Iraq’s announcement last week that U.S. forces would be required to leave Iraq under terms of the Status of Forces Agreement by 31 December blindsided Washington, and aroused predictable partisan cries of Iraqi ingratitude.
Since 2003 Washington has watched with growing alarm Iraq’s rapprochement with neighboring Iran, though any Middle Eastern specialist could have observed that a military intervention that overthrew a brutal but secularist dictatorship would allow the country’s repressed Shi’a majority an increased say in a new democratic regime, and the subsequent government would undoubtedly look more kindly on its Shi’a neighbors than Washington might like.
Proof of the changing regional dynamics was underlined on 29 October, when Iraqi Kurdistan's Regional Government President Massoud Barzani at the head of a high-powered delegation met in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
Obviously relishing the moment to discomfit the Obama administration, Salehi emphasized to journalists the Iranian government's commitment to further expand relations with neighboring countries commenting upon the two nations’ friendly relations and the two nations' historical, cultural and religious bonds and commonalities, and expressing his government’s wish to expand ties and cooperation between Iran and Iraq's Kurdistan region, particularly in the areas of economy, bilateral trade, culture, transit links, border issues and reciprocal official visits by the two countries' nations.
Barzani in turn expressed his pleasure in his visit to Iran, and thanked Iran's minister for his country’s aid and assistance to the Iraqi people in hard times before concluding that Kurdistan attaches priority to cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran as an important neighbor.
The following day Barzani met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told reporters after referring to Iran's cordial and friendly relations with different Iraqi tribes and religions that, "Iran supports progress, development and security in Iraq. It also considers Iraq's progress beneficial to the entire region."
In a not so oblique swipe at Washington’s policies Ahmadinejad stated that the world's superpowers have been weakened, people everywhere are unhappy with the global status quo and hence they should unite to set up a suitable alternate political system in the world before concluding, "Iran and Iraq should step toward development and establishment of security in the region. Iran's security is of paramount importance for Iraq. We consider insecurity along borders harmful to both countries. We are fully ready for cooperation in all areas."
Barzani’s busy schedule also included a meeting with Iranian Vice President for International Affairs Ali Saeedlou, who remarked that Iran and Kurdistan should expand their trade and economic ties through setting up a joint economic committee.
The same day that Barzani met with Ahmadinejad in Tehran Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad, where they discussed bilateral ties and the development of Iraq along with the current political situation in Arab and Muslim countries. Salehi has also scheduled meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Why can a region of Iraq have such an autonomous foreign policy? Because, the Iraqi government has allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to have oversight, to some degree, of its foreign relations without reference to Baghdad.
Despite the warm diplomacy, an interesting element was absent from both the Kurdish and Iranian remarks about cooperation – energy, more specifically, oil.
Iraqi Kurdistan exports its oil via Iraq's North Oil Company main export pipeline, which carries about 100,000 barrels of crude per day to Turkey’s deepwater port at Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. In August Iraq exported 2.189 million bpd, including 461,000 bpd from fields in the north of the country. Baghdad has ambitious plans to ramp up oil production to 12 million barrels per day within just five years and, as Iraqi Kurdistan is the most stable part of the country, it could turn the region into a magnet for foreign investment and make it a competitor to Iran, where decades of sanctions have stymied government efforts to raise production above is current level of approximately 4.5 million bpd.
If energy issues might impact growing Iranian-Kurdish relations, the attendant foreign policy issues are equally complex. Iran has persistently sought to improve relations with its neighbors, seeing it as both a way to weaken international sanctions and provide surety against any possible Israeli-U.S. military strike on its civilian nuclear facilities.
Iraqi Kurdistan is well aware that the March 2003 U.S. invasion opened up political opportunities for the region denied it by the dictatorship of former President Saddam Hussein, and will undoubtedly be loathe to overly antagonize to anger its U.S. patron by siding too closely with Tehran.
Finally, Iran has issues with the Kurdish Regional Government about reigning in the activities of the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistan, better known by the acronym PJAK, a Marxist Kurdish nationalist group responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against Iran. Turkey has a similar problem with The Kurdish Marxist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, or PKK, and the failure of the Kurdish Regional Government to reign in the groups recently led Turkey and Iran to agree to share military intelligence. While the Barzani administration is understandably nervous about repressing PJAK and the PKK lest they turn their guns on them, exasperation in both Ankara and Tehran is rising over the lack of concrete action and if Iran is eventually forced to choose between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, there is little doubt that Iran will side with Turkey.
But at the moment, there is a warm glow in Arbil and Tehran about improving relations.
As a corollary to the flurry of diplomatic activity, Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Saleh on 30 October left for the U.S. for an official visit accompanied by Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami and Minister of Planning Ali Sindi, where they will meet with U.S. officials and participate in some symposiums on the Arab Spring. The representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States is Qubad Talabani, the youngest son of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.
Beyond discussing the Arab Spring, doubtless the quartet will be pressed by eager U.S. officials to learn all about the Arbil-Tehran “thaw,” engaging in “frank and candid” discussions, to use diplomatese.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com