By Shwan Zulal.
This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
disputes between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan have led some local
politicians to call for the semi-autonomous region to secede from Iraq
and become its own country. But, as one Kurdish commentator argues, this
is far from realistic. Because now it’s all about money and oil, not
Recently there has been a lot of comment about an
independent Iraqi Kurdistan. As tensions between Baghdad and the
semi-autonomous, northern state of Iraqi Kurdistan continue, the Kurdish
have been playing the “independence card”, with local politicians and
commentators airing their views on the subject like never before.
is no secret that the majority of Kurds, if not in fact, all of them,
would love to see an independent Kurdistan. And the easiest way for a
Kurdish politician to become popular is to call for an independent
Although the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, has
recently given the impression that he wants to see an independent Iraqi
Kurdistan, the political party to which he belongs, the Kurdish
Democratic Party (KDP), and the other major political party in the area,
the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have so far resisted similar
temptations. In fact, most Kurdish politicians are still talking about a
“united Iraq” despite Kurdish public opinion against this idea.
they have a point. If you are a Kurdish politician and you need to
maintain diplomatic relations with your neighbours, and if you’re aware
of the economic and political realities for Iraqi Kurdistan, then it’s
very hard to call for Kurdish independence and really mean it.
It is possible that Iraqi Kurdistan is politically mature enough to
be independent – but the region is not ready for such a step in economic
or military terms. And it is true that, over time, the political
consequences of Kurdish independence have always been considered greater
than the economic consequences. But that no longer applies.
clear example is the Kurdish rebellion against former Iraqi leader
Saddam Hussein’s regime in the early 1970s. When Hussein started to
become friendly with the Soviet Union, then-US President Richard Nixon
began to fund, and encourage, the Kurdish to fight for their
independence against Hussein, as part of a strategy to weaken Hussein’s
regime and general policy against the USSR. But just as the Kurdish
revolutionaries seemed to be succeeding, it became clear that none of
the parties supporting the Kurds actually wanted them to win their
independence – the ploy was purely political – and support was
Additionally the question of Kurdish independence has
always troubled the surrounding countries; none of them have ever wanted
a Kurdish State.
But now, given Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and gas
potential and the benefits that could bring surrounding countries in
terms of trade, those neighbours have softened their stand on Kurdish
independence – and they’re likely to soften even further as trade ties
There are also strong economic overtones to Baghdad’s
policy toward Kurdish independence. Baghdad sees the various disputes
over revenue sharing, oil contracts and oil exports currently going on
between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan as necessary to its centralist
agenda. Partially, it is about deterring other Iraqi regions, some of
which have suggested the idea, from asking for independence to become a
region with autonomy similar to that enjoyed by Iraqi Kurdistan.
Although, given the advanced stage of the oil industry in the
Kurdistan region, Baghdad realises that their disputes with Iraqi
Kurdistan are unlikely to end in their favour, they still have to send
out a clear, centralist-flavoured message. Imagine, for example, if a
province like Basra – which currently has most of the Iraqi oil reserves
and which has the only access to ocean-going transport – achieved the
same kind of independence Iraqi Kurdistan had. Given its strategic
position, it might eventually become as powerful as the central
Even for the Kurdish themselves, the main question about an independent Kurdistan comes down to economics.
until now the economics of independence have always been an
afterthought; even the Kurds have subconsciously ignored them. However
in modern times, if the petro-dollars from Baghdad stopped flowing and
people started to feel the pinch in their pockets, the idea of
independence might not look so romantic after all.
This is the
reality: Iraqi Kurdistan is land locked; it is dependent upon selling
its own natural resources and importing consumables in exchange. Having
bad, or no, relations with neighbouring countries is simply not an
option for Iraqi Kurdistan.
And Iraqi Kurdistan has been operating like a state within a state, but without the duties of a state.
Iraqis have continued to send 17 percent of the Iraqi federal budget to
the Kurdish (although it was delayed this year). Most of the Iraqi
federal budget is generated by oil revenues and currently, most of
Iraq’s oil is produced in southern Iraq, in places like Basra. Any
northern oil tends to come from the disputed Kirkuk region.
