Opinion

Tehran-Washington tensions: Kurdish neutrality?

Tensions between Washington and Tehran are going through a period of turbulence. Analysts have been talking for some time about the possibility of a direct war between Iran and the United States; in fact, one could say that this war has already begun. This is a calculated and prepared confrontation, rather than an isolated event. This hostility has increasingly more political than ideological functions on both sides. The current situation benefits both the US President Donald Trump —who is embroiled in several scandals and finds himself in the midst of preparations for the presidential election— and the Iranian regime, which has been shaken by protest movements that have left more than 1,500 people dead in just five days: victims were mainly those among the most destituted and marginalised people in the country.

According to many observers, what is happening now could evolve into an escalation of violence in the Middle East, but this is no news to the Kurds, as it is the continuation of their history. The Kurds may be tired of war, but the clouds of war have now been part of their landscape for a century.

Iraqi Kurds know that this war is not theirs, and in a context of escalating tensions, it is in their interest that there be a balance of power. The American presence there is, in a way, a guarantee against a possible Iranian and Turkish military intervention

On January 8, in response to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force, a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps responsible for foreign interventions, the Islamic Republic of Iran targeted two US military bases in Iraq. One of them is found in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Such a choice was undoubtedly a calculated and controlled warning. Last year, Iran had used the same ballistic missiles to attack the base of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), an armed party fighting for greater autonomy for Iran’s Kurds: the attack left 11 dead and 30 wounded. Iran’s message is clear: Iranian missiles can reach all Kurdish territories, and according to the Iranians, the law of neutrality does not apply to the conflict between Iran and the US. The fact is that three days earlier, Kurdish MPs had not participated in an Iraqi Parliament vote on the departure of US forces from Iraqi territories. Iraqi Kurds know that this war is not theirs, and in a context of escalating tensions, it is in their interest that there be a balance of power between the different actors with a foothold in Iraq. The American presence is, in a way, a guarantee against a possible Iranian and Turkish military intervention.

Contrary to what it meant for many Iraqis, the 2003 Iraq war opened the way for a future of security and prosperity for the Kurdish people. The fall of Saddam Hussein led to the disappearance of a dictatorial and bloody regime that had terrorized the Iraqi Kurds and had committed systematic violations of their rights —including a genocide that left 182,000 dead at the end of the 1980s. During the post-Saddam period, the Kurds succeeded in founding a federal region officially recognized in the Iraqi Constitution, which now has its own army, Parliament, administration, education system and economic resources linked to the exploitation of new oil fields.

That de facto independence of the Kurds was not quite welcome by either the new authorities in Baghdad or the Iranians, or by the Turks who fear the strengthening of Kurdish independence aspirations in their own territory. Despite mistrust, during the first years of Iraq’s reconstruction, the Kurdish regional government played a key role in national reconciliation, political stabilisation and the achievement of peace in the country. But in the end, a number of obstacles —above all, regional ambitions and rivalries, and sectarianism of the country’s political establishment— have complicated the path towards democratic transition and mutual understanding among Iraqis.

Shiite militias —armed, trained and financed by Iran— took control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in Iraq. It is unlikely that Baghdad and Tehran carried out those offensives without previous knowledge of the United States

Already tense relations between Erbil and Baghdad deteriorated rapidly after the independence referendum of 25 September 2017. Baghdad stepped up its punitive measures against the Kurdistan region. Without delay, Iran’s supreme leader called the referendum a betrayal, and equated it with the establishment of a new Israel. Tehran concluded an agreement with Ankara to prevent the Kurds from making further progress on their independence project. Shortly thereafter, Shiite militias —armed, trained and financed by Iran— under the auspices of the Iranian Qods Force commander took control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in Iraq. It is unlikely that Baghdad and Tehran carried out those offensives without previous knowledge of the United States.

Kurdistan is undoubtedly at the heart of the Iranian-American conflict. In general, Iran’s strategy has always been to exploit the division of Kurdistan amongst several countries seeking to advance the regime’s interests in the region. Iran’s Kurdish population, estimated at 10-12 million, is the second largest minority in the country, a highly politicized one with a strong national consciousness of its own. The Kurdish movement in Iran, far from being homogeneous, is made up of several actors and is marked by a segmented, plural and multifaceted structure. Despite their ideological and political differences, the main Kurdish parties struggle for the democratization of the country and decentralization of power. In order to manage the Kurdish issue, Iranian politicians aim to dominate the Kurdish space at the national level and use the Kurdish card against antagonistic countries, but also aim to adopt a common policy with neighbouring states to control and limit the achievements of the Kurdish movement.

On the other hand, collaboration between the Kurds and the United States seems crucial to the success of Washington’s political strategy in Iraq, to prevent Iraqi Shias and Iran’s allies from imposing their hegemony on post-Saddam Iraq, and also to prevent Iran’s domination in the area. Consequently, the US administration wants the Kurds to remain a part of Iraq to balance power with Iran.

It is important to remember that the Kurds, as non-state actors, at different times in their history have had effective control over parts of the Kurdish territory, and have even established a governance structure. But a lack of legal recognition and international legitimacy prevents them from being able to build strategic relations with regional and global powers. Despite their efforts to demonstrate their willingness to fully cooperate with the international community in restoring stability, security and a democratic system, the Kurdish parties have not succeeded in building those strategic relations at the international arena. In fact, from the perspective of States, the Kurds are still considered a threat to the territorial integrity of different countries and a source of regional instability.

The Kurdish region of Iraq, in the midst of the conflict with Baghdad and more fragile since the 2017 referendum, is increasingly at risk of losing its status. It is difficult to imagine that the Kurds could develop their own long-term strategy. Their vulnerability forces them to turn tactics into strategy

The Kurdish region of Iraq, in the midst of the conflict with Baghdad and more fragile and divided since the 2017 referendum, is increasingly at risk of losing its status and stability. In that context of political crisis, aggravated by increasing geopolitical tensions, the presence of an effective counterweight —in this case the forces of the international coalition— is fundamental to guarantee some balance of power. The departure of the Americans from Iraq —and consequently of the forces of 20 other countries— could force the Kurdish authorities to enter into a relationship of conflict and counterproductive alliances with the countries of the region, in order to survive in that hostile environment.

In that context, it is difficult to imagine that the Kurds could develop their own long-term strategy. Their vulnerability forces them to turn tactics into strategy. However, it is yet to be seen how Iran-US tensions will evolve, and how long the tactic of Kurdish neutrality will last.