The deepening crisis in Iraq, ambiguities in the Syria-Iran-PKK equation, and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s remarks after his visits to Ankara and Washington have rekindled an old debate in Turkey: Are Iraqi Kurds about to declare independence?
Barzani recently said that if problems with the Baghdad administration are not resolved by September, he would call in the Kurds to vote in a referendum and choose where they want to live. Some journalistic assessments stipulate that Barzani could actually set up an independent state. However, I think he is bluffing. He is not so irrational, and trying to create a Kurdish state under the current circumstances would be madness, especially when the biggest obstacle to an independent Kurdistan is the United States. Washington has been advising him to work with the central government and Barzani hints that he is not really delighted with that advice.
There are several reasons why an independent Kurdistan is ill-advised for the US.
First, the US will have to intervene in what will inevitably be a new crisis, just as it is trying to get out of Afghanistan. Americans have no intention to intervene. The US is reshaping its operational presence in the Middle East in accordance with “offshore balancing,” as we saw in Libya. It is extremely costly for the US to intervene in crises with ground troops. It does not want another crisis in Iraq that may require American troops on the ground.
Second, the US wants to counterbalance Shiite influence in Iraq over the Kurds and Sunnis. For Kurds and Sunnis to secede from Iraq and set up their own states means total Iranian tutelage over the critical oil region of Basra. The last thing Americans want is for the Shiites to be under Iranian control after the Kurds declare independence, as that would remove the strongest barrier to Iran’s Shiite crescent strategy. The US will not allow the Shiite region to go under Iranian control. Here, Barzani has a critical role to play. As long as Kurds and Sunnis are in Baghdad, they will always keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iran’s regional aspirations in check. No doubt, Tehran loves the idea of Kurdish independence.
Third, the US has always perceived the Kurdish region as an island of stability. Declaring its independence would mean decades of instability and new enmities in the region. America wants to be able to safely transfer the energy resources in both the Kurdistan Regional area and Kirkuk to Western markets. The US is pursuing a cold war strategy against Iran with no end in sight. A key pillar of this strategy is the embargo on Iranian oil. While the US created this strategy with its risks in mind, it is not going to allow Barzani to declare independence and destabilize Iraq’s oil regions indefinitely.
The US prefers a stable Iraqi government that flirts with Iran to an unstable Iraq. That is why Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Iranian attitude has gone unnoticed— what Iran stands to gain from such a tryst is less significant than what the US might lose from an unstable Iraq. Al-Maliki is well aware of the American quandary and plays up his relations with Iran to test the limits of his opponents.
The fourth reason is Saudi Arabia. It is a fact that the Saudi attitude towards Iran is more hostile than any Arab position against Israel. The real struggle in the region is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If the Kurds declare independence in the north and Iraq is divided into three parts, then the Iranians — with their access to the Shiite region — will be land-neighbors with Saudi Arabia. Such a situation will provide Iran with a substantial opportunity to provoke the Shiites in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Saudis, who intervened in Bahrain to prevent the outbreak of the Arab Spring, will do everything possible to prevent Iraq’s fragmentation.
In a nutshell, Barzani’s independence would mean destabilizing not only Iraqi energy resources, but Saudi energy resources as well. No White House can live with $ 5– 6 per gallon of gasoline for its citizens, and the key to that is in Barzani’s hands. This is why the US is the biggest obstacle to an independent Kurdistan. For the time being at least…