Why Tehran Should Balance Its Relations with Baghdad and Irbil

by Shireen Hunter   

When the issue of a referendum in Kurdistan on its eventual independence from Iraq emerged, Iran expressed its concerns about the disintegrative dynamics that this act could set in motion not just in Iraq but throughout the region. Tehran counselled authorities in Irbil to forgo the vote but to no avail. After Iraqi Kurds voted in favor of eventual independence, Iran came out strongly in favor of retaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and has thrown its lot entirely with the government in Baghdad. It has also declared that it will coordinate its policies vis a vis Erbil with Turkey.

For several reasons, Iran’s response is understandable. Iran has had difficult relations with the Barzani clan for nearly a century. Mulla Mustafa Barzani—the father of Masoud Barzani, the current leader of the government in Erbil—had Communist sympathies and helped Iran’s pro-Soviet Kurds set up of the so-called Kurdish Republic of Mahabad as well as supporting its leader, Qazi Mohammad. He also cooperated with Jaafar Pishevari to establish the separatist Azerbaijan government.

The Barzanis felt very bitter when Iran and the US abandoned the Kurds after they’d fought Saddam’s regime in the 1960s and the early 1970s. This bitterness generated suspicions that in later years Barzani may have collaborated with Saddam Hussein.

After the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the creation of the Kurdish enclave in Iraq, Iran’s relationship with the new entity was always complicated if not seriously strained. In the following years, including after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Barzani always was closer to the anti-Iran elements within the Iraqi political establishment. After Saddam’s fall, he also formed close relations with the Gulf Arab states, especially the United Arab Emirates, where he and his children have reportedly stashed a fair amount of money.

Barzani further expanded and consolidated his ties to Israel, knowing very well that Israel’s influence in Washington could gain supporters for the cause of Kurdish independence in America. Meanwhile, Barzani forged close ties with Turkey, despite the latter’s long history of suppressing Kurds beyond anything seen in Iran. Moreover, the government in Irbil at times supported Kurdish insurgents acting against the Iranian government.

In short, Iran’s anxieties about the impact that an independent Kurdish state in Iraq could have on its security are justified. It worries that another pro-Israel state in Iran’s vicinity could join hands with the pro-Israel regime of Ilham Aliev in the Republic of Azerbaijan—along with elements supported by the Saudis and the UAE in Baluchistan and Khuzestan—and thus complete Iran’s encirclement. Should the US decide to launch an attack on Iran, these elements could be unleased against its government.

Yet, the Iranian government shouldn’t panic on this issue. In particular it should not identify its own national interests with those of Iraq and Turkey, especially the latter. Turkey will likely reach some modus vivendi with a potential independent Kurdish state formed in the Kurdish-inhabited regions of Iraq.

Western states will advise such a Kurdish state to reach some form of arrangement with Turkey and basically leave Turkey’s Kurds alone. Even the government in Baghdad most likely will be persuaded to accept the inevitable and work out a loose arrangement with an independent Kurdish state.

Iran, however, is a different story. If some reports and statements by Israeli officials, and even some American politicians, notably Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), are to be believed, the issues surrounding the Iraqi Kurdistan, like most everything else in the region, have an Iran angle. A potential Kurdish republic could be an important component of a cordon sanitaire around Iran.

Iran’s recent history is full of government blunders on foreign policy issues, partly because of misplaced loyalties and notions of religious and ideological solidarity that nobody else observes vis a vis Iran. This should not be the case vis a vis the Kurds.

Iran has a substantial Kurdish population. Of all states in the region, Iran has the closest ethnic, cultural, historical and linguistic ties with the Kurds. Thus, any Kurdish state eventually will gravitate towards Iran. Barzani’s view of Iran does not represent the entire Kurdish attitude.

For example, former president of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani, and his supporters, who are critical of Barzani’s policies and suspicious of his real motives in seeking independence, have a less hostile view of Iran. However, this could change if Iran adopts an excessively pro-Baghdad posture.

Iran should realize that Irbil could cause it a lot of trouble in its Kurdish province. Should this happen Baghdad and Ankara will not come to Iran’s aid. Both Turkey and the Baghdad government have tended to use Iran for their own purposes and then leave it high and dry. Although Iran has saved Iraq from the Islamic State and other insurgents, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi does everything to show that he is not under Iran’s thumb. He pursues Iraq’s interests, regardless of what his actions do to Iran. For instance, on many occasions, he has said that in an Iran-US confrontation, Iraq will remain neutral. He may even welcome such a conflict, because it might restore some of Iraq’s lost power by cutting Iran down to size.

