A historic independence vote later this month in Iraqi Kurdistan could accelerate the Kurdish path towards sovereignty and finally gift Iraq’s Kurds with a state of their own after a century’s worth of conflict, mass atrocities and genocide. While the referendum could generate the momentum for Kurdish independence, as well as formalise the process, it will have no immediate administrative and organisational impact, since the vote will not be legally binding. But, the Kurdish push for statehood will not be without its challenges, least of all resistance from regional powers. Turkey and Iran, in particular, have historically resisted Kurdish self-determination, often through armed confrontation.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbours have been stuck between a rock and a hard place ever since a Western-imposed no-fly zone was established over northern Iraq in 1991, which allowed the two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to establish their own autonomous region, complete with its own political system (including elections), institutions, and foreign relations.
Despite the unhelpful geopolitical environment of the 1990s that saw Kurdistan surrounded by powerful, resource-rich neighbours and their powerful armed forces – who were far better positioned then, than they are today, to invade and militarily end the de-facto Kurdish state – the 1992 Iraqi Kurdish elections, the first of its kind in Iraq’s history, established the path towards sovereignty that the Kurds are currently moving along today.
Despite the landmark elections and continued Western enforcement of the no-fly zone, governance was not without its challenges. Kurdistan’s political process was still nascent. Hostile neighbours surrounded the Kurds and had no interest in seeing this new emerging democracy advance further, for both domestic and geopolitical reasons. Inevitably, regional powers, including Turkey, Iran and Syria, alongside the Baath regime, began their efforts to destabilise the region, principally through fostering division among the parties, manipulation and by offering patronage to rival parties and movements.
However, at the same time, Iraqi Kurdistan has, since the 1990s, been regarded by regional powers like Turkey as a conduit through which to counter and manage its own Kurdish issue and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party(PKK), the Kurdish rebel group that has fought the Turkish state for the past forty years. Both the KDP and the PUK worked alongside Turkey to combat the PKK, whose Marxist-orientated vision of Kurdish nationalism runs contrary to their social-democratic and liberal outlook. Both Barzani and Talabani were provided with Turkish passports, which allowed them to travel freely outside of Iraq and Turkey, and were even allowed to establish official representation in Ankara.
Turkey is not actively encouraging Kurdish statehood but has transformed its 1990s economic relationship with the KRG into a regional security arrangement of which Iraqi Kurdistan is a key pillar.
Today’s political cooperation between Ankara and the KRG is an extension of these ties. Since 2003, Turkey has slowly moved towards accepting what many regard as the inevitability of Kurdish statehood, yet one that will be heavily aligned with Ankara and that will constitute a crucial source of natural gas and an important buffer between Turkey and an Iran-aligned Baghdad government. In addition to Turkey, the Gulf has also positioned itself in a way that allows it to capitalise on Iraqi Kurdistan’s hydrocarbons, which, with sovereignty, the Kurds could export without suffering punitive political and economic measures from Baghdad.
Turkey is not actively encouraging Kurdish statehood but has transformed its 1990s economic relationship with the KRG into a regional security arrangement of which Iraqi Kurdistan is a key pillar. Despite its initial intransigence after the Kurds gained autonomy in 1991, Ankara has invested extensive resources in Kurdistan’s economy, has helped build a pipeline that enables it to independently export its hydrocarbons and that, as a result, has helped integrate Kurdistan into the international system – despite knowing that this could one day transform the region into an independent Kurdish state.
There will continue to be words of warning from Ankara, perhaps even threats, but that has far more to do with Turkey’s own Kurdish politics and the ongoing conflict against the PKK. While a Kurdish state could embolden the PKK and its sister groups in Syria, Turkey is in a far stronger position to forestall Kurdish secession in Turkey and has both regional and international support to suppress a potential domino effect that could encourage Iranian, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish secession, at least for the foreseeable future. Contrary to the simplistic, often sensationalist analysis that Kurdish independence would somehow precipitate the end of Iraq and other states – despite the lack of empirical evidence that would support such a scenario – there is simply too much resistance regionally and internationally to any wholesale changes to the state system in the Middle East.
Others, like Iran, will need more convincing. The notion of a US-aligned Kurdish state that has vast hydrocarbons, a viable economy, strong ties to the US and the Gulf and sits adjacent to its borders constitutes a nightmare scenario for the Iranian regime. Iranian apprehensions additionally centre around, firstly, a weakening of its position in Iraq and, therefore, regionally; secondly, the possibility that a Kurdish state will rejuvenate its own Kurdish factions who, over the past year, have conducted a series of attacks on regime targets.
Indeed, since the Syria conflict, the opportunity structures for Kurdish resurrections throughout the region have increased. However, while the renewal of hostilities with Iran represents an opportunity for groups like the Kurdistan Democratic Party – Iran (KDPI) to revitalise Iran’s Kurdish national liberation movement, Iranian Kurdish groups lack sufficient external patronage and resources as well as the support bases within Iran that could enable it to mount a serious insurgency against an Iranian regime that is at the peak of its power since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Moreover, Iranian Kurdistan suffers from serious securitisation and under-development (rivalled only by the deprived areas of Sistan and Baluchistan in southeast Iran) and the Iranian regime has reinforced its security and military zones in the areas adjacent to KDPI bases in northern Iraq. In other words, Iraq’s Kurdish state-building efforts are unlikely to be replicated, meaning that Iran is positioned to manage any potential spillover effect of Iraqi Kurdish statehood.
It is, however, up to the KRG to win the war of narratives and the intellectual battle that can convince their friends and foes that a Kurdish state will bring opportunities, rather than problems. While regional powers like Iran may attempt to prevent such a state through armed confrontation or by way of its Shia militia proxies in Iraq, Tehran will, nevertheless, have to factor in America’s response. The Trump administration is becoming increasingly belligerent towards Iran and may need little convincing to militarily engage the Iranian regime – if and when Tehran decides to confront America’s favourite ally.
Ranj Alaaldin is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Doha Center. He specialises in Iraq and the modern history of the Middle East and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.