Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representative to the United States. Photo courtesy of Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Representative in Washington DC, said there is a growing recognition among US leaders “that Iraq cannot return to a centralized form of government.”
“There is a better understanding of Kurdish aspirations for self-determination than there was previously,” she said in an interview with Rudaw.
Abdul Rahman, who was previously the KRG’s representative in the United Kingdom and is no stranger to the corridors of power, explained that the Kurds lacked the lobbying resources of nation states. Nevertheless, they had achieved a great deal.
“We’ve often been described as punching above our weight,” she said, noting that today the KRG has representatives in 14 countries, and 30 nations have consulates and offices in Kurdistan.
The Kurds’ new Washington representative is the daughter of Sami Abdul Rahman, former deputy prime minister of the KRG and a prominent political figure in the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein. She lost her father and brother in early 2004 in a suicide bomb attack in Erbil.
Abdul Rahman was born in Baghdad. Her family briefly lived in Iran in the mid-1970s, before moving to Britain in 1976. She is a history graduate from London University.
The KRG is committed to having good relations with all of our neighbors and with the international community.
This is an edited transcript of the interview:
RUDAW: How do you describe the Kurdistan region's foreign policy?
The KRG is committed to having good relations with all of our neighbors and with the international community. Today, the Department of Foreign Relations maintains active Representations in 14 countries, and 30 countries have consulates and offices in the Kurdistan Region. We expect that number to grow.
What are the biggest challenges in representing the KRG?
Because we are a small region, we don’t have the kind of resources that many diplomatic representations, consulates or embassies have. Still, we make up for it with highly dedicated staff and a passionate diaspora. I think our successes show that we have very effectively leveraged what resources we have. We’ve often been described as punching above our weight and as a small entity that’s exactly what we need to do. We have to work harder than others to get our voice heard.
It has been claimed that the Kurds have no lobby in the United States and that this hampered them from making allies internationally. Is this true?
It may have been true decades ago, but this has not been the case since the 1990s. There is perhaps a misunderstanding about what a lobby can realistically achieve. People often compare Kurdish- with Israeli- or Turkish lobbying power, but these countries have vast financial resources and our budget cannot be compared with theirs. They also have decades of experience and they are sovereign states. Diplomatic partnerships are built over decades and our presence around the world is working to build these relations. With all the limitations that the KRG and Kurdish diaspora face, we have collectively achieved a great deal. For example, there are Kurdish members of parliament in the UK and in Sweden. The British Parliament and others have recognized the Kurdish genocide and we managed to boost UK trade ties with Kurdistan. There is a proactive group in the UK parliament that focuses on relations with Kurdistan. Prior to my arrival in Washington, the US Representation and other Kurdish advocacy groups successfully lobbied for the establishment of a US Consulate in Erbil and they were critical in lobbying Congress to remove the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) from the list of designated Tier-III terror groups. Today, there is a Kurdish American Congressional Caucus that counts over 40 members. In fact, some of our detractors refer to us as the “powerful Kurdish lobby.”
You were previously the KRG representative in the United Kingdom. What do you find different about working in Washington?
There is perhaps a misunderstanding about what a lobby can realistically achieve.
There are broad similarities in both nations’ goals and views on humanitarian issues, democracy, politics and military matters. They share similar foreign policy objectives. That said, the US and the UK have different political systems and cultures, so strategically there are different methods in activism.
Recently, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani met with top US officials. One of the reasons he was in Washington was to discuss the issue of Kurdish independence. What was the US government’s stance on this issue?
The US government continues to pursue policies aimed at maintaining a unified federal Iraq. However, both within the US Administration and Congress, there is a better understanding of Kurdish aspirations for self-determination than there was previously. There is also a recognition -- even if it isn’t always voiced -- that Iraq cannot return to a centralized form of government.
Do you think a Republican US president would be more likely to support Kurdish independence?
We should not be naïve to think that a Democrat or Republican president is more or less likely to accept an independent Kurdistan. Their decision would take into account many factors in the Middle East -- as well as globally -- and would depend on the timing of a declaration of independence. We need to solidify our own institutions, continue to build our economy and strengthen our democratic credentials and international relations, so that we increase the prospect of our friends welcoming our independence. There is already a greater understanding of the people of Kurdistan’s aspirations than there may have been in the past.
There has been a lot of positive media coverage in the US about Kurdish fighters and their success against ISIS. It seems like this is the Kurds’ moment in the spotlight. Do you agree, and how do you feel about being a Kurd in Washington right now?
Absolutely. Americans today know the words “Peshmerga” and “Yezidi” and the media coverage of Kurdistan’s role in the fight against ISIS is frequent and very positive. I am immensely proud to be Kurdish, every single day.
When US politicians like Ted Cruz and John McCain push to “arm the Kurds,” which Kurds do you think they are referring to?
There is a growing recognition that Kurds across the region are the most effective force against ISIS. In a speech at the Pentagon recently, President Obama referred to six places in which the Islamic State had been defeated – five of which were operations by Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria.
When they advocate arming the Kurds, what types of arms are they referring to?
The US government continues to pursue policies aimed at maintaining a unified federal Iraq.
In terms of legislative action, Congressional support for arming the Kurds means providing the US president with the authority to independently provide defense articles and services to a subnational group like the KRG. The Congress cannot compel the president to do use this authorization, as foreign policy is the responsibility of the executive branch. We are in daily contact with the US government officials and lawmakers to ensure that the Peshmerga receive the weapons they need to defeat the Islamic State.
We have indicated the necessity to our friends in the US and the international community for directly providing arms. It was discussed in President Barzani’s meetings at the White House and with other officials during his visit to Washington in May.
Do you think the West, and Americans in particular, really understand the Kurds and Kurdistan?
I think it is difficult for any country to truly understand another, hence the importance of foreign representation. I do believe that the Americans do truly want to understand the Kurds, though.
What have you done to persuade the US government and international organizations to help the KRG deal with 2 million refugees and displaced that have flooded into Kurdistan?
Support for refugees and displaced people in the Kurdistan Region is a priority for the KRG US Representation. We work hard to highlight the plight of all the displaced who are sheltering in Kurdistan, especially the Yezidis and Christians. We encourage US institutions and charities to do what they can to support those in need, because the scale of the crisis is beyond the capabilities of the KRG alone. Throughout this crisis, I have been extremely proud and humbled by the compassion and generosity of the people of Kurdistan in providing for the displaced. This compassion has won us many friends in the international community.
In your opinion, what is the biggest US misconception?
Kurdistan is part of Iraq and is in the Middle East and in the minds of many Americans. Iraq and the Middle East mean violence and chaos. One of our objectives is to bring more American political and business leaders and journalists to Kurdistan, to show them the reality -- that Kurdistan is stable, friendly and open.