By Pieter-Jan Dockx*
Iran’s opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan becoming independent stems not merely from the fear of a similar move from Iran’s own Kurdish minority, but is more multi-faceted. There is an old Kurdish saying, that the Kurds “have no friends but the mountains.” However, the Kurds do have a friend, Israel, and an independent Kurdistan would mean having an Israeli ally sharing a border with Iran. While this perspective is underappreciated in public discourse, the longstanding political, economic, and military relations between Iraqi Kurds and Israel are a significant concern for Tehran.
Conventional wisdom holds that Iran’s opposition to the Iraqi Kurds’ quest for independence is to avoid a similar pursuit by Iran’s own Kurdish minority population. This hypothesis was seemingly confirmed by a section of Iran’s Kurdish minority who took to the streets to celebrate the independence referendum in Iraq. However, despite sporadic attacks on Iranian targets by the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), a strong political movement defending the rights of Kurds – such as those in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – is yet to develop in Iran. Since they are exiled in Iraqi Kurdistan, the main representatives of Iran’s Kurds, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), have been unable to link the party to the general public. Their actions are further constrained because their host government, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), maintains cordial relations with Tehran. Iran’s brutal repression of opposition, such as the regular hangings of Kurdish dissidents, prevents the formation of an indigenous resistance movement. Therefore, the theory that Tehran’s hostility towards the plebiscite is born merely out of its own Kurdish population’s quest for independence seems improbable.
Tehran’s antagonism for the Iraqi Kurds’ drive for self-determination is better explained by the latter’s historical ties to Iran’s regional foe, Israel. This argument has been heatedly made by Iran’s former Foreign Minister and incumbent Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, who has accused Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), of being “a middleman for Zionists.” Although Velayati’s criticism was especially aimed at Barzani and his dominant Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Iraqi Kurdistan’s second party, the PUK, too has ties – albeit less clear – to Israel. While the PUK has traditionally been closer to Iran, their former leader, Jalal Talabani, publicly shook hands with Israel’s then defence minister Ehud Barak at a conference in 2008, which led to outrage in Iraq’s national parliament. The Israeli press also reported that, in 2004, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a secret meeting with both Barzani and Talabani, indicating contact between the Israelis and both parties.
As all regional and international players such as Turkey, the US and the EU opposed the referendum, Israel was the only country that declared support. Invoking the notions of a shared Arab enemy and a common quest for a national homeland, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the wider Israeli political establishment avowed the right to attain Kurdish statehood. These messages were warmly welcomed by Kurds who flew Israeli flags at pro-independence rallies across the globe.
This friendship between Iraqi Kurds and Israel can be traced back to the 1960s, when Israel supported Barzani’s father, Mustafa Barzani, in his battle for independence during the first Iraqi-Kurdish war of 1961-70. Along with other material backing, Israel sent personnel to aid Barzani’s lightly armed fighters. In 1966, during the battle of Mount Handrin, the vastly outnumbered Israeli-Kurdish alliance ambushed a 5000-strong Iraqi army, a monumental event in Kurdish history. In the 1960s, persecution worsened for Jews in Iraq, who increasingly chose to flee the country. Many were assisted by Kurds who reportedly helped some thousand Jews reach Israel.
According to Israeli military sources, advisors remained in Iraqi Kurdistan at least until 1975, where they trained the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military force, and provided guns, ammunition, and artillery. In 1980, this military backing was confirmed by then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, indicating that clandestine activity continued over a longer period of time. Furthermore, during the 1990-91 Gulf War, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called on the US to protect the Kurds in Iraq and provide them with humanitarian assistance. Pro-Israel lobby organisations also lobbied around the globe for the Kurdish right to self-determination.
After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, hundreds of Israeli agents travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan to train and assist the Peshmerga, and Israel-KRG relations became more overt. In 2006, Barzani declared it not a crime to have relations with Israel and in 2014 Netanyahu called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state allied with Israel. The friendship also extended into the economic sphere. Ever since the KRG began exporting its own oil through Turkey, one-third of that oil is transported to Israel, which accounts for 75 per cent of Israeli oil imports. This has provided the KRG with a source of funding independent from the central government in Baghdad, which would be crucial in the formation of an independent Kurdish state.
To conclude, as the most important mobilising actor in Iran, the KDPI, is exiled and constrained by its host government, the PUK, and is thus unable to sufficiently organise its constituencies. Iran does not face an immediate threat to its territorial integrity from its own Kurdish population. Rather, the driving force behind Iran’s opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan’s quest for independence is the KDP’s enduring ties with Israel and the apprehension of an Israeli ally as its neighbour.
* Pieter-Jan Dockx
Research Intern, IReS, IPCS