The Middle East Channel
Coddling Iraqi Kurds
Iraqi Kurdish leaders are pressing Washington to codify a "special relationship" with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The idea has gained support among certain members of the U.S. Congress, think-tanks, and others concerned about diminishing U.S. influence in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s concentration of power, and the destabilizing Iranian role in Iraq. A ...
Iraqi Kurdish leaders are pressing Washington to codify a "special relationship" with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The idea has gained support among certain members of the U.S. Congress, think-tanks, and others concerned about diminishing U.S. influence in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s concentration of power, and the destabilizing Iranian role in Iraq. A special United States-KRG relationship, they argue, could hedge against these threats and better assure U.S. interests in the region. Others assert that the United States has a responsibility to protect Iraqi Kurds, who have proven to be a valuable and dependable ally.
But, in fact, the United States has little to gain by creating a privileged relationship with the KRG. Not only would it send the wrong message to Iraqi Arab populations and aggravate communal relations, but it would create another cushion for the KRG leadership and dissuade political accommodation with Baghdad. The key issue for the United States is not about reciprocating Kurdish goodwill but clarifying the conditions in which a United States-KRG partnership can be sustained based on American principles and larger commitments in the region.
There is already a strong relationship between the United States and the KRG. The United States recognizes the important role the Kurds have played in supporting its objectives in Iraq. The KRG mobilized its militia alongside U.S. troops to depose Saddam Hussein. It provides intelligence and military support to help control terrorist networks in the region. It helps manage cross-border Kurdish nationalisms and works with the government of Turkey to quell the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or Partiye Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK). Kurdish leaders also continue to support U.S. efforts to forge a unity government in Iraq, including brokering numerous meetings with other Iraqi political factions.
Such helpful actions have not gone unrewarded. The United States not only has advanced Kurdish political demands, but has allowed the KRG to become the biggest beneficiary of post-Saddam Iraq. With its Kurdish ally (and some Shiite groups), the United States crafted a constitution that disempowered the central government and devolved large, although unclear, powers to the region. The constitution gave the Kurdish north financial largesse: 17 percent of the Iraqi budget as annual revenue or nearly $11 billion in 2012. The KRG also receives additional payments from Baghdad, including a recent $560 million allocation to pay international oil companies (IOCs) operating in the northern region.
Better still, the KRG reaps these benefits with virtually no responsibility or reciprocal access to the KRG for counterparts in Baghdad. Unlike other federal systems in the world, the KRG receives its revenue — which comprises 95 percent of its budget — without having to make transfer payments to the central government. It does not declare its customs revenue or submit full receipts to Baghdad for official oil export payments. The KRG also refuses Iraqi military officials from entering its northern region, exerts full control over its own borders, and permits foreign companies to purchase land but not other Iraqis residing outside the Kurdistan region.
The United States has unintentionally expanded the KRG’s political latitude by giving it carte blanche in Iraq. Since 2003, the United States has ignored Kurdish oil smuggling to Iran, shrugged at the KRG’s territorial expansionism and extrajudicial detentions in "disputed territories," and tolerated increasing authoritarian rule inside the Kurdistan region. When the KRG violently stifled Kurdish opposition groups in last year’s demonstrations, the U.S. government remained virtually silent.
By over-determining Kurdish leverage in Iraq and under-estimating the KRG’s dependence on external patronage, the United States has given the KRG leadership little incentive to moderate its behavior or compromise with Baghdad. What has emerged is a Kurdistan region further entrenched in its nationalist ambitions, an increasing imbalance within the delicate intra-Kurd political dynamic, a central government trying to reign in the KRG, and local populations elsewhere increasingly concerned about KRG territorial expansionism. Sunni Arabs in particular, have become critical of the KRG’s land grabs in disputed areas they claim as their own. Further, as the KRG enhances its status in the Iraqi state, Kurdish communities in Turkey, Syria, and Iran will likely increase their demands for similar rights, creating new pressures for Kurdish autonomy across borders.
Given these realities on the ground, the United States should keep pursuing engagement with the Kurdistan region populations but stop coddling the KRG leadership. The United States should set conditions and shared goals in which the Untied States-KRG partnership can be ascertained, to include:
- Commitment to Iraqi unity — The United States should continue to affirm its commitment to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state. This commitment should avoid favoring any particular ethnic or sectarian group or further encouraging communalism among Iraqi Arabs and regional actors. The Kurdish leadership should not contemplate separating the KRG from Iraq or pursuing independence.
- Counterterrorism, Intelligence, and Security Cooperation — The United States should continue to work with the KRG on shared counterintelligence and counterterrorism issues while pressing Iraqi Kurdish elites to remove the PKK bases from its territory.
- Energy Security — KRG energy sector development should be encouraged without compromising Iraqi state sovereignty and regional stability. The northern corridor remains an essential transit route for Iraq’s oil and gas and should be developed in cooperation with the central government and the KRG. An important component of this objective is greater transparency in KRG energy sector activities, including the bidding process, contracts, and payment processes. The KRG should be pressed to submit full receipts to Baghdad for IOC payment and cease signing contracts in disputed territories until a national hydrocarbons law is signed.
- Economic and Commercial Development — The United States should encourage U.S. business development in the Kurdistan region as long as the KRG can assure contract sanctity and a transparent commercial and legal environment. This effort depends upon the extent to which the KRG can de-link the political parties and their private family businesses from the economy, address corruption, and develop a real private sector and free market economy.
- Relations with Iran — The United States should apply the same conditions to the KRG as it does to other regional states supporting the Iranian regime. It must clearly recognize and sanction Kurdish oil smuggling to Iran, while encouraging the KRG to send its crude oil through legal channels to Baghdad for payment.
- Governance and democratization — The United States needs to send a clearer signal to the KRG that it is expected to engage in real political opening and reform. Stability in the Kurdistan region has come at the expense of increasing authoritarianism. Journalists continue to be threatened, honor killings are among the highest levels in the Middle East, and the polity and society remain highly controlled by the two main parties and their associated leaders and families.
- Education and Cultural Cooperation — The United States should continue to encourage all Iraqi students, including Kurds, to engage in educational and cultural exchanges, with the goal of having these students return to Iraq and become future leaders of the country. These students should be selected according to merit without any intervention by the Kurdish political parties or their leaders. The United States should assist the KRG in facilitating these exchanges, particularly in developing more efficient visa application processes.
These conditions should not undermine the United States-Kurdish partnership but rather assure that U.S. engagement in Iraq is even-handed and that U.S. objectives are not compromised. Further, they clarify shared goals on U.S. terms (not Kurdish nationalist interests) and provide the KRG with a difficult but much-needed realization that it is ultimately responsible for the strategic choices and actions it pursues. The KRG will ultimately have to recognize that it is no longer a victim in post-Saddam Iraq and that it if wants to reap the benefits of Iraqi federalism, then it too, will have to make compromises, create openings to the south, and play by the rules of the game. As long as the KRG has preferential U.S. support as a crutch, it may have little interest in pursuing these larger objectives.
Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University and author of The Kurdish-Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.