In short, instead of subcontracting its Kurdish policy to Baghdad and Ankara, Tehran should emerge as an impartial mediator and a friend of the Kurds, while expressing its view that Kurdish interests will be better served within a united Iraq. Iran should emphasize the “Iran” rather than the “Shia” dimension of the country and point to the Kurds’ strong ties to Iran. Most of all, Iran should not panic: its Kurdish problem is not as serious as that of Iraq and Turkey. But a wrong policy now could make it so.

Photo: Massoud Barzani (VOA)

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. “Iran should realize that Irbil could cause it a lot of trouble in its Kurdish province.” . . .It’s already started.

    Jerusalem Post: Last Sunday, on the eve of the independence referendum by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, Iranian Kurds began celebrating. The next day, as people went to the polls across the border in Sulaimaniya, Erbil and other cities, Kurds in Iran celebrated en masse. In Baneh, Mahabad and Sanandaj, Iran, videos showed thousands in the streets, many of them with Kurdish flags. . . . In 2015, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) launched a new phase of what it terms struggle against the Iranian regime. “It consists of linking the struggle of Peshmerga [armed Kurdish forces] with civil resistance in the cities. The strategy of the party among the population is to encourage resistance.” There have been clashes between the Peshmerga and Iranian forces, and Iran fears provoking a larger rebellion by suppressing the Kurds more. Seeing masses on the streets with Kurdish flags is exactly what it has feared.

  2. Professor Shireen Hunter, excellent read and a good explanation of the upcoming political dilemma for Iran. However, you fell short on explaining the upcoming economic disaster that Iraq is going to endure due to loss of their major oil reserves in northern region. Of course Israelis are celebrating for receiving free oil from the Kurds as a reward for their help! In addition to the economic hardships in Iraq, the country is going to be further suffering from a potential civil war between the Sunnis and Shias which could potentially divide Iraq in 3 separate states including the state for the Kurds!

  3. The views and recommended policies in this article requires “smart” politicians in Tehran. What we have are bunch of “seyeds” with no brain.

  4. Iraqi Kurdistan is not a prosperous unified community to be too attractive to Iranian Kurds; many former ‘freedom’ fighters/Peshmerga who made fortunes during the war are now running lucrative businesses while many Kurds, including many Anfal victims’ families are living in poverty; the official corruption being also rife, for several years now the government employees have often had to wait for 3-6 months for their salaries. The politically diverse groups, cultural and economic poverty have also made some groups susceptible to Israeli influence as for more than a decade Israelis have been busy financing, training and arming the Sunni Kurds, including their Communist elements along the Iranian border to cause trouble inside Iran – there have been several armed clashes there. For the anti-Iranian Western media the Kurds are the best propaganda tool, but the reality on the ground is quite different from what they and the reactionary Arab media attempt to picture.

  5. There are economic discrimination and to a lesser degree religious issues in our Kurdish region, but the Iranian Kurds are neither the Algerians under the French colonial rule, to justify their demand for independence, nor are the Iraqi Kurds with an entirely different ethnicity, language and history forced under a greater autonomy decided by foreign powers, as after WWI, nor have they been subjected to an ‘Arabization’ policy as was practised by Saddam – forcing the Kurds out of Kirkuk while offering residence to Iraqi Arabs – nor have they been subjected to military and chemical attacks and massacre in order to force them out of their regions.

    Iran is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country in which for centuries from all ethnicities have collectively fought to defend Iran’s independence and territorial integrity. The Iranian Kurds are a ‘part’ of, not the ‘only’ group to have participated and fought for Iran’s sovereignty to have the moral right to claim the sole ownership of a part of Iran and call for autonomy! The same applies to all other groups – e.g., it was not only the Kurds, or the Azaries, the Arabs or the Lours who fought in the Iraq-Iran war to defend Iran. Since Iran is a multi-ethnic country/history, if one member is to depart from the community it has to be based on a referendum decided by ‘all other members’ who have fought for the whole country – not just the Kurds. The Kurds have as much right to live in Iran’s Kurdish region as anyone else from any other ethnicity in Iran – the Sovereignty of the whole country does not entitle any ethnicity to claim a separate autonomy.

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