Iranian leaders and state-run media outlets reacted angrily to Iraqi Kurdistan’s decision to hold an independence referendum on Monday, and threatened retaliatory actions against Erbil. Tehran halted all flights to and from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq and the Iranian military launched war games near the Kurdish border. Senior Iranian officials stressed that the Islamic Republic rejects the plebiscite and described it as an “Israeli and American plot” to divide Iraq and counter Iranian influence in the region. President Hassan Rouhani also discussed the issue with his Russian and Turkish counterparts and called for collective action to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity. More ominously, Iranian-backed Iraqi militia commanders threatened violence against the Regional Kurdish Government (K.R.G.) and vowed that the “resistance front” would not allow a “second Israel” to be established inside Iraq.
Reactions in Tehran
On Wednesday, the Iranian Parliament released a statement, rejecting the vote and reiterating Iran’s support for the Baghdad government and Iraq’s national unity. “Over the past years, Iraq has suffered from different plots hatched by the United States and the Zionists,” the statement said. Iranian lawmakers claimed that Iran and its allies have foiled U.S. and Israeli “plots” but warned that the Kurdish dispute could thrust Iraq into another period of chaos and instability. They called on the Rouhani government to assist Baghdad in countering Israeli “adventurism” in Iraq. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, also emphasized that Tehran does not recognize the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Chief of Staff Mohammadi Golpayangi issued a similar warning. He said Iraq’s territorial integrity is important for Iran’s national security interests. He further claimed that now that the Islamic State is on the brink of defeat, Iran’s enemies are orchestrating “new plots” to harm Iran and its allies. “God willing, these plots will be thwarted.”
Ali Larijani, the head of Iranian Parliament, was more measured in his response. He echoed a view shared by the United States, European powers and some regional countries that the K.R.G.’s push for independence undermines the ongoing fight against the Islamic State.
After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared support for the Kurdish independence, Iranian leaders found another reason to oppose the referendum. They argued that Israel, with U.S. support, aims to create a client state in northern Iraq against the “axis of resistance” – a term Tehran uses for its alliance with Shiite state and non-state actors in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and beyond. “The Zionist regime and the world Arrogance [U.S.] are behind this,” cautioned Major General Hossein Bagheri, the head of the Iranian Armed Forces.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khameni on international affairs, denounced the vote and called Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) a “puppet of Zionists” who he said was “the verge of collapse.” He stressed that Iran and its allies would not allow Barzani to create a “second Israel” in Iraq. “The people of Iran and the region will not remain silent to this move and will oppose this wrong step. Mr. Barzani will have no option but to retreat; otherwise he will be confronted.” He further warned that Iran would defend Iraq’s territorial integrity the way it fought for Syria’s unity in the past six years.
Iran-Backed militias threaten violence
Following the vote, tension between Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iran-backed groups within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) has escalated rapidly. “We will not allow the Iraqi Kurdistan’s separation and we support a united Iraq on the principle of the resistance front,” Akram al-Kaabi, the head of Harakat al-Nujaba, a P.M.F. unit fighting in Iraq and Syria under the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, said earlier today. After meeting with Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Jazayeri, Khamenei’s special representative to Khuzestan Province, Kaabi emphasized that he supports Jazayeri’s position on the role of “axis of resistance” in the region and the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We will not allow the Iraqi Kurdistan to gain independence,” he reiterated.
Jafar al-Husseini, the spokesman for Kata’ib Hezbollah, another Iranian-sponsored P.M.F. group, called Barzani a “traitor” and a “tool for American influence in the region.” He warned that the Iraqi paramilitary forces would take action to confront K.R.G. leaders.
Will Kirkuk prove a flashpoint?
P.M.F. leaders have particularly warned that the oil-rich province of Kirkuk may prove to be a flashpoint between their forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in the near future. "Kirkuk is an occupied city and we're ready to liberate it," said Hashem al-Mousavi, the spokesman for Harakat al-Nujaba. He further emphasized that the Iraqi forces should particularly focus on recapturing oil-rich regions within Kirkuk and not allow the Kurds to “steal Iraqis’ national wealth.” He said the paramilitary forces are waiting for an order from the Baghdad government to seize Kirkuk.
