Iraqi Kurds look to open new chapter with Iran

Hawramy, Al Monitor, May 15, 2018

The Iraqi
Kurdish leadership forges ahead with efforts to improve ties with Iran, both in
hopes of reviving their economy and also to regain lost clout in Baghdad.
HAMED/AFP/Getty Images. Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq’s
Kurdistan Regional Government, speaks during an electoral rally for the
Kurdistan Democratic Party, Erbil, Iraq, April 29, 2018.

Kurds are opening a new chapter in their relations with Iran, seven months
after Tehran sided with Baghdad in crushing their ambition for independence
following a 2017 referendum in which nearly 93% of Kurds opted to secede from

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) hosted an Iranian government trade
delegation in Erbil during the fourth economic conference between the two
parties on May 2-3 in order to discuss ways of expanding ties. “This conference
was an important gathering to expand the economic relations between Iraq and
Iran and in particular the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” said Hassan Danaiefar, the
former Iranian ambassador to Baghdad and the current head of the committee to
expand economic relations between Iran and Iraq.
This is
yet another testament to the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, as the country
has held critical elections that could see Tehran-backed groups occupying the
top echelons of power to the dismay of the United States and the European
Union. At the conference in Erbil, Iraj Masjedi, the current Iranian ambassador
to Iraq and a former senior lieutenant in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard
Corps’ elite Quds Force, took time to meet with former KRG President
Massoud Barzani, who was the main force behind the
September 2017 independence referendum. “In the meeting, views were
exchanged about the political conditions, the latest developments in Iraq and
the region,” a statement on
the encounter
read, without providing further details.
Minister of Industry, Mine and Trade Mohammad Shariatmadari,
who attended the conference, said that an agreement was signed between Erbil
and Tehran to expand their relations and to form a committee to deal with the
obstacles that slow down bilateral trade.
This kind
of high-level reception for officials of a country that many Iraqi Kurds blame
for foiling their independence referendum and for the loss of disputed
territories as well as half of the KRG’s oil revenue comes at a time when Iran
appears to be facing further isolation following US President Donald Trump’s
withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
“I think
all the parties, including the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], the Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan and others, have understood that the role of the Islamic
Republic is critical and they should have taken into account its demands and
suggestions,” said Nazim
, a veteran KRG representative in Tehran, on May 2. “We could
say that they [Iranians] had informed the Kurds that the referendum would bring
disaster for the Kurds, now all the [Kurdish] parties are trying to improve
their relations [with Tehran].”
Once the
Iraqi Kurdish leadership came to terms with the fact that Iran is the real
power broker in Iraq, a KRG delegation headed by Prime Minister Nechirvan
Barzani visited Tehran in January and accepted defeat in meetings with senior
Iranian officials. The KRG delegation agreed with Tehran’s demand for a halt to
illegal smuggling from Iraqi Kurdistan as well as more restrictions on the
Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in the Kurdistan region — including
preventing the opposition groups from conducting cross-border operations. In
return, both parties agreed to expand
their economic and trade ties
and bring them to the level before the Islamic State seized one-third of Iraq
in the summer of 2014.
Now, the
Kurds and Iran are implementing an agreement that has dire consequences for
those living on both sides of the border, and in particular for Iranian Kurds
who are already suffering from poverty and high unemployment. On the
economic front, the KRG will expand the capacity of the current border
crossings and will open more crossings. This has led to protests and strikes in the Kurdish
areas on the Iranian side, as the crackdown on smuggling has put thousands of
cross-border porters, locally known as “kolbar,” out of work. An Iranian
Kurdish member of parliament last month complained
in parliament that 75,000 kolbar have lost their jobs as a result of government
policy in the Iranian year, which ended March 20. The Iranian authorities now
say reforms
are being pursued to put these porters back to work, albeit via new
arrangements. Meanwhile, in relation to the ongoing strike in the border hub of
Baneh, officials say local traders’ demand of a 50% exemption from customs
tariffs — more than twice the current discount of 20% — cannot be
Added to
the mix is the May 8 withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal,
which is already impacting the lives of ordinary Iranians. “The price of a
10-kilogram [22-pound] bag of rice has jumped from 70,000 [$17.50] to 90,000
tomans [$22.50] over the last two days,” a resident of the western city of
Kermanshah told Al-Monitor the day after Trump pulled out of the accord.
“People are worried about the repercussions of the US decision on ordinary
people.” Meanwhile, the number of kolbar killed
by Iranian border guards continues to
. On the Iraqi side, more border checkpoints are set up to stop
traders from providing goods to the porters. “We are here to stop the smuggling
of goods,” said a Kurdish officer in the border area near the town of Khurmal
in Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah province on April 25. “This is new, and I think it is a
result of pressure from the Iranian side after the referendum.”
On the
security front, Iran has demanded that Iranian Kurdish opposition groups be
stopped from operating in the border area — and the pressure appears to be
mounting. “There is a real danger that the KDPI peshmerga are disarmed,” said a
well-connected source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity,
referring to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, the main Kurdish group
that has been fighting the Islamic Republic since 1980. “There is a real debate
about what to do if the KRG pressures them to disarm.” Some within the KDPI say
the group should take up arms and go back to the mountains in the belief that
there is no guarantee that they won’t be targeted by Iranian assassins or
ground forces if they are disarmed.
The steps
taken by the KRG to boost bilateral trade and keep a lid on militancy in its
territory signals that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership has realized that it needs
to be on good terms with the Iranians — not merely to survive in the volatile
region, but also to be accepted once again in the Iraqi capital. Erbil’s
conceding that the road to Baghdad goes through Tehran and not Washington in
effect reiterates another lesson to Kurdish officials: Their role in fighting
the Islamic State has not made them indispensable to the West.