SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region – Iranian leaders advised a visiting Kurdish delegation to keep their hopes low and to not expect “good things” coming out from Tehran in relation to the planned independence referendum this fall.
Mala Bakhtiar, a senior leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told reporters on Thursday that Iran, like Turkey and Iraq, has said that relations between Erbil and these countries would suffer as a result of the referendum.
Bakhtiar, who is the head of the executive body of the party’s politburo, attended meetings in Tehran on Monday. He said they told Iranian leaders that it is the right of the Kurdish people to practice the right to self-determination, one of the four slogans of the party since its foundation.
“We do not accept this [referendum] in any shape or form, and do not expect good things from us,” the Iranian side informed the PUK delegation visiting the country at the request of Iran, Bakhtiar recalled.
Tehran has good relations with the PUK that go back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Listing reactions to the referendum from neighbouring countries, Bakhtiar said, “Turkey, too says that if you hold referendum, you will regret it. And we know all too well what it means to ‘regret.’ Iraq also says the same. They say you will lose everything. We all know this. The Islamic Republic of Iran says the same. They say ‘we do not accept this in any shape or form, and do not expect good things from us.’”
Bakhtiar said they told the Iranian side that Iraq had a century of opportunity to build a united, national identity for all Iraqis, but it failed to do so.
“Our response was that this country failed to create a common national identity for 97 years so that every Kurd would feel proud that they live in Iraq,” Bakhtiar said.
He said that Iraqi governments since the US-led invasion of Iraq have always been premiered by Shiites. Former PM Ibrahim al-Jaafari refused to mention the federal nature of Iraq as he took the oath of office, Bakhtiar detailed. He was followed by Nouri al-Maliki who deployed the Iraqi army twice, threatening Kurdistan once in Kirkuk and then in Khanaqin, in addition to a series of measures taken against the Kurdish government, such as budget cuts, lack of a Peshmerga defence budget, and failure to enact an oil and gas law that would regulate the industry in the oil-rich country.
“We said that every Iranian feels proud they are Iranians,” he added, comparing Iran to Iraq where there are various religious and ethnic components, including millions of Kurds who live in northern and northeastern Iran.
Erbil has said that the September 25 referendum would include the entire Kurdistan Region as well the disputed, or Kurdistani, areas such as the multi-ethnic, oil-rich Kirkuk, claimed both by Erbil and Baghdad.
Bakhtiar said the issue of Kirkuk, a PUK stronghold, surfaced in one of the meetings in Iran when his delegation insisted on the Kurdistani identity of Kirkuk.
“You cannot find a single map that shows Kirkuk outside of Kurdistan,” Bakhtiar said about the historical claim by the Kurds.
“Regarding Kirkuk, in one of our meetings in Iran, we said that never mind what will happen, we will never again allow the Iraqi government to think Kirkuk is part of Iraq without the implementation of article 140. We said we are prepared to pay the price, never mind what will happen.”
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution concerns the disputed areas and should have been implemented by 2007.
Kurds, Bakhtiar said, have gradually lost their positions in the Iraqi central government, with only two ministers of Kurdish origin remaining.
He said there were times that the Kurds were in control of several Iraqi ministries, and importantly the country's intelligence agency, the Mukhbarat.
Hoshyar Zebari, the longest serving Iraqi foreign minister since the fall of the Saddam regime, was sacked by the Iraqi parliament from his position of finance minister last year.
During the visit, Iran warned the PUK delegation that an independence referendum would isolate and weaken Kurdistan.
“Although this issue might be attractive in appearance, but actually, it will isolate and pressure the Iraqi Kurds and weaken Kurdistan and finally all of Iraq,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said in Tehran on Monday.
Bakhtiar said they explained to Tehran that the initiative to call the referendum does not belong to a single party or two, but that 16 parties in the Kurdistan Region rallied behind the historic decision.
He said no party in Kurdistan is against the vote on September 25.
Commenting on the nature of the Kurdish delegation that visited Brussels headed by President Masoud Barzani on July 11 to discuss the referendum, and the meeting of the High Referendum Council on July 8, Bakhtiar revealed that Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani and Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim took part as PUK representatives and in their governmental capacities.
PUK has been of the view that they will not appoint their representative to the Referendum Council until parliament is reactivated.
Talabani and Karim are not members of the Council.
“Dr. Najmaldin, both as the representative of the PUK and Kirkuk governor, took part. And Mr. Qubad, at the request of his excellency Mr. Masoud [Barzani], took part. But he is the PUK representative and a PUK son and son of Mam Jalal [Talabani],” Bakhtiar said.
Mahmud Sangawi, a PUK politburo member, had said earlier that anyone taking part in the Referendum Council does not represent the PUK, per a majority vote from the party’s leadership earlier this month.
PUK announced on Wednesday that they are planning to visit Turkey as well to discuss the Kurdish referendum