The highly anticipated meeting between the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, and Turkey’s Minister of National Defense Nurettin Canikli and their views on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) upcoming referendum was the trending headline of the Turkish and Iranian media in mid August. The current state of affairs is a strong feeling of Déja-Vu. The neighboring countries' strategy is to subdue the Kurds’ ambition of having their own state. Both countries perceive any given initiatives from the Kurds as a common threat. Ever since the emergence of modern Turkey and Iran, both governments have been fighting a disgruntled Kurdish entity in their respective backyards. The main theme and challenge of the KRG’s diplomatic missions, to Baghdad and abroad, has been to alter the regional power’s misperception toward the Kurds’ political agenda. The historical context of the Turkish-Iranian cooperation/alliance against Kurds reveals how an independent Kurdistan would be an asset to other countries.
Turkey, Iran, and Iraq‘s Saadabad’s non-aggression pact was the first significant act of cooperation to avert and destroy the Kurdish movement in the region in 1937. Even though some claim the reason for the treaty was to stop Iran from reclaiming Afghanistan and the east of the Tigris River, the underlining purpose was to subdue any Kurdish movement in their respective territories. This was part of their nation-building process, a vain effort to homogenize the identity of their countries. In 1975, after over a decade of a war of attrition between Iraq and Mustafa Barzani’s so-called Aylul revolution, the regional powers were against the Kurdish nationalist's aspirations. Ultimately, they managed to end the Kurdish movement, not by force, but through diplomacy. As anticipated, it did not have a happy ending. Iran and Iraq's eight years of war were the result of that. Turks' exhausting reluctance of dealing with its resident Kurds is another example. In short, substantial facts show that military means undermine the security of the region.
The KRG can upend the century-long neighboring countries' security dilemma. It is conspicuous that the mainstream discernment of neighboring countries' – Turkey, Iran, and now Iraq – views differ from KRG’s position on an independent Kurdistan. Political theories refer to this as fear of the domino effect, which some have cited as an excuse. These countries have been unsupportive of Kurdish aspirations in Iraq as they believe the same scenario would occur within their regions. The status of the Kurds in those areas however is dependent on their situation within those states. Irrespective of what happens to the Kurdistan Region, Kurds in Turkey and Iran have to cope with their own problems. Given the increasingly globalized setting, the Kurdish issue in Iran and Turkey will last for the foreseeable future. The trend is such that nations all around the world are becoming conscious of their rights. Therefore, Turkey and Iran are going to encounter ongoing threats: dealing with non-state actors, Kurds within their countries. To solve their prolonged security issues, both countries should think twice about a new independent Kurdistan in Iraq.
The rugged-mountainous terrain of Kurdistan has been a blessing and also a curse to the Kurds. It has deprived them of access to the sea and, therefore, international commerce and modern trade. The blessing is that the national armies of their adversaries cannot efficiently operate. Last century’s “Kurdish Issue” illustrates that very compellingly. Therefore, Turkey and Iran would have an unprecedented opportunity to cooperate with independent south Kurdistan to contain these Kurdish non-state actors. Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), Iranian Kurdish Parties such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Komala are applying guerrilla warfare methods. An independent Kurdistan would only eliminate the threats of Turkey and Iran through full and sound security collaborations. The term is known as “triadic deterrence,” wherein “one state uses threats and punishments against another state to coerce it to prevent non-state actors from conducting attacks from its territory.”
The past 20 years of self-rule highlights the Kurdish leadership’s priority on national security and economic prosperity. Thus, from an economic standpoint, an independent Kurdistan, as other rentier states, would be an importing country. According to the KRG’s investment board, “Imports account for 85 percent of the estimated USD 5–5.5 billion of annual external trade in the Kurdistan Region.” Turkey and Iran share almost 90 percent of the imported goods and services. As such, this makes a landlocked Kurdistan ever dependent on these two countries. It would benefit both sides to maintain a partnership with Kurdistan. Turkey has a strategic economic interest in Kurdistan’s cheap natural resources. Iran’s export and trade with Kurdistan contribute to Iran’s employment growth and well-being, especially in its western borders. A strategic tri-lateral relation (Turkey-Iran- Kurdistan) based on common interests and opportunities would eliminate the common security threats and work on economic incentives.
The other side of the coin is maintaining the status quo, preserving Iraq’s territory, which by all standards has been unsuccessful. The failed state index placed Iraq on the alert category. Currently, Iraq is on the brink of an economic and security collapse. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq’s (UNAMI) monthly report on civilian and military killings in Iraq are extremely alarming. Thanks to Peshmerga forces and the coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State (IS), Iraq was saved from external military invasion. Intra-rivalries among the Shia, who have had a majority representation in the Iraqi Parliament since 2005, is discouraging. On the other hand, Sunnis neither have a strong leader nor see hope in a foreseeable future. Furthermore, relations between Baghdad and Erbil are minimal as both sides accuse each other of dishonoring the constitution. As a result, Iraq is, and will be, the source of instability for Turkey and Iran.
Baqeri and Canikli met to put pressure on the Kurds in Iraq to halt their upcoming referendum. Overtly, they asserted they wanted to secure their borders and deter terrorist activities. Nonetheless, both sides acknowledge the fact Iraq is a failed state. Excluding Iraq in the aforementioned meeting is a clear indication of their views on Iraq’s future. Therefore, the KRG’s policy-making intention is for an independent Kurdistan to be an asset to both Iran and Turkey. Against their conventional misperception toward an independent Kurdistan, these countries have a lot to lose if they try to mend an already broken Iraq. The Kurds are vigilant enough to sell their argument: An independent Kurdistan would be a source of stability and prosperity in the region.
Hemin Mirkhan is the Director of Centre for Regional and International Studies (CRIS) at the University of Kurdistan – Hewler (UKH).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by G.H. Renaud