Iraqi Kurdistan: Playing the independence game

Why does Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani seem so eager to severe ties with Baghdad?

Iraq''s Kurdistan region''s President Massoud Barzani gestures during a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in Erbil
The Kurds' desire to determine their own future is understandable, writes Issaev and Zakharov [Azad Lashkari/Reuters]

At the end of March, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani met new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and once again drew attention to a forthcoming referendum called to allow the region the right of “self-determination”.

The Kurds’ desire to determine their own future is understandable. To date, about 20 million Kurds live in the Middle East and the South Caucasus countries – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia. The presence of such a large ethnic group that after two world wars has not acquired its own nation-state, could be considered a geopolitical paradox.

As a result, the Kurds along with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), in recent years have turned into one of the most influential forces openly encroaching on the administrative-territorial order that emerged after World War I and decolonisation.

So, what kind of an arrangement are the Iraqi Kurds living under today and why does the option of independence seem attractive to them?

Federalisation: Failure or success?

After the collapse of the Baath regime, Iraq was transformed into an asymmetric federation. Iraqi federalism is often criticised for giving preferences to one ethnic group, which is a minority, at the expense of others.

According to the 2005 Constitution, only three of the 18 Iraqi provinces which have Kurdish population are part of the autonomous Kurdish region. But the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan is truly boundless: Its government has the right to have its own armed forces, conduct independent foreign policy, and attract foreign investments.

The 15 provinces in which the Arabs live, do not have anything of that kind, which gives them legitimate reasons for discontent. In this regard, in the academic and political communities of the Middle East, where the traditions of monolithic and indivisible power are strong, the Iraqi federalist experiment is often recognised as a failure.

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But what, in fact, can be considered a success of federalisation in an ethnically and religiously diverse society torn apart by civil unrest?

If we consider the preservation of the state within the borders recognised by the international community as success, we can say that Iraq’s federalisation has been successful.

The decentralisation of power allowed Iraqi Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population, to remove the issue of complete independence from the agenda in the mid-2000s. The federation that combines self-rule and shared rule, assumes “dosed” sovereignty: While the complete political autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan would not suit any of the regional political players, a configuration that offers semi-independent Erbil within the framework of a common state is much less troubling and thereby contributes to the maintenance of regional security.

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Moreover, the 2005 Constitution consolidated a division of oil revenues that is currently comfortable for the Iraqi leadership, mainly because the principal issues concerning the distribution of tax revenues have not yet been resolved in full. At the same time, the status of primus inter pares allows Erbil to attract oil investors through tax rates that are lower than federal ones. By mid-2010, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan signed more than 40 major international contracts mainly related to oil production. Baghdad, of course, grumbles about this, but after all, Iraqi Kurdistan has no autonomous access to the sea, and all the pipelines are controlled by the Iraqi state.

Since real secession, if it takes place, would be unjustified by rational reasons, because it can only worsen the situation of the Iraqi Kurds and their elites, it is most likely a political game in which a deliberate and purposeful bluff is meant to frighten an opponent and induce it to concessions.


In general, the federal reorganisation of Iraq made it possible to preserve the territorial unity of the country, to satisfy an eternally dissatisfied minority and to divide the commodity rent. Never in Iraq’s history have Iraqi Kurds enjoyed such freedom politically, economically, and culturally as now.

Nevertheless, contrary to the evidence and common sense, Erbil again announced the preparation of an independence referendum. Why?

A political game

The revival of this bargaining chip can be explained by several factors.

Firstly, there are the personal ambitions of Masoud Barzani whose legitimacy as a leader is being questioned. Formally, Barzani’s powers as the president of Iraqi Kurdistan expired on August 19, 2015 when the regional parliament refused to extend the term of his mandate.

At that time, the growing threat from ISIL obscured the conflict between the president and the legislators, but the gradual decline of the terrorist threat once again has raised questions about the legitimacy of the Kurdish leader.

This is what makes him think about new big projects to undertake, one of which inevitably is the “game of independence”.

Furthermore, ISIL’s ongoing retreat in Iraq and Baghdad regaining control over territories occupied by the group is weakening the Kurds’ position in negotiations with the federal state. As the chance for a revision of the federal contract is diminishing, Erbil is trying to act ahead of the game and not allow Baghdad to take political advantage of the military successes.

Finally, the threat of independence can be used by Erbil to try to expand the territories of Iraqi Kurdistan. The constitutional deal between the Arabs and the Kurds was supposed to resolve the issue of disputed territories claimed by both communities. It was at the Kurds’ insistence that the 2005 Iraqi Constitution introduced the provision that a referendum in Kirkuk must be held before the end of 2007 – either leaving these oil territories under the control of Baghdad or transferring them to Erbil (Article 140). The Iraqi government has not yet fulfilled this condition, and the threat of secession posed by Kurdistan can serve as an effective means of persuading Baghdad to act on it.

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Since real secession, if it takes place, would be unreasonable, because it would only worsen the situation of the Iraqi Kurds and their elites, this renewed talk of independence is most likely a political game – a deliberate and purposeful bluff meant to frighten an opponent and force out concessions.

All this litigation is reminiscent of the so-called “parade of sovereignties” that unfolded in Russia in the 1990s. Back then Tatarstan and other resource republics repeatedly threatened the federal centre with independence, but did not really consider pursuing it. Instead, they used this threat to acquire maximum advantage within the federal union.

In the Russian case, this tactic proved effective: even now, after a unitary system was built in the country, the Kremlin still has not succeeded in taking away from the resource republics those advantages that they claimed for themselves 15 years ago.

Time will only tell whether Iraqi Kurdistan will be equally successful in its independence game.

Leonid Issaev is a Senior Lecturer of the Department for Political Science of the National Research University.

Andrey Zakharov is the editor of the “Neprikosnovenny Zapas: Debates on Politics and Culture” magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.