A senior official of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-supported militia unit within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), has threatened violence against the leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). Adnan Faihan, the head of the group’s political office, warned Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani against “marking the border with blood” and said his militia forces are ready to confront him if the Kurdish leader “tries to impose his will on disputed regions.” The militia commander emphasized that the Baghdad govenrment will not “gift land to Masoud Barzani.” He continued: “The referendum that the Kurds talk about is about the Kurds and Arabs will not take part in it. We do not threaten Barzani but warn him not to dare to mark the borders with blood. In such a situation, our hands will also not remain tied and we will confront him militarily.”

Comment: Tehran and its Iraqi proxy militia groups have lately intensified pressure on the Iraqi Kurdistan leaders not to go ahead with an independence referendum currently slated for late September. An Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) official told Al-Monitor that Iranian officials said in a July 17 meeting with a Kurdish delegation that Tehran would reward the K.R.G. if it halted the referendum. "However, if you go ahead with the referendum, we will do whatever necessary to stop it — things that you cannot even imagine," one unnamed Iranian official was quoted as warning the delegation in the meeting.  

The Iranian government has publicly stated that it opposes K.R.G.’s referendum move. In June, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the K.R.G.’s decision was “inconsistent” with the Iraq’s constitution and would undermine the country’s security and stability. “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s principled and clear stance is supporting Iraq’s territorial integrity and coherence,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said. “The Kurdistan Region is part of the Republic of Iraq,” he underlined. “A united, stable and democratic Iraq would guarantee the interests of all people of that country from every sect and religion,” he added.

Iranian leaders fear that the Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence may undermine Iran’s long-term strategic interests in Iraq. In April, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.)'s elite Quds Force, reportedly traveled to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah to convince Iraqi Kurdish leaders not to hold the referendum. The Iranian general, according to Asharq al-Awsat, held meetings with leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.), which is headed by Jalal Talabani, and urged them against reaching an agreement over the referendum with President Barzani, who is also the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.).

Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups have also warned that they would not allow any parts of Nineveh Province to be incorporated into the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. 

Earlier this year, a prominent Iran-backed Iraqi militia commander warned peshmerga forces loyal to the K.R.G. to withdraw from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar.  “Popular Mobilization Forces will spare no effort to confront the expansionist agenda of Masoud Barzani, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan Region, in Nineveh Province and other Iraqi areas,” Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the armed wing of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said in an exclusive interview with Iran’s Fars News Agency.

Tehran is also concerned that such a move might trigger calls for autonomy among its own Kurdish population. Militant and separatist groups have waged a low-intensity insurgency against the Iranian state for decades. Iranian Kurds – estimated about eight million – have long complained about state-sanctioned discrimination and economic and political marginalization. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran – a militant group based in the Iraqi Kurdistan – has resumed militancy and occasionally launches attacks against the Iranian security forces.