Kurdistan Referendum puts Iran at Crossroads

By Fazel Hawramy for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran Business News.

As Iraqi Kurds try to iron out internal differences ahead of their referendum on independence in September, Turkey, Iraq and Iran have all announced their opposition, questioning the timing and fearing the implications of such a move at a time when regional rivalries are at their peak.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran opposes some murmurs about holding a referendum in order to separate one part of Iraq,” said Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a meeting with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in June, adding that Iraq “should stay unified.”

While Turkey and Iraq’s opposition is understandable to an extent, Iran’s long involvement as well as cultural and historical ties with Iraqi Kurds raises serious questions about the motives for its opposition to the upcoming referendum.

The political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan have all made it clear that their ultimate aim is an independent Kurdistan, but they differ on the approach, meaning that the issue of independence is a matter of “when” rather than “if.” The Iranians are perhaps more aware of this than any other actor.

There are over 13 million Kurds on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. Whether under the shah or the Islamic Republic, Iran has been the only country that has had an overall cordial relationship with Iraqi Kurds, be it secular, Marxist or Islamic parties. The shah and the ayatollahs both adopted the strategy of engaging enemies outside Iran’s borders. In Iraq, this has entailed weakening successive Iraqi regimes by partly using the Kurds as a proxy force.

Indeed, repression from Baghdad combined with Tehran’s assistance to the Kurds greatly contributed to Iraq almost always being at war with a quarter of its population. For instance, the Kirkuk oilfields were attacked by peshmerga, both during the shah’s reign in the late 1960s and the ayatollahs in the 1980s. Nonetheless, ironically, while Iran has been wary of Kurdish aspirations for independence, its continuous support for the peshmerga in past decades has ensured that the desire for independence continued burning amongst Kurdish fighters — and their leadership.

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