Iraqi Kurds and Iran: A New Era of Relations
Abstract: Relations between Iran and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) have gone through a number of stages. Before 1991, Iran supported the Iraqi Kurdish struggle against successive Iraqi regimes. However, following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, ethnic and sectarian politics (especially the rivalry between Iraq’s Shi‘ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities) have been the main drivers of Iranian strategy towards the KRI, with Iran anxious to prevent the KRI becoming a threat for the Shi‘ite-dominated Iraqi state or part of any regional front against Iran.
However, following the US assassination of prominent Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq in early 2020, Iran’s policy has changed. Iran now views the KRI as a battleground against its rivals in the region, from the US to neighboring countries, such as Arab Gulf countries, Turkey and even Israel.
Among Iran’s policies towards the various Kurdish communities divided across different Middle Eastern states, Kurds in northern Iraq have held a unique status in Iranian policy with relations between the two evolving through different stages. Iran’s ties to the Kurdish liberation movement in Iraq date back to 1962, when Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi poured support into Kurdish opposition against the Iraqi state. In 1975, Iran’s annual financial support to Iraqi Kurds reached $75 million, provided in weapons and ammunition.[i]
This policy continued even after the Shah’s overthrow with Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. For instance in 1983, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the Kurdistan Democratic Party helped the Iranian army make gains in northern Iraq. In response, the Iraqi regime massacred at least 4,000 innocent camp inhabitants of the Kurdish Barzani tribe.[ii]
Since the Kurdish civil war started in 1994, Iran involved itself in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and occasionally backed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party dominant in the Sulaymaniyah region bordering Iran against the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), which dominates the KRI’s capitol of Erbil. Iran had its foreign relations offices and intelligence agencies in Iraqi Kurdistan even before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in 2007 it also became the first country to open its consulate general in Iraqi Kurdistan after the US invasion.[iii]
Therefore, it was not the KDP position in the ongoing government formation process against Iranian interests that negatively influenced the relationship. Rather, it was the assassination of Soleimani in January 2020 began a dangerous phase in relations between the two sides. Henceforth, Iran rapidly increased its attacks on Erbil. The US moved forces out of most facilities in Iraq, such as Taji, and concentrated them around the Kurdistan Region’s capital (Erbil)[iv].
Therefore, Iran now sees Erbil as the headquarters of not only the US presence but also an Israeli one. This expert brief examines Iran’s policy towards the KRI in greater detail, especially the current stage of relations.
How does Iran view the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?
Iran’s geographical, historical and ethnic proximity to the other Middle Eastern countries with prominent Kurdish minorities, namely, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, makes political, cultural and security interaction between Iran and these nations inevitable. This has led Iran to view the region (Levant and Gulf) somewhat suspiciously and fear that its rivals might use the ethnic proximity in the region against Iran, a situation which often ends in political, military and security intervention. Following the 2003 US invasion, these concerns have manifested clearly in Iran’s deep involvement in Iraq.
While the country’s religious rhetoric since 1979 has been highly ideological, Iran’s foreign policy towards its neighboring countries has a strongly pragmatic dimension with geopolitical factors an important motivator of Iranian policy.[v]
The Sunni-majority KRI is not a productive field for Iran’s soft power, which it has exercised more effectively among the Shi‘ite community of Iraq and its political representatives. Despite Iran’s significant economic interests in KRI, Iran’s relationship with the KRI is dominated by security and political dimensions, rather than economic and ideological dimensions. As a regional power, Iran has always sought to create a sphere of influence in the KRI.
This is driven by the geopolitical location of the KRI, which has a 500 km-long border with Iran, making the “Kurdish question” – the notion of greater autonomy or even independence for Kurds not only in northern Iraq, but also in Iran and elsewhere in the region – of great importance in these relations. However, other factors also affect Iran-KRI relations, especially regional dimensions, including Iran’s relations with Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the Gulf states.
Since the establishment of the KRI as a largely autonomous region of Iraq in 1991, Iran’s policy towards the KRI has been dominated by security and based on partisan rather than institutional relations. Iran has not dealt with the KRI through branches of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but rather through its elite military branch, the Quds Force, as well as through the leaders of Kurdish political parties, and sometimes tribal and religious groups, which Iran has cultivated as allies over the years[vi].
This has meant that institutional and formal relations have been largely sidestepped. On this basis, Iran has had a longstanding good relationship with one of the KRI’s dominant parties the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Talabani family. Iran also has strong relations with Ali Bapir, the head of the smaller party the Kurdistan Justice Group, and with other Islamic parties.[vii]
This also applies to Iran and KDP relations and this could be a source of threat to these relations at any time. Iran’s desire to have a strong position in the KRI has been pursued through closely monitoring the political situation and interfering in political decision-making, especially during processes of government formation in Iraq.[viii]
For instance, during Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to win re-election as Iraqi Prime Minister in 2010, Tehran pressured the Kurdish former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to join Maliki’s coalition against Ayad Alawi. Iran has played an active role in the internal political issues of the KRI in several other stages, for instance, when al-Maliki’s second premiership was rejected by both the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in 2012.
Fearful of losing a Shi’a-dominated government in Iraq, Iran forced the Sadrist group and the Kurdish former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to accept a second term of al-Maliki’s premiership by encouraging Talabani to derail a no-confidence vote against al-Maliki in April 2012[ix].