Of more than 70 percent of eligible voters who participated in the polls on September 25th, 92 per cent voted in favor of independence of the Kurdistan region from Iraq. While the results are incontestable, there lingers the question of why a vote for separation at a time of global trend towards unification and formation of regional alliances to assert a larger role in international affairs? Three explanations can be given.
First is suffering of the Kurdish people during decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq. Repression of their Kurdish identity, ban on teaching their mother tongue, marginalization in the political process and discrimination in access to economic resources were rampant. However, oppression was not limited to the Kurds at that time and all the Iraqi citizens, except those who were members of the Baath Party, suffered more or less under similar circumstances. But for the Kurds of Iraq, these sufferings were linked to their historical struggle for independence from the age of Ottoman Empire (when they were supported by the British) and similar to secession attempts in Iran and the formation of the Republic of Mahabad (backed by the Soviet Union).
Second is the legacy of the Barzani family. Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of the incumbent Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, was the pioneering figure of pro-independence movements in the Iraqi Kurdistan. But collaboration with regional or international hegemons to cement their tribal dominance is a blot on their record. During his time, Mullah Mustafa Barzani joined Qazi Muhammad, leader of Kurdish separatist movement in Iran, to establish the breakaway Republic of Mahabad in 1946. Both followed the Soviet Union’s policy of pressuring the Shah of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, at that time. But an agreement between Tehran and Moscow and the latter’s end of support for secessionist movements inside Iran forced Barzani to return to Iraq. Ironically, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the same Mullah Mustafa sided with the Shah of Iran and Washington in their policy of undermining Saddam Hussein. Massoud Barzani is following his father’s line, and believes he can achieve his adventurous goals in the light of collaboration with the United States and the expansionist regime of Israel.
The third factor: since 1991 and after the first Persian Gulf War, led by the United States to punish Saddam Hussein and push his army out of Kuwait, thanks to establishment of a no-fly zone, Kurdistan enjoyed the status of an independent political entity, both from Saddam Hussein’s rule or the influence of the post-Saddam government of Iraq and the provinces of Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dahuk in northern Iraq were governed by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party. But during these 26 years of autonomy, Kurdish leaders failed to demonstrate good governance and a long list of corruptions and inefficiencies mars their record. In this light, declaration of independence appears more of an instigation of public sentiment among the Kurds and a delay tactic aiming to keep those leaders in power for a few more years.
The strategic blunder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, particularly Massoud Barzani, and their holding of a referendum, has created a predicament for the entire region and even created a specter of war. Barzani and other Kurdish leaders who backed the referendum will be held accountable to the judgements of history to explain why, for the sake of short-term interests, they ruined the constructive atmosphere created among regional players thanks to the battle against ISIS. It seems the pro-independence campaign in KRG, which has faced opposition from most members of the international community with the exception of Israel, is a disguise for policies primarily designed by Tel Aviv and by those who enjoy war and instability in the Middle East.
However, there is an equally more important question of how Iran should deal with the strategic blunder of the Kurdish leaders in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. I believe that sanctions and threats are not an efficient response to this strategic miscalculation, but only an erroneous tactical response to a deep-rooted problem, particularly when the result of the referendum shows that for whatever reason, the majority of Iraqi Kurds favor independence.
Sanctions and threats of resorting to force by Iran may appear a reasonable response at first glance, but they fail to address long-term challenges. They will affect the ordinary citizens in KRG and will only foster illegal trade across borders, benefitting the smugglers. Instead, Iran, Turkey and Syria can voice political support for Iraq’s central government against excessive demands of KRG leaders and seek a solution via negotiations with figures in the government, parliament, and among Arab and Kurdish tribes, without the need to establish new punishments.
An Iraqi-Kurdish solution to the new challenge can better help foil Israel’s schemes, and can also prevent another war which would hearten terrorist groups in the region including ISIS. This could help prove good faith to the Kurds of Iraq and show that independence, welfare and conservation of ethnic identity in the region can be achieved only through partnership. It will also block the way towards increasing intervention of hegemonic powers in the region or a new wave of arms’ trade.
* This piece was originally published in Khabar Online. Hassan Beheshtipour is political analyst and former director of Iran’s Al-Alam channel.