The diplomatic and economic noose is tightening around Iraqi Kurdistan one day ahead of its historic independence referendum. On Sunday, the Iranian government announced closure of its airspace to northern Iraq's Sulaimani and Erbil Airports, at the request of Iraqi authorities. The Baghdad government has repeatedly threatened military intervention in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region should the vote proceed on Monday, which Baghdad warns could provoke invasion by neighboring states. The United States too has warned that the non-binding referendum will be “particularly provocative and destabilizing” - this as Turkey musters tanks along its border with Iraqi Kurdistan.
On Sunday the Iranian Supreme Security Council announced through state media that, “At the request of the Iraqi central government, Iranian airspace has been closed on all flights that originate from Kurdistan Region.” The move comes after a month's worth of warnings that Iran could close its borders to Iraqi Kurdistan should the independence vote proceed. Iranian government officials had previously warned that, “The republic of Iran has opened its legitimate border gates on the premise of the consent of the federal government of the Iraqi state. If such an event [referendum] happens, these border gates from the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran would lose its legitimacy."
Iran worries that an independent Kurdistan at its border would be a destabilizing force concerning Iran's own sizable Kurdish minority. Iran also reportedly launched Revolutionary Guard led military drills in its northwest region bordering Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday.
Likewise Turkey has for the past week amassed tanks and troops along its border with Iraq, while reportedly conducting "anti-terror operations" in Kurdish areas of the country. In a geographic sense Turkey would play a key economic lifeline for the completely landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan region. But Turkey's Parliament voted Saturday to renew for one year a mandate authorizing military intervention across Iraq's border should Turkey's national security come under threat.
Over the weekend the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil saw tens of thousands of Kurds flood the streets demonstrating in support of an independent Kurdistan. However, protests against the planned referendum broke out in other areas of Iraq. Violence also began to hit the region as an IED killed four Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and injured over a dozen more in the province of Kirkuk, an area where the referendum is set to be held.
Arab parts of the country have voiced frustration that such a divisive move would come at a key moment in the fight against ISIS. The fact that Israel is the only outside country voicing official support for Kurdish independence is also deeply controversial.
On Sept. 13 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned the region when he commented specifically of the referendum saying, "Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state" (though he's made similar statements starting in 2014). Netanyahu noted further that Israel still considers the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group.
Other current and former Israeli officials have made bolder and more detailed statements, however. The former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Major General Yair Golan told a national security policy conference in Washington D.C. in early September that he believes establishing a Greater Kurdistan (a state that will include the Kurdish-populated territories of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey) in the Middle East could be a positive stabilizing force in the region. He also said that he personally does not be believe the PKK to be a terrorist organization.
Israel's public stance provoked a quiet diplomatic war with Turkey, which Israel accuses of supporting Hamas. Turkey has for years accused Israel of forging a secretive vengeful alliance with the PKK due to Turkey's pro-Palestine statehood position. But Israel has consistently pointed to what it perceives as Turkish hypocrisy in failing to designated Hamas a terror organization. Furthermore, Iranian state media has frequently equated an independent Kurdistan with Israeli plans to Balkanize the region as part of a "divide and rule" policy in the region.
But despite signs of looming destabilization ahead of Monday's vote, it appears Kurdish authorities in Erbil are determined to see the referendum through, no matter the consequences.
Quoted by Bloomberg, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani said in televised news conference that Iraq’s Kurds "reached conclusion that only through independence can we secure our future" and said he is ready to engage in "very long" talks with Iraq govt on borders, oil, gas, water after the vote. He also added that the Iraq, Kurdistan partnership failed after Baghdad violated the constitution.
Like in Germany, Barzani urged voters to head to polls and maintain a "peaceful process" while saying that Peshmerga forces will continue cooperation with Iraqi troops and the U.S.-led coalition in the "fight against terror."
Barzani also said that referendum is not a threat to Turkey’s national security, and added that he "doesn’t expect military confrontation with Iraq after referendum", a rather clear hint that military confrontation with Iraq after the expected vote to break away may be inevitable. To be sure, Iraq Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said in televised speech that Kurdistan’s problems are "a result of corruption, mismanagement of public money" adding that a referendum would only exacerbate such issues.
Finally, addressing Iran's closure of airspace, he said that it was Tehran’s decision.
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