The Iranian penetration of Iraqi Kurdistan
By Lazar Berman
Iran's influence grows across the Middle East. Its armed proxies, and often Iranian soldiers themselves, advance Tehran's interests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Iran's activities in those countries have caught the attention of states in the region and beyond, and rival Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia continue to ramp up their diplomatic and rhetorical campaigns to counter Tehran's ambitions. But Iran has made deep inroads elsewhere as well, including a region that the United States, Israel and allied countries see as a nascent ally, pro-Western and largely democratic. While the Kurdistan Region (KR) of Iraq may well become a bulwark against hostile and anti-Western forces in the region, that possibility is looking increasingly uncertain. Taking advantage of economic interests, political ties and security needs – not to mention Western apathy toward Kurdish concerns- Iran is cementing its place as one of the key players in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Only three years ago, the Kurds seemed to be emerging as the unqualified winners of the unrest sweeping the Arab world. Taking advantage of a weak and embattled government in Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil inked its own oil deals and built a pipeline into Turkey. Syrian Kurds cast off the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, creating another de facto Kurdish autonomy bordering the KR. Kurdish independence seemed more imminent than ever.
Since that time, their fortunes have changed dramatically. The Kurdistan Regional Government finds itself mired in a presidential succession crisis, as violent protests against the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have left several dead and hundreds wounded. The booming economic growth of the last decade has stagnated, and the government, the region's main employer, has been unable to pay salaries for months. To make matters worse, the war with the Islamic State drags on with no victory in sight.
These developments present colossal challenges for the KRG. They have also created an opportunity for Iran, one that it is eager to exploit.
Iranian-Kurdish Ties: It's Complicated
The relationship between Iran and the Kurds is as old as it is complicated. These complexities were "thrown into stark relief" in October 2013, in the words of a Tehran-based journalist. Adel Murad, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said publicly that Kurds should welcome Iranian involvement – instead of Turkish or Saudi – in their affairs. At the same time, word spread quickly that Iran had hanged two Iranian Kurdish activists. Anti-Iranian rallies erupted in the KR, and the armed Kurdish rebel group to which the men belonged, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), claimed it had killed 10 Revolutionary Guard soldiers. Tehran hanged another Kurdish activist just days later.
The aspects of the Kurdish-Iranian relationship that surfaced during that week in 2013 – leading Kurdish parties aligning with Tehran, violent repression of Kurds within Iran, Kurdish anger at Iran- remain important features of the complicated dynamic to this day.
The ties stretch back into the distant mists of national memory. Persians and Kurds share a long common history and core cultural elements. Kurdish is a northwestern Iranian tongue, and speakers of Kurdish and Farsi are able to largely understand one another. Iran is home to millions of Kurds. Like Persians, Kurds take to the hills in the spring to celebrate Newroz, their most important cultural holiday. Kurdish tourists regularly visit Iran, and Iranian TV shows and movies are broadcast into Kurdish homes. "Kurds know that unlike Arabs and Turks, Iranians don't hate them," a Kurdish journalist explained.
The ties have manifested themselves in much more concrete ways. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurdish city Halabja with chemical weapons in 1988, it was the Iranians who moved in to aid the wounded, while the West largely turned a blind eye or tried to absolve Saddam from responsibility. Tehran evacuated thousands of Kurdish victims, and brought in reporters to document the atrocity. The act didn't go unnoticed. "My mother is forever grateful for what the Iranian government and people did to save my grandfather's eyes," said Halabja native Rebaz Ali. "Growing up, she always wanted her children to know that Iranians played a major role in saving the lives of thousands of people who fled the gas attack. She still keeps in touch with some of the people who provided help after the attack, she even visited them a couple of years ago."
With time, however, the relationship changed. Iran sided with the PUK party during the Kurdish civil war of the 1990s, as its peshmerga forces battled those of the rival KDP. The United States brokered a peace treaty in 1997 and promised to keep Saddam's military out of Kurdish areas, by force if necessary. Iran, already sidelined, was further unsettled by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with which the now-unified (at least on paper) peshmerga forces cooperated enthusiastically. Its leadership worried that the Kurdistan Regional Government, now able to chart its own foreign policy, would provide a safe haven for the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) separatist group. More importantly, an emerging U.S.-dominated, pro-Western government in Baghdad, in a federal union with an even more pro-Western Erbil, would badly damage Iran's strategic position. And in the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Tehran considered it well within the realm of possibility that the George W. Bush administration would turn its sights and guns on Iran next.
