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. Dear lord since when did we have an Iranian government that cares for its own people and lost generations. This regime has ruined the country but the Russians, the Chinese, Europeans and the US are only looking, understandably, after their own interests and will not hesitate to press iran wherever necessary. Iran has been transformed into a banna republic. They prefer to have our youth starving and dying from poverty or unemployment but side with ungrateful and unreliable arabs and shout death to Israel instead of working to enrich Iranian citizens and aim at increasingthe GDP for the whole lot not the many few bearded clerics whose offspring will party in Dubai, Switzerland, the Chattelarab and in Beirut. Shehel sale ke pedaremoun daramade az in dosda vali in uropaia and emerikaiam kheili siyasat eftesahi daran. Omidvaram ke iran be kaghe afghanestan tabdil nakonand. Toman az pouli aghani ardezech kamtar shore. Ektelas, dosdi,zendebad jomhuriye eslami.

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