The following article was originally published in Politico Magazine.
When President Donald Trump looks out at the world these days, he must see challenges from all sides: a belligerent North Korea, an underhanded Russia, an ascendant China and a beleaguered but enduring Islamic State. But while the Trump administration remains consumed by these threats, it is poised to blow a rare opportunity in the Middle East.
With some smart statecraft over the next month, the United States could at once isolate an adversary, solidify a long-standing alliance and begin to usher a new, friendly democracy into a historically fractious region. Instead, Washington is stubbornly sticking to a years-old policy, even though it has already been made obsolete by events on the ground.
On September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq will hold a referendum to become an independent country. Iraqi Kurdistan is an island ofdemocracy and tolerance in the Middle East. It is also a steadfast military ally of the U.S.; its Peshmerga forces have supported U.S. efforts in Iraq as far back as 1990 and have recently led the campaign against the Islamic State. (The KRG’s population has swelled by a third since 2014 as the government welcomed refugees fleeing ISIS’s brutalities.) Iraqi Kurds want their own free country, but the U.S. government is unenthusiastic about the bid for independence.
Why? The State Department admitted in June, “We understand and appreciate the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.” But that affirmation of Kurdish ambitions was prefaced with a worn-outphrase: “support [for] a unified, stable, democratic, and a federal Iraq.” In other words, the Trump administration is maintaining the longtime U.S. position that the fate of the Kurds needs to be worked out with Baghdad. It’s understandable on some levels that the U.S. views Kurdish independence as an internal Iraqi matter—especially since neighboring Turkey, a U.S. ally (albeit an inconstant one), clashes with its own Kurd population and would do almost anything to prevent an independent Kurdish state from forming on its southern border. But the simple fact is that the administration’s current policy is based on fantasy: The “unified, stable, democratic, and a federal Iraq” at the core of its position towards the KRG does not exist, and will not exist in the near future. It a pipe dream lost to the reality of Iranian dominance.
Today, the Shia clerics of Iran are running Iraq in all but name—all while the Islamic Republic also props up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, enables Hezbollah’s metastasis in Lebanon and fights a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Tehran’s very public rise has worried not only neighbors but governments across the globe; Trump himself spoke harshly about Iran during the presidential campaign. But if Trump really wants to combat growing Iranian power, both in Iraq and beyond, he should move to support an independent, democratic Kurdistan.
The United States once hoped that Iraq would blossom into a fully representative democracy. But since the U.S. withdrew troops from the country in 2011, Iran has moved in to fill the vacuum, and its power over all aspects of Iraqi governance grows stronger each day. The New York Times recently chronicled Tehran’s tightening grasp on Iraqi governmental and military structures, noting how Iranian-proxy Shia militias are consolidating control of Iraq’s border with Syria and seizing major thoroughfares to strategically separate and isolate Sunni regions. The outcome isn’t foreordained, but Iranian influence over Iraqi Shiites is expected to undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s bid for re-election next year because although a Shia, al-Abadi is seeking to maintain political stability in Baghdad, rather than fanning the flames of religious hostility. Imports from Iran dominate Iraq’s economy; the Times, reporting on product-laden trucks crossing into Iraq from its eastern neighbor, quoted an Iranian official at a border crossing as saying, “Except for oil, Iraq relies on Iran for everything.” An Erbil-based investor told Nazli Tarzi of the Arab Weekly early this year, “With the help of Iran-leaning politicians and militias policing the borders through which products are smuggled, Iran has swallowed the Iraqi market whole.”
For the past three years, the U.S. focus in Iraq has been to end ISIS’s plan for a new Sunni Islamic caliphate. But the defeat of ISIS in Mosul brings the Sunni-Shia conflict back to fore of Iraqi politics. Both Iranian and Iraqi Shia appear to be focused on the long game. Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr re-allied with Iranian-controlled militias last fall, and Iraqi Shia appear determined to forever bury the threat of dominance by minority Sunnis—be it under another brutal Sunni dictator like Saddam Hussein or self-proclaimed Sunni caliph like Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
It has been in Iran’s interest for the U.S. to help eradicate ISIS. But with that threat diminished, consider where Iran’s policy goals are likely to drive the region: Iran has long dreamed of a Shiite “crescent” in the Middle East—a contiguous territory controlled by Shiite majorities (de facto controlled by Iran)—sweeping from Bahrain, through Iran, northern Iraq and Syria. It wants access to the Mediterranean Sea via the Syrian coast.
