Tensions in the Middle East have soared after 92 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted in favor of independence in Sunday’s referendum. The referendum has been slammed as unconstitutional by Baghdad, and Western Europe and the U.S. have urged the Kurds to cancel it and focus their attention on driving what remains of ISIS out of Iraq. It’s a big ask, though. The Kurds have been instrumental in pushing back ISIS in northern Iraq, and in protecting Kirkuk’s oil, and - in doing so - they’ve had their eye on independence.
This independence opens a Pandora’s Box for the Middle East. Turkey and Iran are nervous, and both have substantial Kurdish minorities whose empowerment by the Iraqi Kurds they would like to shut down.
For Iraq, the problem of an independent Kurdistan, however, is particularly pressing. The autonomous region is rich in oil and the Kurds are the de facto rulers now of Kirkuk – an oil-rich region in northern Iraq that is not within the borders of the autonomous region. Baghdad has been disputing Kurdistan’s influence over the region for years.
Following the overwhelming support for the vote, the Kurds might press to add Kirkuk and its oil wealth to the autonomous region, so the Iraqi parliament was quick to state that it would send troops into ethnically diverse Kirkuk to seize all oilfields under Kurdish control and to suspend international flights from and to the Kurdistan region.
The decision is up to…