By: Mehdi Sepahvand

Kurdistan Region cognizant of neighbors’ security concerns

July 19, 2017

Exclusive – The Tehran Times recently sat for an interview with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in Iran Nazim Dabbagh.

There, we asked Mr. Dabbagh about the current KRG push for a referendum as follows:

Q: Please speak about Jalal Talabani’s recent trip to Tehran and if it had anything to do with the referendum.

A: As you know, there are cordial relations between Mr. Talabani and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Due to his critical health condition, he wasn’t able to visit Iran over the past few years. That was why our friends in Tehran proposed him travel to Iran to get some rest in a special resort after his medical team gave the approval. He was in Iran for a few days and left on Thursday. 

He’s always been interested in optimal political ties between Iran and Iraq, and believes that Iranians and Kurds have had the same geography, race, and religion.

Q: Over the past months, a key issue has been the referendum decision. Why did you come up with that decision?

A: The referendum issue is in line with our Kurdish movement. It began decades ago and has been moving ahead all this time. Our strategies and procedures are time bound. Once it’s a sit-in, protest or fight. Today is the era of diplomatic, parliamentary and popular activities. In spite of a number of Kurds being in the top echelons of the government over the past years, no step has thus far been taken to implement bilateral agreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government. Nor have Kurds’ constitutional rights been upheld. On top of that, our budget has been cut as well.

As the war with Daesh (Islamic State) broke out, the Kurdish peshmerga was the star of the battlefield both in Syria’s Kobani and Iraq. The Kurdish forces had already been influential in the Fallujah and Al Anbar battlegrounds, and were crucial in keeping Baghdad and those areas under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution safe and secure. (Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution calls for normalization of areas it refers to as disputed, to be followed by a referendum on whether or not those regions want to be part of the Kurdistan Region. According to the Constitution, the article should have been implemented by the end of 2007, and so far no referendum has been conducted on this issue.) This is while the Iraqi army stopped resisting Daesh fighters and fled the war zone. Had it not been for peshmerga forces, the Iraqi forces would have had to rush to retake Kirkuk after Mosul. Daesh even had plans to attack Erbil and maybe had eyes on Iranian borders.

We are fully aware of the geographical position of the Kurdistan Region and we know that any independent Kurdish establishment in Iraq needs to be mindful of the security of its neighboring countries; and Iraq, of course, is the first country we need to reach a consensus with.

The point is that throughout this period, the Iraqi government did nothing to help the peshmerga forces. Kurdish lawmakers voted for the formation of Hashd al-Sha'abi (Popular Mobilization Forces) just to regret doing so a while later because the peshmerga law that is part of the Iraq government was not approved by the parliament. The Iraqi government did not provide the Kurdish forces even with the basic tools. 

There are a few agreed-upon projects in the Iraqi parliament, including agreements on oil revenue, peshmerga forces and guidelines for relations between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government. Altogether, these are parts of the so-called Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.

Interjection: You mean failure to reach agreements on the afore-mentioned issues has brought you to the stage a referendum?

A: Well, these sticking points are not limited just to the ones I cited. As a matter of fact, now that the fight against Daesh has finished, we have our own dialogues. What if the Hashd al-Sha’abi takes power and certain Iraqi authorities decide to pursue the same Baathi policies towards Kurds? The question is how long the Kurds should wait to have their voice heard and their requests granted. That’s why the Kurdish leadership, coupled with the backing of five major groups and other non-major ones, insists on holding the referendum. There are of course differences over the timing of the referendum and optimal conditions for holding it. In fact, no Kurd dares to say he doesn’t want to get independent. The referendum process is a sort of parliamentary, democratic bid to get into the mind of the Kurdish people on the issue. Overall, the referendum decision seeks the attention of the Iraqi government and other actors that the Kurdish government wants in order to achieve its goals via diplomacy and dialogue. 

