Iran's Reaction to the 'Kurdistan Independence Referendum'

The announcement of Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRG) on June 7 that a referendum for independence of the Kurdistan regionwould be held on September 25 sparked harsh reactions from almost all parts of the Iranian administration. Iranian officials have arguedon all occasions that the decision for independence referendum is a one-sided decision that threatens sovereignty and territorial integrity of Irak, and urged the Iraqi Kurdish leaders to give up on this decision.

Through mutual visits subsequent to the announcement of referendum, Iranian officials tried to persuade the KRG to shelve itsdecision. In response to invitation of Iran, a delegation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) including Jalal Talabani, Mullah Bahtiyar, Kosrat Rasul Ali went to Tehran in the middle of July, and met Iranian officials. Secretary General of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC)and Ayatollah Khamenei's representativeat the SNSC, Ali Shamkhani warned the delegation that the referendum was not a priority, or need of people, and it would weaken Kurdistan and all Iraq.

Ahmad Khatami, Tehran's Friday prayer leader,claimed in his speech delivered on September 15 that the independence ‘referendum ispart of a plot to create another Israel in the region.’ Recalling the fact that while the regional countries are opposing the referendum only Israel publiclysupports it, he calledauthorities in the Kurdistan region to ‘come to their senses and give up the Israeli plot.Likewise, Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser of Ayatollah Khameneiclaimed that the independence referendum would be the first step for the disintegration of Iraq, and argued that this would weaken regional countries, and pave the ground for penetration of foreigners, especially Zionistsinto the region.

Iranian government plainlyrejectedthe independence referendum when it was first put forward by KRG in 2014, and since thenit has continuously stated the importance of protecting Iraq's territorial integrity. When the referendum issuecame back to the agenda, Iran initially wanted this issue to be dealtwith through negotiations between Arbil and Baghdad, and declared its readiness to mediate between the parties. In fact, Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)recently met the KDP, PUK and Gorran officials in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. He is reportedly reminded his collocutors thatsafeguarding territorial integrity of Iraq is regarded by Iran as the red line. He promised that Iran wouldstrive for the improvement of relations between Arbil and Baghdad, if the referendum were cancelled; otherwise, the KRG wouldbe left alone against potential threats.

The second step taken by Iran is to talk with regional countries,especially with Turkey, and to take a jointposition against the referendum. In was on the agenda of Geneal Bagher,

Chief of General Staff of Iranian Armed Forces, when hepaid a rare visit to Ankara on 15-17 August. Later on, Bagheri and his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akar addressed the given issue in atelephone conversation.  Akar is expected to visit Tehran in the coming days. Additionally, Ayatollah Shahroudi, Chairman of Expediency Discernment Council, and Mohsen Rezaee, Secretary General of the given Council and former commander of IRGC,visited Baghdad in early September, and held a series of talks with Iraqi officials.

Because of the KRG’s insistence on holding the referendum on the scheduled day, Tehran has begun to intimidate on the Iraqi Kurdistan leaders. Ali Shamkhani indicated that if the KRG declared its independence, Iran mightrevise its relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan, close theborder gates, andsuspend military and security agreements between the KRG and Iran. It was alleged that Suleimanithreatened his interlocutors during his visit to Iraq byany action of Hashd al-Shaabi.


Why does Iran oppose the referendum?

Despite occasional disputes between them, Iran has been in good relations with the KRG since its foundation. In fact, Iran was the only regional country to support the KRG as a federal region within Iraq. Yet, why does Iran oppose independence of the KRG?

First, from the Iranian point of view, disintegration of the territorial integrity of Iraq that isrecognised as a sovereign state by the international system and regional statesmay trigger new security challenges in the region. The disintegration of Iraq could encourage separatist movements in Syria, Iran and Turkey. This process can affect not only the Kurds but also other ethnic groups. For this reason, Iran, hosting many ethnic minorities, is highly concerned with this process.

Additionally, the rejection of the referendum by the Iraqi Government,and disagreements overcontrol of the disputed territories,including Kirkuk,mayunleasharmed clashes between the Kurds and the Iraqi Government. Hence, the Iraqi Kurdish bid for independence is seen as a step that can bring about instability and new conflicts both inside Iraq, and in the region. Moreover, newconflicts and crises that is highly likely to arise in the region may hinder the struggle against ISIS.

It is also crucial to maintain stability in Iraq for the security of Iran’s western borders. However, in case the referendum triggers new conflicts in Iraq, Iran’s western borders may be destabilized and the security may fall into danger. For long years,Iran has already faced security challenges arising from the armed activities of Kurdish movements(KDPI, Komala, PJAK etc.)based in Iraqi Kurdish territories. The fact that these groups have recently intensified their anti-Iran activities has alarmed Iran.

Holding a referendum for independence, according to the evaluations of Iranian officials, is not demanded by people, but is required for personal accounts ofBarzani. A significant number of Kurdish leaders are opposing it. Therefore, it is likely that new clashes may take place between the opposing Kurdish groupsduring the referendum. This, in turn, could be a new source of instability in the region.

The United States, the UN, and the European countries are, at least rhetorically, opposing to the referendum as well. The UN and European countries also refused to send observers to oversee the referendum. Despite its ostensible opposition to the referendum, many Iranian analysts blame the United States is to engineer all this stuff.Additionally, one of the long-term concerns of Iran, since the early 1990s,with regard to the Iraqi Kurdistan is its potential turninto an arena that could be easily exploited by Israel. Now, the plain support of Israel given for the referendum, and Iranian suspicions towards the American policies in the region highlight its concerns.

Finally, prospective independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan may decrease Iranian capacity to interferein the region. Till the present time, Iran hasbeen able to intervene in the region through its bilateral relations with different Kurdish groups, the Arbil Administration or Baghdad. Moreover, Tehran could use its influence over the Kurds in the overall Iraqi politics. The Iranian role and interests cannot be denied in the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that emerged after the US occupation of Iraq. Therefore, Iran can be deprived of an effective leverage on Iraqi politics. On the other hand, as a federal region in Iraq, the KRG has been in need of Tehran's support from the political and security perspectives. As a matter of fact, this hasbeen clearly seen during the ISIS threat. This asymmetric relationship has provided Iran with the opportunity to put pressure on Iraqi Kurds. However, the declaration of independence of the KRG and its recognition as a sovereign state by the international community can reduce Iran's influence on the Kurds.