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An Analysis: Iraqi Kurdish ties with Iran, and Islamist Revolution of ’79

On the back of the first visit to Kurdistan Region by an Iranian Foreign Minister, the Globe assesses the development of ties between both sides.

Iraqi Kurds enjoy cultural and historic ties with Iran, but it was onset of the 1979 Islamic revolution that truly propelled ties.

Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, visited Erbil last week, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Islamist revolution in Iran. The first visit by an Iranian foreign minister to Kurdistan Region symbolises productive ties between both governments, and the common desire for expansion of economic, political and cultural links.

The past few official visits between each party, have been conducted in a positive atmosphere, where each party has often emphasized warm relations and historical bonds between both nations.

However, whilst the Iraqi Kurds and the Iranian government may enjoy historic cultural ties and some shared heritage, it was events in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution that truly brought both sides closer together.

From the pro-Western days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the theocratic rule of today, the last 3 decades have onset a turbulent and frequently contentious era for the Iranian people.

Throughout this time, the Iraqi Kurds, in parallel with inception of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, shared common grievances and had many reasons to confide with Iran, owed at times to their respective isolationism but mainly due to their common Baathist enemy, Saddam Hussein.

Present day relations

Throughout the period between 1991 and 2003, the Iraqi Kurds enjoyed fairly stable and productive relationships with Iran. Put simply, at a time when their fragile autonomy was largely dependent on outsiders, the Iraq Kurds had a natural and heavy reliance on Iranian political and economic support.

The continuation of ties with Iran from the days of the Iran-Iraq war was a vital factor to relative prosperity in the region and in establishing some notion of self-sufficiency, especially with Iraqi Arab adversaries further south tightening a noose around the region.

Throughout 1991-2003, Iran maintained perhaps the best relationships with the PUK, whose administration bloc in this period of time bordered directly with Iran.

As the PDK and PUK jockeyed relentlessly for supremacy in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Iran became natural actors in the jostle for power and influence.

However, often in this period of time, support from two countries that have traditionally quelled Kurdish nationalist uprisings and ubiquitously feared Kurdish nationalism, would come as a trade-off or as a factor in the battle against their own restive Kurdish populations.

Economic reliance

Of all the neighboring Kurdish populations, Iraqi Kurds and Iranian Kurds have had better access to their respective geographies and generally closer attachment. This has strengthened and encouraged economic ties that are of mutual benefit.

Iran, although hardly taking a soft-stance on any notion of separatism from their own Kurdish population, have never denied Kurdish culture in the same way as Iraq or particularly Turkey.

There is a province called Kurdistan in Iran and Kurds have generally assimilated much better into Iranian society than the Kurds of neighboring countries.

Cross-border trade now equated to billions of dollars and at least 40% of commerce in Iraqi Kurdistan comes from Iran. With talk of inaugurating more border gates, it’s easy to see why Iraqi Kurds look to the Iranian government for future stability and an expansion of their status-quo.

The Iranian need for Iraqi Kurds

It would seem that modern history of Kurdistan since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire has been characterized by trade-offs and use of the influential Iraqi Kurdish position for regional agendas. Often once these alliances were no longer needed the Kurds have been left to suffer. Iranian ties with Kurds have also suffered at times from this regional syndrome.

Take example the strong support of Shah Pahlavi for the Iraqi Kurds in the 1970’s, who at the time posed a predendenced threat to Baghdad as a result of the backing. This support was a direct result of Iraqi and Iranian disagreement over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and when as part of the Algiers agreement in 1975, the Shah withdrew support for the Kurds it was much like abandoning lambs amidst a pack of wolves.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini returned from exiled in Paris and orchestrated the Islamic revolution in 1979, this left a region comprising mainly of Sunnis, Arabs and secular governments, in shock and fear of been swept by the new whirlwind coming from the Shiite plains of Iran.

Once the deadly and highly-costly Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, Iran’s isolation was firmly placated. The West almost unanimously backed Iraq as did the majority of a highly-skeptical Sunni region.

Iraqi Kurds, fighting persecution and a nationalist legacy of their own in Iraq, were natural Iranian allies against Saddam Hussein at a time when Iran needed all the support it could get against a largely superior foe. As such, the Iraqi Kurds played a key role in the conflict, at times effectively splintering the Iraqi forces.

