MESOP : CAN TURKEY REPLACE IRAN FOR KURDS ? – Kurdistan Merchants Worry about Iranian Threat to Close Borders

By Nawzad Mahmoud – RUDAW –  16.7.2014 – SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region — Can Turkey replace Iran? This is the question that businessmen and investors in the Kurdistan Region are asking these days, after Iranian officials warned they could seal the border with Kurdistan, where 59 percent of commercial goods come from Iran.

“Yes, we can import what we need from Turkey, but goods will become more expensive in the markets,” said Mustafa Abdulrahman, president of the Import & Export Union in Kurdistan (IEUK). Traders in Kurdistan are worried about finding a substitute to Iran as a trade partner, after Iranian officials warned Erbil against going through with a planned independence referendum and threatened they would close the border if their demand went unheeded. Shiite Iran, worried about its own large and restive Kurdish minority, has always opposed greater Kurdish rights anywhere in the region. In Iraq, Tehran has been standing behind Nouri al-Maliki despite massive opposition to a third term for the embattled Shiite prime minister. 

“If the Iranians really closed all the border crossings, we then have to resort to the Mersin port in Turkey. But the transportation fees will be twice as much and delivery of goods will take longer, so the goods will be more expensive,” Abdulrahman explained.

The landlocked Kurdistan Region depends greatly on the border crossings of Iran and Turkey for imports. A merchant doing business through the Perwezkhan border crossing said that Iranian authorities had warned Kurdish and Iranian truck drivers alike that the road traffic would soon be stopped. “The trucks already inside Iran will not be allowed to carry goods back to the Kurdistan Region, and the same is true for Iranian trucks already inside Kurdistan,” said the merchant, who did not want to be identified by name. “The Iranians cannot tolerate an independent Kurdish state, or even talking about it,” he added.

Tehran-Erbil trade stands at some four billion dollars, half as large as Kurdistan’s trade with Turkey, its northern neighbor. Yasin Mahmoud Rasheed, spokesperson of the Kurdistan Investors Union (KRIU), said that closing the Iranian border crossing would greatly impact the Kurdistan Region, “Because the imported goods from Iran are mostly food and daily necessities.” “The main route of commerce for Sulaimani is through the Iranian border,” Rasheed said. “Erbil and Duhok can depend on Turkey, but 59 percent of the commercial goods in the Kurdistan Region come from Iran,” he added.

Rasheed said that Baghdad had already stopped cargo flights to Erbil, which carried in mostly medicines.  He said that if Iran acted on its threat of sealing the border that would be a second embargo against Erbil.Iran, which is currently under international economic sanctions, also needs the trade with Kurdistan. But Rasheed said he thought “Iran is ready to forego the economic disadvantage” to get its way in Kurdistan.Over the past two years Iran has signed a number of large agreements with Kurdistan, including recent gas, electricity and construction deals.The KRIU is preparing a detailed letter for Kurdistan Region President Massould Barzani to give him an idea about the consequences of Iran closing its border. “We are telling the president in the letter that food storage depots in the Kurdistan Region contain enough food for one month,” Rasheed said.