US Army veteran Ryan O'Leary returned to Iraq earlier this year with the goal of helping Kurdish Peshmerga forces battling Islamic State (ISIS), but there he found the greater threat to the Kurds to be Iran, not ISIS.
O'Leary served in Iraq back in 2007-8, and then in Afghanistan from 2010-11. This year he went back to Iraq to help the Kurds, and is currently on the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country, fighting with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) in the Qandil mountains.
"I've pretty much changed my view," he told TIME in an interview published Monday. "There's no difference between Iran and ISIS, they do the exact same thing to these people. It's just not reported as much."
He detailed that Iran has shelled Kurdish villages near the border and executed civilians in the same region.
The KDPI is a political organization representing Iran's Kurds. Iran has outlawed the party for many years, largely due to its calls for more independence and autonomy as well as social democracy.
Speaking about the troops that he is training and fighting with, O'Leary said the group is "trying to avoid direct conflict," and instead is preparing to fend off Iranian border incursions that he thinks will be launched if the US approves the Iran nuclear deal.
He argued that as military sanctions are removed from the leading state sponsor of terror, it will feel free to step up its repression of rebel minorities such as the Kurds.
"I think this will escalate to armed conflict, and when it does I’ll be there for it."
O'Leary first arrived in Erbil, which is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. There he met a KDPI faction official who spoke to him about Iran's dangerous role in the region, and convinced him it was the greater danger than ISIS.
"ISIS isn’t a permanent threat to Kurdistan or even the region,” O’Leary said. “But the influence from Iran in this region is getting insanely huge. It’s a hardline religious view.”
According to him, he became "basically the first Westerner they’ve ever let in" to the KDPI units guarding the border northeast of Erbil.
The KDPI troops under his tutelage are not experienced like the Peshmerga forces fighting ISIS in northern Iraq, and recruits age as old as 60.
O'Leary plans to stay in Iraq until he feels that his presence has made a difference, and his goals of raising international awareness to the Iranian threat against the Kurds and preparing Kurdish forces to face Iran are met.