Q: What are the Main Drivers behind the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Decision to Hold its Independence Referendum on September 25, 2017?
A: I think there are various internal and external reasons behind the decision, from the Kurdish aspiration to a nation state and the acquisition of cards to bargain for benefits, to the start of the process of balkanization in the region. After one hundred years after the Sykes-Picot agreement and decades of Kurdish attempts at achieving independence, present-day Iraq, due to its specific situation, is the most appropriate piece of the puzzle in which to fulfil a century of Kurdish nation-state aspirations, because the KRG has all four elements in place required to form an independent state. On the other hand, there are a range of contradictions between Erbil and Baghdad, and KRG officials need some kinds of leverage to obtain their demands from Baghdad and increase both their political weight and role in the Iraq’s political scene, and this referendum gives them that much-needed bargaining chip.
The next dimension in the decision is planning for regional fragmentation. Some transnational actors are looking to balkanize the region. What they do in practice is totally different from their declared policies. Although they may oppose a referendum in words (announced policy) in the current situation, their policy in practice is to push Erbil toward independence.
At the same time, while the prevailing trend among advanced countries is integration and an easing of borders, due to the benefits of integration, it seems that plans by some trans-regional powers and some rivals within their region, to break up the Middle East for their own interests are being used to weaken the countries of this region. Israel also will benefit from crushing existing political units in the area. This referendum may be a step towards Kurdistan’s independence and a start for other separatisms in the Middle East to undermine the power of the nation state in the Middle East, and all nation states should be concerned.
Q: How Will the Referendum Result Impact Intra-Kurdish Relations Ahead of the Upcoming Local Elections in the KRG?
A: It seems that if the referendum succeeds, the position of Barzani and his party will be strengthened and opposition parties will face a state of uncertainty.
Q: How Will Relations between the KRG and Baghdad be shaped by the Referendum Result?
A: It is likely that relations between Erbil and Baghdad will be challenging to the point of being overwhelming. Contradictions over disputed areas, and in particular Kirkuk, which is among the most important oil-producing regions in Iraq, will be the key to the conflict. If these contradictions are not managed, there may be a civil war.
Q: What are the Potential Impacts of the Referendum result on the KRG’s Ties with Ankara and Tehran?
A: Ankara and Tehran have both expressed their opposition to this referendum and indeed to the break-up of Iraq. Both countries have security concerns about the spillover of separatist ideas into their countries. Of course, in Iran, despite the religious differences and other disagreements, and because of the Iranian origins and historical identity of Kurds in Iran and the relatively positive attitude of the government, Kurdish people believe in their historical and structural identity and are integrated into the center; therefore the possibility of separatist movements succeeding in Iran is weak. But the Kurdish issue in Turkey has, of course, been fraught with a great deal of ups and downs, from the rejection of identity and suppression to conflict and then negotiation with the PKK, as well as the problems with Kurdish politics in the form of a political party (the Democratic People’s Party). Of course, there are some economic relations between Turkey and the KRG, which may affect Turkey’s behavior towards Kurdistan after independence.
Q: What are the Geoeconomic Implications of the Referendum Result for the KRG and the Middle East at Large?
A: From the geopolitical view, there are many obstacles to the formation of an independent Kurdish nation state. And at the very least it must solve its problems on four levels: inside the KRG, inside Iraq with Baghdad, and also at the regional and trans-regional levels. Otherwise, it may lead to internal contradictions within the KRG, civil war with Baghdad, and insecure borders with its neighbors. Given that Kurdistan does not have access to the high seas, this is likely to result in Erbil’s geopolitical isolation. The consequences will be twofold: on the one hand, it may cause economic problems for KRG, which will affect its political manner, and, on the other hand, regional competition for economic influence and, consequently, political influence in the KRG for the post tension-management period. In the future, this crisis may also lead to a tactical unity between Turkey and Iran.
So as mentioned, the creation of an independent Kurdish state will be accompanied by a lot of problems, while a federal Kurdish administration will bring benefits, development, security and prosperity to the Iraqi Kurds.