Kurdistan's parliament in Erbil. Rudaw photo.
In a recent interview with Voice of America the Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani flatly rejected claims made by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that Saudi Arabia is supporting the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KPDI) from Erbil in its reignited conflict with the regime in Tehran.
IRGC commanders, including Mohsen Rezaee, charge that Riyadh is using Kurdistan as another front in its proxy regional cold war with Tehran by training the KDPI there, while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) looks the other way.
2016 saw the KDPI reinitiate their war against Tehran after two decades of peace, claiming that Iran was still refusing to recognize Kurdish rights and that armed struggle was the only way.
This year began with already tense relations between Riyadh and Tehran falling to an all-time low after the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent ransacking of the Saudi embassy by an Iranian mob in response.
Now the IRGC are charging that the Saudis are using the KDPI as a proxy to undermine Tehran in a way not too dissimilar to how it supports other armed groups against Iranian-backed forces in Syria.
Prime Minister Barzani says that there is no basis or evidence for this claim and emphasizes that Kurdistan seeks to remain a stable entity that will not intervene in any of its neighbors internal affairs or pose any kind of security threats to them.
This has been a longstanding policy of the region since it attained autonomy following the 1991 Gulf War, which was enhanced after the 2003 American-led regime change in Iraq. Incidentally the KDPI halted its previous armed campaign against Tehran in Iranian Kurdistan 20 years since they did not want to compromise the Kurdistan Region’s then hitherto unprecedented fledgling autonomy.
Additionally the Kurdistan Region has avoided militarily supporting Kurdish groups on its territory against either Iran or Turkey, only seeking to ensure that both countries avoid harming civilians in the Kurdistan Region’s territory when they exchange fire with these groups in the mountains.
By adapting such a policy Erbil is demonstrating ahead of any independence declaration that it will not use newfound statehood as a launchpad for a Greater Kurdistan. Assuaging any genuine concerns in Ankara and Tehran that an independent Kurdistan could potentially destabilize their Kurdish regions is key to their acceptance of Kurdish independence.
Prime Minister Barzani’s rejection of the IRGC claims that Riyadh is presently using the Kurdistan Region as another battlefront in its regional proxy war is also another salient example of a clear policy Erbil has been following for years.
This was also evidenced in how the KRG reacted to a controversial US raid on the Iranian Liaison Office in Erbil back in January 2007. The Americans mounted the raid under the pretext that it was being used as a headquarters for the IRGC to organize attacks against Americans in Iraq. After detaining five diplomats however they were not able to confirm that this was so.
Since they didn’t alert Kurdish security forces beforehand a tense standoff ensued, luckily no shots were fired. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani told Journeyman Television at the time that, “Such behavior is not acceptable to us. Our regional integrity is important.”
He also stressed that if the Americans were looking for Iranian elements conspiring against them that: “Erbil is not a place for such plans.”
Erbil remains a place which is careful not to get itself involved in the regional conflict and is doing its utmost to demonstrate to its neighbors unequivocally that its self-determination is not something they should have any concerns about.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.