Perhaps no subject in the complex world of global oil involves so many intricate moving parts as the extraordinary relationship between the Federal Government of Iraq (FGI), based in Baghdad, and the government of Iraq’s northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan (KRG), centred in Erbil. It is only when something such as the suspension of major flows of oil from Kurdistan to Turkey occurs, as began on 25 March 2023, that many analysts start trying to unravel what has caused it. And they find themselves entering an Alice In Wonderland world in which anything is possible, but nothing is as it seems. In this world, it is very easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees sometimes, and this appears to be what has happened in a letter sent by foreign oil firms in Kurdistan to the U.S. Congress asking for help in having the export oil embargo lifted.
Ironically, in fact, it is only towards the very end of the letter from the Association of the Petroleum Industry of Kurdistan (APIKUR) that the group, which largely comprises the oil interests of several foreign firms directly or indirectly, inadvertently hits on the precise reasons why a full, clear, and transparent lifting of the embargo is unlikely to happen soon, if ever. The letter highlights that the halt in exports that affects between 400,000-500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan must be lifted because it puts at risk over US$10 billion of U.S. and international investments in Kurdistan and because it is severely impacting the region’s economy and stability at a time when regional tensions are already heightened. Bingo! Related: Buffett-Backed Occidental CEO Says Oil Shortage by 2025
“By keeping the West out of energy deals in Iraq – and closer to the new Iran-Saudi axis - the end of Western hegemony in the Middle East will become the decisive chapter in the West’s final demise,” said a very high-ranking Kremlin official at a meeting with senior government figures from Iran, just after the 10 March 2023 signing of the Iran-Saudi Arabia relationship resumption deal, brokered by China. The comment was exclusively relayed to OilPrice.com, just before the 25 March oil export embargo from Iraqi Kurdistan by a senior source who works closely with the European Union’s energy security apparatus, and we passed it on to our esteemed readers. Nothing whatsoever has changed to modify the view of either the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, or the senior figures in Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing who are helping to implement the ‘One Iraq Plan’ as it is referred to behind closed doors. If anything, the rising uncertainty in the Middle East emanating from fears of a dramatic escalation in the Israel-Hamas War are serving to expedite key elements of the plan, with the U.S.’s focus on that War.
In essence, the bare mechanics of the ‘One Iraq Plan’, as broadly delineated by the senior Kremlin figure, are to cut off all sources of external revenue from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan – most significantly from independent oil sales by foreign companies operating there – before absorbing it into the rest of the country, under the sole rule of Baghdad, as analysed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order. If that is understood, then everything that has subsequently happened in Iraq since the 10 March relationship resumption deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia makes perfect sense. The basic reason for this is that Iraqi Kurdistan has long been regarded by Russia, China, and Iran, as a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, and this will no longer be tolerated, which gives rise to two further choices.
The first is to give Iraqi Kurdistan its independence and sever all links between it and the rest of Iraq. This, though, is not an option on the table for three key reasons. One is that the main northern overland export route into Europe for all of Iraq runs through the Kurdistan region and into Turkey. The original Iraq-Turkey Pipeline (ITP) – controlled by the FGI in Baghdad - consisted of two pipes (a 40-inch one started up in 1977, and a 46-inch one started up in 1987), from the Kirkuk oil fields (also nominally owned by the FGI) on the border of the Iraqi Kurdistan to Ceyhan, which had a combined nameplate capacity of 1.6 million bpd. The FGI-controlled pipeline’s export capacity reached between 250,000 and 400,000 bpd when running normally, although it was subject to regular sabotage by various militant groups. The Iraqi Kurdistan’s KRG, in response to the regular attacks on the FGI pipeline, completed its own single-side track Taq field-Khurmala-Kirkuk/Ceyhan pipeline in the border town of Fishkhabur. This was part of its drive to raise oil exports above 1 million bpd. Clearly, Baghdad will never give these vital oil export links away.
The second reason is that giving Iraqi Kurdistan independence would set a dangerous precedent for all other large Kurdish groups in the region to ask for the same. Iran’s Kurdish population is around 9 percent, Syria’s 10 percent, and Turkey’s about 18 percent. It is highly apposite to note in this context that the U.S. had privately assured the Iraqi Kurds in 2014 that in exchange for their Peshmerga armed forces taking the principal combat role against a surging ISIS, they would eventually be given their own independent country, as also detailed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order. On 25 September 2017, then, a vote did take place in Iraqi Kurdistan, in which the 92.73 percent voted for full independence. It was immediately followed by elements of Iran’s military rolling into Iraq Kurdistan, including the prime oil-rich areas. Additionally, very senior officers from Iran’s Quds branch of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, and from its Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran intelligence service, made it clear to several of Iraq Kurdistan’s leading politicians that it would not be in their best interests to continue to push for independence from Iraq. At the same time, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, called for a blockade on Iraq Kurdistan’s land borders. Turkish President then as now, Recep Erdogan, also threatened to invade the Iraqi Kurdish area. He added that Turkey could also cut off the ITP export pipeline.
The third reason is that having a fractious would-be breakaway region with ties to the U.S. makes the administration of Iraq’s massive oil and gas sector much more difficult for China and Russia. Moscow specifically took control of Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil sector just after the abortive 2017 vote for independence to maintain a grip over the region with a view to reintegrating it back into the rest of Iraq, as also analysed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order. In tandem with this, China has been building up its influence in southern Iraq, through multiple deals done in the oil and gas sector that have then been leveraged into bigger infrastructure deals across the south. The apotheosis of Beijing’s vision for China is all-encompassing ‘Iraq-China Framework Agreement’ of 2021. This, in turn, was an extension in scale and scope of the ‘Oil for Reconstruction and Investment’ agreement signed by Baghdad and Beijing in September 2019, which allowed Chinese firms to invest in infrastructure projects in Iraq in exchange for oil.
Back in early April last year, OilPrice.com highlighted that oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan would only go ahead with the full blessing of Iran, Russia, and China. That has not been given, so there is no reason to expect it to end in any sustainable fashion any time soon. Conversely, however, the move to destroy any last vestiges of Iraqi Kurdistan independence remain in full swing. A clear statement on 3 August last year from Iraq Prime Minister, Mohammed Al-Sudani, highlighted that the new intended unified oil law – run, in every way that matters, out of Baghdad - will govern all oil and gas production and investments in both Iraq and its autonomous Kurdistan region and will constitute “a strong factor for Iraq’s unity”. As the senior E.U. source reiterated exclusively to OilPrice.com last week: “Baghdad has no interest at all in agreeing to any of Turkey’s terms or in Iraqi Kurdistan resuming its independent oil sales either.” He concluded: “As Baghdad does not see an independent Kurdistan in the future of Iraq, it sees the best solution as keeping the independent oil sales stopped and the Kurds financially paralysed.”
By Simon Watkins for Oilprice.com
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