ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has said he did not agree to a request from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson regarding postponing the referendum, adding that the date of the referendum is out of the question.
Tillerson made a phone call with President Barzani earlier this month demanding the referendum be postponed.
“He was not given the agreement to postpone the referendum, but I gave him my agreement for talks with Baghdad to negotiate for the sake of reaching a formula that can secure a better future for both sides,” Barzani said about the call with Tillerson in an interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper conducted on August 16, but published Sunday.
When asked whether dispatching the delegation to Baghdad means there is a possibility to postpone the vote, Barzani ruled out any such possibility.
“Postponing is not a possibility at all,” he told the Saudi newspaper in Erbil.
A high-level Kurdistani delegation has been in Baghdad since Monday. They have held talks with Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, and more than a dozen embassies in the capital including Iran, Turkey, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Baghdad has called the referendum unconstitutional and unilateral, and said it will not recognize the result. The Kurdistan Region says Iraq pushed Erbil into calling the referendum by violating at least 50 articles of the Iraqi constitution, including Article 140 that concerns disputed areas claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad, and the budget-share that has been cut since early 2014.
Barzani said the United States, the European Union and regional countries are mediating between the governments of Erbil and Baghdad, and that the Kurdistan Region has received private and public messages from these countries to postpone the referendum.
“Our question to those sides is what is the alternative, and do you have a better option regarding the reality between Erbil and Baghdad. We are now determined on the referendum,” Barzani said.
He repeated the official line that experiences with Iraq over the past 100 years, including the last 14 years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, have failed.
“We do not want to go back to that failed experience. That is why our people in Kurdistan have chosen the option of referendum,” Barzani argued.
He said however that there could be a possibility for Erbil and Iraq to live for another year or two, but even that will fail.
Barzani had earlier told Reuters that the timetable after the September 25 vote with Baghdad is “flexible but not open-ended.”
Iran and Turkey, two neighbouring countries of the Kurdistan Region who have their own significant Kurdish population, have expressed their opposition to the vote.
Barzani said these two countries do not have any grounds on which to worry as the vote is confined to Iraqi Kurdistan alone, and that the experiences since the foundation of the Kurdistan Region more than two decades ago have shown that Erbil is not a threat to either country.
“There are great interests between us regarding trade exchange, and we have proved that we are not a factor of threat to Turkey or Iran,” Barzani said.
Trade exchange between Erbil and Turkey hit $12 billion before the war against ISIS about three years ago, and about $8 billion with Iran.
He said while they hope that the Kurds in Turkey and Iran achieve their rights, they also hope they do so peacefully and in negotiation with their respective states.
Asked about Iran by the Saudi newspaper, especially that it opposes the referendum, Barzani said they do not allow for Iran to interfere in Kurdistan.
The newspaper cited Iranian officials that four Arab capitals fell into the hands of the hnads of Iranian state, namely Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa, and Lebanon, and then posed a question whether Barzani is concerned that Erbil could be next.
Barzani said they do not allow for that to happen.
“We do not want to clash or enter a conflict with Iran,” Barzani said, adding within the same sentence that “we do not allow the [Kurdistan] Region to collapse,” like the rest of the Arab capitals.
Iran’s military chief made a rare visit to Ankara, the first such visit since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, as he discussed the developments in Iraq and Syria with Turkish counterpart and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including the Kurdish referendum.
Iran’s military chief of staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri told Iranian media following the meetings that the two sides shared the view that the referendum “should not take place,” as it will have consequences on the neighbouring countries.
Kurdistan's Peshmerga ministry then published a statement calling his remarks “a blatant intervention in the internal affairs of Kurdistan,” saying that only the people of Kurdistan are entitled to have a say on the issue of the referendum.
Correction: paragraph three misquoted President Masoud Barzani. It quoted him as saying "...I gave him my agreement for the negotiation to Baghdad...". This has been changed to "... I gave him my agreement for talks with Baghdad to negotiate...".