This Is Where Iran Defeats the United States

Iraq’s Kurdish kingmakers used to side with Washington. Now, Tehran seems like a more attractive partner.

Massoud Barzani, a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, in Iraq's Nineveh province in Nov. 2015. (Reza/Getty Images)
Massoud Barzani, a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, in Iraq's Nineveh province in Nov. 2015. (Reza/Getty Images)

In foreign policy, as in life, it is always a good idea to be nice to your friends, because you never know when you might need them. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Masoud Barzani, the leader of the largest Kurdish party in the Iraqi parliament, to ask for his support on an urgent foreign-policy goal: securing a second term for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, therefore blocking an Iran-backed alternative.

Once upon a time, the answer would have been an automatic yes. But last October, the Trump administration allowed a Shiite militia leader (and convicted terrorist) to use U.S.-supplied tanks in an anti-Kurdish operation directed by Qassem Suleimani, the general who heads Iran’s Quds Force. Not surprisingly, the Kurds are today less inclined to accommodate what they see as a faithless ally.

What a difference a few years makes. Back in 2010, when the United States requested Barzani—then president of Iraqi Kurdistan—to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bid for a second term, Barzani quickly agreed. (It was a decision that both the Kurds and U.S. diplomats subsequently regretted). And in June 2014, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to ask Barzani to postpone a planned declaration of independence, the Kurds consented to wait until the fight against the Islamic State was over.

With a bloc of 50 seats in Iraq’s newly elected parliament (and some additional seats from Sunni allies), the Kurds are in a position to decide who will be Iraq’s next prime minister. This is because the country’s May 12 parliamentary elections ended in a stalemate between two Shiite-dominated blocs: one jointly led by Abadi and the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the other led by former Prime Minister Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, the head of a Shiite militia. Both Maliki and Amiri have close ties to Tehran; Amiri even fought on Iran’s side during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. While the Sadr-Abadi bloc isn’t exactly anti-Iran—Sadr spent four years in exile there between 2007 and 2011, and Abadi is a member of the Iran-backed Dawa Party—they are not nearly as close to Tehran as are Amiri and Maliki. The Trump administration rightly fears that if the latter two form the next government, it will greatly increase Iran’s influence in Iraq—a huge setback for a policy intended to accomplish the opposite.

This is where the Kurds come in. Following the election, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party formed an alliance with the other major Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Together, the Kurds then made a deal with the largest Sunni bloc, the Axis Alliance, to act together in choosing between the two Shiite blocs. These alliances give the Kurds and Sunnis collectively between 60 and 90 seats (out of 329) in the new Iraqi parliament, depending on whether the entire Axis Alliance sticks with the Kurds or parts of it make separate deals with the two Shiite blocs. Regardless of what happens to the Sunnis, the Kurds appear to be Iraq’s kingmakers. And as the leader of the largest Kurdish party, Barzani is well positioned to decide how the Kurds go.

The problem for U.S. President Donald Trump is that Barzani no longer believes he can rely on the United States. Having acceded to Kerry’s request not to declare independence when the rest of Iraq was near total collapse in 2014, the Kurdistan leadership decided last year that, with the Islamic State’s defeat imminent, it was time to realize the Kurds’ longstanding dream. In June of last year, Kurdistan’s election commission scheduled an independence referendum for Sept. 25, 2017. Throughout the summer, the Trump administration barely reacted. Then, in September, it launched a full-court press to get Barzani to postpone or cancel the vote. Two days before the referendum, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made an offer. Should Barzani postpone the vote, the United States would engage diplomatically to resolve the problems between Erbil and Baghdad, and if the three sides couldn’t sort things out within a year, Washington would then “recognize the need for a referendum.” Barzani, however, was reluctant to trust the word of a secretary of state so obviously on his way out. On a practical level, it also would have been nearly impossible to scrap an independence referendum so fervently desired by the Kurdish people just two days before it was to take place.

The referendum passed with 93 percent in favor of independence. Abadi decided to teach the Kurds a lesson. He shut down Kurdistan’s airspace, cut off the banking system, and gave a green light to a military assault on Kirkuk, the ethnically mixed city that the Kurds had controlled since the Iraqi Army abandoned it to the Islamic State in June 2014. Rather than rely on the regular—and ineffective—Iraqi Army, Abadi let the Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shiite militia, spearhead the assault.

Abadi apparently believed that being the wartime leader who defeated the Islamic State and put the Kurds in their place would guarantee him a new term in the following year’s Iraqi parliamentary elections—he even named his electoral alliance “Nasr,” meaning “Victory.” And instead of protecting its Kurdish allies, the Trump administration allowed the Popular Mobilization Forces to use Abrams tanks—originally sold to the Iraqi Army and transferred to the Shiite militia with U.S. permission—in the attack on the Kurds. The White House seemed unfazed by the fact that Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, planned the attack and that it was led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a terrorist sentenced to death in absentia for his role in blowing up the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait City in December 1983.

The whole episode left Barzani and the Kurds both angry and shaken. Much of the anger was, and remains, focused on Abadi. As one Kurdish leader told me, “Maliki cut our budget, but Abadi attacked us.” But the attack also undermined Kurdish confidence in the United States as an ally.

Rather than do Washington any favors, therefore, the Kurds and Sunnis are now negotiating with the two Shiite blocs to see which will give them a better deal. The Sunnis want reconstruction funds and the withdrawal of Shiite militias from their area. The Kurds have a longer list of demands based on promises made to them in Iraq’s Constitution, including guaranteed payment of their share of the federal budget, recognition of their oil rights, a national census to determine Kurdistan’s share of the federal budget, the holding of a plebiscite to determine the status of Kirkuk, the establishment of a second chamber in the Iraqi parliament, and the establishment of the constitutionally prescribed Supreme Court. (For the time being, they have moved independence off the agenda.)

So far, other than make a few budgetary payments, Abadi has refused all the Kurds’ demands. Washington’s intervention—including Pompeo’s telephone call—may actually encourage Abadi’s intransigence. In the past, the Kurds have done Washington’s bidding without Baghdad having to make concessions. Abadi may well conclude that they will come around this time again without any compromises on his part—compromises he is worried would undermine his support among the Iraqi nationalists in his camp. A top Kurdistan negotiator has told me that he believes U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk is encouraging just such thinking on Abadi’s part, telling him that if he can make a deal with the Sunnis, the Kurds will come around.

For all these reasons, the Kurds and Sunnis may decide to cut a deal with Amiri and Maliki instead. After all, if they can no longer count on U.S. support, then it would be better for them to come to terms with the one remaining undisputed power in the region: Iran. Unlike Abadi, Maliki has also expressed support for some Kurdish goals in recent months. And the Sunnis know that Amiri, unlike Abadi, can actually get all the Shiite militias out of their areas.

Wishful thinking has long dominated U.S. policymaking in Iraq, and the Trump administration is no exception. Like Abadi himself, the administration apparently believed that military victories would translate into an overwhelming electoral mandate for the prime minister. For Washington, sacrificing the Kurds seemed a price worth paying to empower an ally in Baghdad, especially since the relevant U.S. officials—McGurk and the now departed Tillerson—were also angry with the Kurds for having gone ahead with the referendum.

The Kurds have been the kingmakers in every Iraqi election since 2005. A more realistic U.S. policy might have considered that something similar could happen in 2018. Ignoring that history could lead to the one outcome the United States wanted to avoid in Iraq: empowering Iran.

Peter W. Galbraith is a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and the author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.