And with this, the federal budget is also swelling – so is Iraqi
Kurdistan’s 17 percent share. However due to disagreements over oil
policy, revenue sharing and Baghdad’s refusal to pay oil company costs,
Iraqi Kurdistan is pursuing its own oil production agenda.
in Iraqi Kurdistan, this sector is still largely underdeveloped. And,
due to this and aforementioned disputes, the state is not contributing
as much as it can to Iraq’s oil exports. Which is why many Iraqi
politicians have already argued that the Kurdish are getting an unfairly
large share of the country’s income even while they’re not contributing
The most obvious move for the Kurdish would be to annex
the disputed area of Kirkuk, where much of the northern oil is currently
being produced, and get full use of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to
Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
The northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk
has actually been one of the flash points of the struggle between the
Iraqis and the Kurdish over the past few decades. During former Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurdish population was driven out of
Kirkuk so that Arab Iraqis could control the oil rich area. Today
Kirkuk remains largely Kurdish and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan
claims it belongs to them. Although legally it belongs to Baghdad,
currently the city is, in fact, under the de-facto control of the
Even in the unlikely scenario that such an
annexation happens, in the short term Iraqi Kurdistan would still
struggle to generate as much income as Baghdad sends them. Putting the
required infrastructure into place would take time and would need the
consent of neighbouring countries, like Turkey.
consequences of losing the over US$11 billion that the Kurdish receive
from Iraq would be devastating for the region; the whole economy could
implode, which in turn would lead to many political and social problems.
Iraqi Kurdistan has other income streams and income opportunities and
the promise of a hydrocarbon pipeline to Turkey offers a life line but
in the short term, this income will not be enough to pay salaries in the
bloated public sector or to invest in rebuilding the infrastructure,
that would eventually lead to growth and an increase in oil and gas
In fact it’s disputable whether Kurdish oil production
could ever match Baghdad’s current contribution. If Kirkuk and other
disputed territories are taken out of the equation, then the amount of
oil Iraqi Kurdistan could export may never match up to the 17 percent of
the budget that they’re currently getting.
So although many Kurds
yearn for independence, when the state’s finances dry up and there are
budget cuts, unemployment and a reduction in living standards, those
views may well change – and, whatever other faults they may have, almost
all Kurdish politicians can see this how this would be extremely
An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would not just lose its
Baghdad budget, the state would also go from holding some part of the
balance of power in the Iraqi parliament – the Kurdish bloc has been
referred to as “kingmakers” because the two major opposition blocs have
fairly equal numbers in Parliament – to being a small state, surrounded
by far larger, far less friendly states in the area.
Kurdistan secede, it is not even clear whether the international
community would recognise the would-be country as a fully fledged
In international terms, Kurdish independence would
rely heavily on the Iraqi Kurdish relationship with Turkey. In fact,
contrary to popular opinion in both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, an
independent Kurdistan could benefit Turkey immensely.
Despite historical antipathies (Turkey is still fighting a battle
against the Kurdish population within its own borders), Turkey is the
most likely nation to support the idea simply because then they would
have greater influence over Iraqi Kurdistan – and Iraqi Kurdistan has
the potential to become a future, cheap energy source fuelling the
booming Turkish economy.
In conclusion, if it comes to a
referendum on independence – something that President Barzani has
suggested during ongoing disputes with Baghdad – Kurdish politicians
would be caught between a rock and a hard place.
On one hand, if
they advocate independence, they face not only economic hardship but
also regional isolation, a loss of influence in Iraq and increased
dependence on the goodwill of both Turkey and Iran.
On the other
hand, if they stay part of Iraq, then they must help to build the nation
for real and find solutions to outstanding, contentious issues – such
as the oil exports and the disputed territories like Kirkuk and Mosul.
they decide upon the latter for the time being– and this seems most
likely and most sensible option– then Kurdistan can become more of an
assertive regional player. Eventually this would give the region a
better bargaining power when the statehood, that so many Kurdish long
for has more potential to become a reality.
(Source: Niqash) http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2012/07/13/splitting-iraq-how-likely-is-an-independent-kurdistan/