Iraqi Kurdistan: A Regional Flashpoint
Professor Vijay Prashad, of Trinity College, explains why Iraq and its neighbors are so concerned about the Kurdish independence referendum that took place on Sept. 25
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Turkey’s President Erdoğan visited Iran on Wednesday. One of the main points of discussion between President Rouhani and President Erdogan was the Kurdish independence referendum that took place on September 25th. For a long time now, the Kurds in northern Iraq have been a key ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State and recently intensified their efforts to become more independent of Iraq. This is making the central government of Iraq, as well as its neighbors, Turkey, Iran, and Syria nervous as they all have significant Kurdish minority populations.
Joining me now to discuss these developments in Iraqi Kurdistan is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of International Studies at Trinity College. He is the author of more than 20 books, including The Death of a Nation and The Future of the Arab Revolution. Thanks for joining us today, Vijay.
V. Prashad: Pleasure, yes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, let’s start with this visit of Turkey’s President Erdogan to Tehran. According to a Reuters report, one of the results of this visit was an agreement to close northern Iraq’s oil wells in retaliation for the Kurds’ independence referendum. Why has this happened?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s a very interesting development. The Kurdish Iraqi enclave which is in northern Iraq was essentially formed in 1991, when the United States provided it with security guarantees and really set off this landlocked region on the path to some kind of autonomy and eventual nationhood. The roots of this of course go back into a kind of Kurdish ambition for a national home. It’s a 100-year-old ambition but the institutional history starts with the American creation of this enclave.
It’s interesting because the Kurdish population is spread out over Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria largely. The Turks and the Iranians in particular have been quite forceful against their Kurdish minority populations not allowing any space to articulate any kind of independence or any kind of even autonomy. So, Iraqi Kurdistan has always therefore posed a problem, at least since 1991 because it has been a kind of example of what is possible. It has its own flags, it sings its own anthem and the Kurdish language is entirely legal.
In the current period, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, who actually is not quite the president, he has an illegal mandate, his mandate expired in 2014, went for this referendum partly to shore up his own political power inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Because of what I have described, there is no inside of Iraqi Kurdistan without its neighbors. It was very clear that this small, landlocked enclave however rich in oil resources, nonetheless landlocked, was going to be pressured by Turkey, and certainly by Iraq and yes, by Iran. These countries are the major neighbors of Iraqi Kurdistan, so even if it has oil, it will not be able to get the oil out if the nations decide to embargo it.
That’s precisely what Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have not only threatened to do but have already done. They’ve closed Iraqi Kurdish airspace and they’ve blocked the ability for the Iraqi Kurds to export their oil. This is the exact same thing that happened to south Sudan. It’s quite interesting that this was not talked through when Mr. Masoud Barzani, the current sort of president of Iraqi Kurdistan decided to go for the vote.
SHARMINI PERIES: It appears that it has backfired because in addition to all of this apparently Iran has also closed the border and checkpoints along that whole region where they share a border. What is Iran trying to do here?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s not just that they’ve closed the border, but Turkish and Iraqi troops have been amassed on the Turkish side of the border. Iraqi troops have gone into Turkey, where they’re conducting wargames. It’s a very belligerent act that they are doing on the Turkish side of the border. On the Iranian side of the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian military has sent a deployment and they’re basically pointing weapons into Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s a very, very tense and dangerous situation.
The Iranians have been quite forceful over the last 20-odd years against the assertion of any kind of Kurdish politics. It has to be said that yes, I agree, the word backfire I think is appropriate. This attempt of creating a referendum to begin independence negotiations has indeed backfired. Nonetheless, I am also a little sympathetic to the fact that the Kurds of this region have a very longstanding claim to some kind of national home and they have I think suffered within these countries as minorities, which has only exacerbated and increased their desire for a national home. For instance, for a very long time in Turkey, the Kurds were not even called Kurds. They were known as mountain Turks and it was forbidden to speak Kurdish. Because these countries were so poor in dealing with so-called minority rights, they pushed the Kurdish minority towards demanding some sort of national home from this aspiration.
I think a lot of people have a lot to answer for in bringing things to the head where there might be some kind of military intervention into Iraqi Kurdistan which would be very dangerous partly because Iraqi Kurdistan has security guarantees from the United States, and also because the Russian oil ministry has just signed a major $1 billion deal just before the referendum with Iraqi Kurdistan for a natural gas pipeline, and they are committed to in some ways protect this oil enclave. It’s a very messy situation if it goes to armed conflict.
SHARMINI PERIES: Getting back to the independence question, one of the greatest fears especially for Turkey, but also for Iran and Syria is that greater Kurdish independence will lead to something, of strengthening of the independence movement in each of these other countries. However, the Kurdish Turks have already said that they’re not interested in seeking independence. Why is it, then, that this is so threatening to Turkey?
