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overly friendly neighbours
iran’s influence in iraqi kurdistan

Histyar Qader
What plans do Iranian diplomats have for Iraqi Kurdistan? Recently there have been high level visits from both sides and locals say the Iranians, a major trading partner for the Kurdish, are meddling in politics…
25.10.2012  |  Sulaymaniyah

After years of conflict between one of the major political parties in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and its rebellious offshoot, the two groups finally met at a negotiating table in late September. And who was it that brought them together? Some say it was Iran.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Change movement fell out particularly badly in late 2009. Generally power in Iraqi Kurdistan is shared between the two major parties in the region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

But in 2006 one of the two founders of PUK - Nashirwan Mustafa - broke away to form another party, the Change party. This group demanded an end to corruption and nepotism among the current leaders and campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

The relationship was never friendly again but after 2009 elections, when the Change Movement made inroads into the electorate in Iraqi Kurdistan, the head of the PUK, Jalal Talabani, described Mustafa as “destructive” as well as putting some of the blame for one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most horrible events on him.

This year though, the relationship has been thawing. And at the end of September, Talabani and Mustafa met up. Some say that one of the prime influencers of this new friendliness is Iran.

The relationship between Tehran and Iraqi Kurdistan is mostly influenced by Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad; Iran, a Shiite Muslim-led state, supports the ruling Shiite Muslim-led coalition headed by current Iraqi prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Although the Kurdish-Baghdad relationship can be troubled – particularly when it comes to disagreements over the oil industry – it has recently improved and some have said Soleimani’s visit is a further indicator of that.

Nathim al-Dabbagh, Iraqi Kurdistan’s representative in Iran, says that Iran has an excellent relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan. Al-Dabbagh works out of an office in Iraq that was opened in 2007 – even though that office was never officially approved of by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. The office works operates as a joint office of the PUK and KDP. Meanwhile the Iranians have no such qualms, they have had two consulates in Iraqi Kurdistan – one in Erbil in the “yellow sector” and one in Sulaymaniyah in the “green sector”, since 2000.

This is despite the fact that law on political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan states that the parties themselves should not be developing relationships with other nations; this is the role assigned to Iraqi Kurdistan’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In June 2012 Mustafa visited Iran and met with high ranking Iranian officials. It was his first visit there since the Change party was founded in 2006. Following Talabani’s return from Germany, where he had been for several months to have knee surgery, the pair met up and came to an agreement on several issues they had not been able to agree upon previously.

This included Talabani agreeing to a reassessment of the semi-autonomous region’s draft Constitution. It had previously been ratified by the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament but the Change party had wanted it resubmitted. In the past the PUK and Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major party, the KDP, had been opposed to this. But now Talabani, and the PUK, were willing to change their minds.

Local political analyst, Jirjis Gholizade, said the meeting between Talabani and Mustafa had come about partially due to Iran’s influence. “Iran wants the [Iraqi Kurdish region] stable because of pressure on its own nation,” Gholizade argued. “It’s not surprising that Iran would want these two parties to put their differences aside and agree.”

However the deputy head of the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Foreign affairs, Karwan Jamal, wasn’t so sure about that, explaining that Mustafa’s June visit to Iran was completely normal. “It’s only natural that he would visit Iran,” Jamal told NIQASH, “but he should respect the principles of international relations in this region and his visit should also serve the interests of this region.”

“Iran prefers Iraq to be ruled by a party which shares its own ideology,” Jamal continued. “They see the conflicts happening inside Iraq so they want to put pressure on to solve that.”

Jamal also made it clear that the Iraqi Kurdish government was united in its attitude toward any political conflicts in Iraq and that its external relationships were based on widely acceptable international standards of diplomacy and on mutual respect.

This is not the first time Iran has flexed its diplomat muscle in this area. Local observers say that Iran has had influence in the “green sector” of Iraqi Kurdistan for years now.

The “green sector” first emerged in the 1990s when the KDP and PUK fought one another in an Iraqi Kurdish civil war. This saw what is now Iraqi Kurdistan basically divided in two, with areas around Erbil and Dohuk under KDP control and the Sulaymaniyah area under the PUK’s control. Green (PUK) and yellow (KDP) were the colours of the two party’s separate flags.

Although the two parties now rule the state together, those geographic delineations still exist with the KDP and the PUK holding most authority in areas they traditionally oversaw.

And the “green sector” shares 400km worth of border with Iraq. The border crossing at Bashmagh is a major commercial point of entry between Iran and Iraq. According to PUK officials and officials in Tehran, the amount of trade that’s gone through here has added up to around US$4 billion.

Historically, when the PUK and KDP were fighting one another the two sides were supported by their neighbours. Iran supported the PUK and Turkey supported the KDP. Neither of those nations acknowledged this officially though.

“Because of this, Iran has been able to play an important role in Iraqi Kurdistan and to have a say in Iraq,” Gholizade believes. “There is no doubt that Iran and Turkey are major poles in any regional conflict.”

As proof, Gholizade gave the example of the split between Iraqi Kurdish politicians over the issue of the recent attempted removal of Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki from power. The KDP had been keen to withdraw confidence for al-Maliki, along with various other major parties in Iraq. Meanwhile the PUK had not been as enthusiastic, which Gholizade believes, indicates the Iranian influence on them.

Apart from the recent thawing in relations between the PUK and Change parties that has been partially attributed to Iranian influence, another sign of the growing détente between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq was the Sept. 25 visit of Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Qods force, a special military unit of the Iranian army that often works beyond the Iranian borders; for instance, when the Kurdish were fighting former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, they helped the Kurdish side.

According to local and international news media, Soleimani’s visit was about persuading the Kurdish not to help Syrian rebels currently fighting that country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. Although al-Assad comes from a relatively obscure sect of Shiite Muslim origin and his regime has been largely secular, Iran has increasingly seen the fight against him in sectarian terms: a Shiite Muslim versus Sunni Muslim battle - which, by all accounts from Syria, it is increasingly, confusingly, turning into.

Reports said that Soleimani had met with Nechirvan Barzani, the head of the KDP and current president of Iraqi Kurdistan and that he also met with Talabani and Mustafa, albeit not as publicly.

Meanwhile the Change party refused to comment on their relationship with Iran. However as Arez Abdullah, a leading member of the PUK pointed out, the growing popularity of the Change party obliges the two parties – the Change party and Iran – to have good relations.

“Iran is having problems with the West so it’s trying to maintain good relations with the Kurdistan Region,” Abdullah told NIQASH. “It doesn’t want to create another problematic front for itself. Iran has a right to have a close relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan.”