The independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has resulted in a tumultuous aftermath that recalls the old adage that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains. Reaction by all neighbors, including the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, has been harsh. Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish-backed forces have occupied Kurdish areas in the month following the referendum. KRG president Masoud Barzani is stepping down. But the referendum has brought attention to the Kurdish cause and exposed the machinations of neighbors with large Kurdish populations, particularly Iran. It may lead, unexpectedly, to U.S. recognition that an independent Kurdistan is actually a plus for stability and American interests in the region.
Barzani decided on June 7 to hold an independence referendum to secede from Iraq. Almost all political parties in the KRG supported the referendum decision except for the change movement (Gorran) and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal). The referendum was held on September 25th despite objections from Baghdad, the neighbors, and the rest of the international community including the United States and Britain. In fact, the only country that supported the referendum openly was Israel. Despite such opprobrium and attempts to halt the vote, independence was favored by 92.7 percent of the electorate.
The central government of Baghdad all along was threatening the Kurdistan regional government, as did Turkey, Syria, and in particularly Iran. These neighboring countries have large and significant Kurdish populations and fear that if the Kurdistan region of Iraq becomes independent, their Kurdish population would demand the same.
What Iran Fears
Iran fears an independent Kurdistan, because it might influence its 7 million Iranian Kurds to aspire to secede from Iran. Before the referendum took place, Iran tried to persuade the KRG to postpone the referendum, and when that did not work, they tried hard to divide the Kurdish house.
In July, they invited to Tehran Jalal Talabani, the former president of Iraq who died just eight days after the referendum, and still then the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two most powerful political parties in the KRG. The Iranians called the visit friendly, although Talabani had had a stroke, was hospitalized for more then five years, and lost the ability to communicate. Second, Iran invited the PUK politburo to Tehran to persuade them to support the idea of postponing or canceling the referendum. That attempt did not worked either; the deputy PUK leader Kosrat Rasul refused the request.
Plainly, Iran fears Kurdish unity. In 2014, for example, ISIS attacked Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurds all around the Middle East fought side by side to defend Kurdish homelands including Iranian Kurdish peshmerga forces of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Komala (two main Kurdish political opposition in Iran). Iran demanded that these Iranian peshmerga forces would not be allowed to fight ISIS and gain battle experience. Because of the sensitivity of the situation, KRG agreed and did not allow the PDKI peshmerga to help them in the fight against ISIS. Afterwards, in spring 2016 the PDKI decided to send back their peshmerga forces to Iranian Kurdistan, and other Iranian Kurdish political parties followed with their peshmerga forces. Several clashes have occurred between these peshmerga forces and the Iranian Quds forces, with casualties on both sides.
“That Kurdish aspirations for a state have been betrayed repeatedly by regional and global powers constitutes a moral case for independence.”
Before the referendum, Iranian officials argued that Iranian Kurds would not behave like the Iraqi Kurds because they were treated equally with other Iranian people and that the Islamic Republic of Iran did not distinguish between different groups of people in Iran. On the referendum day and the following day, thousands of Iranian Kurds took to the streets in different cities in Iranian Kurdistan and celebrated the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum. They shouted that they are with their brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan and that freedom will come soon to them as well. Iranian police forces arrested several celebrators because they had waved the Kurdish flag, and the Internet was shut down for several days.
PDKI leader Mustafa Hijri, in an interview with Al Jazeera, reaffirmed not only his party’s support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, but his belief that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will have a positive impact on Iranian Kurdistan. He believes that once the people of Iraqi Kurdistan achieve their freedom, Iranian Kurds will also realize that they could go on the same path as their brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This, of course, is precisely what Tehran fears. Iranian officials have tried to downsize the importance of the KRG referendum on their Kurdish population. Recently, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani dismissed the connection between the referendum and their own Kurdish population: “We will in no way count the political mistakes of some people in the Kurdistan Region [KRG] on you. You are part of the great Iranian nation. You are a loyal nation. You are among Iran’s oldest nations in the region. You have always stood by the Islamic revolution and stood by the Iranian nation in the imposed war with Iraq.” Mr. Rouhani’s statement was in fact a threat towards his own Kurdish population. He is trying to tell Iranian Kurds, if you demand anything more then what you have today, there is no one who can protect you.
Iran’s attitude toward the KRG independence vote is more clearly expressed in how it has influenced the Baghdad government, and what it has done militarily on the ground.
Iran’s Influence On Iraq
The key to understanding the current mess in Iraqi Kurdistan is the outsized influence of Tehran in post-Saddam Iraq. The 2005 constitution, significantly shaped by the U.S. occupiers, was meant to resolve the sovereignty of the disputed areas around oil-rich Kirkuk, but serious talks have never been convened. At the same time, the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad has for years treated Sunni Arabs harshly (giving rise to ISIS) and Kurds with neglect. The Shia-dominated army and militias collapsed in the first encounters with ISIS, leaving the Kurds (backed by Iran and U.S. air power) as the only effective counter to the Islamic States’ bloodthirsty assaults. Despite that failure, Iran has exceptional influence on the Iraqi state.
