Iranian political scientist Dr Ahmad Naqibzada from the University of Tehran speaks to Rudaw on the fringes of the Erbil Forum. File photo: Rudaw TV
Interview by Fuad Rahim
Dr Ahmad Naqibzada, a prominent Iranian political scientist from the University of Tehran, believes an independent Kurdistan would make a far better regional ally for Iran than Baghdad and Damascus because Kurds and Persians share close ethnic and cultural origins.
In this interview on the fringes of the Erbil Forum earlier this month, the Iranian academic said Iran sees its Kurdish population as brothers who contribute to Iran’s diverse national identity – unlike sections of Turkish society which deny their cultural rights altogether.
Rather than emboldening calls for independence among the Kurds of Turkey and Iran, Naqibzada believes an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq would help resolve regional conflicts.
Rudaw: In the lead up to the Kurdistan independence referendum, you wrote an article titled ‘Kurdistan Region’s Referendum: the Birth of Second Iran’. What did you mean?
It is very unfair for a nation of 30 to 40 million people to be stateless. We are aware of the sensitivities of regional governments. It is true Iranians sympathize with the Kurds. I am not speaking about governments. There are completely different groups in Turkey who even reject the mere existence of Kurds whom they refer to as ‘wild Turks’. I was happy that Kurdistan was holding its referendum. I thought it would succeed and will lead to the independence of Kurdistan. But unfortunately some wrong steps were taken. I wish the referendum was held at another time and led to a desired outcome. But this had to be done anyway. Those who oppose independence for the Kurdistan Region are wrong and will pay the price for this mistake in the future.
What is the basis for your words?
Those who oppose independence for the Kurdistan Region are wrong and will pay the price for this mistake in the future
They are based on history and culture. Look, Kurds are the founders of Iranian kingdom. They have always been around in the region whose cultural geography is Iran. They know Iran prevailed over the Roman Empire most of the time. The majority in the region are Arabs. We are only a minority in the region. It will be in our favor in the future to have a neighbor that is friendly and shares the same bloodline as us. But our government has unfortunately based its strategy on [the calculations of] Arab countries who in my opinion are untrustworthy. I think we will see the birth of another Iran and can co-exist for many years if Iraqi Kurdistan becomes independent.
So you think Iran should support an independent Kurdistan then?
It should seriously and strongly support independence for Kurdistan because Iraq has many geostrategic problems with us and it is unclear when its internal problems will be resolved. The money Iran has spent on Syria will be wasted after Bashar al-Assad’s regime collapses. That is why independence for the Kurdistan Region will provide a good opportunity in these respects: first, the problem of Iraq will forever end for Iran. Second, Iran will have a new friend which shares its culture and bloodline in the region. That is why I don’t see any reason why Iraqi Kurdistan will be a concern for Iran while it will be completely in its favor. There wasn’t a country called Iraq. In fact, the country was born out of conflating three ethno-religiously different groups in 1921. We saw how countries built from different nations after the Second World War broke apart. Look at Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Iran was under the rule of an empire in the region, otherwise it would have faced the same fate. Nowadays, this goes parallel to the current of globalization. That is why I think independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is undeniable.
Why do you think there is so much opposition to an independent Kurdistan?
Independence for Iraqi Kurdistan will serve the interests of both Iran and Turkey which will then be more stable
This is because of a false opinion, thinking Iranian Kurds will also seek independence if Kurdistan becomes independent. But this is not the case. Iranian Kurds consider themselves Iranians and might only seek autonomy. And this will not cause trouble. Independence for Iraqi Kurdistan will serve the interests of both Iran and Turkey which will then be more stable. Iranian Kurds will have more confidence in themselves and will only seek autonomy if there is a Kurdish country. But endeavors for independence will permeate the region if Kurds don’t have a state. Then the situation could be worse than if you give them autonomy.
To what extent is your opinion is reflected in Iranian foreign policy?
Unfortunately Iran doesn’t have a correct regional policy. It invests in Arabs and the depth of its strategy is Syria and Iraq. These are not the countries that will stay with Iran in the long run. The depth of our strategy should be an independent Kurdistani state. You will have results in the short term if you invest in Lebanon and Syria, but not in the long run.
Where does the Kurdistan Region stand in Iranian regional policy?
It is fortunate that Iran is different in practice from its strategy. I see Iran opposing independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, but having good cooperation with it at the same. And this will be a basis for future relations.
Do you think Iran will have the same stance if the result of the referendum is enacted?
This depends on how strong the current will be. Iran will be soft if the wave of independence is very strong. But it will oppose it again if the wave is weak.
How do you see the level of this demand for independence?
