Will sanctions against Iraq’s Kurdistan work?

Adnan Hussein
Adnan Hussein
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The Barwari Bala region, a mountain plain distinguished for planting apples of American origin, is situated on the borders with Turkey, in the far north of the Iraqi Dahuk governorate.

Whenever I ask a Kurdish friend who lives there about how the apples are, he says they are bad. Why? “It’s because the globalization apples put them out of the market.” By “globalization apples” he means those imported, probably from Turkey.

The latter are being sold for low prices resulting in recession in sales of Barwari apples. The imported apples are even cheaper than the cost of collecting the Barwari apples and transferring them to markets. When I visited Barwari, apples were not picked and they were rotting in the trees or underneath them.

Perhaps there is now chance for Barwari apples and other Kurdish crops to regain their glory if Turkey, Iran and Iraq implement their threats and besiege Iraq’s Kurdistan region to force it to give up on the referendum which was held last week.

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The Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish governments’ warnings could not postpone or halt the referendum. The serious threats they made led some to believe that at least one of them will opt for military power to prevent the referendum which “threatens national security” in all three countries, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, as they are saying.

The referendum was peacefully held but the governments of Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran are still threatening to take “deterring” measures against Kurdistan if it does not back down. So what are these three capitals’ options to achieve their aims?

The referendum did not result in any financial implications. There are no measures which the Kurdistan region can take in the foreseeable future toward independence. Kurdish leaders said several times that the referendum does not mean drawing borders or announcing independence but it aims to confirm the desire for independence which achieving requires the Iraqi government’s approval and willingness to engage in negotiations with it.

A war on the Kurds will not have any popular or political support – except for few politicians, mainly Islamists, who in the past few weeks displayed chauvinism that matches that of the Baath Party

Adnan Hussein

The idea of Kurdish independence

This independence though will of course depend on the stance of the other two strong neighbors, Iran and Turkey. It’s clear that like Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, do not intend to accept the idea of Kurdish independence. As for military options, none of the three capitals frankly threatened to resort to military power to get the Kurds to forget this referendum ever happened.

They did not make such threats because they are aware they cannot resort to military power, neither solely nor together. Such military intervention will be internationally condemned. The US-led coalition which protected the Kurds during Saddam’s regime in the 1990’s will not accept such a move. The US-led coalition combating ISIS and the international community will also reject this, at least for humanitarian reasons.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government cannot use power against the Kurds for moral and political reasons as any war against the Kurds will show that the current Iraqi regime, which is dominated by Shiite powers, is like Saddam’s regime that tragically persecuted the Kurds and Shiites once.

A war on the Kurds will not have any popular or political support – except for few politicians, mainly Islamists, who in the past few weeks displayed chauvinism that matches that of the Baath Party.

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This is in addition to the fact that Iraqi troops are engaged in the war against ISIS and are fighting alongside Peshmerga troops. ISIS still poses dangerous threats to Iraq’s national security and Iraqi troops are not qualified to fight a second war.

Turkey and Iran are also incapable of using armed force as if they carry out any military operations in Iraq’s Kurdistan, they will witness unrest in their Kurdish regions where the population is double that of the Kurds in Iraq. Turkey and Iran are not in a situation that allows them to take such a risk and confront the possibility of domestic unrest.

There is also the economic factor as for over 25 years, ever since the Kurdish autonomy was established in 1991, Iraqi Kurds built extensive economic ties and partnerships with Iran and Turkey.

The market in the Kurdistan region now relies on products from these two countries, which have investments there worth billions of dollars. Turkey makes around $10 billion a year out of its trade with the Kurdistan region while Iran makes around $5 billion. This is in addition non-official trade, i.e. smuggling.

According to Turkish data, the Kurdistan region ranks third among the importers of Turkish products, after Germany and Britain. The Kurdistan region is the gate used to deliver Turkish and Iranian products to the rest of Iraq. The two countries’ investments in the region are in the oil, gas, manufacturing, transportation, telecommunications and dams sectors.

Strategic interests

The number of Iranian and Turkish companies operating in the region are around 2,000 – most of them are Turkish. Turkey in particular has other strategic interests there as all of the latter’s oil passes to Turkey or through it.

In this case, it will be difficult for Ankara and Tehran to implement strict sanctions on the region as this will harm them more than anyone else. Iranian and Turkish officials implied this in the past few days when they said their measures will not target citizens.

Baghdad will face a similar situation as all Turkish products and most Iranian ones pass through the Kurdistan region and a decent amount of Iraqi oil passes through the Kurdistan region towards the Turkish Ceyhan port.

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There are also joint investments between Arabs and Kurds in the region, like the case is in the rest of Iraq, and they would also be harmed if any sanctions are imposed. Strict sanctions will at most push the Kurds to go back to their traditional economy, which is based on agriculture.

In the 1990’s, the Kurds lived through a severe siege which the Saddam regime imposed. At the time, they did not have any infrastructure but today they have a decent one that’s much better than the rest of Iraq where financial and administrative corruption hindered the infrastructure’s development.

In brief, Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran will realize that economic sanctions will not be efficient. This will open the door to negotiate with Erbil again – a door that’s actually not closed now. They will thus realize that sanctions will push the Kurds in Iraq to further adhere to the independence option!

This article is also available in Arabic.
Adnan Hussein is the executive editor-in-chief of Al-Mada newspaper and head of the National Union of Iraqi journalists. Previously, he has held the position of Managing Editor in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. He tweets under the handle @adnanhussein.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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