The KRG independence movement threatens Iran’s goals in several ways. The Kurds also covet a Mediterranean port, and their path to the sea directly overlaps Iran’s. Kurdish forces are in a proxy fight against Iran in northern Syria on portions of this geographic pathway. Their troops in Syria—known as the Popular Protection Units, or the YPG—are battling ISIS and the Assad regime while Tehran directs and supplies Shiite militias against ISIS and in support of the Assad regime. Moreover, Iran has no interest in fanning an emboldened nationalism among Kurds, both because the Kurds tend to fight on the same side as the U.S. and because a free Kurdistan in the neighborhood could potentially stir aspirations for the same rights among Kurdish populations in Iran.
The KRG referendum that takes place on September 25 is not a legally binding instrument, but it is more than purely symbolic. A yes vote will be a loud manifestation of the Kurdish people’s will to be free, and could empower the KRG to begin direct talks with Baghdad about a pathway to independence.
The KRG is already in a good position to bargain. The regular Iraqi army fled in the face of ISIS’s onslaught three years ago. The Peshmerga alone stayed to fight, and they reclaimed and now control nearly all the territory deserted by Iraqi forces, up to Mosul’s city limits. This represents more than two-thirds of the territory whose control has long been disputed by Iraqis and Kurds, including oil-rich Kirkuk. The KRG could very well propose to trade these oil-rich lands freed from ISIS control for its independence. Iranian-controlled Iraq might hate the idea of a Kurdish state, but the prospect of gaining these lands back without another military conflict would appeal to both sides. U.S. support of the KRG as it makes its play for independence will only strengthen the likelihood that the transfer occurs peacefully, and that it will be lasting.
If the U.S. doesn’t change its position to support an independent sovereign KRG, the Kurds will proceed ahead no matter what, and the U.S. could lose its close working relationship with one of its best allies ever. We would appear ungrateful and disloyal. And there is no upside for the KRG to wait. The region is not likely to be suddenly becalmed and booming with economic growth. The KRG is motivated to look after itself. The Iranians are unlikely to slow their inexorable and creeping takeover of the Iraqi economy and political systems. That’s not to say it is “now or never” for KRG independence, but the threat of implicit Iranian oversight of KRG internal and financial matters, combined with decades long aspirations and possession of one of the most seasoned and effective fighting forces in the region align in the direction of an exit.
The Iraqi Kurds are already economically independent. Their formidable oil and gas reserves—the world’s eighth-largest—have a reliable path to market. The Turkish port of Ceyhan has been exporting Kurdish oil for two years now. Turkey does not support an independent Iraqi Kurdistan—Turkey, too, worries about what that would mean for its own Kurdish population. But since its future depends on Kurdish natural gas, it seems unlikely that Turkey would freeze out the KRG if it were to become independent.
Moreover, with the Kurdistan region and Iraq as a whole now free of ISIS, international oil companies that fled in the summer of 2014 are expected to return. An independent Kurdistan would have to access to international finance tools unavailable to non-sovereign governments. Those tools could be used to leverage its vast natural resources to jumpstart development. Sovereign debt instruments would allow the Kurds to better manage the unpredictability oil and gas markets. Historically, the KRG has relied on Iraq to divide and allocate its share of the national oil income—a practice rife with corruption and unfairness.
Maybe the U.S. didn’t commit enough resources or time to fix what we broke in Iraq. But it’s too late for what-ifs; the reality is that Iran is picking up the pieces now, and the free, stable, independent Iraq U.S. policymakers have been so concerned about preserving neither exists nor is likely to exist anytime soon. Reversing Iranian influence over Iraq would require a renewed U.S. security commitment that could cost billions and involve more direct confrontation with Iran—an undertaking for which the U.S. public and policymakers seem to have little appetite.
But the U.S. can still salvage a win. The question is whether it will act to support the KRG—or watch as the Revolutionary Guards subsume the Kurds along with the rest of Iraq.
An independent, democratic, stable and federal Iraq is an admirable but unattainable dream. Yet a free Kurdistan could be a reality—a positive development to follow some regrettable others: more than $1 trillion spent and over 4,500 U.S. service members’ and 500,000 Iraqi lives lost over the past 14 years, resulting in a rapidly emerging client state in service to the ayatollahs. A new and unshakably U.S.-allied nation in the region may be the unexpected upshot to the mess that is today’s Middle East.
This article was originally published in Politico Magazine.