By David L. Phillips
Iraq’s attack on Kirkuk was directed by Iran and coordinated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). According to Rudaw, a news outlet in Erbil, Iranian media revealed:
“Chief of staff for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Mohamadi Gulpaigani, stated that the fall of Kirkuk was based on instructions from Ayatollah Khamenei that were carried out by the commander of the Quds Force in order to spoil an American-Israeli plan to create an independent Kurdistan in Iraq, dubbing it a second Israel in the Middle East.”
Iraq is a weak state that relies on security, diplomatic, and economic assistance from Iran. Premier Heider al-Abadi paid homage to Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran just a few days after the Kirkuk operation. Khamenei warned of America’s “tricks”, admonishing: “You should never trust them.” Iran views America as the “Great Satan” and wants to limit U.S. influence in the region.
Khamenei disparaged America’s allies in Iraqi Kurdistan. He blasted its independence referendum an act of “sedition.” Iran fears that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might destabilize Iran. It could inspire twelve million Kurds in Iran to demand greater autonomy.
Preventing Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence also advances Iran’s goal to pressure Israel. Iran has long wanted to establish a corridor of contiguous territory for supplying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In turn, Hezbollah supplies Hamas, which launches rockets into Israel. The Kirkuk operation advanced the creation of a Shiite crescent, extending from Tehran to Baghdad, to Damascus, and Beirut.
Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan have common ground. For starters, both are surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors bent on their destruction.
In 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited “the collapse of Iraq” and endorsed “Kurdish aspirations for independence.” According to Netanyahu, “Kurds are a fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence.” The late President Shimon Peres said, “The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic.”
Relations between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan date back to the 1960s when Israel sought peripheral alliances with non-Arab states and peoples in the region. Israel trained Mustafa Barzani’s peshmerga. It offered the Kurds with technical expertise in water management and dry-land farming. It provided humanitarian assistance after the Gulf War of 1991.
Israel and Kurdistan developed commercial relations. Israel was the first customer of oil exported from Iraqi Kurdistan. At least 4 tankers delivered Kurdish oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan to the Israeli port of Ashkelon between January and June 2014.
They also established security cooperation. After the Islamic State attacked in 2014, Israel discreetly transferred weapons to Iraqi Kurdistan and provided intelligence. Kurdistan acted as a bulwark against Sunni Islamist extremism and a buffer against Iran’s regional ambitions.
Kurds are an important constituency within Israel. About 200,000 Jews of Kurdish descent live in Israel. Both the Jewish people and Kurds have survived attempts to exterminate them.
Israeli-Kurdistan cooperation was extensive, but it occurred below the radar. A Kurdish official told me that Kurdistan tries to be discreet. “We don’t want to offend anyone.”
The fall of Kirkuk to Iraqi security services and IRGC-backed Shiite militias sent shock waves through the region
Of course, the loss of Kirkuk most directly affects the Kurds. Their dream of independence deferred.
By abandoning the Kurds and turning a blind eye to Iran’s involvement, America’s reputation has been soiled. Washington’s singular focus on defeating ISIS has undermines broader U.S. strategic interests.
Israel loses Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential partner in the Middle East. Israel’s adversaries are emboldened.
Iran and Hezbollah are the big winners. With America’s demise in the region, Iran now has the potential to project its power unchecked in the region.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the U.S. Department of State under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.