Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iranian reactions to Kurdistan

Iran will have to act fast if it is to douse the flames left by September’s referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, writes Camelia Entekhabifard


IRGC Commander Mohamed Ali Jafari (left) and Zarif during a coordination meeting for the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran (photo: Reuters)
IRGC Commander Mohamed Ali Jafari (left) and Zarif during a coordination meeting for the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran (photo: Reuters)

With US President Donald Trump expected to designate the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, a new Iranian crisis seems to be brewing. Trump is expected to roll out a broader and more hawkish US strategy on Iran next week, which Iran will have to respond to or risk falling into a series of further crises.

Iran has said that the United States will be “joining the terrorists’ camp” if it chooses to designate the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation. “The world should be thankful to the Revolutionary Guards for their fight against terrorists, especially against Daesh” (the Islamic State group), Iranian spokesman Mohamed Baqer Nobakht said in a conference broadcast live on television.

“By taking a stance against the Revolutionary Guards and designating it as a terrorist group, the Americans will be joining the terrorists’ camp,” he said.

Iranian officials have been so busy trying to save the Iran nuclear deal from the threats made against it by Trump that they have also seemed to have forgotten to stop the referendum on independence in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region that took place at the end of September and mediate between Iraq and the Kurds.

The referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq has been considered not only a threat to the national security of Iraq, but also to that of Iran, Turkey and Syria, all of which have refused to accept the referendum as legitimate.

Iran and Turkey each have large Kurdish populations, and the central governments’ relations with them have not always been friendly. Separatist Kurdish groups have long clashed with the Iranian and Turkish governments, and the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan may have encouraged Kurds elsewhere to demand their independence.

Footage from the Iranian Kurdish cities of Marivan and Sanandaj released recently has shown huge crowds of Kurds come out onto the streets to celebrate the positive answer to the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum that took place on 25 September.

While it was too late for the Iranians to halt the referendum, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the referendum “treason” and “a plot orchestrated by Israel.”

In a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran last week, Khamenei called the referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan the result of foreign countries setting out to create a “new Israel” in the region.

Israel is the only regional country that has supported the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.

During Erdogan’s visit to Tehran, both countries stood firm against the Kurdish decision to seek independence from Iraq, saying that military intervention could be considered to stop it.

Neither the European Union nor the United States has recognised the outcome of the Kurdish referendum, but the harsh position of the Iranians may have shocked the Iraqi Kurds since the latter have wanted to see Iran as a potential ally.

Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has enjoyed close relations to Iranian ruling circles for a long time. Many Kurdish leaders lived in Iran during the rule of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, developing warm relations that were subsequently reinforced after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Barzani secured the borders with the Iranian territory of Kurdistan in order to control separatist Kurdish Iranians who from time to time had led operations against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Khamenei’s comments and the joint military exercise with Turkey on the frontier with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will have angered the Iraqi Kurds despite their need for Iran and Turkey in terms of trade and business.

Finding themselves in such circumstances with trusted allies and at the same time in a trouble relationship with the central government of Iraq in Baghdad, the Kurdish leaders may adopt a new strategy.  

Turkey has not closed its borders with Kurdistan, but it has halted flights due to the Iraqi government’s cancellation of flight permissions to the region. Turkey’s economy depends on cheap gas and oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan, but for Iran the case is different, and the authorities in Tehran may fear losing a partner and a loyal friend if the confrontation in the region continues.

With the prospect of a new drama in the region and this time a confrontation with the Kurds, Iran will have to act fast before the flames draw others into the conflagration.

While Baghdad has asked Iran and Turkey to halt their business ties with Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went to Suleimaniah in Kurdistan to attend the funeral of the late president of Iraq, a Kurd, Jalal Talabani.

Zarif’s attendance at the funeral was designed to build bridges at a time when many Kurds have been disappointed to see Iran stand alongside Turkey in speaking harshly against them.

His presence at the funeral may be a sign that Iran will not pursue Turkey’s policy towards the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

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