US State Department continues to wobble on Kurdistan referendum

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani spoke by phone, as Erbil prepared the first major step in its discussions with Baghdad about the planned referendum on Kurdish independence.

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) - On Friday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani spoke by phone, as Erbil prepared the first major step in its discussions with Baghdad about the planned referendum on Kurdish independence.

On Monday, a seven-member, multi-party delegation of the Kurdistan Region's Referendum High Council arrived in Baghdad to discuss the independence referendum.

However, as Kurdish diplomacy moves forward, Foggy Bottom still appears confused.

On Tuesday, when asked to explain the US' view of the delegation’s visit to Baghdad, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, replied, “If Erbil and Baghdad want to sit down and have a conversation with one another, that is certainly fine.”

However, the Islamic State (IS), she continued, “is the major serious threat in Iraq right now, and we’re concerned about a referendum at this time” as it “would be further destabilizing.”

“We have expressed very serious concerns about holding a referendum,” she added, and “what we would like to see is a stable, secure, and unified Iraq.”

When Tillerson and Barzani spoke on Friday, the US Secretary of State did not say that the Kurds should remain part of Iraq. He asked Barzani to postpone the referendum—not to cancel it outright.

Barzani’s office issued a “read-out” of that conversation. It explained that Tillerson expressed his appreciation for the role that the Kurdish President and the Peshmerga had played in the fight against IS, including the unprecedented cooperation between Erbil and Baghdad.

The two men also discussed “ongoing and future operations” against IS, according to the Kurdish “read-out.”

On the referendum, Tillerson commended the decision to send a high-level delegation to Baghdad” to discuss outstanding issues, while adding that the US would like the vote “to be postponed.”

Thus, the US Secretary of State objected to the timing of the referendum, not to the referendum itself.

The State Department has not issued its own “read-out” of the conversation. Neither has it disputed the Kurdish account. 

Retired US Army Colonel Norvell De Atkine suggested to Kurdistan24 that if the “read-out” from Barzani’s office had been inaccurate, the State Department would have issued a correction. That it did not, strongly suggests the Kurdish version is right.

During Tuesday’s State Department briefing, Kurdistan24 pressed the Spokesperson for a clarification of her remarks, asking whether the US objected to the timing of the referendum or the referendum itself. 

Clarity was elusive, however. “Ultimately this is going to have to be worked out with the Iraqi people,” she replied, emphasizing, again, that IS “is the main fight.”

De Atkine suggested that, perhaps, the administration does not have a unified policy, with bureaucrats in the State Department pushing back against a White House position that is more sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.

Some individuals in the agencies of the US government, including the State Department, have worked on Iraq for nearly the past 14 years—since 2003.

The average government career is around 20 years. For such people, Iraq would be the major focus of their government service. To say that Iraq failed—essentially the Kurdish position as they push for independence—is to say that those individuals failed.

In contrast to Washington, Moscow has adopted a favorable stance on the referendum.

“We see the referendum as the expression of the ambitions of the Kurdish people,” Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov explained last month. “As far as I know, the majority of the population of the Kurdish autonomous region support this referendum.”

Iran had been most opposed to the referendum. As Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s long-serving Foreign Minister and then Finance Minister, and now a member of the Referendum High Council, explained several weeks ago, “We have not seen any country, except Iran, directly and with determination oppose the principle of a referendum.”

However, with the visit of the Referendum Delegation to Baghdad, Iran’s opposition has softened dramatically, at least rhetorically.

In addition to meeting senior Iraqi officials, the delegation saw Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad, who joined them in a press conference, say, “The Islamic Republic of Iran supports any sort of negotiations between the Kurdistan Region and the central government in Baghdad.

Iran will support “any agreement they reach through negotiations,” he added.

Given Tehran’s earlier hostility - its suspicions of Kurdish independence - and the gross abuse of its own Kurdish population, its new attitude might need to be regarded with suspicion.

Perhaps, Iran recognizes that the referendum has strong popular support and that the Kurdish government is determined to hold it. So what is gained by opposing it?


Editing by G.H. Renaud