Last week, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of another Iran-backed Iraqi militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, accused the K.R.G. of executing an “Israeli project” by dividing Iraq and warned that his forces would not allow it to happen. "The enemies of Imam Hussein raised the flag of the homosexuals in Erbil at the wishes of the Israelis," he said in a speech to his followers. "The second state of Israel will not be obtained as long as Imam Hussein, peace be upon Him, lives in the conscience of every Iraqi."
Hadi al-Amiri, the head of Iranian-supported Badr Organization, echoed a similar threat. “If tension over the Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum continues, it will certainly culminate in civil war” he was quoted as saying by Iran’s Fars News Agency. “Unfortunately, when the civil war breaks out, blood will be shed,” he added.
Another potential flashpoint could be Sinjar in the northwest. Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups have warned that they would not allow any parts of Nineveh Province to be incorporated into the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
Reactions in Iranian media
Reactions in reformist-leaning media in Iran to the Kurdish vote ranged from mild criticism to indifference. Some even argued that the Kurdish community in the region is non-Arab and has historically had close ties with Iran; thus, Tehran should voice support for the Iraqi Kurds’ independence aspirations.
State-run and hardline outlets, however, raised alarm. “In the waning days of Daesh [Islamic State], America and the Zionist regime are plotting a new conspiracy through a number of separatists in Erbil within the framework of the “Greater Middle East Plan” – whose biggest victim will be the Kurds,” warned the editorial of influential Kayhan, a hardline newspaper whose editor-in-chief is directly appointed by Khamenei. Kayhan accused Barzani of siding with “enemies” against “friends” – adding that Sirwan Barzani, the commander of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, has thanked Netanyahu for Israel’s support. “Israel now openly and explicitly sides with separatists in northern Iraq. But it is not a secret that America and Europe back separatist aspirations in the Iraqi Kurdistan region as well. But they pursue this policy deceitfully and discreetly. Although America has opposed the referendum, it has said that Washington’s historic ties with Erbil will remain unchanged after the vote,” the editorial continued.
Javan, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), wrote that Israel is inflaming violence in Iraq to distract Iranian-aligned forces in the region from turning their attention to the Jewish state. The article claimed that Israeli leaders fear that “battle-hardened fighters” from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran would focus on liberating the Golan Heights from Israel after the fight against the Islamic State is over.
Iranian leaders oppose Iraqi Kurdish independence for several reasons. First and foremost, the Islamic Republic worries that its eight million Kurdish minority could follow suit and push for autonomy or a balanced representation in the government.
Indeed, Tehran has reasons to be concerned. Kurdish independence in Iraq would embolden Iran’s Kurdish community, which has long suffered discrimination as well as political and economic marginalization. As Iraqi Kurds went to cast their ballots, thousands of Iranian Kurds took to the streets to celebrate in support of the vote in a bold defiance of Tehran’s stance on the issue. Plainclothes Iranian security agents were present among demonstrators but did not disrupt the rallies fearing a backlash. Next day, however, several Kurds who organized or just participated in the rallies were arrested.
Furthermore, several Iranian Kurdish militant groups are operating from inside Iraqi Kurdistan and Tehran alleges that some regional governments support them to destabilize Iran. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (K.D.P.I.), headquartered in Iraqi Kurdistan, resumed its armed struggle against the Islamic Republic last year and has mounted several attacks against I.R.G.C. forces inside Iran.
So far, a vast majority of Iranian Kurds have shunned violence and remained loyal to their country. Iranian leaders, however, are worried that might change if Iraqi Kurdistan becomes an independent state. “The existence of a country called Kurdistan will provoke the Kurds in Iraq’s neighboring countries to establish a unified country. This is precisely the reason Iraq’s neighbors are concerned about the referendum,” an article in Jahan-e Sanat said. Another article in daily Iran also argued that the repercussions of the vote will not remain confined to the Iraqi borders but will impact all regional countries with sizable Kurdish populations.
Iranian leaders and analysts have also expressed the concern that the Kurdish dispute could provide a ground for the United States to justify its long-term military presence in Iraq. "As the anarchy in Iraq's political scene has shown in the past, such a scenario could open the door for America in Iraq once again,” an article in Jahan-e Sanat argued. "In other words, political instability is an opportunity for America to exploit Baghdad's weaknesses and legitimize its military presence in Iraq."
Major General Qassem Soleimani traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan several times to meet Kurdish leaders and discourage them from holding the vote. He failed. Given Soleimani's influential role in Iraq and his command of powerful militia forces, the key question now is how he will respond.