Q: What are the Main Drivers Behind the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Decision to Hold an Independence Referendum on September 25, 2017?
A: Since the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the formation of the post-colonial nation-state system, Kurds have been pursuing different forms of self-rule. On January 22, 1946, Kurds in Iran declared the short-lived Republic of Mahabad led by Qazi Mohammed. The Mahabad Republic had an army of approximately 13,000 fighters led by Mustafa Barzani, father of the present Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president, Masoud Barzani, who is calling for an independence referendum to be held on September 25, 2017. While the desire to create an independent Kurdish state holds significant importance for the Barzani family and the Kurds in general, there are other equally important reasons behind the KRG’s decision to hold the referendum now.
Firstly, the issue of Kirkuk province. Up until June 2014, Kirkuk was administratively linked to Baghdad. While the province held a special status under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, Kirkuk was not part of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. However, the Kurdish security forces moved into Kirkuk in June 2014 to protect the city from the invading ISIS forces. Soon after, the city came de facto under the administration and control of the KRG. Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution was drafted to resolve historical claims of Arabization/Kurdification, compensation, who should run the province, etc. The KRG realised that it would take a long time, if at all, before Kirkuk came under its administration. The same is true for other ‘disputed territories’ taken by the Kurdish security forces after June 2014. The independence referendum can be used as a card in any future negotiations with the Iraqi government to pressure Baghdad to give up the administration of Kirkuk and other disputed territories.
Secondly, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has enjoyed a wide range of powers up until 2014. From 2014 onwards, the KRG carried out its administration more independently from the central government in Baghdad, building its own army, financial services, exploring and exporting natural resources, controlling and taxing borders without sharing revenues with the Iraqi central government, and opening diplomatic missions in several countries across the globe. A successful outcome from this independence referendum will help the KRG assert its grip over these powers and keep its share of the budget, which is approximately 17percent of the total Iraqi budget. It is unlikely that the KRG would try to secede from Iraq in the near future. However, the referendum is the first step on a long road towards establishing an independent Kurdish state.
Q: How Will the Referendum’s Result impact Intra-Kurdish Relations Ahead of the Upcoming Local Elections in the KRG?
A: The independence referendum would certainly boost the popularity of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by KRG President Masoud Barzani. While the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran, and Islamic Party of Kurdistan support the referendum, tensions among political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan remain high.
The KRG’s parliament has now been suspended for nearly two years. On Friday September 15, 2017, the Parliament convened and voted in favour of holding the independence referendum. However, only 68 out of the 111 members of parliament attended the session, because MPs from other political parties boycotted the parliamentary session. Tensions among political parties over the presidency of the KRG, political and economic reforms, and the relationship with Baghdad are expected to continue both before and after the referendum. It is important to mention that the Speaker of the Parliament did not attend the parliamentary session which approved the independence referendum. It was not clear whether he was barred from attending or he did not wish to attend.
In the days leading up to the referendum, signs of fracture have started to show among Kurdish political parties. The deputy leader of the PUK, Barham Salih, registered a new political party to stand in the Iraqi elections to be held in April 2018. He has also met with the Gorran Party political bureau to discuss a potential alliance in the upcoming elections. It is clear that Kurdish political parties have different priorities denoting current and future divisions over the nature of the relationship between the KRG and Baghdad.
Q: How Will Relations Between the KRG and Baghdad be Shaped by the Referendum Result?
A: Almost certainly, the majority of Kurds in Iraq will vote for independence. The result of the referendum will further strain the relationship between Baghdad and the KRG. There has been aggressive rhetoric between Baghdad and the KRG since the announcement of the referendum date. On September 14, 2017, the Iraqi Parliament voted against the KRG’s independence referendum. On the same day, that parliament voted to expel the [Kurdish] governor of Kirkuk. The KRG and the governor of Kirkuk both refused to comply with the Iraqi Parliament’s decision.
The repercussions of this referendum could go far beyond rhetoric. The issues of budgets, revenues, the exploration and management of natural resources, and the collection of taxes have been sources of dispute between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG. The Iraqi government, in response to the result of the referendum, might well cut off the KRG’s share of the budget. Furthermore, Iraqi Prime Minister Mr. Abadi stated yesterday that his government might intervene militarily if the referendum lead to violence, indicating that Baghdad is concerned about the safety of Arab Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in the KRG area and other minorities living in Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Diyala as well. A ’Yes’ in the independence referendum could at its worst lead to military confrontation between the KRG and Iraqi forces.
Q: What are the Potential Impacts of the Referendum Result on the KRG’s Ties with Ankara and Tehran?
A: Tehran and Ankara oppose the referendum to be held by the KRG on September 25, 2017. However, the relationship between the KRG, Turkey, and Iran is complicated. On the one hand, Iran maintains historical relationships with all the major Kurdish parties: the KDP, PUK, and Gorran. Iran gave refuge to tens of thousands of Kurds and their political leaderships during the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, Turkey and the KRG share significant economic interests including an oil pipeline to export the KRG’s oil to international markets.
However, the referendum poses a threat to the stability and territorial integrity of both Turkey and Iran. The creation of a Kurdish state bordering Turkey and Iran would help further fuel their local Kurdish insurgencies—for example, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) have been fighting against the central governments in Ankara and Tehran for decades. A successful independence referendum would damage the nature of the relationship between Turkey, Iran, and the KRG. Iran has already threatened to close the borders with the Kurdish region and cancel any security agreements with the KRG if the referendum is held as scheduled. In addition, the Turkish government has issued strongly-worded statements warning the KRG of the consequences of holding the referendum.
Q: What are the Geoeconomic Implications of the Referendum Result for the KRG and Middle East at Large?
A: An independent Kurdish state carved out of Iraq would mean re-drawing the map of the post-colonial Middle East. The implications would immediately affect Turkey, Iran, and Syria, where millions of ethnic Kurds live. Geoeconomically, the potential cessation of the Kurdistan region from Iraq means that there would be no land route left linking Iraq to Europe through Turkey. The geoeconomic implications of the referendum and the potential cessation of the KRG from Iraq would be significant.
Additionally, the referendum might push Turkey and Iran to reconsider their economic relations with the KRG. The economy of the KRG depends heavily on the revenues of oil exported through Turkey, imports from Turkey and Iran, and transit of goods from Turkey to the rest of Iraq and through its borders with Iran. The referendum might impact the KRG’s economic relations not only with Turkey and Iran but also with the rest of Iraq.
The KRG’s independence referendum has also forced regional and international powers to take sides. Saudi Arabia, for example, is yet to decide whether to support Iraq’s territorial integrity or to support the KRG’s independence referendum. At present, the Saudi government has opted to send Minister Thamer al-Sabhan to offer mediation between Baghdad and the KRG.