The Iraqi Kurdistan Referendum: Regional Perspective
“Impressive” hardly captures the magnitude of the September 25 referendum held in Iraqi Kurdistan. The vast majority of voters casted ‘yes’ votes; it has specifically been stated that more than 92 percent of the 3.3 million voters did so. Such finding is inherently striking; still, the regional response to the vote is even more noteworthy. Particularly, Iranian and Turkish disapproval of the Iraqi Kurdish attempt at establishing autonomy has become a key aspect of the narrative. Due to the significant Kurdish populations in these nations, leaders have heightened concern about similar challenges to national sovereignty. This fear is founded upon the belief that arguably localized attempts at secession can lead to broader regional destabilization. Simply stated, Iranian and Turkish leaders view the incident as incendiary because many members of their own societies are ethnically connected with the individuals that took part in the widely publicized event.
One’s ethnic connection to others – which can be a trans-national identity – is often stronger than the power of one’s national identity. Though this phenomenon might not be as prominent in other parts of the world, trans-national identities have historically permeated borders in the Middle East. The presence of these identities continues to define how leaders approach regional policy. As a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a joint statement ahead of the referendum reiterating “their fears over the potential for new conflicts in the region.” Shortly after the vote took place, Iran deployed tanks to the border it shares with Iraq’s Kurdish region. According to Reuters, the deployment occurred at the “Parviz Khan border point” and included both Iranian and Iraqi armed forces. Iranian military chief General Mohammad Baqeri went on the record, stating that “Iran and Turkey share the same stance on the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in both insisting on the sovereignty of Iraq.”
Accordingly, President Erdogan has employed strong rhetoric in warning that the referendum has the potential to cause an “ethnic war” in the region. Erdogan has particularly threatened to cut off the pipeline that transports oil originating from the Kurdish region in Iraq across the Turkish border, and has stated that economic and military action were “both options on the table for Ankara.” In addition to Iran and Turkey, Syria “only recognize[s] a united Iraq and reject[s] any procedure that leads to the fragmentation of Iraq,” according to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. Such stance is not surprising, given the significant Kurdish population residing in that nation. Syrian leaders, like Iranian and Turkish counterparts, conceptualize independence for the Iraqi Kurds as a direct threat. Even so, the outlook for Syrian Kurds appears to be promising, especially in comparison to Kurdish prospects in Iraq.
Following the referendum, Moualem (the aforementioned Syrian official) relayed that the government is “open” to greater autonomy for Syrian Kurds, particularly because the group desires autonomy “within the framework of the borders of the state”. The distinction between the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish objectives might seem minuscule at first glance. Still, perceived repercussions of independence, as compared to autonomy, speak otherwise. The Iraqi Kurds seek the creation of a new nation, free from Iraqi governance, while the Syrian Kurds desire greater autonomy, albeit within Syria. Even with this important distinction, the movements should still be understood as deeply intertwined. Though main headlines predominantly focus on Iraqi Kurds capturing international attention for their vision of independence, the success of that distinct national movement likely led Syrian leaders to reconsider their position on their own Kurdish population. Such phenomenon demonstrates how trans-national identities can reshape policy in unexpected ways.