Iran may be counting on the PUK, with which it shares strong and longstanding ties. But If the Change Movement agrees to back the referendum, this will put the PUK in a difficult position. To avoid political suicide, such a scenario will leave it with no choice but to back the process. Indeed, KDP-affiliated media outlets are already labeling whoever opposes the vote a “traitor.” It appears unlikely that Tehran would be unaware of this dynamic and the impact it could have on its closest ally in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In the meantime, with the referendum drawing near and a delay unlikely to materialize, tensions are expected to mount. “This is our right and we will defend this right. … When Kurdistan becomes independent, if there were to be an attack … we would give our blood to defend it. … We hope these [neighbouring] countries do not oppose the wishes of the Kurdish people,” Adham Barzani — a senior figure within the KDP and a cousin of Massoud Barzani — told Kurdistan24 on July 23.
Nonetheless, Iran should be expected to continue its unrelenting pressure on the Kurds to halt the referendum, partly worried about the impact an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would have on its own 8-million-strong Kurdish community, which fought a bloody battle for independence in the 1980s. In this vein, a delegation from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan secretly July 30 and met with all parties over three days, including Massoud Barzani, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and top PUK officials.
One source who is intimately aware of the content of one of the meetings told Al-Monitor that the Iranian delegation once again expressed opposition to the referendum. However, the source added that the Iranians also insisted that in the case of cancellation or postponement of the vote, Massoud Barzani should not lose face.