Revisiting Zarif’s Recent Trip to Iraqi Kurdistan

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tehran Cautious about Accepting Iraqi Kurds’ Friendship

Ali Mousavi Khalkhali
Member of Iranian Diplomacy (IRD) Board of Writers

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif set off on an official visit to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region last Tuesday, in a trip which made him the first high-ranking Iranian official to have visited this region in the past months. Before his visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, Zarif had met and conferred with high-ranking Iraqi officials, including the prime minister-designate, Haider Al-Abadi, the outgoing prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, head of the United Iraqi Alliance coalition, Ebrahim Jafari, Iraq’s new President Fuad Masoum, Iraqi parliament’s speaker, Salim Al-Jabouri, former parliament speaker, Usama Al-Nujaifi, and chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ammar Hakim.

According to available reports, Zarif has been warmly welcomed in Iraq, so that, when he met Ebrahim Jafari at his house, many high-ranking Iraqi politicians, leaders of various groups as well as a great number of Iraqi parliament members were also present. Reports also say that representatives of various political groups that were present in that meeting, which was held away from the curious eyes of media, discussed the process of establishing the new Iraqi government as well as the best way to fight terrorism in the Arab country. Zarif paid a visit to the holy city of Najaf on Monday and met with the top Iraqi Shia sources of emulation, namely, Ayatollah Hakim, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Ayatollah Fayyaz, and Ayatollah Bashir Najafi. During those meetings, the Iranian foreign minister discussed the situation in Iraq and the entire region with the high-ranking Iraqi clerics.

The acme of Zarif’s trip to Iraq, however, was his visit to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. For a long time, Iranian officials who traveled to Iraq, limited their visit to Baghdad and only met and conferred with high-ranking officials of the central government without paying a similar visit to the Kurdistan region. The last of such visits was paid by Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, who paid separate visits to Baghdad and Najaf, but did not include Kurdistan region in his itinerary. One of the reasons behind this issue, which has become more prominent during the past months, has been differences between Iran and the Iraqi Kurdistan over the Kurdistan government’s approach to the ISIS terrorist group. At the same time, Iran has been clearly unhappy with efforts made by Iraqi Kurdistan’s officials to turn that region into an independent state. In the meantime, differences emerging between Erbil (capital city of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region) and Baghdad added fuel to tensions that already existed in Tehran’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds.

During early days after the ISIS attacked the northern part of Iraq, which led to the occupation of some parts of the Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iraqi Kurds acted in such a way that some analysts believed they were trying to make the most of the situation. Some observers even accused the Iraqi Kurds of being in collusion with the ISIS and had incited them to attack Iraq in the first place. Those analysts, who criticized the conduct of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region at that time, argued that an agreement had been reached between Sunni tribes in that region with the ISIS through mediation of Turkey according to which the ISIS and Sunni tribes that are their allies had succeeded to conquer the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. At the same time, the Iraqi Kurds tried to exploit that situation and annexed the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to their territory. These reasons in addition to inaction of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in dealing with the ISIS – which at times seemed to be quite intentional – raised many questions in various circles while causing tension in relations between Iran and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

On the other hand, and in the heat of the aforesaid developments, the government of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region announced that it is seeking independence from the rest of the country. At the same time, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, attended a session of the region’s local parliament asking its representatives to pave the way for a referendum on the independence of that region. This development not only added fuel to differences between Tehran and Erbil, but caused the Iraqi Kurdistan’s government to come under fire from other major world capitals, including Washington.

A major issue, which led to further escalation of the aforesaid situation was the tension that existed between Erbil and Baghdad. The differences between the former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, and officials of the Kurdistan region became more personal in nature and turned into differences between Masoud Barzani and Nouri Al-Maliki. On the other hand, the negative atmosphere built around this issue by international media added further fuel to tensions that marked Tehran’s relations with Erbil. The situation became so acute that some deputies of the Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament delivered speeches against Iran. Some circles even went as far as claiming that Iran had severed all ties with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and had announced the government in Baghdad as the sole channel through which the Islamic Republic would act in Iraq and Kurdistan. Some reports even indicated that Tehran had called back its consul general from Erbil. There were also reports about a meeting between an undersecretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and Masoud Barzani in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and behind closed doors. They claimed that during the meeting, the Iranian official had bitterly criticized Barzani for his stances, warning him that if the Iraqi Kurdistan continued on the path it had taken, Iran would show a clear reaction.

Two recent developments, however, have served to somehow remedy relations between the two sides. The first development was the ISIS’ approach toward the Iraqi Kurdistan, which has taken the terrorist group’s forces as close as 40 km to Erbil. As a result, the Iraqi Kurds have reached the conclusion that they cannot beat the ISIS on their own. The second development was the decision by Nouri Al-Maliki to stop insisting on being the country’s prime minister and subsequent designation of Haider Al-Abadi as his successor and the new prime minister of Iraq.

The fact that the ISIS has gotten too close to the capital city of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region has totally knocked security calculations of the Iraqi Kurdistan’s officials off the balance. They have, therefore, reached the conclusion that they need the assistance of Iran and have been reaching out to the Islamic Republic. At the same time, the change in Iraqi prime minister’s office, which was a major demand of the Iraqi Kurds, has practically done away with the main factor that had caused tensions between Tehran and Erbil. These two developments have brought about a major change in bilateral relations between Tehran and Erbil and have made the Iraqi Kurdistan Region seek normalization of its ties with Iran. It would be, therefore, logical to assume that the recent trip by Zarif to Iraqi Kurdistan has been a turning point in relations between the two sides. At the same time, Reuters reported that Iran has been sending arms to help the Iraqi Kurdistan’s government in the face of the ISIS onslaught. It was only a while ago when some media sources in Iraq published reports on security collaboration between Iran and the Iraqi Kurdistan in facing the ISIS threat.

Although Iran's relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region are back on track to normalization, they have been already marred with a background of distrust. Of course, the recent trip to the Iraqi Kurdistan by Zarif can mark a beginning to the end of that distrust. However, in order for these relations to completely become normal and go back to their heyday, more practical steps should be taken by the two sides. Considering measures that have been already taken by Iran, it is now turn for the Iraqi Kurds to show their goodwill and take a stride toward normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic.

Key Words: Iraqi Kurdistan, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran, Iraq, Masoud Barzani, Nouri Al-Maliki, ISIS, Normalization of Relations, Mousavi Khalkhali

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Rreview.Org

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