Of course, in response to the independence move, the Iraqi government may choose to fight us. I have overheard some Iraqi authorities saying “we will fight them (the Kurds). If you go down in history and review the Kurdish past before the Safavid and Ottoman dynasties as well as after the First World War, when […] Mustafa Barzani  [took part in leading] the Kurdish movement, you will notice that they all took to arms and sought independence. But the Kurds’ independence movement has been so far suppressed by internal and external factors. This is an indication that the Kurds have always been seeking to fight for their rights.

This time is no exception. We may enter into confrontation. There are two possibilities. Chances of victory and failure are equal. We can’t be indifferent to our people’s call. Otherwise, it will be treason. In a nutshell, what I am trying to say as the representative of the Kurdish Regional Government is that we believe we should implement the referendum through dialogue with Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq and other countries and have their approvals.

We don’t plan to declare independence right on the same day the Kurds vote for the move. Before any declaration movement, some steps need to be taken and we are well aware that Baghdad is the starting point for us to discuss the independence of the Kurdish Regional Government. To do so, we have already agreed on our own negotiation team and the first round of negotiations is likely to take place in the near future.  

A delegation led by Masoud Barzani headed to Brussels for the first time to enlist support for the referendum.

Q: You mentioned that the expectations of the Kurdistan Regional Government from Baghdad on bilateral agreement are yet to be met. And you already referred to some of these “sticking points”. Could you be more specific? 

The role of the Kurds in the new Iraqi government has been strongly highlighted by Ayatollah Sistani who once said Jalal Talabani is the key to the country’s security. Though Mam Jalal is recognized as a prominent political figure in the region who has served as president, we should bear in mind that he is a Kurd. Had it not been for the backing of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurds, it would’ve been impossible for him to play such major role.  
As per our disagreements with Baghdad, what I have said already are just the basic. Differences over oil purchase and sale, peshmerga forces, and Article 140 have to be ironed out. We reached a consensus on oil a few years ago after the invasion of the U.S. when the whole Iraqi political establishment and we cooperated in all stages of drafting the accord. 

The other areas of discord are, as I mentioned before, peshmerga forces and Article 140. The article was passed perhaps because it applies not only to Kurdistan, but to the entire country, Iraq. Major changes were made to Shiite-majority areas such as Najaf, Karbala, Basra, and Al Diwaniyah. Our Shiite friends backed the move in the parliament and approved it, because it was in their interest to do so. They, however, were reluctant to agree with a similar plan in Kurdish-majority areas. Since the passage of the plan in 2008 up to the present, it has been delayed. And these are issues that we disagree on. Unfortunately, the Baathi ideology still dominates parts of the Iraqi decision-making body. Such thinking only accepts itself to the exclusion of others no matter if they are Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds, and consequently that breeds disagreement. For instance, neither Ayad Allawi nor Ibrahim al-Jaafari did anything for the Kurds. We even asked for Jafari to step down simply after two years into a four-year tenure, because his polices fell short of being in compliance with the Iraqi Constitution and of being any good for the country’s unity. 

In spite of a number of Kurds being in the top echelons of the government over the past years, no step has thus far been taken to implement bilateral agreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government. Nor have Kurds’ constitutional rights been upheld. On top of that, our budget has been cut as well.

Again, Nuri al-Maliki completed what his predecessors, opposed to Kurds as he was. Maliki even failed to implement bilateral agreements he himself signed with Masoud Barzani, including 19 articles, and Jalal Talabani. Haider al-Abadi has also made no marked difference for the Kurds. Yet, during his tenure, Iraq’s situation changed as Daesh invaded the country. So, Abadi postponed addressing disagreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad until the defeat of Daesh. Finding a solution for the current situation has already been delayed for not being a top priority in an insecure Iraq after the collapse of Saddam or under other circumstances. And this shall continue in the future if left unaddressed. For this reason, the Kurds’ rights should be upheld. I have been with Jalal Talabani since 1964, and throughout it all, we have been seeking to live in harmony and peace one day. Well, the question is this: until when should the Kurds live so? We continue our bid. We may win, we may lose. But God willing, we will make it. Yet, we are fully aware of the geographical position of the Kurdistan Region and we know that any independent Kurdish establishment in Iraq needs to be mindful of the security of its neighboring countries; and

Iraq, of course, is the first country we need to reach a consensus with.

