Iran warns Iraqi Kurds on independence
ERBIL - Iran warned the Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani for calling for the division of Iraq in a 25 June statement released by Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman. The statement is a message from Iran that they will not accept a Kurdish independent state allied to Turkey and shows that they are fully supporting the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Kurds are emboldened by their recent territorial gains after the Iraqi army withdrew from most of the areas disputed by Baghdad and Erbil. This included gaining full-control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the Kurds now suggest they should receive at least 25% of the Iraqi budget.
But although Iran historically maintains good ties with the Kurds, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s when Baghdad was still their main enemy, ties between Baghdad and Tehran now are closer.
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Shiite parties allied to Iran dominated the Iraqi government, and Iran has always preferred a Shiite-Kurdish government to rule the country since Iraq’s first elections in 2005. But due to tensions over territory and oil exports, the Shiite-Kurdish alliance has broken down.
Iran foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Marzieh Afgham said that “we hope to end those type of reactions about the division of Iraq” in reaction to Barzani’s comments to CNN on 23 June in which he called for Kurdish self-determination.
“Those are the reactions of Iraq’s enemies and all Iraqi political parties want a united Iraq. Iraq can stand against terrorism and we hope for a united Iraq in the end,” Agham said, as quoted by Kurdish press.
The Iranian government also accused US Secretary of State John Kerry of attempting to divide Iraq, despite the US insisting on Iraq’s territorial integrity and the central government in their oil dispute with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a member of Iran's Guardian Council reportedly said that Iran and Iraq would not accept the division of Iraq. "Whoever attempts to divide Iraq is serving American interests.”
On 22 June, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei strongly rejected any cooperation with the US against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL). Feeling emboldened by Iranian support, Maliki also rejected US calls for an inclusive emergency government to deal with the crisis.
Iran was angered by the Kurdish refusal to support the Iraqi government against ISIL. The KRG’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani met with high-level Iranian security officials on 16 June in which Tehran urged the Kurds to support Baghdad.
"Today Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis should unite to defend Iraq, restore peace and security in that country and repel the danger of terrorism and its development in the region, " Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said, reported Fars News.
But Kurds rejected Tehran’s call, suggesting they would not fight a war on behalf of Iran or Baghdad and instead wanting a political solution for the current crisis. “Why should Kurds go and fight? This is an internal [Iraqi Arab] matter,” suggested a Kurdish diplomat to Middle East Eye.
“The Peshmerga forces are ready to be killed for their land, but not for Arab land,” Halgurd Hikmet, a spokesperson of Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces, told MEE. “Our strategy in Kurdistan is to fight all the terrorists in the area,” he added.
Hawar Abdulrazaq, editor-in-chief for the English section of the Kurdish Bas News Agency, told MEE that Iran is afraid of losing its influence.
“In my opinion, Iran is against Kurdish opinion, because they fear another anti-Iranian country would be established in the region, and it will weaken their influence in Iraq as well.”
Following the Kurdish refusal to support Baghdad, the pro-Iranian Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia leader Qais al-Khazali threatened the Kurds and accused them of working with ISIL, Turkey and Qatar to undermine Baghdad.
The Kurdish newspaper Rudaw and the Financial Times reported that Kurdish taxi drivers in Baghdad were harassed by Shiite militias following his statement.
Moreover, the Iranian army started to shell Kurdish villages for three days on Monday on the border following clashes between the Kurdish rebel group the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) and Iranian security forces.
“This is a warning message to KRG leaders and to tell the Kurds not to talk about independence. Nothing is done in Baghdad without Tehran’s permission,” Abdulrazaq said.
The Kurds most likely will react by seeking even stronger ties with Turkey, and there are some signs that Turkey has concluded that the division of Iraq is inevitable.
Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief for the pro-Turkish government daily Yeni Safak, suggested that Turkey should prepare for the division of Iraq and cooperate with Kurds. “As Erbil breaks off from Baghdad, they will come closer to Turkey,” he wrote.
On 26 June, a Kurdish delegation led by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and including the governor of oil rich Kirkuk Najmaddin Karim, travelled to Turkey to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The inclusion of the Kirkuk governor in the delegation might be an indication that the Kurds will offer the benefits of the recently secured Kirkuk oil-fields to Turkey.
“We expect to be able to export 1 million bpd by the end of next year, including crude from Kirkuk,” the KRG’s natural resource minister Ashti Hawrami told Reuters on Wednesday.
Thus while it remains likely that Turkey will support the Iraqi Kurds, the Iranian government could take unexpected measures against the Kurds if they decide to go against Baghdad and attempt to send Shiite militias into disputed territories such in Kirkuk and Diyala to challenge the Kurds, or to close the Iranian border crossings with Kurdistan.