Assessing the Impact of Shifting Iran-KRG Relations

On the one hand, Tehran is concerned about tensions between the KRG and the rest of Iraq, with potential for conflict over disputed territory, energy and water resources. On the other hand, an independent KRG could become the platform for hostile Israeli or US activity against Iranian interests as well as a platform for operations of Iranian Kurdish separatists.

At the same time, there are other lessons that the Iranian strategists draw from the post-Soviet Union collapse developments. The fact is that the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia not only have not stirred up ethnic emotions in Iran, but they have both generated new opportunities for Iran’s regional trade and investment activities. As such, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, should it start its existence, will most likely gravitate toward Iran, not just because of shared culture and language, but also because of common interests in the fields of trade and energy.

For now, Iran is engaged in talks with relevant regional powers, i.e., Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In shaping its future strategy, Tehran can also count on the various Shiite militias inside the KRG and Iraq that are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian strategists wish to make sure that the KRG does not declare independence, and they anticipate that the final outcome of the current process would be determined in new negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil. Hence, they view the current decisions as temporary until a new contract is worked out between Baghdad and Erbil.

Therefore, despite all the current initiatives, Iran would wish to maintain a working relationship with the KRG. The presence of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the funeral of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Sulaimaniyah and the fact that he was welcomed by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani underlines the prevalence of positive relations between the two sides.

As such, as some observers have argued, Tehran could still emerge as an “impartial mediator and a friend of the Kurds, while expressing its view that Kurdish interests will be better served within a united Iraq.”

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