America's Loss Was Iran's Gain
But as American commitment to Iraq waned, Iran's position in the country improved. In August 2010, the last U.S. combat brigade left Iraq. Already influential through Iraq's majority Shiite population, Tehran further consolidated its influence in the country as it successfully helped broker a Shiite-led government under Nouri al-Maliki after the 2010 elections.
As its role – and confidence – in Iraq continued to grow, Iran's relationship with the KRG improved. Trade between Iran and the Kurdistan Region exploded. From bilateral trade worth $100 million in 2000, on the eve of the Islamic State invasion in 2014 it approached $4 billion annually. In August 2014, the two sides agreed to increase trade and energy ties during a meeting between Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and a visiting Iranian trade delegation. While Iran has been unable to dislodge its historic rival Turkey as Kurdistan's leading trading partner, Iranian goods dominate the PUK areas close to the Iran-Iraq border.
The political relationship between Kurdish parties and Iran has also grown closer in recent years. For historic and geographic reasons, Iran has enjoyed a close relationship with the PUK, centered in the Sulemaniyah region near the Iranian border. PUK leaders, including former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, visit Iran regularly and maintain close ties with Iranian officials. Iran has also made inroads with PUK-breakaway party Gorran (Change), reportedly stewarding a power-sharing agreement between the rival factions in 2014. The growing ties with Gorran reinforced Iran's political influence at a time when PUK's power seemed to be ebbing.
Not surprisingly, PUK's rival party maintains a very different relationship with Iran. The KDP's antipathy toward Iran goes back decades. During the Kurdish civil war of the 1990s, Tehran backed the PUK, while the KDP looked to Turkey for support. In addition, legendary KDP founder and Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani fostered close ties to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, which Iran pressured Israel to scale down drastically in 1975. The KDP under Barzani's son Massoud has continued to maintain quiet communication with Jerusalem, which has caught the attention of Iran under the ayatollahs. Iran's close ties with the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad have also put it at odds with the KDP-headed KRG.
Still, even at times of strained relations, both sides have sought to maintain lines of communication. Iran has acted to improve its relationship with the KDP as well in recent years. President Massoud Barzani met with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2011, and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was in Tehran for Hassan Rouhani's inauguration as president in 2013. The prime minister was in Tehran most recently for an October 2015 security conference.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Moves In
The KRG has already made the moves toward increased autonomy that Iran opposed, and with those out of the way and the Islamic State threatening Iranian allies, closer ties make sense. In 2014, before hosting the Iranian trade mission, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani expressed his interest in improving relations with Tehran. In August 2015, Iranian leaders, including IRGC-Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, came out in support of President Barzani of the KDP party remaining in office after his constitutional term ended, a position bitterly opposed by the PUK and Gorran. However, once Barzani's term expired and violent anti-KDP protests erupted in PUK-areas, KDP voices blamed Iran for inciting violence against the party, and for bringing together the PUK and Gorran against the KDP.
It is in the security field where Iranian support has been most apparent. Wary of pushing the Kurds toward independence, and prioritizing the concerns of regional state powers over those of the KRG, the United States and Europe have proven unwilling to provide the peshmerga weaponry that would give them capabilities beyond those of standard Iraqi mechanized formations. After IS forces threatened the KR capital in 2014, Western nations started bombing IS and arming the peshmerga – enough to halt the advance but not nearly sufficient to give Kurdish forces the tools to embark on major offensives by themselves. Europe and the United States refused to meet Kurdish demands, and the weapons that were earmarked to help Kurdish forces didn't always make it to their intended recipients. In the most recent case, two planes carrying arms to forces in the KR, one Canadian and one Swedish, were held up at the Baghdad International Airport by the Iraqi government, ostensibly over customs issues. The Canadian Forces Hercules had no choice but to return to Kuwait, and the Swedish craft was sent back to Turkey.
As one Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs study argued, "leaving the Kurds with the feeling that the United States and Europe will not provide the weapons needed to protect themselves from the Islamic State presents a serious problem for the West. At some point, the Kurds will increasingly look toward Iran if the West is not more forthcoming with training and weapons. Iranian intelligence and military forces are operating within Kurdish areas and on their borders – often overtly – and unless the West makes a conscious effort to ensure Kurdish security and address their concerns, Iran will find itself as the major player in yet another region in the Middle East, one that is a natural ally of the United States and the West."
