Erbil-Tehran relations sour over Iraq's
Kurdistan govt foreign policy
August 16, 2012
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R)
meets with Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani
in Tehran October 30, 2011. Photo: Reuters.
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ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — “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
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
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 Sulaimaniyah. 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,”
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
“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
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
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,
adding that it sends the message to extremists that
attacking the Kurdistan Region is like attacking Tel
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
As tensions between Tehran and Erbil appear to be
high, Kurdish officials say they favor dialogue and
“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.
By Hevidar Ahmed
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