On September 25, Iraq’s Kurds will do something entirely predictable. They will vote “Yes” in a referendum that the Kurdistan regional government is holding on the independence they have sought for centuries.
The question on the ballot paper is simple: "Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?”
The issues surrounding the vote, however, are irretrievably complex and lie at the heart of the political and sectarian conflicts that are cleaving the Middle East.
With the exception of Israel, there is near-unanimous Middle East opposition to the Iraqi Kurds' referendum being held at all. The strongest opposition comes, unsurprisingly, from Baghdad, the government of the state from which the Kurds are trying to secede. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi was unflinching on this point. “I call upon the Kurdish leaders to cancel the referendum as the vote will take us into a dark tunnel," he said earlier this month. "Kurdistan's referendum is unconstitutional, and separation will only be permitted through national consensus."
Abadi naturally wants to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity.
"An official referendum should include the votes of all Iraqis without any discrimination; the Kurds cannot act unilaterally on this decision," he said.
Nonetheless, Iraqi Kurdish regional President Masud Barzani has proclaimed that the referendum will go ahead. The Kurds were promised one in 2014 but agreed to postpone it to deal with the threat from the militant group Islamic State (IS). Once the Iraqi government declared victory over IS in Mosul on July 10 -- a victory in which the Kurds had played a major part -- Barzani decided the time had come.
But more is at stake than the delineation of Iraq’s exact borders. With their own diplomatic processes, borders, army, and airspace, it is tempting to regard Iraq's Kurdistan region as a de facto state. A strong argument can be made that the Kurds already have independence in all but name.
The deeper dilemma lies within the wording of the referendum question, namely the phrase “the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration.”
The organizers of the September 25 referendum are not seeking independence solely for the three official provinces that compose the proto-state of Iraq's Kurdistan. Rather, the vote will also be held in the disputed border provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Diyala, which are held by Kurdish forces who took control of them during the fight against IS but are claimed by the Iraqi national government.
Kirkuk is especially controversial. It is oil-rich and, accordingly, a potential source of great revenue for whoever controls it. Right now, that is unquestionably the Kurds; there is not a single Iraqi soldier on the ground in the province. If the Kurds in effect try to “annex” it through a “Yes” vote, a conflict with Baghdad becomes a possibility, albeit a remote one.
Yet that may be the least of the Kurds' problems. Turkey and Iran also have misgivings over the referendum, which they regard as egregious political overreach. Both Ankara and Tehran have restive Kurdish populations of their own. And if Iraq's Kurds achieve independence, Kurds in Turkey and Iran might start to get ideas.
Together with Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran duly put out an ominous statement in response to the referendum that “emphasized” that vote “will not be beneficial for the Kurds and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and agreed, in this regard, to consider taking countermeasures in coordination.”
When it comes to talk of “countermeasures,” most worrying of all is Iran -- a state now in full revanchist mode. A new, Western-facing, largely secular though still Sunni state poses a potential threat to Tehran's longstanding goal of a Shi'ite land bridge (a line of contiguous Shi'ite states sympathetic to Tehran) from Iraq to Lebanon.
As Clement Therme, a research fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), has observed, “the Iranians are against an independent Kurdish entity on their border. Moreover, Iran is supporting Shi'a militias that are battling IS in order to be in a stronger position to shape the post-IS political order in Iraq. One of the fault lines that will reappear once IS is [totally] defeated will be between Sunni Kurds and Shi'a Arabs. Especially given the recent rise of Jihadism among Sunni Kurds, which is a major security concern for Iran, especially after the IS terrorist attacks in Tehran last June.”
Therme continued: “The Iranian State is highly centralized and totally opposed to any sort of federalization. If Iraqi Kurds vote in support of independence, this will worry Tehran, which will fear that any concessions it makes toward Iranian Kurds might be a driver for an internal crisis.” What this fear suggests is that Iran is likely to prioritize a “security approach” over political dialogue to the “Kurdish question” -- an approach it has taken with Syria, with costs that have been bloodily apparent.
Even short of military intervention, Iran could, for example, close its borders with a self-declared independent Kurdistan or even decide to implement economic sanctions against it. Baghdad’s reaction will be important to shaping postreferendum Iranian policy -- which, again, does not bode well. Since the ousting of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has exercised considerable influence over the predominantly Shi'ite Iraqi government. Indeed, as Therme also pointed out, Iranians and Iraqis are tied together through a web of overlapping economic, religious, cultural, and political interests.
But this cuts both ways.
Eventually if Bagdad considered the military option, Tehran -- which is already seemingly overstretched militarily -- could end up as an unlikely mediator between Baghdad and Irbil. That is especially likely with IS in decline and forced to keep itself relevant through terror attacks as opposed to battlefield victories. The threat of IS terror attacks in the wake of postreferendum chaos cannot be discounted, and if there is one thing all the parties agree on it is the need for relative political and security stability in Iraq despite their competing interests.
Nonetheless, while possible, this scenario seems hopeful in the extreme. The chances of Iran remaining benign are slim if there are indications that a newly empowered, moderate, Sunni, pro-Western state might squat near the center of its Shi'ite land bridge. At the least, the region could become even more unstable. And it is this instability -- which could empower jihadist groups or enrage Iran or at worst, both -- that most everyone fears.
Come September 25, the Kurds will vote "Yes” for independence.
Nobody expects that they will achieve it overnight. But the referendum could mark the beginning, not of a final drive to a long-desired autonomy, but of yet another dark chapter in the bloody history of the Kurds.