Q: As you argued earlier, different Kurdish groups and parties unanimously agree on the referendum decision. However, there are counterarguments. Change Movement (Goran) and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) have voiced opposition. Also, people familiar with the issue have linked the removal of Ala Talabani as the head of the PUK’s party faction in the Iraqi parliament to her disagreement with the referendum bid. What is your reaction?

A: This is all media hype. First of all, I should say that there is unanimous agreement within the entire political authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government about the referendum decision. The Change Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group also fully endorse the move but have reservations in terms of the preconditions for holding the referendum. They demand current issues and challenges of the Kurdistan Regional Government be resolved. Also, they argue that the referendum decision should be approved by the parliament not by the government’s leadership. So, they differ on that.

As per Ala Talabani, her removal has nothing to do with the referendum; it is due to some internal issues of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan itself. The removal decision was made by the political bureau of the PUK and has not been applied yet.

Q: Iraq and Turkey have threatened they would resort to force if the Kurdistan Regional Government insists on holding the referendum. What’s your reaction?

A: We have imagined all possibilities. The Kurdish leadership is already battle-hardened. While threats by Iraq and Turkey or any other country can’t be ignored, we have witnessed the worst scenarios over our history. Turkey, for instance, has launched more than 27 strikes against the PKK and Kurds so far.
I need to clarify that wars are not conducive to solutions. Once there were only 3,000 peshmergas. What was the outcome? Saddam Hossein once said two people wouldn’t be allowed to have a sip of water across the Iraqi territory. Due to resistance, one of the two became president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the other president of Iraq. So, disagreements should not escalate into military confrontation because experience indicates that we are resistant and adamant.

Q: How far do you think it is legitimate for countries with Kurdish communities to voice concern over the referendum decision? 

A: I think it’s their legitimate right to be worried about the referendum move. But, the question arising here is what the root cause of such concerns are. The Kurds are worried about their future, and this should be resolved. 

Interjection: But do you acknowledge that the referendum may set a precedent in the region for other Kurdish communities in neighboring countries? 

A: Yes, this may be the case. But we’re not to blame for that, and it depends on the governments of those countries. Do the Kurds who are fighting Turkey have a government? A second point to bear in mind is that Iraqi Kurds have no right to intervene in other countries. 

Q: What do you say when Iran says it is against the referendum bid in the Kurdistan Region? 

A: Unlike other countries such as Turkey, whose president has threateningly said that the Kurds would regret holding referendum, Iran has merely opposition to the decision while supporting the Kurds in a unified Iraq and urging a return to the Iraqi Constitution. That’s exactly our demand, as well. We want Article 140 of the Constitution to be reactivated and implemented. 

I should reiterate that it’s our neighboring countries’ legitimate right to be worried. But an appropriate solution has to be wrought. We have always highlighted the importance of respecting the security of regional countries, and we need to assure them we are not posing any threats to them. As a matter of fact, we have no other choice but to pursue such policy because we are a landlocked territory, meaning that we commit suicide if we choose to have strained relations with neighboring countries. Just now, trade flow from Iran to the Kurdistan Region is nearly $4 billion, without which it would be difficult for us to continue normal life. So, we’re well aware that if Iran, Turkey, Iraq, or Syria wish, they can suffocate us. 

Q: How do you see the future of the referendum? And what is the way forward? 

A: I’m optimistic, and do believe that any nation or ethnicity who insist on defending thir rights would prevail finally. The referendum shouldn’t be taken to mean declaration of independence. The move is a sort of popular authority bestowed on the Kurdish leadership; that the referendum bid is backed not only by the Kurdish authorities but also the Kurdish people. And when you have such backing, the people are ready to defend and preserve what they have voted for. 

SP/AK

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