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In Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan President Barzani welcomed by Khamenei, IRGC

Nechirvan Barzani’s trip to Tehran follows tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Islamic Republic over Kurdish armed groups and attacks by Iran-backed militias.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (L) welcomes Nechirvan Barzani, the regional president of Iraqi Kurdistan, during an official visit to Tehran on May 6, 2024. (Photo: KRG Presidency)

The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, pledged to boost relations with Iran during a visit to Tehran this week where he was received by top Iranian officials including the country's supreme leader Ali Khamenei. 

Barzani arrived in Tehran on Sunday. On Monday, he met Khamenei to discuss bilateral relations and unspecified regional issues. Barzani “underscored the Kurdistan Region’s aspiration to strengthen relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran across various sectors,” according to a readout from the Kurdistan Region Presidency.

The same day, Barzani met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Interior Minister Rebar Ahmed Khalid participated in the meeting as well, along with other Kurdistan Region officials. Barzani and Raisi discussed strengthening relations between Iran and the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, including trade and economic relations, and the importance of "good neighborliness,” per the Kurdistan Region Presidency. 

Raisi told Barzani that the KRG should work to prevent Israel from attacking Iran from within the Kurdistan Region, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

“Considering the hatred of the enemies, including the Zionist regime, against the Iranian nation, we expect the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region to absolutely prevent any abuse of the soil of this region against Iran by the elements of the Zionist enemy and anti-revolutionary elements,” said Raisi.

Iran has alleged that Israel’s spy agency the Mossad has a presence in the Kurdistan Region, something the KRG has denied.

Raisi called for the “complete disarmament and the absence of anti-revolutionary elements in Iraqi territory is a necessity,” the agency reported, referring to Iranian Kurdish armed groups that operate across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We consider the long borders between the two sides as a valuable opportunity to improve the level of relations, but security is the essential foundation and foundation of any kind of cooperation and expansion of interactions."

In a Monday meeting with Ali Akbar Ahmadian, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Barzani said that the Kurdistan Region does not pose a threat to anyone and will contribute to security and stability, according to the Kurdistan Region Presidency.

The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Barzani as saying that “Iran's security is our security, and we will not allow any third party to harm the security of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq” in the meeting with Ahmadian.

Barzani additionally met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Monday to discuss bilateral relations. Amir-Abdollahian described KRG-Iran ties as “old, friendly and unbreakable,” the agency reported.

On Tuesday, Barzani met with Iraqi Trade Minister Atheer Daoud Al-Ghurairi, who is also in Tehran on an official visit. They discussed trade involving the Kurdistan Region, Iraq and Iran. Barzani additionally held talks with Iran’s parliament speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the same day, according to the Kurdistan Region Presidency.

Barzani met with Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well on Tuesday. The two discussed "border security, cooperation on security challenges, and averting further escalation of regional tensions,” according to a post on X from the former’s office.

Barzani is the nephew of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and former President Massoud Barzani. He became president himself in 2019 and last visited Iran in 2021 to attend Raisi’s inauguration. Barzani studied at the University of Tehran and speaks Persian fluently.

Why it matters: Barzani’s Tehran trip comes at an important time in Kurdistan Region-Iran relations, as there has been friction in the relationship recently. Last year, Iran demanded that armed Iranian Kurdish opposition groups be removed from the region’s border areas. Groups such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran are in conflict with the Islamic Republic and have maintained a presence in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

In January, the IRGC struck what it said was a Mossad center in the Kurdistan Region capital Erbil. The missiles actually hit the residence Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dezayee, leading to condemnation from KRG officials.

Mohammed A. Salih, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that Barzani visited Tehran to “ease tensions” and prove to Tehran that the Kurdistan Region is not a threat. The Kurdistan Region is located in northern Iraq, where the KRG has limited autonomy from the federal government in Baghdad.

“Barzani was keen to communicate that the KRG and KDP are not security or political threats to Iran. That certainly requires some convincing as far as Iranian officials are concerned,” Salih told Al-Monitor, pointing out that Barzani has the “linguistic and cultural familiarity” to engage with Iran on the issues.

“Barzani’s meetings with the top IRGC leadership clearly show mutual security concerns are a major part of his visit and discussions with Iranian officials,” he added.

The KRG may be additionally interested in improving ties with Iran due to concerns about Washington's support for the region.

“US hesitation and reluctance to take practical measures in defense of Iraqi Kurdistan over the past few years might have also pushed KDP and KRG to seek some reconciliation with Iran as they feel abandoned and vulnerable on this front,” said Salih.

The most important issues for Iran vis-a-vis the Kurdistan Region are border security and “Iraqi Kurdish reluctance to back Iranian plans for US troops withdrawal from Iraq,” Salih said.

There are around 2,500 US military personnel in Iraq as part of the coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS). Iraq has said it wants to remove the US troops, and the two countries began a dialogue on the issue late last year.

For the KRG, the most important issues in its relations with Iran are “repeated attacks by Iran and its allied militias in Iraq on Kurdistan, and Iraqi state institutions efforts to curtail the KrG autonomy and financial and economic capabilities are on top of the agenda,” according to Salih.

In addition to the January IRGC strike in Erbil, Iran-backed militias in Iraq have repeatedly targeted US forces in the Kurdistan Region, particularly after the start of the Gaza war. Moreover, the KRG is concerned about its autonomy within Iraq, particularly with regard to energy. Oil flows from the Kurdistan Region to Turkey have remained shuttered since last year amid a dispute with the Iraqi federal government.

Know more: Another goal of the trip was to discuss the Kurdistan Region parliamentary elections, according to Salih. The Iraqi federal supreme court ruled in February to reduce the number of seats in the Kurdistan Region parliament, eliminating seats reserved for minority groups, including Iraqi Christians. The KDP said in March it would boycott the elections, which were scheduled for June.

On Tuesday, the court suspended preparations for the elections, Agence France-Presse reported. In light of the decision, Salih said that Barzani "seems to have secured the blessing of Tehran” with regard to the postponement.