Ironically, in spite of a Shiite revolution in Iran, the majority of Shiite Arabs in Iraq chose their Arab nationalism over the support of Shiite power of Iran. Such was the deep-hatred of Saddam for the Kurdish “betrayal” that much of the Anfal operations and beyond was designed as retribution for collaboration with his arch-enemy.

Much of the existing relationships between Kurdish leaders of today and figures in the Tehran government were fostered and strengthened in this period of time.

Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nerchirvan Barzani, on his visit to Tehran in 2008, emphasized the appreciation of the region for Iranian humanitarian support during it war with Saddam.

In recent years Iran has been quick to court the Iraqi Kurds in midst of new realities in Iraq and was the first to open a consulate in the region.

Temperamental big brother

Surrounded by hostility, the Iraqi Kurds have often learnt that you can choose your friends but not your neighbors. Without making the best possible friendships from tough neighbors, the Iraqi Kurdish experiment stands no chance of survival.

Of all the countries, perhaps Iran and the Iraqi Kurds have had the best basis for common alliance. The Iraqi Kurds and Iranians share cultural and historical ties, a similar language and are both non-Arab.

The Iraqi Kurds would do well to maintain productive relationships with an influential power. However, between 1991 and 2003 and particularly since the liberation of Iraq, Iran could often been likened to a temperamental big brother.

If you get on his right side, you will find yourself under warm and comfortable wings, but at the same time you will want to avoid his temperamental side at all costs.

The strong alliance that has developed between the Iraqi Kurds and the U.S in the aftermath of second gulf war, has threatened to alienate Iran.

Iraqi Kurds have found themselves in a tentative position, and are mindful of been caught in middle of the proxy-battle between their two friends. Kurds need the support of Washington and have actively promoted ties, whilst at the same time they do not want to distance or anger Tehran.

The delicate balancing act is one the Iraqi Kurds would do well to maintain. There is a firm belief in the Kurdish region that the U.S. remains the key to long-term protection but at the same time they realise that without an atmosphere of mutual friendship with Iran, they are unable to maintain their economy or any semblance of stability.

The worst scenario for Kurds is to heavily rely upon the U.S. whilst developing uneasy and downbeat ties with Turkey and Iran

The notorious arrests of Iranian personnel by U.S. commandos in Iraqi Kurdistan have highlighted the tough position of the Kurds, seemingly caught in the cross-fire.

The example of angry big brother syndrome was on display with the closure of the important border gates between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran as a result of Iranian anger over the arrests, effectively serving as an ominous threat to the Kurdistan region not to “bite the hands that feeds it”.

In circumstances, Tehran may not always be the best of friends, but you certainly do no want to make an enemy of a powerful neighbor.

Far from rosy

Iraqi Kurds have already found that their relationship with their “big brother” is far from rosy. The present relations may be warm but the Iraqi Kurds will be weary of maintaining them.

The issue of Iranian Kurdish rebel group, PJAK, has been a constant thorn in recent relations. This has resulted in frequent shelling of the border areas, which to a great extent has been ignored by both Baghdad and the U.S.

Kurds are largely powerless to stop such bombardments of the region. This is only exacerbated by the apparent recent military cooperation between Turkey and Iran. The warming of ties between Ankara and Tehran has been ominous for the Iraqi Kurds, meaning their tight-rope just got thinner.

The carrot and stick approach of their neighbors can be seen by the threat to cool ties unless Iraqi Kurds abandon any notion of support for the respective Kurdish nationalist movement either side of the border.

When situations have called for, the Kurdistan Region has seen that Iran will not think twice to shut its border, causing economic pain for the region.

Even the pre-Saddam days highlighted that Iranian support was not a foregone conclusion.  While the region fought a bitter battle against Ansar al-Islam, finally defeated with the help of U.S. firepower, it was alleged that Tehran afforded support to the leaders of the movement.

Future relationships with Iran

Future relationship of the Iraqi Kurds with Iran may well rest on outside factors. If U.S. diplomacy under Barrack Obama fails to materialize with Iran, the Iraqi Kurds may well find themselves caught in the middle again.

If the battle for influence in the Middle East gather pace or worse the US is forced to strike at the Tehran regime, the Iraqi Kurds may well be pressured into making a painful decision.

On the other hand, if at least theoretically Iran and the U.S. develop stronger diplomatic relations, it remains to be seen how this would affect Iranian tie with the Kurds.

The position of regional pawns for the Iraqi Kurds will unfortunately not disappear all too easily.

This is underpinned by the fact that the Shiite majority in Iraq enjoy strong ties with Tehran. If difficult Kurdish ties continue with the Shiite Arab south, any issues with the Iranians may well propel the Kurds between a rock and a hard place, with only a distant and unwilling U.S. for support.

Iran and the Islamic revolution

To better assess, the Iranian stance at present and the factors that have contributed to the current influence of Tehran, it is important to understand the aspects that have propelled Iran to the existing position in the aftermath of the Islamist revolution of 1979. Many of these elements have contributed to the existing ties between the Kurds and the need of the Iranian government to rely on key local partners in their battle for regional influence.

As a country with geographical advantages, good transport links with central Asia, access to an abundance of oil, sizable coastlines and influence over the Persian Gulf, Iran has long viewed itself as a regional superpower, long before its current ascendancy to dominance.

However, unlike its historical ancestors that forged the forefront of the Persian Empire, modern day Iran has never quite lived up to its potential.

The challenges and drawbacks facing successive Iranian governments, in particular since the onset of the Islamist revolution, are evident.

Iran incorporates a distinct ethnicity in a region dominated by Arabs, and a Shiite state engulfed by Sunni neighbours. Where since 1979 it has been traditionally anti-Western other neighbours have embraced the West.

Divine role in the Middle East

The revolutionary euphoria in the modern era may have began in 1979, with a revolution that allowed Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic rule to take stage, however, for centuries, Iranians have had ambition and an almost divine belief that they would lead the region and also the religion of Islam.

Since the Safavids brought Shiite Islam to Persia in the 16th century, Iranians have tried to set themselves apart from their traditional neighbours, and successive kings have attempted to portray themselves as leaders of the Muslim world.

However, this is where the Islamist revolution in Iran has hardly stroked the supportive tone with fellow Muslims. The majority of neighbouring secular Sunni governments, have perceived 1979 as a dangerous Shiite revolution than any great Islamist revolution, and remained suspicious of Shiite goals in the region.

As such one of the greatest problems facing the new government post-1979 was international isolation. Ties with U.S. were almost immediately severed, and have never quite been restored.  Some regional actors and much of the international community feared the consequences of a strong Islamist regime leading to a cooling of ties.

Such was the global pandemonium at events in Iran that perhaps no leader of a country has quite directly influenced the ousting of a U.S. president in the same way as Ayatollah Khomeini. Jimmy Carter, who failed miserably at a gallant rescue of the infamous U.S embassy hostages in Tehran, was widely perceived as humiliated as he was superseded by Ronald Reagan. 

It is no coincidence that resentment and fear of Shiite power culminated in the Iran-Iraq war only a year after the revolution. The general animosity towards Tehran was plain to see as most Sunni neighbours and Western powers supported and armed Iraq.

This sense of hard justice, seclusion and fighting against the odds emboldened the Iranian government and they stubbornly defended the principles of Islamist revolution rather than succumb to pressure from every side. Iran became almost accustomed to fighting their own battles and also batting for their own form of Islam, against what seemed like the rest of the world.

In such a light, Iranians and Iraqi Kurds became natural partners, as they were both non-Arabs, victims of regional Sunni Arab nationalism and international abandonment.

Future relationship of Iran with its neighbours

In a very ironic twist, it was regional turmoil conceived by the contentious policies of their arch-nemesis, the United States, rather than policies set in Tehran that allowed the Iranian government to finally become free from its traditional constrictions and rise up as a power.

In the west, the U.S. took out Iran’s greatest enemy Saddam Hussein, a dictator that launched a devastating war on Iran, and one whom the Iranian people saw as a personification of their common enemies in the region and beyond. Democracy in Iraq, afforded a strong Iranian hand in the new Shiite dominated governments in Iraq, incorporating many parties into power that emerged under the wings of Tehran.

To the east, the U.S. defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, effectively alongside Saddam removing two of the most dangerous enemies to Iran.

The thirst to undermine the U.S. and influence dealings in the Middle East has certainly sped Iranian ties with Erbil.

With a ‘dangerous’ tag attributed to Iran, contentious nuclear projects and support of Islamist hardliners in the region, neighbours will never embrace Iran with open arms.

The vicious cycle continues with Iran unable to become the regional powerhouse it craves unless it builds strong ties with most of its neighbours and promotes socioeconomic development across its borders.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: PUK Media, Peyamner, Various Misc.