So, a significant diplomatic delegation representing the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), led by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani goes to Tehran and meets with top reps of the Iranian Government, up to and including Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
In effect, the high-level meetings are held with the Kurdish side down on its knees, supplicants after a disaster.
Against all advice from Tehran to Baghdad to Istanbul to Washington, the politically dominant Barzani clan held a regional referendum in September on separation from Iraq. As expected, Kurdish separation got overwhelming popular support.
As predicted, punishment was not long in coming. All the international borders surrounding land-locked Iraqi Kurdistan were closed. Bad news, immediately hitting at the grass roots level of Kurdish personal and business life.
Worse news followed. The Iraqi National Army, significantly aided and abetted by Iran-trained and supported units of the Popular Militia took back, by force, a large chunk of contested territory, including the big city and surrounding oil fields of Kirkuk. These were losses of both economic and existential consequence for the KRG.
The smashing military setback brought the Kurds a personal visit from General Qasem Suleimani, Iran’s master of special forces and regional warfare. His messages: You were warned; you disobeyed. Now, you are punished for all time – Kirkuk and all that oil money are not coming back. And – the governments in Tehran and Baghdad will treat you as defeated enemies, until you show you show them deference.
Which is why, on January 21, in Tehran, came the Kurdish kowtow. And here, as reported by Fazel Hawramy in Al-Monitor, are its visible signs: border control and strategic readjustment.
First, the leaders of the KRG officially reaffirmed its governmental responsibility to end cross-border paramilitary, propagandizing, and smuggling activity between Kurdistan and Iran. Easier to say than do, but the Kurds swore they’d do their best in an obvious context: that significant failure could mean significant further punishment.
But, as part of their confessional, the Kurds said something else. As Hawramy reported, “The delegation headed by Barzani explained to the Iranians in clear terms that their overreliance on Turkey and the West — including the Americans — in recent years was misplaced, and that they will from now on readjust their policies to reflect the position of Iran, in Iraq and in the region.”
Can you blame them?
First, as the legendary American diplomat Jack Matlock said of Ukraine and Russia: “Look at the map!”
There’s little Kurdistan, surrounded by Iraq from which it wanted to secede, Turkey, whose dictator-President is waging war against all the Kurds he can hurt; and Iran, the punisher next door.
Until Erdogan’s Turkey is subdued and northern Syria is stabilized, pacifying their angry neighbors in Iraq and Iran is essential for Kurdish survival. And not just for today, because in geo-politics neighbors are there forever. A continuing condition of Kurdish life is Iran is always bigger, always more powerful, always there.
So, if a global turnabout is part of the KRG’s long-term plan, well why not? What has distant America done for the Kurds recently?
The US did help defeat the Islamic State in Iraq, blunt an ISIS threat against the KRG capitol, Erbil. But the contrast between what’s happened to re-taken Kirkuk (some damage) and liberated Mosul (widespread damage in East Mosul, widespread devastation in West Mosul) and in largely-leveled Ramadi and Raqqa, may make America more feared, than loved.
More to the point, the Trump Administration showed little distress when Kirkuk was seized. After all, they too, had warned against the plebiscite. But the Americans also showed little interest in the after-slaps that continue to be sent the KRG’s way.
In the weeks before the Kurdish diplomatic mission to Tehran, the governments of Iran and Iraq concluded a deal to send the oil produced in the captured Kirkuk fields to Iran for refining and then resale in southern Iraq. Right now, the oil is going from what was once Kurdish-controlled territory to Iran in tanker trucks, but a pipeline is in the works.
Oh, and take another look at that map.
There are other oil fields still under KRG control. It may well be more economical to extend the Kirkuk to Iran pipeline to them than to pursue pipelines west through volatile Syrian and Turkish territory. Kurdish oil, like KRG allegiance, may well be lost to “the other side,” Iran.
Of course, the same policy-makers who led the KRG leadership, “high on American gas,” to overbid their hand with the secession referendum are the ones who have insisted on casting Iran as an enemy.
It’s not healthy for the Kurds to frame the Iranians as adversaries, just as it made more sense (especially to the Shi’ite majority) for Iraq to make friends with Tehran, rather than give Iran the stiff-arm Washington wanted.
Maybe the US might take seriously, Iranian President Rouhani’s lament that the US, after the nuclear agreement, had muffed an opportunity for genuinely positive relations with Iran. And even if we resist the idea that co-operation with Iran might be more in America’s interest than conflict, we ought to understand why the Kurds feel like they have no choice but to take that knee to their neighbor.
Even a proud people has to carefully pick their fights.
Speaking of which, just because Israel and Saudi Arabia, each desperate to distract their people from the corruption of their leaders and the ineptitude of their governments, want to stir up hostilities with Iran is no reason for us to join them.
It’s not as if our manufactured conflicts with Iran are producing anything but humanitarian catastrophe and political defeat, the former in Yemen and Syria, the latter, in Iraq and now, Iraqi Kurdistan.