Iran Interferes in Iraqi Kurdistan
12:40 PM, Dec 1, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will travel soon to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for a discussion of border disputes and trade relations, reports the Iraqi news agency Aswat al-Ira. Ahmadinejad will meet with KRG president Massoud Barzani, who visited Tehran at the end of October with a delegation of KRG ministers and governors. Barzani, as pointed out in THE WEEKLY STANDARD by Frederick W. Kagan, Kim Kagan, and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, was considered previously “the Kurdish leader most staunchly opposed to Iran.” In Tehran, Barzani and Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi announced that Kurdish rebel actions against Iran, along the border with the KRG, had ended.
Iran is looking for auxiliaries to its considerable and menacing influence over the Iraqi central government, perhaps out of mere desire for aggrandizement. But Tehran may also fear that Arab Shias in Baghdad will prove a troublesome partner in its anticipated alliance of Shia-ruled Middle East states, once the U.S. leaves. Iraq's Shias, a majority of the country’s population, do not accept the political model of the Iranian clerical state, or “vilayet-e faqih” (governance by religious jurists). Hostility between Iranian and Iraqi Arab Shias, as described by Nathaniel Rabkin writing for THE WEEKLY STANDARD in 2007, is reflected in religious literature produced by Iraq’s Shia religious authorities, or marjae. And of course the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88 has not been forgotten.
An AP report in early November quoted a 36-year-old Iraqi Shia sheep trader, Fouad Karim, who lives in Mandali, a mixed Kurdish and Arab town on the northeastern border with Iran: “We hated the Iranians. And there are still bad feelings. The government should not tolerate any Iranian interference, as our anger against them only gets worse when we hear about their deeds.” Still, as the AP noted, multitudes of Iranian pilgrims have gone to the Shia holy sites at Kerbala and Najaf in Iraq, and Iranian-produced consumer goods are offered for sale widely in Iraq.
While Iran no doubt hopes to aggravate tensions between Iraq's Kurds and Baghdad, it has a poor history of dealing with its own Kurds, including terrorist attacks on Kurdish leaders abroad, and shelling of Kurds on Iraqi soil in July. But Iran already operates two consulates in the KRG, in Erbil and in Sulaymaniyah. Iran may also want to exploit Kurdish tensions with Turkey, since the latter country entered the NATO anti-missile defense system. Iran has threatened to retaliate against Turkey if the U.S. or Israel act against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The new Iranian intrigues in the KRG began just as animosity between the Kurds in Erbil and the government in Baghdad had worsened over petrochemical production, including in Kirkuk, which has prolific oilfields. Baghdad argues that hydrocarbons from the KRG belong to the whole Iraqi nation. The most recent Quarterly Report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), dated October 30, 2011, counts KRG contracts with more than 40 international oil and gas companies. SIGIR offers a comparison of 45 billion barrels of oil and 100-200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas said by the KRG to be available in its territory with estimates by Baghdad of 143 billion barrels of oil and 112 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Iraq as a whole.