Why post-referendum Iraqi Kurdistan is seeking better relations with Iran

Why post-referendum Iraqi Kurdistan is seeking better relations with Iran
5 min read
05 March, 2018
Analysis: Tehran's friendliness with Iraq's central government provides Erbil with a route back to Baghdad's good books, writes Paul Iddon.
Iraqi Kurds are feeling isolated from their traditional allies, especially after Turkey's Afrin operation [AFP]

Following the severe backlash surrounding its referendum on independence last September, Iraqi Kurdistan is seeking to improve and broaden its relations with neighbouring Iran.

This outreach is motivated by realist self-interest and preservation, coupled with considerable resentment towards its more traditional allies, in whom many Kurds feel disappointed in the tough months since September.

For years, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - the most powerful party in Iraqi Kurdistan's two western provinces of Erbil and Duhok - has retained cordial ties with Turkey, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - the most powerful party in Kurdistan's two eastern provinces of Sulaimania and Halabja - has long had close ties with neighbouring Iran.

But in recent months the KDP has also looked eastward to expand its relations with Iran.

Abadi has no reason to end his policy until after the elections

"The KDP has long historical ties to Iran dating back to the Mullah Mustafa Barzani days," Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told The New Arab. "Recently it has been much closer to Turkey however. I think the main motivation is that the party wants to cozy up to Tehran to try to apply pressure to Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi's government to end its sanctions on Kurdistan.

"I don't think that will work, because Abadi has no reason to end his policy until after the elections. [Former Iraqi Kurdistan President] Masoud Barzani is extremely unpopular with Arab Iraqis and the premier appears to be riding that for all he can," Wing concluded.

Either way, the KDP's outreach to Iran is a highly noteworthy policy shift.

"I think the main reason the KDP has tried to reach out and get closer to Iran has to do with their realisation that the objective of the referendum, which was a step towards independence, has failed and they have also lost the support of almost all countries, including Turkey," Abdulla Hawez, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, told The New Arab.

"Barzani's relations with Turkey deteriorated more than relations with Iran, especially when Erdogan started attacking Barzani personally and moved closer to Baghdad at Barzani's expense.

"And even though the borders remained open and oil flow didn't stop, this was because of prior agreements between Erbil and Ankara, so even though economic relations weren't seriously harmed, political ties were," he added.

Turkey has been the main trading partner with Iraqi Kurdistan since relations improved in 2009. As Hawez notes, economic ties, which increasingly constitute a form of interdependency between the two neighbours are continuing uninterrupted.


Tehran initially followed Baghdad's lead after the referendum and closed its border with Kurdistan - believing Ankara would follow suit, which it did not "for even one hour" - until January. All this did was hurt local economies in Iran's frontier provinces, for which Iraqi Kurdistan is a vibrant export market.

Hawez argues that Iran "was relatively chill with its reaction to the referendum, at least openly".

And while Iran did help Iraq seize Kirkuk from the Kurds in October "with the help of the Talabani family of the PUK, Iran remained open to retaining its relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)".

"Furthermore, given that the independence bid failed, the only option for the KRG to protect what it has left was to go back to Baghdad and try to work things out with the Iraqi government," he added. "And the only actor that is both able to fix Erbil's ties with Baghdad and open to help was Tehran which, despite helping Baghdad against it, never sought to completely destroy the KRG - a polity that has also been close to the Iranian regime since the revolution.

"The KRG knows warm relations with Tehran also means better relations with Baghdad, at least this is how they see it."

"I think it also shows [Masoud] Barzani's disappointment with the US, which he hasn't hidden," Hawez concluded. "Lets also not forget the KRG also tries to get closer to Russia, which is a close ally of Tehran in the Middle East."

Iran will do whatever in its power to remove grudges between Iraq's central government and the KRG

Hawez was referring to a statement Barzani made in an interview with NPR, in which he declared "we are going to have a very serious revising of the relationship" with the US, going on to suggest that the KRG could expand its ties with Russia instead. Barzani and many Kurds feel let down, even betrayed, by their long-time American friend, especially in light of Washington's relatively mute response to Iraq's takeover of Kirkuk in October.

Since September, several Iranian delegations have visited Erbil and incumbent Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani also visited Tehran in January - where Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for improved relations with Iraqi Kurdistan within a unified Iraq.

Later in February, Iraq's Kurdish president Fuad Massum met with Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said "Iran will do whatever in its power to remove grudges between Iraq's central government and the KRG and to improve their ties".

Hawez has also cited some specific instances which indicate Iraqi Kurdistan's political relations with Turkey are on the decline. Kurdistan's parliament has voiced support for Syrian Kurds in Afrin fighting against Turkey's ongoing military campaign there, much to Ankara's consternation.

Kurdistan's speaker of parliament even reportedly told Turkey's consulate in Erbil, after it complained, that just as "it is legitimate for you to support the Turkmen of Kirkuk, it is legitimate for us to support the Syrian Kurds".

Kurdistan's parliament also sent a delegation to Afrin last month, which was able to reach the isolated enclave with the help of the Iranians - who ensured they could pass through Syrian regime-controlled checkpoints in Aleppo. 

What will come of its latest policy shift has yet to be seen, as Kurdistan continues to endure yet another turbulent period in its history.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon