US Ambassador Jeffrey says Baghdad and Erbil need to cooperate on hydrocarbons

Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (Photo: Kurdistan 24).
Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (Photo: Kurdistan 24).

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey told Kurdistan 24 in a Skype interview that the United States supports the Iraqi constitution, which establishes the rights of the Kurdistan Region within the overall state of Iraq.

“The Iraqi constitution establishes a Regional Government of Kurdistan. It establishes the rights and privileges of that region within the overall state of Iraq,” he said.

Erbil and Baghdad disputes

He said also the Iraqi constitution talks about the regions and the central government to jointly manage new hydrocarbons. “That is hydrocarbons discovered after the Constitution came into effect. That's basically the hydrocarbons that are being exploited from Kurdistan. So they're covered under that. That means that the two sides need to cooperate,” Ambassador Jeffrey said.

“I don't comment on legal court matters. I simply can say that I have not seen enough cooperation between Erbil and Baghdad and whenever that occurs, I suspect that Iran is playing a role. But again, this has to be resolved through the legal system,” he added. 

The US has supported existing oil contracts in the Kurdistan Region.

“We...agree existing oil contracts must be respected,” the US Consulate General wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday, adding the country supports the Kurdish government’s dialogue with its Iraqi counterpart on oil and gas issues.

Read More: Existing KRG oil contracts must be respected: US

Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court February ruled against the Region’s oil and gas law, but the Kurdistan Regional Government has strongly rejected the verdict, saying it has been “politically motivated”.

Ambassador Jeffrey added what the Iraqi constitution “lays out as the rights and privileges of a region isn't specific to the Kurdistan Region. It is within the state of Iraq and that is what we support.” 

“We don't recognize Kurdistan beyond the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq because that has a constitutional legal basis. We recognize areas of majority Kurdish population, obviously, but we don't give that geographic terms,” he stated.

Iranian influence in Iraq

According to Ambassador Jeffrey, Iran has a great deal of influence in Iraq, despite the views of the ‘large majority of Iraqis’, including the Kurds, Sunnis, Sadr movement, and the Shia hazwa in Najaf, of which no one want to “wants to see the Iranians gain ground in Iraq and turn it into a big Lebanon.” 

“However, we, the United States, have not been active enough in working with our friends and national forces in Iraq to push back on the Iranian seizure of the constitutional system, which we have seen since the elections last year. So that is something that we're working on here in Washington.” 

Biden and Iraq

Ambassador Jeffrey, who worked closely with President Joe Biden, when he was still Vice President, says Biden sees Iraq is very important. “Then as Vice President, he tried hard to keep troops on the grounds. “We made that offer in the fall of 2011. But the Iraqi political parties gathered around the President of Iraq at the time decided that they would not have enough votes in the parliament to let us stay.” 

Read More: Biden reaffirms commitment to Iraq, Kurdistan Region

“Nonetheless, Vice President Biden then and President Biden today are interested in Iraq. Again, I don't know why, we have not taken the steps that I would have thought would have made sense in this particular crisis,” he added.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi of Iraq and “called on all Iraqi leaders to engage in a national dialogue to forge a common way forward consistent with Iraq’s constitution and law.”

However, he said it's still early and Washington takes time to react. “It reached this point because the outside world beginning with the United States did not provide enough of a counter to Iran after roughly 2012.” 

Ambassador Jeffrey said Iran is the key ingredient to “instability in Iraq today.” He said Iranian influence in Iraq also made populist Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr withdraw from politics recently.

Read More: Sadr quits politics, closes movement’s institutions and media platforms

However, he said the current tensions in Iraq won’t “degenerate into civil war”, since Iraqis are tired from all the wars being fought in Iraq since 1980.

“But again, without a balance, without pressure, and pushback from the international community. I see Iran moving ever more to control the country,” he added. “And that means a bigger Lebanon. Look at Lebanon, it was once the flourishing capital of the whole Middle East. It had a booming economy, the best health care in the region and on and on, great universities. Look at where it is today. That is the fate if you let the Iranians take shots,” he said. 

Syrian-Turkish dialogue

On Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey said he thought it is unlikely that Turkey will be successful in dialogue with the ‘Assad regime’.

“I am not quite sure that there will really be a warming of relations between the two. They differ dramatically in how they view the future of Syria and the future of the region.” 

Read More: KNC meets with US senior official in northeast Syria

Moreover, Ambassador Jeffrey said the US has a deal with Turkey in October 2019 to not invade northeastern Syria. “By and large up to now it has adhered to that,” he added.

However, he said the “United States would be extremely upset if Turkey took any major new movements there and that's been made clear to the Turks.” 

Nuclear deal

On the nuclear talks between Iran and the US, Ambassador Jeffrey said that the Biden administration “is committed to returning to the nuclear agreement if Iran will accept the original conditions of that agreement and not make new demands.”

“So far the problem has been Iran continues to make new demands and so we're still trying to work this out. It perhaps will happen. It perhaps will not happen. No expert can say for sure right now,” he said.

“The Iranians have asked for certain clarifications and understandings to the extent that can be met without any change in US commitments or Iranians commitments. Perhaps there's a way forward but if the Iranians are demanding the US to do things we did not have in the original agreement,” he added.

Moreover, he said he is not confident that the Biden administration will agree to anything like that. It still needs one or another degree of congressional and public support for any decision it makes on the nuclear agreement and the public and Congress are more skeptical than the administration on Iran and the agreement.”

Therefore, he said the question will be if Iran is more flexible to stop raising new demands, or simply accept the old nuclear deal 0f 2015. “That's a question to ask Tehran.”

Read More: US won’t divulge response to EU on Iran nuclear deal, as exchanges on ‘final’ text continue

However, the former US ambassador thinks that Iran would not stop its efforts to influence politics in countries in the Middle East after having a new agreement with the US and other countries, after having ‘more money” and the ‘prestige’ of a deal.

“I do not see the return to this agreement as having any good impact on what Iran is doing in the region of dealing with its missiles,” he said.

Although the deal will make it more difficult for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, the “agreement if anything will make it easier for Iran to operate in the region and that means that the United States will have to try harder to push back against Iran. And I would recommend as I said earlier, beginning in Iraq”. 

“The agreement has a good side if we return to it, it makes it more difficult for Iran to rapidly develop, within weeks, a nuclear weapon.”

“On the other hand, it will provide Iran access to oil, export money, and a certain diplomatic prestige that from my experience (...) will lead to Iran being more active in the region. So we have to take the benefit and the nuclear calm and find new ways to counter Iran to ensure that it doesn't take advantage of this agreement for sure.”