Erbil, Iraq – A deal over Iran’s nuclear programme might further embolden its pursuit of regional hegemony and could have ramifications on its relations with Iraqi Kurds, Kurdish officials said.
“Iran might exploit the new circumstances to further expand its influence politically,” said Shakhawan Abdulla, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two major parties in the Kurdish region’s government. “And it might bring Kurdistan under its control and attempt to undermine the region’s security,” Abdulla told Al Jazeera.
“Kurds have a place in the region and so the deal will have an impact on us,” he added.
Although officially part of Iraq, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its dominant party, KDP, have in recent years pursued policies that largely diverge from the direction taken by the central government in Baghdad, a strong Iran ally.
While, the Iraqi government has been suspected of cooperating with Iran to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the KRG has resisted pressure from Tehran to support Assad’s regime, instead it came closer to some of the opposition groups there.
According to analysts, within the context of broader regional rivalries, the KDP, which often directs KRG’s policies, has been more aligned with Turkey and Gulf Sunni Arab states.
But when fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group approached the gates of Erbil, the Kurdish capital last summer, Iran was the first foreign nation to help Iraqi Kurds.
Yet the KRG has preferred to work more closely with the US-led international coalition rather than Iran and its circle of Shia paramilitary allies. Kurds have relied heavily on the coalition’s air support and military assistance, which is estimated to be worth over $180m.
This stands in contrast to the policy adopted by the government in Baghdad and its Shia paramilitary allies, who have relied deeply on Iran for support in their fight against ISIL.
Iran, suspicious of the KRG for desiring to secede from Iraq, has warned the Kurds not to pursue such a goal.
Whereas some Kurdish officials like Abdulla are concerned that a deal might encourage Iran to further its influence in the region, others downplay the destabilising impact this shift could have on Iraqi Kurds.
Mahmoud Osman, a veteran Kurdish politician, has dealt closely with Iran under the shah and the Islamic republic that came to power after the 1979 revolution.
He believes that, while some Arab countries in the Gulf and broader region may have reason to fear the repercussions of a deal, the concern becomes redundant when it comes to Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish region, since Iran already has remarkable clout in Iraq.
“Even now [without a deal], Iran … has the upper hand in Iraq and exerts a great deal of influence and enjoys ties with the groups here,” Osman told Al Jazeera. “Deal or no deal, Iran’s influence and links will continue in Iraq… A deal will calm down the situation in the region and bring down violence, and so Kurds should not be worried.“
Internal Kurdish rivalries have paved the way for neighbouring countries to establish spheres of influence in the region.
Deal or no deal, Iran's influence and links will continue in Iraq ... A deal will calm down the situation in the region and bring down violence, and so Kurds should not be worried.
While the KDP, led by KRG President Massoud Barzani, sidles up to Turkey, its major rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is the party of Iraq’s President Fuad Massoum.
The PUK, which has developed strong ties with Iran, dominates the local administrations that control the southern part of the Kurdish region.
Meanwhile, the KDP is in charge of the northern half, where Turkish businesses have established a strong presence in the cities of Erbil and Dohuk. Yet, Iran still gets a larger slice of the business-and-trade pie in the southern part in Sulaymaniyah province.
And as the KDP favours a more independent arrangement with Baghdad, the PUK advocates for better relations with the central government and has even allowed Shia paramilitary groups to set up bases and recruit locals in some of the areas it controls, such as Kirkuk province and northern portions of Diyala and Salahuddin provinces.
“Iran has an interest in the Kurds being weak and not united,” said Osman. “But Kurds must be united and not allow Iranian or Turkish influence to grow and have an impact on them.”
Iran comes second as a major trading partner for Iraqi Kurds after Turkey. In 2013, the year before ISIL expanded its presence in Iraq and plunged the country into a full-fledged war, the volume of trade exchange between Iraq’s KRG and Iran exceeded $4bn, according to KRG officials.
As a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is expected to prompt the removal of some of the economic sanctions on Iran, Kurds might be poised to reap the fruits of an Iranian economic boom. “Iranian economic influence will bring with it increased prospects for economic growth and investments,” said Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute, a largely KRG-funded think-tank in Erbil.
“The KRG, for example, is interested in importing gas from Iran in order to produce cheap electricity,” Siddiqi told Al Jazeera. “Iran is interested in oil and gas pipeline deals with the KRG and vice versa, and one expects such deals to go through after the nuclear agreement.”
Not all are concerned that a nuclear deal means a larger Iranian role in Iraq. Some, in fact, predict the opposite may happen.
“So far, because there has been no deal and there are sanctions, Iran wants to show it is strong and does what it wants, hence its interventions in places like Iraq, its autonomous Kurdistan region, Syria and elsewhere,” said Abdulsalam Barwari, a former member of Kurdish parliament from the KDP.
“I think in the event of a deal, Iran is likely to be more bound by certain conditions and restrictions [from the rest of the world].”