The dominance of the Shia in Baghdad is occasioned by the 60 percent majority the sect has in Iraq. Iran, officially Shia, not only influenced Baghdad as co-religionists but also because so many in Baghdad leadership were exiled in Iran during Saddam’s reign. With less U.S. presence in the country since the formal withdrawal of troops in 2011, Iranian influence has increased. It is common that visitors in Baghdad can encounter pictures of the ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, unthinkable before the 2003 occupation and a striking symbol of this influence.
Tehran is guiding Baghdad on the assault in Kurdistan. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani, has served as an adviser to Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi and has been neck deep in the Kurdish crisis, blamed by Iraqi Kurdish officials for masterminding the attack on the disputed areas between Kurdistan and Iraq. Other Iranian forces allegedly involved — the Iranian Hashed Al-Shabi forces, other Revolutionary Guard units, and Hezbollah — were able to move into Kirkuk and the KRG with little resistance from the Peshmerga because Suleimani elegantly divided the Kurdish house. He forged an agreement between Iran and some factions of PUK officials who were dissatisfied with Barzani’s leadership, alarmed by the broad opposition to the referendum in the international community, and sought a deal that would benefit them in all ways.
After the clashes between the Iranian-led forces and the Kurdish peshmerga forces, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that Iran acting (meaning attacking) in Kurdistan prevented the birth of a second Israel in Middle East. The Iranian, Turkish, and Iraqi charge that the idea of an independent Kurdistan was initiated by Israel and some Kurdish leaders (mainly Barzani), despite the fact Barzani’s late father Mustafa Barzani was fighting for an independent Kurdistan before the establishment of the state of Israel. This tarnishing of Kurdish aspirations is a typical ploy of the Islamic Republic, again masking the worries about its restive Kurdish population.
An Independent Kurdistan And The U.S.
In recent days, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the Iranian forces must leave Iraq after the fight against ISIS is over. This request was quickly dismissed not only by Iran but also by Iraq. Tillerson’s statement is an acknowledgement that the American policy of containing and rolling back gains by Iran in the region is weak. Some of this vulnerability is tied to Iran’s demonstration of power in the Kurdish crisis.
Washington strongly opposed the Kurdistan referendum and told Kurdish officials that the timing was wrong. When the Kurds asked when the proper time would be, there was no proper answer. The Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey are all connected, part of a greater Kurdistan, a national identity. The fact that Kurdish aspirations for a state have been betrayed repeatedly by regional and global powers constitutes a moral case for independence. But there is also a strategic rationale that should appeal to Washington.
Iran will continue to present problems for peace and stability in the region, as does Syria, a corrupt and unstable Iraq, and the potential rise of another ISIS before long. Turkey, the most prominent ally of the United States in the region (besides Israel), has drifted away from the Western alliance under the erratic and belligerent President Erdogan. Not only did Turkey refuse U.S. armed forces the use of their military base Incirlik twice during the wars in Iraq, but also refused to help against ISIS at crucial moments. Turkey is cultivating closer ties to Iran and Russia, a process that has NATO leaders alarmed.
As a result of Turkey’s unreliability and the continuing chaos in the Middle East, an independent Kurdistan should appear increasingly attractive to American policy makers. Independence for the KRG is not only the right thing to do for the Kurdish people, but could provide several possibilities for a stabilizing U.S. presence in the region. Kurdish people are favorably inclined toward the United States, and welcome a U.S. military presence. Such a “presence” need not be a large enterprise, nor should a Kurdish state become an expensive security sink for the United States. But it’s worth considering if the Pentagon can design, possibly with other major NATO partners, an all-purpose mission, including readiness for humanitarian and peacekeeping tasks, to be stationed there.
Before that can happen, the Kurds in Iraq must move decisively to end internal divisions, corruption, and anti-democratic habits. This is primarily the responsibility of the KDP, but must be inclusive of all political players. It is an enormous challenge, and one that current leadership is incapable of carrying out. Kurdish cousins in surrounding countries need to support such a cleansing. Then diplomatic efforts with the Baghdad government, under the provisions of the constitution, should move assertively forward toward confederation as a logical next step.
None of these steps is easy or inevitable. But the conventional wisdom that the referendum was a terrible mistake can be turned on its head. Paradoxically, the referendum “disaster” may shake up the status quo enough to move players in the right direction. With American backing, the long-held hope of a Kurdish state is visible and advisable.
Aswo Safari is senior lecturer at Uppsala University, Sweden. John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies.