraqi Kurdistan developments, the tendency of Israeli establishment to control what used to be initially called “the periphery” is briefly assessed as a major background coordinate of relations with the Kurds. The so-called “periphery doctrine” associated to the period of David Ben-Gurion and the 1950s in Israel aimed to establish alliances with non-Arab regional states in order to counter significant threats from the Arab neighbors. Non-Arab Muslim “neighbors” were Iran and Türkiye, but also the Kurdish large minorities from Iraq and Syria among others.

The struggle against Arab Muslims took many forms and will not be discussed in detail throughout in this article, but an example of Israel’s efforts to control the surrounding environment shall be provided. In 1954, Israeli “underground cells” were discovered in Egypt and its members arrested by the Egyptian authorities. The spy network was trained for sabotage according to Jewish Virtual Library, as Avraham Dar (under the identity of a British citizen, John Darling) began in the early 1950s to instruct its members on manufacturing “delayed action devices, letter bombs” among others. The network was then overtaken by Avraham Seidenberg, who had previously infiltrated Germany under the false identity of a former SS officer as Paul Frank and managed to penetrate the emerging weapons collaboration between Egypt and Germany. The team began sabotage operations on July 2nd, 1954, by detonating bombs in post offices and afterwards the American libraries from Cairo and Alexandria. They aimed to discredit and destabilize an Egyptian establishment that had sought to take over the Suez Canal and strengthen Egypt’s position in the region. The “Lavon Affair” or “Esek Habish” ended up in failure and resulted in several dismissals from the Israeli government and security/intelligence structures and the spies captured were not reclaimed by Israel after the 1956 war and exchange of prisoners. Following citation of Nehemiah Argov from 1954, Ben Gurion’s military secretary, is presented in the article cited: “We set up a unit…that could have been a terror unit and a commando unit behind enemy lines, in the deepest heart of enemy [territory], and who knows what crucial and decisive missions those guys could have fulfilled during an emergency” (Jewish Virtual Library, 2024).

The “periphery doctrine” is considered the first among a series of ideological instruments that sought to improve Israel’s stance in the region as a result of possible conflicts between neighboring states or intra-state actors. Murat Ağdemir claimed in 2022 that “both Yinon’s plan and periphery strategy were designed to be pursued for Israel’s survival in a hostile environment. Part of Yinon’s plan was to affect the division of the Middle East into ethnic or sectarian states by the dissolution of the Arab states” (Ağdemir, 2022, p. 64), while “The Clean Break – A new  strategy for securing the realm” document published by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in 1996 advances further ideas to secure Israel’s future in the region (IASPS – Richard Pearl, 1996). Nowadays, Israel is said to have switched to a “reverse periphery” strategy according to Yoel Guzansky’s description (Guzansky, 2021) of the evolution, aiming to secure ties with the Persian Gulf countries, among others, in order to counter the rising power of Türkiye and Iran (from the “initial periphery”) in the region. These regional developments are confirmed by major events related to Kurds in the region. For example, Mossad’s black operation that captured Abdullah Öcalan and the agreement with Turkish intelligence services to claim that it was captured by them, not Israel, represents an instance of the “periphery doctrine” approach. Likewise, the strong Mossad presence in Tehran along with a military intelligence unit until the 1979 Islamic Revolution allowed Israel to better approach its interests in Iraq, together with the Iranian SAVAK or independently.

Literature mentions that before 1950, over 20’000 Jews lived in the Iraqi Kurdistan, who emigrated to Israel in 1950 – 1951 and represent nowadays a part of the Israeli society (O’Shea, 2004, p. 25). Ian Black and Benny Morris claim that Israel began to develop ties with the Iraqi Kurds in 1964, when Meir Amit was heading Mossad. After the secret meeting between Shimon Perez and Kumran Ali Bedir-Khan (Kurdish politician that spied for Israel in 1940s – 1950s according to Black), Israel initiated training of the Kurdish force that will become known as Peshmerga through the operation/course “Marvad”. Afterwards, Israel began to provide non-lethal assistance, and during the 1966 Iraqi offensive against Mustafa Barzani’s forces, Israeli officers reportedly assisted (Black & Morris, 1991, pp. 184-185). Likewise, Kurdish, and Turkish entities supported Mossad in Operation Diamond, when an Iraqi jet MIG21 was landed by a defector in Israel in 1966 (Gordon, Updated for 2009, p. Chapt. 2). The main collaboration counterpart for Israel in Iraqi Kurdistan is the Barzani family/clan, who maintained good relations with Türkiye until present. Testimony to this good relationship is the Turkish initiative to provide (Turkish) passports to Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani in the 1990s (Tarihi, 2003).