VIJAY PRASHAD:: I think Mr. Erdoğan is in some ways perhaps overreacting. I think it’s correct that the Turkish Kurdish population has now for a very long time made the statement that they are more interested in robust minority rights inside Turkey rather than succession. Ankara is the capital of Turkey. It’s the midpoint in Turkish Asia, which is the bulk of Turkey. 60% of the Kurdish population lives west of Ankara. There’s a million Kurds in Istanbul itself. If the Kurdish population which is grouped in the east of Ankara, in fact in the southeast of Turkey, were to get some kind of independence, what’s going to happen to 60% of the Kurdish population? For demographic reasons as well as I think the aspirations of Turkish Kurds is slightly different than succession, I think it’s off the table in Turkey. The reaction by Mr. Erdoğan I think is quite out of balance with the realities inside Turkey itself.
In Syria, the government of Mr. Assad in Damascus, which actually doesn’t have sovereignty over the Syrian Kurdish region immediately said when the referendum happened that there will be even greater autonomy for Syrian Kurds. I think what’s going to most likely come out of this is perhaps not an independent Iraqi Kurdish state, but I think there will be some sort of greater autonomy provided for Kurds in Iraq, in Syria, in Turkey and perhaps in Iran. In Iran, it’s very, very murky. The Iranians have been most resistant to in a sense providing extra minority rights to the Kurds. If this provides greater minority rights in the other countries, I hope this will draw the conflict down.
The problem, of course, is Mr. Barzani has put independence on the table. There’s been some rigging, of course, whatever but still a majority of the population has demanded some sort of independence. I don’t know how the Iraqi Kurds are going to walk back from this, particularly since in the middle of all this, the leader of the main opposition party inside Iraqi Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani has died. He died at age 83. He was not happy with the referendum vote in the first place. Now that it’s happened, now that this big mandate has come, I don’t know who politically inside Iraqi Kurdistan will walk it back.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, why was he opposed to this referendum?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s very interesting that Iraqi Kurdistan, reliant on oil revenues has suffered from the same fate as other oil-exporting countries, whether Venezuela, Russia, etc., since oil prices has been at a historical and a very long, lengthy period of a low. The revenues coming into Iraqi Kurdistan have not been as robust as they had been and this has of course affected the public exchequer. The moment this affects the public exchequer, stories come out of corruption of people in government and so on. Mr. Barzani, who is the, as I said, sort of president of Iraqi Kurdistan and his nephew, who’s the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, pushed for this as a way to consolidate political power.
Of course, the main opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani and other parties, were to some extent opposed because they knew that this vote was less about Kurdish aspirations and more about Mr. Barzani. Of course, once Barzani announced the vote, once there was so much enthusiasm for it, all the parties had to go behind it. They didn’t want to stand on what they saw as the wrong side of history. Mr. Barzani, in a way to consolidate his own personal power has really put the Kurdish question on the wrong plate.
SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. Another recent development, Vijay, is that the Kurdish Regional Government has announced that they’re going to be having elections in November. There is some doubt whether these will happen, but if they do, what are the political forces vying for power in the Kurdish Regional Government out there?
VIJAY PRASHAD:: This is very interesting, because yes, Mr. Barzani as the president has said that there will be presidential and parliamentary elections on November 1st. When he said this the lawmakers inside the Iraqi government, that is not the Kurdish lawmakers, have said that they might even decertify the members of parliament who come from Iraqi Kurdistan who supported the referendum, which they claim is illegal. Now, if they have this vote in November, and if the Iraqi government in Baghdad decertifies these lawmakers, I’m afraid this is going to put these political entities into a much swifter collision course.
Of course, it is expected by everybody in Iraqi Kurdistan that the Kurdish Democratic Party led by the Barzani family is going to sweep the election. They’re going to campaign on the fact that they were the ones to put the historical question of Kurdish independence on the table and they might indeed sweep the vote. This is going to be a difficult situation then. As I said, there’s no walk back and I’m not sure there’s a way forward. For landlocked countries which are oil-rich to seek independence is a question that needs, I think, some serious discussion because we now have the example of south Sudan. As we saw, once it was broken from Sudan, it had to go back to Khartoum to negotiate the price of oil going through the pipeline and some of the difficult negotiations with Khartoum opened space up for the civil war in south Sudan which continues still today. There are no easy solutions here and we should not imagine because Iraqi Kurdistan is oil-rich that it’s going to have an easy exit from Iraq.
SHARMINI PERIES: The Baghdad government in alliance with the US, and of course the US has been supporting the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, where does this put the foreign policy of the United States?
VIJAY PRASHAD: This is an interesting question. I guess not for no reason, or not surprisingly, the American ambassador to Iraq made a hasty journey up north into Iraqi Kurdistan, sat down with the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, the nephew of the president. They had a long discussion in which the Americans basically told the Iraqi Kurds, “You have to find a way to back down right now because we don’t want tension between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. We have to concentrate on the fight against ISIS, etc.” The Americans essentially want this to disappear.
I don’t think it’s going to be so easy to make this disappear. As I said, the social question is on the table. It will be politicized again on November 1st and I think that it’s too late now. I don’t know what the consequences of this are going to be for the war against ISIS, but I think the Americans are very nervous about the clash between these two parts of Iraq.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay. As always, we learned a lot. Vijay just returned from the region, and I thank you so much for sharing your findings. Thank you.
VIJAY PRASHAD:: Thanks a lot.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.