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Tehran is increasingly nervous about a potential bid by Iraq’s Kurds for independence. First, an independent Kurdish state next door could incite Iran’s own Kurdish minority, setting a dangerous precedent in the multiethnic country. Second, the two countries likely to have the most leverage over an independent Kurdistan would be Turkey and Israel, Iran’s regional rivals. From Tehran’s perspective, a Kurdish blowback inside Iran and a Turkish and Israeli geopolitical win at its expense has to be thwarted.
Reading Barzani’s Game
Tehran’s fears about Iraqi Kurdish intentions are rooted in deeper fears about Iraq imploding as a nation-state. In recent weeks, the president of the Kurdish region in Iraq, Massoud Barzani, has been feeding speculation about his people breaking away from Iraq. He announced on June 30 that he intends to hold a referendum on independence “within months.” Barzani has since been arguing that such a step is a mere formality, as Iraq is already effectively partitioned into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions. In the meantime, he has been gauging the regional and international community’s reception of his plans.
In Tehran, where reading Kurdish tea leaves is the latest trend, opinion is split between those who see Barzani as engaging in the theatrics of brinkmanshipand those who take him at his word. The skeptics, who are in the minority, say Barzani is playing a political game with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, raising the prospect of independence in order to secure territorial and political concessions from a beleaguered central government in Baghdad. In other words, they suspect that Barzani is mainly an opportunist, not necessarily a separatist.
The majority of Iranian officials, however, sees Barzani as strongly committed to Kurdish independence, and sees him maneuvering to take advantage of the politically fluid circumstances in Iraq and in the Middle East to launch such a bid. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab and African affairs, even felt it necessary to publicly warn that “all Iraqi factions should respect the country’s constitution . . . to prevent the country from breaking up.” In Abdollahian’s words, Iraq’s Kurds should “face reality.” In this case, facing reality means accepting that Tehran will do what it can to prevent an independent Kurdistan carved out of northern Iraq.
Why Fear Kurdistan?
At the heart of Tehran’s anxieties lies a decades-old fear of spillover of the Kurdish self-determination movement, and an independent and secular Kurdistan becoming a geopolitical and ideological liability.
Militant Kurds in Iran previously established independent regions around the time of the First and Second World Wars, while the central authorities in Tehran were too weak to resist. Kurdish militancy continued to simmer throughout the reign of the Shah, and they took up arms against Tehran immediately after the Iranian revolution in 1979. This became a full-fledged insurgency that took a number of years to quell.
Militancy among a small pocket of Iran’s Kurds is still alive today, most notably linked to PJAK (The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), which is an offshoot of PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Over the last decade, PJAK’s antigovernment attacks have been localized and small scale. Tehran wants to keep it that way, and fears what would result if the Iraqi Kurds won independence.
These fears are not just heard from Iran’s military and intelligence agencies, but seem to be shared more widely in Iranian society. Mardom Salari, a prominent reformist-leaning newspaper, recently felt the need to issue a warning that, “Given the spread of Kurdish people in four countries of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the independence of Kurdistan will have its [regional] political consequences and security threats.” That Iran is a multiethnic country only exacerbates Tehran’s angst about other ethnic-minority communities becoming emboldened by Kurdish separatism.
A Vassal State?
On the other hand, Iranian state-run media is inundated with rumors that somehow the West is concocting a scheme for the partition of Iraq. They point to visits made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague to Erbil in late June as pivotal gestures of support for Barzani’s independence plans. That both Kerry and Hague urged Barzani to prioritize working toward a politically inclusive central government in Baghdad is deliberately ignored.
Among its closer rivals, Tehran is principally concerned about Turkey and Israel. Barzani’s close political and economic ties to Ankara are hardly a secret. Even though Turkey is still officially against independence for Iraq’s Kurds—as Barzani was reportedly told when he visited Ankara last week—the prevailing wisdom in Tehran suggests that the Turkish policy on this question is increasingly driven by its desire to counter Tehran’s regional ambitions. The Iranians believe the Turks would rather see Iraq’s Kurds break away than remain in a federal Iraq beholden to the Shia-led, Tehran-backed central government in Baghdad.
Then there is the question of Israel’s close historic ties to the Iraqi Kurds. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s June 30 call of support for an independent Kurdish state rattled the Iranians and has to lead to some unusually harsh anti-Barzani statements from Tehran. Qods, a hardline outlet, chastised Barzani for his “betrayal and opportunism” and called his plan to hold a referendum on independence to be part of “Israel’s game” to find a soft foothold on Iran’s doorstep.
Erbil has felt compelled to hit back against Iran’s rhetoric. On July 12, the Kurdistan National Congress (KNC), an umbrella movement spanning the Middle East, openly criticized Iran for its stance on Kurdish independence. The KNC statement charged that Tehran is looking to divide the Kurds in order to halt the momentum behind the independence movement. Signs of such a strategy have been visible in Iran’s public statements, which have sought to depict Barzani’s independence bid to be opposed by other Kurdish leaders.
The one man the Iranians have focused on most is Jalal Talabani, the ailing president of Iraq, who has long been a political rival of Barzani in Iraqi Kurdish politics. Talabani’s party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has largely stayed out of the recent debate over secession, instead focusing on jockeying its top members for the top post available to Kurds under the Iraqi constitution: that of president. In other words, the PUK policy stance echoes Tehran’s hopes for the state of Iraq to remain intact.
With Talabani’s return to Iraq on July 19 after an eighteen-month medical leave abroad, Tehran will likely intensify its support for PUK and other Iraqi Kurdish entities opposed to Barzani’s call for independence. Still, as it weighs its options and other regional commitments, Tehran can hardly afford an overtly aggressive strategy. A policy designed to foment internal disagreement among Iraqi Kurds may be the magic bullet Tehran is seeking to derail its nightmare of Kurdish independence.
Alex Vatanka is a Senior Fellow at The Middle East Institute.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/alam dolamari/CC by-sa 4.0