In early February, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani called for a referendum on the future of Iraqi (South) Kurdistan. In subsequent statements and interviews, Mr. Barzani stated that the referendum should definitely be held this year, before the presidential elections in the United States (November).
The renewed push for a referendum likely came from a variety of factors. Mr. Barzani’s critics suspect an attempt to buttress his legitimacy at home, at a time when his continued tenure as President appears to have exceeded its time limit and intra-Kurdish politics looks as fractious as ever. If so, it would certainly not be the first or last time a political leader pursued a risky foreign policy in order to cement popularity at home.
On the other hand, the call for a referendum may have little to do with any aspirations to remain “President for life.” It seems quite possible that Mr. Barzani simply wishes to be the one at the helm when the first Kurdish state is born. He probably trusts no else to navigate the modest Kurdish ship of state through what undoubtedly remain very dangerous waters. In an interview with al Monitor’s Amberin Zaman in March, Mr. Barzani indicated as much: “My objective is to reach that point, to have an independent Kurdistan. And that is a pledge from me. The day we have an independent Kurdistan, I will cease to be the president of that Kurdistan. And I will congratulate the Kurdistan people and let someone else take my place. This is a pledge from me — I will not be the president of Kurdistan.”
Writing in this newspaper in May 2014, your humble columnist argued that “Any real move towards an Iraqi Kurdish state would need to be preceded by such a referendum, in order to provide the project with legitimacy both at home and abroad.” In February of this year, your humble columnist wrote “If even the new Abadi government cannot see fit to accept the Kurds’ constitutional right to manage their own oil and gas, if even the “moderates” in Baghdad cannot share power with either the Kurds or the Sunnis, if even in the face of the threat from the Islamic State Baghdad cannot see fit to allow the Kurds the kind of weapons they instead claim for their dysfunctional Iraqi army, then the case for independence gains a lot of strength.” If only in order to important weaponry, take out loans and manage its own relations, South Kurdistan could benefit a lot from independence.
All of these things remain true, yet a final verdict on holding the referendum, much less a date, remains elusive. KRG leaders no doubt face pressure from myriad directions to postpone the issue. Iran’s deputy consul in Erbil, for example, recently remarked that Iran remains against the holding of a referendum, adding that “It is very strange that all parties and political groups in the region have rifts and enmities with each other but they are talking about referendum.” Few doubt that Iran has a heavy hand in fostering these intra-Kurdish rifts and enmities, of course.
Besides Iran’s displeasure towards such a move, however, governments in Ankara, Moscow, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere also seek to discourage Erbil from independence. When asked about the issue of a referendum and people’s right to determine their own future, U.S. Department of State spokesman John Kirby simply kept repeating Washington’s tired status quo jingle: “We believe in a federal and integrated Iraq. Nothing has changed about it.”
As part of the “no” campaign against even the holding of a referendum, many argue that the time is not right. After the threat from the Islamic State and Kurdistan’s financial challenges are overcome, they say, perhaps then a referendum can be held. That seems equivalent to Arabic’s bukra inshallah, of course. While bukra inshallah literally means “tomorrow God willing,” it really means “forget about it.” After the threat of the Islamic State recedes, international diplomats will suddenly have a lot less time for Kurds and their needs or aspirations. Baghdad’s next order of business will center or recovering disputed territories from Erbil and trimming down Kurdistan’s autonomy. A new government in Turkey, if one eventually appears, may not prove nearly as accommodating towards the KRG as Mr. Erdogan’s.
For all these reasons, the time for a referendum is now. Everyone knows that South Kurdistan’s population will overwhelmingly vote “yes.” Because the referendum would be non-binding on the KRG, that would leave one last chance for Baghdad to make the Kurds a real offer to stay. Failing this, the priority would become working with leaders in Baghdad on an amicable divorce, borders and similar issues. If the referendum included an additional question for disputed territories, districts and even sub-districts around places like Kirkuk and Diyala that voted against joining Kurdistan could be returned to Baghdad’s writ.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.