November 14, 2016
If the Kurdish region of northern Iraq were to become an independent nation the move would create important political and economic problems for the neighboring nations of Turkey and Iran, as well as for the Iraqi central government, according to a new RAND Corporation report.
Though researchers do not advocate for an independent Kurdistan, they examine the potential implications for the region if the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq were at some point to declare its secession from Iraq. Specifically, the authors analyze the interests of three key regional neighbors—the Iraqi central government, Turkey, and Iran—and explore policies each actor may pursue in response to Kurdish independence. They find that if Kurdistan does secede, its three key neighbors all would prefer that it is done gradually rather than suddenly, and they would not want to see a rise of Kurdish nationalism in their own countries.
“If a gradual estrangement between the Kurds and Iraq led to a negotiated separation, the Iraqi national government could attempt to extract as many benefits from Kurdish independence as possible, while mitigating the negative impact of losing the Kurdistan region,” said Alireza Nader, the study's lead author and a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. “Overall, Kurdish independence gained through a mutually acceptable agreement between Iraq and the Kurds has the most possible benefits for both parties.”
The Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, straddling the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.
Researchers explore the consequences of an independent Kurdistan under three different scenarios. The first is possible unilateral declaration of Kurdish independence, which is broadly opposed by other governments in the region. The second is a “last man standing” scenario in which the Iraqi state collapses and the existing Kurdistan Regional Government becomes an independent state. The final scenario would be a gradual estrangement between the Kurdish-led regional government in northern Iraq and Iraq's national leaders in Baghdad.
Despite the unwavering insistence by the Iraq national government that the Kurdistan region will remain a part of Iraq, the central government's ability to prevent the Kurds from gaining independence may be limited, according to the report.
Iraq's national leaders face significant challenges that inhibit them from acting decisively to maintain control of the Kurdish region, and it seems unlikely that it will be able to overcome those hurdles in the near future, which limits its courses of action to oppose Kurdish sovereignty.
The report asserts that Turkey has abandoned its long opposition to Kurdish independence as a result of domestic political changes, growing energy needs, expanding bilateral trade with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and increasing political uncertainty in Iraq and Syria.
From Turkey's vantage point, slow and steady progress toward Kurdish independence has significant political and economic advantages, whereas sudden moves toward sovereignty—and especially any apparent promotion of greater autonomy for Kurds in Turkey and Syria—would pose political and economic risks.
The issue of an independent Kurdistan is sensitive for the Islamic Republic of Iran because of fears that it would embolden its own large population of repressed Kurds. However, Iran may tolerate an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq if it judges that it would not threaten Iranian stability.
“Iran's economic ties to the Kurdistan Regional Government could temper its reaction to the Kurds' declaration of independence,” Nader said. “That Iran has increased its economic ties to Kurdistan, despite Iraq's strong objections, indicates that financial benefits may ultimately outweigh Iranian concerns over Kurdish nationalism.”
Funding for this study was provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.
The research was conducted within the RAND National Security Research Division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.