Literature indicates that an Egyptian journalist’s report confirmed the presence of Israeli officers in Iraq, engaged in espionage missions. In 1972, the US began to pump millions of dollars as a consequence of the recent Iraqi-Soviet agreement, and Israel followed closely. The Soviet weapons captured by Israel in the 1967 war, were also channeled to Mulla Mustafa Barzani and the Kurds through the Israeli military attaché in Tehran, Ya’kov Nimrodi. At that time, Barzani envisioned Israel conquering Syria and himself Iraq (Black & Morris, 1991, pp. 328-329). After the 1967 war, when Kurds kept the Iraqi forces alert in order to avoid a stronger attack on Israel, Barzani reportedly began to receive 50,000 USD per month from Israel (Ağdemir, 2022, pp. 67-68). The same source mentions that Barzani visited twice Israel, in 1968 and 1973, and Peshmerga performed the same maneuver in 1973 (as in 1968), when Iraqi troops were distracted from Yom Kippur War. By 1979, the strong base of Israel in Tehran vanished. Literature indicates that while Iran handed the Israeli Embassy in Tehran to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel was ramping up support for Peshmerga, the military force that Barzani / Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani / Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) maintained.

The relation between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan’s representatives had been kept secret until 1980, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledged them (Ağdemir, 2022, p. 69). Another article who acknowledges this recognition of relations also claims that as of 2012, Israeli state communications company Bezek was broadcasting “on behalf of KDP” in Iraqi Kurdistan (Neriah, 2012).

Internal conflicts among various Kurdish factions will not be assessed in detail, but a distinction has to be made between KDP, PUK in Iraqi Kurdistan (that pursued an internal conflict among them in 1994-1998) and the Kurdish organization Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Türkiye, organization designated as terrorist by the Turkish government and other governments around the world. Mossad’s operations and their Kurdish connections became known again with Operation Bunglegate, as it is called by Gordon in his book on Mossad (Gordon, Updated for 2009, p. Chapt. 17), led to the capturing of PKK back-then leader Abdullah Öcalan by Mossad in 1999. After sending a team after Öcalan, who was looking for refuge and protection against Turkish government and traveled through various countries, Mossad ended up in Kenya, a place where it had had a safe house, as Öcalan was being hosted by the Greek Embassy from this country. The Israeli team, that pretended to be Kurdish, then arranged a Falcon-900 executive jet and extracted Öcalan on the pretext he would be returned to Northern Iraq. Literature claims that Turkish operatives were already in the plane waiting, as he was going to be delivered to Türkiye directly. In order to avoid political tensions, Israel asked Türkiye to take full credit for Öcalan’s capture, which indeed occurred. However, the operation triggered reactions among Kurds in Türkiye and Northern Iraq, while the breach of security within Greek institutions led to further measures.

After 2003, Iraq’s invasion by the US and its allies led to Kurdish constitutional autonomy. Fast forward to 2017, a synchronized PR campaign reiterates Israel’s support for Kurdish independence as PM Netanyahu stated “We have very great sympathy for their desires and the world needs to concern itself with their safety and with their future” (AFP, 2017). In the same period, the Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer called upon Trump administration, a stance that was only supported by Israel according to the article cited (JTA, 2017). These declarations came amid the formation of Jewish Coalition for Kurdistan in the same period (October 2024), a Bruxelles-based organization chaired by Joel Rubinfeld who is also counts Alan Dershowitz, Irwin Cotler, Rabbi Abraham Cooper (chair of US Commission on International Religious Freedom as of 2024) among its honorary board members (JTA, 2017).

A Tasnim News article claims in January 2024 that Peshraw Majid Agha Dizayee, who was targeted and killed by the Iranian strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan, was “considered influential within the Mossad spy network” and he allegedly had connections with Hossein Yazdanpanah – also connected to the Israeli organization. The article also names Ilan Nissim as the commander of “Tasa Elite,” allegedly involved in training paramilitary troops (Tasnim, 2024).

