As Kurds and Iraqis struggled to resolve their differences this week, Baghdad and Moscow were doing the same, albeit with much less animosity.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Moscow to discuss with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov how to develop economic ties and contain terror groups such as the Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But their focus during the Oct. 23-25 visit was the potential repercussions of last week's battle between forces of Iraq's central government and those of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence Sept. 25. Last week, Baghdad overwhelmingly crushed that hope, at least for the near future, and reclaimed much of the territory the KRG had held since 2014 — including an airport, a military base and highly prized oil wells.
While the foreign minister's visit seemed to show that Moscow and Baghdad are experiencing no major controversies, there was one prickly issue. Baghdad’s only complaint against Moscow came from its Oil Ministry on Oct. 19, the day after Russia's state-owned oil industry giant Rosneft announced new contracts with the KRG in Erbil. The Oil Ministry called contracts made without reports to the central government in Baghdad “blatant interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, a violation of its national sovereignty and of the international norms."
By Oct. 21, Reuters reported, Iraqi Oil Minister Jabbar al-Luaibi said Rosneft had assured him the KRG contracts were only preliminary and "not ready for implementation."
Russia has become the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan. In February, Moscow concluded a series of agreements with the KRG on oil sales, geological exploration and development and management of a large transport system in the region with a capacity of 700,000 barrels per day and planned expansion of up to 950,000 barrels per day. Back then, nobody was bothered. However, with the most recent contracts and the proposed pipeline operation in Kurdistan — announced several days after the Kirkuk military campaign — Moscow has made clear it is not going to leave the region and abandon Kurdistan, though that doesn't mean Russia supports the Kurds' approach so far toward independence.
Russian corporations “plan to expand their operations in Iraq in general and in Iraqi Kurdistan as an integral part of Iraq with a special status," Lavrov said, summarizing his negotiations in Moscow. Shortly before the visit, Lavrov had emphasized that Russia isn't keeping its economic contacts with Erbil secret from Baghdad.
As for the agreement between Rosneft and Iraqi Kurdistan, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said during this week's meetings: “This is not a negotiation topic. The Iraqi government can express its views of the problem, and we can instruct our corporations to work properly." Rogozin claimed that Moscow bases its actions upon the principle of Iraq’s territorial integrity. "That’s why we negotiate only with the government in Baghdad," he said.
Though that last claim sounds peculiar, as the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan have visited Moscow a number of times, it's been years since Baghdad has required formal clearance for deals ahead of time.
After the last announcements about contracts with Erbil were made Oct. 18, Rosneft chief Igor Sechin pointed out that a number of international corporations such as Exxon, Chevron and Total operate in Kurdistan. “Any internal controversies must be resolved between the government of Kurdistan and the central government of Iraq; it is not our [place] at all,” Sechin said. “I am not a politician; I organize oil production and do it efficiently. We obey the law diligently in any territory where we work."
Russia didn't create this new situation and so isn't responsible for it. Nevertheless, Iraq needs to be stable if businesses are to run effectively. Both sides in the conflict must reach a consensus on their issues and with the companies that want to work in Iraq and Kurdistan. Russia has made its deals with Kurdistan, so it is going to negotiate with any party that can affect the situation — including Baghdad and Erbil, and possibly Ankara or Tehran.
But there is much more going on between Moscow and Baghdad than the latter's dispute with Kurdistan. Baghdad needs foreign investments to revive the territories damaged in the war against IS, so it certainly won't pressure Moscow to choose between Baghdad and Erbil. Iraq and Russia already discuss cooperation in a variety of fields, such as electriсity, industry, agriculture and construction. The countries collaborate closely on military technology. In 2014, they signed a weapons contract worth more than $4 billion. Russian specialists teach and train Iraqi military officers.
Baghdad also highly values that Russia respects its domestic and foreign policies, never demanding that Iraq should work with certain countries and not others. Moscow and Baghdad have the same opinion on both the fight against terrorism and the Syrian civil war. They navigate between the two Middle Eastern power centers – Tehran and Riyadh – in the same way, seeking to avoid controversy.
The visit to Moscow highlighted that even though Moscow and Baghdad sometimes disagree, such disputes aren't likely to escalate.
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