I think the Iraqi government is wasting its efforts by opposing independence for Kurdistan
I see it at a high level. Independence for Kurdistan is a hope for Kurds and I think you have passed a phase and this is guaranteed. I never thought the Kurdistan Region was that developed and beautiful. I was expecting to see ruined cities given that the Kurds were suppressed for many years under the rule of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But there are fortunately many construction projects here and people regard themselves as Kurds. I think the Iraqi government is wasting its efforts by opposing independence for Kurdistan.
This is your first visit to Kurdistan. What characteristics of statehood did you notice here?
I felt like I had come to a developed and democratic European country. The democracy here is very developed. The level of reconstruction here is high. I am convinced the Kurdistan Region will be independent and think this cannot be prevented.
How long do you think this will take?
Kurds should have a state of their own and the best conditions for this to happen exist in Iraqi Kurdistan
You should wait for an event that will lead to better conditions. I think Turkey is a bigger obstacle than Iran. Erdogan recently said something interesting as if he has accepted independence for the Kurdistan Region. He recently said they don’t have Kurds there, saying those who want to be Kurds should go to Iraqi Kurdistan. And this means he has recognized that this is the place of the Kurds. He too is concerned about Turkey’s Kurds pursuing independence. But I think he shouldn’t be concerned about this because their problem can be resolved through autonomy too. But what really matters is that Kurds should have a state of their own and the best conditions for this to happen exist in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds from other parts can then have autonomy or take other steps if their situation improves.
Do you think Kurdish endurance in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria is part of the protection of Iranian civilization?
I consider Kurds Iranians. And I don’t mean Iranian Kurds should build a different state. They are the same whether they live in two or three countries. But I reject the policy of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) because this is not an era of armed struggle. It is an era of cultural, intellectual, and media activities. They should rally for support in the world. It is good that the US supports the creation of a Kurdistani state in all parts. This is an important achievement. Other countries should be convinced of this as well. Steps should be taken quietly in this regard. But Iran and Turkey should not be upset in the process, otherwise they will unite and block it from happening.
During the lead up to the referendum, some branded the Kurdistan Region second Israel in the region. Do you think this is right?
We should be softer with Kurds and officially recognize their rights so they remain with us
This is a very wrong interpretation. Kurds have been fighting and striving and have good relations with Israel and other countries in the region. That is why they think this place will be a platform for Israel in the future. If it has good relations with regional countries, why should they have relations with Israel alone? Israel can be the 20th or 30th country when it comes to Kurdistan Region’s foreign relations. I think Kurds should be shown as very different from Israel. Having an aspiration for freedom and good relations with other countries doesn’t mean they are like Israel.
What do you think of Kurdish rights in Iran and east Kurdistan?
In terms of rights being on paper, there is no difference between Iranians whether they are Kurds, Turks, or Arabs. The difference we see is due to political and sectarian reasons. Most Kurds are nationalist and pro-Iran. We have some people in Kermanshah and Shiite areas who are very pro-Iran. But our government is unfortunately ideological and sectarian. It is somehow tough on Sunnis and sidelines them. Had it not been for this, there won’t be any difference between Kurds and Persians. And the toughness of the government belongs to itself. If there is a Kurd who obeys the government, he will reach a higher position than a Persian. We should be softer with Kurds and officially recognize their rights so they remain with us. The government has done some work in this regard like providing them with electricity, water and paved roads. But this is not enough. They should be given some cultural freedoms too.
To what extent does the Iranian government safeguard the rights of the Kurdish nation?
There is currently no government in Iraq. You can exert power there, but how long will this continue?
They are known as a minority different from the majority. Unlike any other country, the Iranian society has no problem with Kurds. That is, Kurds are loved very much and the Iranian nation knows that Kurds are one of the ancient nations in the country. As I said, the government’s perspective is political. It looks at things from a political and security perspective. Saudi Arabia’s policy is to strengthen the position of the Sunnis. That is why Iran thinks Sunnis pose a danger and it has some evidence for this. For example, some people were arrested who had taken money from Saudi Arabia. But Iran has no problem with Shiite Kurds who are even in positions of power, occupying sensitive positions in the government. But the government is very sensitive to Sunni Kurds.
You said in an article that a strong central government in Iraq is not in the interests of Iran. Why do you think so?
We have some geostrategic problems with Iraq, and this is not related to the political authority in the country. We had problems with Iraq during the Shah regime and Islamic Republic too. There is currently no government in Iraq. You can exert power there, but how long will this continue? One day this will end and Iraqis will then stand on their own feet, and then they will ask Iran to leave their country. Or when they get a bit of might, they will point their guns at Iran again. This will happen in the future. That is why Iran had to support independence for Kurdistan. This way, it would have more power and influence in Basra, Shiite areas, and Iraqi Kurdistan as well.