- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Monday, the European Union joined the United Nations, the United States, Turkey, and Iraq to discourage Iraqi Kurds from holding an independence referendum on Sept. 25.
That was to be expected, and won’t deter regional government authorities in Erbil, said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in Washington.
“This is what we expected. We’d hoped, of course, for a more positive response,” she said Monday at a media briefing. “But the pattern of independence movements elsewhere has shown that that’s the pattern. Nobody wants borders to change, nobody wants anything to change.”
Not all the damp squibs are equal. EU foreign ministers cautioned against “unilateral steps,” while the United Nations warned it would not be “engaged in any way or form.” The United States, busy with a fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, says an independence bid now would distract from more urgent priorities. Baghdad, for its part, has issues with the expansive scope of the territories Erbil wants to include in the referendum.
On timing, Sami Abdul Rahman said that, particularly with Iraqi elections coming up in 2018, there was no time to waste for the region that has long complained that it gets financially shorted by Baghdad.
“We’re not talking about Quebec. We’re not talking about Scotland,” she said in reference to separatist-prone areas in otherwise stable states. “We’re talking about Iraq.”
An Iraqi official told Foreign Policy, “We echo the statements released by our prime minister that holding the referendum and shaping the future of Iraq is a decision that all Iraqis must have a say in not only a certain group Iraqis. The government adheres to to the constitution as a legal framework to shape the relations with KRG. Any process in that direction should be discussed through dialogue and within the Iraqi constitution.” The official continued, “In relation to this matter, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi received a phone call from KRG President Masmoud Barzani affirming continued dialogue, as well as continued cooperation in fighting ISIS.”
And on the disputed territories of Kirkuk, Makhmour, Shingal, and Khanaqin? It would be unthinkable, she said, for them not to be included, particularly since the federal government let slip a deadline to resolve uncertainty over the disputed areas fully a decade ago.
“It’s kind of a bit rich, from our perspective, to have people say, ‘how dare you think about having a referendum in the disputed territories,’ when nobody did anything about disputed territories,” she said.
The referendum will only ask whether there should be an independent Kurdistan. The authorities would then want to negotiate the terms of independence, including the fate of the disputed territories, with Baghdad.
“It’s only a referendum. It’s not a declaration of independence. Even after the referendum we still have time to persuade our friends on the Hill and elsewhere that this is something for the good.”
Update, June 19, 2017, 5:51 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include comment from Iraqi officials.
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