Iran understood that the 2014 IS offensive that brought the jihadist group within striking distance of Erbil was a golden opportunity. Unverified Kurdish reports maintain that General Soleimani of the Iranian Qods Force entered the KR with a convoy of 70 military vehicles the night of the IS attack. While it has not been possible to determine the veracity of those accounts, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did hint at Iran's role in blunting the IS campaign. "Iran protects Erbil and Baghdad the same as it protects Iranian Kurdistan," he said during a June 2015 visit to Iranian Kurdish city Sanandaj after the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. "Without Iran's help Erbil and Baghdad would be in the hands of terrorist groups right now. The way we protect Sanandaj we also protect Sulemaniyah and Duhok."
There is no doubt that Iranian forces have fought alongside PUK peshmerga fighters. Soldiers from Iran's 81st Armored Division helped PUK and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters push IS out of Khanaqin, a Kurdish city on the border with Iran in Iraq's Diyala province. In October 2014, Iranian television broadcast images of Soleimani alongside peshmerga fighters on the battlefield. The pictures were said to be from Jurf al-Sakhr south of Baghdad.
While the West continues sending the KRG small arms and limited numbers of anti-armor missiles, Iran has stepped in, becoming the peshmerga's primary artillery provider, especially BM-14 and BM-21 truck-mounted rocket launchers. The Soviet-made systems burn through ammunition quickly, and Iran sends daily shipments overland to the peshmerga.
KRG leaders have at times sought to downplay Iranian military support as they try to manage relations with the array of rival powers involved in the region. During a May 2015 visit to Washington DC, President Barzani acknowledged that there was at least one instance in which Iran provided ammunition for the fight against IS, but denied deeper involvement. "Iranian forces have not come to our area and we have not asked for that," he said. "We have no problems with Iran because we have our own policy and Iran has its own policy and we are neighbors."
But Barzani himself hinted at more extensive military relations in August 2014. "Iran was the first state to help us…and it provided us with weapons and equipment," he said at a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif
and Kurdish President Barzani
While some details of the relationship remain vague, it is clear that Iran has positioned itself as a reliable military backer of the KRG, filling a vacuum the West has left as a result of its tepid support.
What is behind Iran's economic, political, and military moves in Iraqi Kurdistan?
At its core, Iran's motivation is based on its goals of exporting its revolution and challenging the West.
Its improving position in Kurdistan allows Iran to pursue a range of interests. It increases Iranian control over the future of Iraq, making it more difficult for the KRG to pursue policies that run counter to the interests of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. It also gives them leverage over the Kurds in case they make a move to break away from Iraq.
In the struggle between regional powers, Iranian political and economic inroads give it important leverage over Turkey, the other Middle Eastern heavyweight heavily invested in Kurdistan. The countries mirror each other in their ties with Kurds – both enjoy close relations with an Iraqi Kurdish political party, dominate half the region economically, and are dealing with violent domestic Kurdish groups. Turkey has a head-start in terms of influence in the KR, but Iran is closing fast. In addition, Iranian ties with the KRG give it some sway in the restive Kurdish areas in eastern Turkey.
And Iranian penetration of Kurdistan allows Tehran to render it less likely that its major adversaries, Israel and the United States, will gain a secure foothold in a region that has a 400-mile border with Iran. Though many on the Kurdish street and in the government would prefer to be Western-oriented and allied, their patience is likely to run out as they are kept at arm's length.
The KRG‘s interest in the relationship is clear. Iran gives them much-needed weaponry – especially those arms that the West hasn't provided – for the long fight against IS. The peshmerga‘s performance against IS has been uneven, and the backing of Iranian troops is a vital boost on some battlefields. The economic benefit is equally crucial. The Kurdish economy relies heavily on oil, with almost no private sector activity beyond major construction projects. Very few goods are produced within the KR, and Iran provides access to key goods and investment.
It is also important for the KRG, too, to have some leverage over Turkey, whose current friendship cannot be taken for granted. With an alternative supplier of goods and arms, the Kurdish government can be more confident that Turkey will think twice before turning on them.
Though both sides have clear interests in the relationship, there are inherent complications that aren't going to disappear. The KRG is not about to turn its back on the United States, and will continue to maintain a close relationship with Turkey. Moreover, there seems to be a persistent and quiet push among the ruling class for ties with Israel where possible.
