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Tehran's Tightrope: The Calculus Behind Iran’s Recent Moves in Iraqi Kurdistan



Dr. Hamidreza Azizi is a Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)


Iran has generally exhibited a stance favoring developments that diminish the real autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and bolster Baghdad’s influence within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). A case in point is the recent negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil concerning the budget and Baghdad's subsequent approval of three monthly loans to the KRG.


These discussions unfolded concurrently with Iran’s ultimatum to both the Iraqi central government and the KRG, demanding the disarmament of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups and their displacement from areas proximate to the Iranian border. This ultimatum aligns with the security agreement inked in March between Tehran and Baghdad. The accord emphasizes that the central Iraqi government assumes primacy in border security between Iran and the KRI. Consequently, Iran’s military posturing and threats against the KRI can be interpreted as strategic moves to attenuate Erbil’s political and security footprint in relation to Baghdad.


Iran has generally exhibited a stance favoring developments that diminish the real autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and bolster Baghdad’s influence within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Simultaneously, escalations in Kirkuk between Kurdish protestors and factions of the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have spotlighted another layer of this evolving dynamic. Iran-aligned groups killed and wounded Kurdish protestors in the disputed, oil-rich province. As part of an agreement between Erbil and Baghdad, the KDP was to return to a base in the province (which it withdrew from in 2017 after the PMF mobilised its forces against Kurdish forces), but the PMF blocked a highway connecting Kirkuk to Erbil and other Kurdish provinces in response, as part of an effort to undermine this agreement. That resulted in protests because of the disruption it caused. Following the incident, the supreme court in Baghdad suspended the order for the KDP’s return under the influence of the PMF. The episode secured another victory for Iran and its allies over the KRG.


A retrospective view of the past year elucidates Iran’s multi-pronged strategy to undermine the KRG’s autonomy. First, by wielding military threats and occasionally acting on them to coerce Erbil into conceding more control to Baghdad. Secondly, leveraging Shiite groups in Iraq with close ties to Tehran, the PMF’s military might is synergized with state institutions like the Federal Supreme Court, as evidenced in the Kirkuk episode.


Further complicating the situation are internal divisions within the KRI, particularly between the predominant KDP and PUK parties. Iran exploits this rift, aligning more closely with the PUK, which is primarily a tactical maneuver to forestall a unified political front in Kurdistan. Iran’s amplified military and political overtures towards the Kurdistan Region largely emanate from regime security concerns. The Iranian leadership worries that domestic protests could escalate into armed skirmishes, especially in Kurdish-populated provinces.


A retrospective view of the past year elucidates Iran’s multi-pronged strategy to undermine Kurdistan's autonomy. First, by wielding military threats and acting on them to coerce Erbil into conceding control to Baghdad. Secondly, leveraging Shiite groups in Iraq with close ties to Tehran, the PMF’s military might is synergized with state institutions like the Federal Supreme Court.

Hence, the strategy aims to ensure that any potential Kurdish uprising lacks support from their counterparts across the border. Yet, Iran’s apprehensions also stem from Erbil fostering ties with Iran’s rivals and adversaries, notably Turkey, the United States and Israel. Weakening Erbil’s autonomy emerges as a perceived solution.


Concurrently, Iran finds solace in the Sudani government’s ability to project strength and stabilize its position within Iraq. However, the trajectory of Iran’s policy vis-à-vis the Erbil-Baghdad relationship could be fraught with potential pitfalls. As Iran’s allies in Iraq solidify their position, they might prioritize their domestic agenda, which could diverge from Tehran’s objectives.


Coupled with a growing unfavorable perception of Iran amongst the Iraqi populace, Tehran’s allies might find it expedient to distance themselves from Iran. Moreover, regional stakeholders, especially Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, are wary of Iran’s maneuvers in Iraq. This apprehension might escalate regional competition, which, given Iran’s relatively constrained resources, might erode its influence in Iraq over the long term.


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