TALABANI PRO IRAN / Erbil-Terhan Relations Sour Over KRG Foreign Policy


ERBIL, Kurdistan Region– “A perspective on Turkey’s manipulation of Barzani”; “Turkey exploits Barzani”; “Davutoglu’s visit to Kurdistan: the Turkish game on the Kurds’ table”; These are all headlines about the growing ties between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey from Iran’s state-affiliated Fars news agency. It’s nothing new, but in recent weeks Iranian media outlets have intensified their attacks on Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani, especially after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu landed in Erbil.

Barzani’s stiff opposition to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — known as an ally of Iran — and his support for Syrian Kurds in the battle between rebels and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in addition to his strong ties with Anakra, have all angered Iran. Barzani also refused to meet Maliki in Tehran with Iranians mediating between the two leaders, and played a key role in efforts to unseat the Iraqi prime minister.

Iran has tried to exert pressure on the Kurdish leader, who used to live in Iran as an exiled politician in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, Iranian state television broadcast “confessions” by alleged members of a group trained by the Israeli intelligence service to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Iranians have claimed that the detained individuals were trained in a neighboring region, hinting at either the Kurdistan Region or Azerbaijan.

A source who did not want to be identified told Rudaw that the editor-in-chief of Israel-Kurd magazine was kidnapped by Iran. Mawloud Afand went missing in early June following a trip to Sulaimani. There is no official account of his whereabouts, but many suspect he might have been abducted by Iranian agents. The source told Rudaw that Afand is currently in prison in Tehran and has been tortured to “make confessions” against Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has rejected Iranian accusations that it has links with Israel or that Israeli intelligence elements operate on its territory on numerous occasions.

A member of KDP’s leadership council, Khasro Goran, agrees that relations between the Kurdistan Region and Iran are undergoing a period of coldness.

“Our strong position on defending our constitutional rights, the deterioration of relations with Maliki’s government, Syria’s situation and our support for Kurdish rights in Syrian Kurdistan and the close relations between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey have caused a coldness and relative deterioration of relations between the Kurdistan Region and Iran,” Goran said.

Among the alleged spies shown on Iranian state TV was Maziyar Ibrahimi, an Iranian Kurd who has a company in Sulaimani. Arash Kherdakish, another detainee, said that he had received some training in the Kurdistan Region.

Nazim Dabbagh, the KRG representative to Tehran, denied that the Kurdistan Region has offered any support to those shown on Iranian state TV. “Thousands of people travel to or through the Kurdistan Region and the KRG cannot control all of them or check what they are planning to do,” said Dabbagh. He added that the KRG has not been aware of any plans by individuals in its territory to harm Iranian interests. “The Islamic Republic has just told us there is a group in the Kurdistan Region that is spying for Israel and, according to the information I have, the Kurdistan Region is following up on that,” Dabbagh said.For his part, Abdulhadi Hassani, a lawmaker close to Maliki, said that if the confessions are “genuine” then the “the number one figure of the Kurdistan Region needs to be tried not in Iraq but in an international court.”

Some sources, including journalists and former Kurdish and Israeli officials, have said that Israel assisted Kurds during their struggle against the Iraqi government in the 1960s and 1970s. The pre-revolution Iranian regime of the Shah played a key role in Israeli assistance to the Kurds.

Bilal Sulaiman, former head of the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) representation office in Tehran, said Iranian accusations are not new.

“If we are talking about the reality that people affiliated with Israel have entered Iran through the Kurdistan Region in order to assassinate the nuclear scientists, then there are also people affiliated with Israel who secretly exist in Iran,” said Sulaiman. “This happens all over the world. Spies are spies and do their work.”

“Just as there are bad guys in Iran, there are also bad guys in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq and Turkey. But Kurdistan does not have ties with Israel. Period,” Goran said.

Some people in Kurdistan are concerned that these repeated accusations about the presence of Israeli operatives in Kurdistan might make it a target for “extremist and terrorist groups.” “What the official Iranian channel showed was a portrayal of Kurdistan as Tel Aviv and that is a propaganda,” Abdulhakim Khasro, a professor of political science at Erbil’s Salahaddin University, said, adding that it sends the message to extremists that attacking the Kurdistan Region is like attacking Tel Aviv.

Iranian officials have formally asked Kurdish authorities to stop efforts to remove Maliki and not to assist Syrian Kurds. The Iranian Ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaifar, recently invited the KDP and Komal to visit Iran, but they did not. However, representatives of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and the Change Movement (Gorran), Kurdistan’s largest opposition group, visited Tehran in recent weeks.

An official familiar with relations between Iran and the KDP said that while the two used to have regular visits and meetings, there have been none in the past two months. But the KRG’s representative in Tehran said that, despite Iran’s differences with the KDP, there are now attempts to strengthen ties through KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Dabbagh said there are also plans for a major trade and economic conference between Iran and Kurdistan to take place in coming weeks. The conference is expected to be attended by high-level Iranian officials, including one of the country’s vice presidents. Rudaw attempted to contact the Iranian consul in Erbil for comments but he declined, saying he will speak after the end of Ramadan on Aug. 20.

Farhad Atrushi, a Kurdish MP in Iraqi Parliament, said “If Iran says I want you to do what I want, then the Kurdistan Region president will not do that, because we are not part of Iran.” He said the pressures from Iran on Kurdistan are linked to pressures exerted by the Iraqi government. Although Hassani argues that Kurds should follow Iraq’s foreign policy in dealing with other countries in the region and broader world, Kurds seem to disagree. “Iraq wants the Kurdistan Region to be part of its policy, and Iraq’s policy is to be aligned with Iran’s policy in the region which is against Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and has strong relations and coordination with Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. So it is clear where things are leading,” said Atrushi.

As tensions between Tehran and Erbil appear to be high, Kurdish officials say they favor dialogue and mutual understanding.  “I consider relations between Kurds and the Islamic Republic of Iran necessary. Rejecting those relations at this stage will harm us,” said Dabbagh.

Goran agreed with this. “We have never had a bellicose or antagonistic policy toward Iran and have always viewed them as a strong neighbor.” Sulaiman believes mutual respect is imperative. “Just as we have no right to interfere in the domestic affairs of another country, Iran also does not have the right to interfere in KRG affairs. If there is debate on a no-confidence vote against Maliki, that is an internal matter,” he said.