The US-Iranian Convergence on Kurdish Referendum Shocks Erbil
The Kurds in Iraq will not benefit from the absolute stubbornness against the fury of the governments of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and even the United States over the insistence of their leadership to hold an independence referendum that effectively leads to the partition of Iraq. It will not be wise for Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver on his threat to send forces to the oil fields in Kirkuk and impose a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, if the president of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani does not hand over control of the airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah to Baghdad. Furthermore, Abadi’s pledge to the Iraqi parliament that the government would not enter in dialogue with the Kurdish leadership unless it abolishes the referendum and its outcomes, blocks any possible political accord and opens the door to a military confrontation between Arabs and Kurds, and may even invite Turkish and Iranian intervention. The accumulated mistakes and stubbornness of the Kurdish leaders led to the dangerous current situation, where the Kurds have backed themselves into a difficult corner emerging from which safely will not be easy. The supporters of the referendum believe backing down from it would have been political suicide for Barzani, without international guarantees and a firm timeline for independence. But critics blame Barzani for taking such a big risk against all advice and entreaties to postpone the vote, so that the Kurds do not trigger the partition of Iraq. These critics now say that the Kurds are committing suicide between the fangs of Turkey and Iran and the claws of the Iraqi state because of their determination to hold the referendum at this time. Now, there is no other option but to back down for all players. There is a dire need for preemptive American and Russian intervention to prevent further deterioration and a military confrontation. The Saudi-led Gulf engagement of Iraq recently could pave the way for a positive role in the context of internal power dynamics in Iraq, especially in light of improving relations with Haider al-Abadi. The Kurds are saying the state of Iraq is a sectarian Iranian-dominated entity, where one of the leading goals of their referendum is to engage in serious dialogue with Baghdad, using the results of the vote as a card to secure a confederate democratic state in Iraq, instead of continuing to allow Iraq to be subjected to Iran’s will. But what now after tension reached dangerous levels, with threats issued not only for Erbil to abolish the referendum, which Baghdad deems to be illegitimate and unconstitutional, but also giving Kurdish leaders 72 hours to handover airports, crossings, and northern oil fields in Kirkuk and disputed areas to the control of the central government in Baghdad.
Perhaps one of the easiest and simultaneously toughest compromises lies in defining the purpose of the referendum, to render it closer to being a poll rather than a document initiating Kurdish statehood in Iraq. This way, it would be possible to buy time to start negotiations, while acknowledging the reality that 92 percent of Kurdish voters voted in favor of independence. This way too, the Iraqi government can gently back down from its impossible and illogical demands for having the referendum, which has already been held, abolished.
Several US circles have encouraged the Kurds in Iraq to press with their independence project ahead, deeming a Kurdish independent state in Iraq an irreversible fait accompli. These circles have blessed the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk as a key source of oil wealth, based on the premise that imposing a de facto reality on Baghdad would force it to accept it. These American circles persuaded Kurdish leaders that the time is right to impose an independent Kurdish state now, and that the time has come to cash in on the Kurdish military investments in partnership with the United States against ISIS.
The surprise came to Kurdish leaders through the positions declared by the Trump administration. The Kurds did not want to believe the US objection was serious and were shocked by the US reaction. The Kurdish leadership had been overwhelmingly confident about US support for their independence project, which in practical terms was a project for starting the partition of Iraq. To be sure, the US had put the Kurds in the front lines of the war on ISIS, and the Kurds believed that had secured for them a distinguished position with Washington.
Then there is the Iran factor, which was an unknown number in the calculations of Iraq’s Kurds. At times they had received military support from Iran during anti-ISIS operations, but at most other times, the Kurds understood that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were exporting their model to Iraq via the Popular Mobilization Units to dominate the country. The institutionalization of the PMUs was a source of concern for the Kurds, who believed that unless they acted immediately, it would soon be too late, and the Kurds would lose their seat at the table.
“We are the obstacle hindering the Iranian project in the region,” as one informed Kurdish source put it. “The Kurdish leaders have refused to allow Kurdish areas to be corridors for Iranian weapons shipments to Syria.” This is why the US position was shocking to the Kurds, as it effectively endorsed Iran’s projects in Iraq. “They proved their loyalty to their biggest ally, Iran, despite their claims that it is a threat to their friends and that it is a sponsor of terror.”