As Iraq continues to fracture along ethnic and sectarian lines, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq seems to be holding a winning hand. The Kurdish Peshmerga force have taken control of the long-coveted city of Kirkuk, Kurdistan is selling oil via Turkey, and the KRG may finally be on the verge of becoming an independent state.
But unless the Kurds want to run the risk of encouraging severe repercussions from both Iran and Shiite militias in Iraq, they may want to rethink declaring independence.
“I wonder if it is necessary for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to declare independence. In many ways the KRG resembles a de facto state already,” Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at RAND told Business Insider through email. “A declaration of independence at this point could complicate the situation in Iraq even more. And it could make Tehran more nervous.”
Iran, a predominantly Shi’a country, has a large and at times restive Sunni Kurdish minority that primarily lives in the mountains of western Iran, by the Iraqi border. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, a number of Kurdish groups have fought Tehran for either independence or more rights in a federalized system.
The creation of a Kurdish state could further inspire Iranian Kurds to take up arms against the central government, something that Iran would act decisively against. So far Iran has put significant pressure on the KRG to help restrict the activities of Kurdish fighters who might turn otherwise focus their energy on Iranian targets. Iraqi Kurdistan has been happy to enact Iran’s requests.
“The KRG has decent relations with Iran and knows that Iran is influential in the region,” Nader said. “Would it be willing to risk a rupture in relations with Tehran? Iran can cause a lot of problems for the KRG if it is viewed as acting too assertively.”
According to Nader, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards has “close ties” to a number of armed groups within Iraqi Kurdistan, including Islamist Kurdish groups and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main political parties in the autonomous region.
If threatened, “Iran could encourage violence against the KRG,” Nader warned — although currently, this outcome seems “farfetched.”
Aside from Iran, the Kurds also need to be wary of Shiite militias if they officially declare secession from Iraq.
Last weekend, a spokesman for a Shiite militia warned that it had rockets that could reach Erbil, the capital of the KRG.
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