The most substantial fly in the ointment is the Kurdish population in Iran, which numbers from six to eight million. There has been a separatist campaign for almost a century, leaving tens of thousands dead. PJAK began its insurgency in 2004, working closely with the PKK. Iranian soldiers and PJAK continue to kill one another in clashes every few months, and the group enjoys safe havens inside KRG territory. Iran hangs alleged PJAK members, sparking outrage and riots in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it did in October 2013. Iran is not about to be receptive to Kurdish demands in Iran. And as long as they see Iran killing their brethren, the Kurdish street in Iraq will remain wary of Tehran.
Some Kurdish politicians also don't trust Iranian intentions. "Iran might exploit the new circumstances to further expand its influence politically," said the KDP‘s Shakhawan Abdulla after Iran signed the nuclear deal. "And it might bring Kurdistan under its control and attempt to undermine the region's security."
The Israeli Interest
Many Israeli officials hold an expectation that Iraqi Kurdistan, if and when it gains full independence, will be a reliable ally, a Western-oriented democratic state facing common enemies. More than any other country, Israeli leaders have been vocal in their support for an independent Kurdistan. They recognize the moral commitment to Kurdish self-determination. They are well aware of the close ties between the Kurdish Jews in Israel and the Kurdish people. In June 2014, Israeli President Shimon Peres told U.S. President Barack Obama that Kurds have created their own de facto state, "which is democratic." Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pushed the same line the next day, saying that a free Kurdish state was a "foregone conclusion." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed with the clearest declaration of Israeli support, telling a Tel Aviv conference that Israel should "support the Kurdish aspiration for independence,' because the Kurds are "a fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence."
"Kurds are deeply sympathetic to Israel and an independent Kurdistan will be beneficial to Israel," wrote Kurdish journalist Ayub Nuri. "It will create a balance of power. Right now, Israel is one country against many. But with an independent Kurdish state, first of all Israel will have a genuine friend in the region for the first time, and second, Kurdistan will be like a buffer zone in the face of the Turkey, Iran and Iraq."
Israel and the Kurds have enjoyed close ties for decades. Starting in the 1950s, Mossad officers were sent to northern Iraq to aid the iconic Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani in his rebellion against the Iraqi army. Though the relationship was scaled back in the 1970s, reports of Israeli security, medical, and economic aid continue to circulate. There are important economic components as well, especially around oil. According to reports that surfaced over the summer, Israel imports as much as three-quarters of its oil from Iraqi Kurdistan. The desire for an alliance runs the other way as well. Kurdish nationalists relate to Israel as a role model for Kurdish aspirations, as a small, embattled nation in the Middle East that managed to carve out a democratic state with great power support.
At the same time, with the Middle East in a dizzying maelstrom, Israel is reluctant to openly declare its support for statehood at this time.
But the prospect of a formal Kurdish-Israeli or Kurdish-American alliance is a major concern for Iran. With a long, winding, border with Iran, the Kurdistan Region's mountains could provide Israeli commandos or intelligence forces with an ideal gateway into Iran. The fact that millions of Kurds live on the Iranian side of the border makes it even more problematic for Iran. The KR is also perfectly positioned for American military bases in the future, especially if Turkey repeats its 2003 refusal to let U.S. forces carry out an invasion of Iraq from bases on its territory. And a Western-oriented Kurdistan could present a difficult challenge to Iranian ambitions in the region. Tehran's forces and allies continue to fight for control of Iraq and Syria, and Hizbullah has become the dominant political force in Lebanon. The Kurdistan Region, and the de facto independent Kurds in Syria, sit at the heart of the Iranian/Shiite axis, and the last thing Tehran wants is for a Western ally threatening its growing hegemony in the region.
The expectations of Kurdistan becoming an ally of Israel, America, and Europe may be in danger if the West continues to prioritize Iraqi and Turkish interests over those of the Kurds. As Kurds continue to be disappointed by Western military and political support, Iran has found numerous opportunities to expand its political, economic, and military influence in Iraqi Kurdistan. If Iran continues to be given a free hand in the region, it may succeed in thwarting a potential alliance on its border between the West and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Lazar Berman writes extensively on Kurdistan and on military affairs, most recently as breaking news editor for the Times of Israel. From 2012-2013, Lazar taught at Salahuddin University in Iraqi Kurdistan. His work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, Small Wars Journal, Weekly Standard, Mosaic, and other journals.