Assessing the Impact of Shifting Iran-KRG Relations

It is conceivable that Kurdish authorities assume that smuggling routes can be used to circumvent a potential blockade by the mentioned neighbors. There are no statistics about the volume of smuggling between Iran and the KRG, but judging based on the ongoing discoveries of smuggled goods and hard currencies, the volume must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Though the KRG has been an important route for legal and illegal border trade between Iran and Iraq, there are signs that Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara will cooperate to penalize the KRG.

Proof of this alignment emerged on Oct. 4 during an official visit to Tehran by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he stated during a joint press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, "From this moment forward, more decisive steps will be taken." Iraqi military leaders have also announced that they will coordinate efforts with Iran and Turkey to approach those border positions that are controlled by Kurdish forces.

What the KRG can count on is sympathy among the population in Iran’s Kurdish provinces, but it is not clear how far such emotional support would go in light of the resolve of the military and government institutions to put pressure on Erbil. At the same time, contrary to the analysis that Tehran is concerned about calls for Kurdish separatism in Iran, the concerns of Iranian strategists are different and more of a geostrategic nature.

Tehran experienced the push for independence in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The emergence of smaller states in the form of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia made clear to Iran that new geopolitical formations bring with them new challenges. Regarding the KRG, Iran is worried about the emergence of new tensions between smaller states in a new regional constellation.

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