It must be mentioned that this is not the only recent attack on Israel’s assets in Erbil region. Middle East Monitor claimed back in 2022 that a “Mossad assassination unit chief” was “likely killed in Kurdistan attack”, without mentioning the perpetrators (MEMO, 2022). Considering the above developments and events, which span from the creation of Israel until present, it is difficult to claim that Mossad’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan can be simply denied even if considering solely open source information. Not only does literature detail this presence, but Israeli regional strategies are in line with a possible crucial Mossad presence in this region.

Constraints on public communication related to Mossad presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and their regional implications

It is mentioned in literature that Mossad’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan has been maintained as a secret for decades. For example, Black & Morris state: “Despite their deepening involvement, the Israelis tried to keep a low profile and it is uncertain whether the ordinary Peshmerga fighters knew their identity. Sometimes the Israeli advisers wore Iranian army uniforms, but not all of them could speak Farsi” (Black & Morris, 1991, p. 329). As regional politics evolved and Israel managed to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, and subsequently with other Arab-Muslim nations through the Abraham Accords, a new conflict of interests arises among Israel on one side, and Türkiye and Iran on the other. Amid an ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip, which represents a core problem in the Middle East, both Türkiye and Iran brace for an Israeli-American push towards Kurdish independence that has the potential to at least inspire more autonomy or even independence of their own Kurdish populations. From this perspective any disclosure of collaboration between Mossad/Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan, can only further motivate Iran to invest in countering adverse operations in the area, as it has done in recent past: in 2022, Iran reportedly asked Baghdad to disarm Kurdish groups that it also targeted directly on Iraqi soil, like for example Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) or Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) (van Wilgenburg, 2023).

In a similar manner, Türkiye is countering Kurdish separatist efforts at home, in Syria and Iraq in what appears to be a major spat with its NATO partner the USA. While a historic degree of understanding between Türkiye and Kurdish leadership from Erbil, there are many political directions within Kurdish populations from the three countries and Türkiye is following closely. The level of pressure Türkiye is exerting on the Kurds is reflected also by allegations in the Turkish press that Barzani could be Jewish based on association with Jews from the area carrying the name Barzani in recent centuries. But these allegations were denied by the Istanbul-based Jewish historian Rifat Bali (Schleifer, 2003). As the US is allegedly withdrawing from the Middle East in a bid to allow Israel to take over in regional geopolitics, the strategy of Türkiye is aiming more regional influence rather than a switch from American influence to Israeli domination. The implications relate not only to Iraqi Kurdistan or Syria, but important energy and trade routes, collaboration on issues like for example water resources, among many other regional issues. For the moment, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan have not reached a point in which they afford to openly disclose their full ties, and as long as Türkiye and Iran are on the same page, the “ancient biblical people” (Kurds) may have to closely manage their public appearances with Israeli representatives.


This article analyzed the presence of Israeli agents on Iraqi Kurdistan’s soil in the context of previous and present denials issued by Kurdish officials. Literature on region’s history, politics, and security after 1948 indicates both an Israeli strategic approach to cooperate with Iraqi Kurdistan and events that highly correlate Mossad with actions within and around Iraqi Kurdistan, carried out with the support of Kurdish political milieu or armed factions like the Peshmerga. The study also identifies that public disclosure of details on this decades-long relation is carefully managed due to possible new tensions with Iran or Türkiye.



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MEMO. (2022, 06 10). Sources: Mossad assassination unit chief likely killed in Kurdistan attack. Retrieved from Middle East Monitor:

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Tasnim. (2024, 01 21). Bussinessman or Mossad Partner: Who Was Peshraw Dizayee Targeted in IRGC’s Missile Strikes on Erbil? . Retrieved from Tasnim News Agency:

van Wilgenburg, W. (2023, 09 13). Iran’s Pressure Campaign on Iranian Kurds Continues. Retrieved from Fikra Forum.

Wright, G., & Gritten, D. (2024, 01 16). US condemns Iran for ‘reckless’ missile strikes on northern Iraq. Retrieved from BBC:



[1] The term Iraqi Kurdistan is utilized to designate the Iraqi geographical area and its political establishment as it is, without any prejudice to national Iraqi sovereignty, claims or disputes whatsoever.


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About the author:

Prof. Ecaterina MATOI

Prof. Ecaterina MAŢOI is Program Director at MEPEI.

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