Iraqi Kurdistan will use pragmatism to survive

Iraqi Kurds have been reaching out to Iran to mend fences with Baghdad.
Sunday 01/04/2018
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) meets with Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Tehran, on January 21.       (Office of Iranian President)
Reaching out. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) meets with Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Tehran, on January 21. (Office of Iranian President)

Iraqi lawmakers have passed one of the most politically charged annual budgets in recent memory. In what is seen as a move to lock in votes from a broad spectrum of Iraqi ethnic groups opposed to Kurdish separatism, Baghdad’s latest budget saw the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) take another round of flogging as punishment for daring to call the ill-fated independence referendum that backfired so spectacularly last year.

Rather than the customary 17% share that the KRG normally receives, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region will see its budget slashed almost 5%.

Naturally, Kurdish lawmakers reacted with outrage when the budget was tabled and boycotted the vote. However, even if they had stayed and attempted to vote it down, they would have failed because the general Iraqi political consensus is that the Kurds ought to be punished for the referendum called by former KRG President Masoud Barzani, who effectively terminated his political career with the move and was forced to hand over his greatly diminished power to the next generation of Kurdish leaders.

Politicians of all ethno-sectarian denominations in Baghdad decided that it would be fitting to slash the KRG’s budget and force them to export 250,000 barrels of oil per day.

Making matters worse, the KRG is expected to hand over proceeds of those sales to the federal government for reallocation and, if they fail to do so, the law stipulates that the Finance Ministry would make up for the deficit by cutting further into the KRG’s share of the national budget.

It would be no exaggeration to say that, having lost almost two-fifths of the territory they held and a considerable number of the freedoms they enjoyed, the Kurds are very much on the ropes.

Since Baghdad militarily moved on the disputed territories and boxed the KRG within its original borders, Kurdish authorities have constantly been on the back foot and seeking a way out. Baghdad’s actions against the KRG exposed Erbil’s weakness and demonstrated that, without external support from major powers such as the United States, the Kurdish enclave is vulnerable to the whims and desires of the central authorities in Baghdad.

It seems apparent that the Kurds understand their independence bid was an utter failure and that is why they have been trying to mend fences with Baghdad to preserve whatever they have left. This has led to the KRG reaching out to powers, particularly Iran, that assisted Iraq in toppling their independence dream.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited Tehran in January, leading Iranian President Hassan Rohani to state that he supports warmer ties between Baghdad and Erbil within a unified Iraq. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February that “Iran will do whatever was in its power to remove grudges… and improve ties” between the KRG and the federal government.

Two signs give an indication of this thawing of relations between the KRG, Iran and Iraq. First, and under Iranian protection, a delegation of Iraqi Kurdish officials visited Afrin in Syria in February, which is being held by Syrian Kurdish forces but besieged by Turkish troops. This raised eyebrows in Ankara, which supported the KRG until its independence bid. Second, Iraqi authorities lifted the air embargo on Kurdish airports, which had a crippling effect on the local economy.

Considering how popular it is in Iraq to be seen to be punishing the Kurds for the independence referendum, it is highly unlikely that any major changes in Baghdad’s policy towards the KRG will materialise until after the elections. However, by making themselves appear no longer a threat to Iraqi unity, it would be unwise to count the Kurds out, considering their history of political survivability and pragmatic alliances, even with those who attempted to blot their aspirations out.