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Research Questions

  1. What are the regional implications of Iraqi Kurdistan becoming a sovereign state?
  2. How would the Iraqi government, Turkey, and Iran respond to Kurdish independence in northern Iraq under different scenarios?
  3. How would a resurgence in Kurdish nationalism affect these countries' responses?

This report examines 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. The authors discuss the possible responses of Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran under three different scenarios: a unilateral declaration of Kurdish independence that is broadly opposed by the region, a "last man standing" scenario in which the Iraqi state collapses and the Kurdistan Regional Government becomes an independent state, and a gradual estrangement between Erbil and Baghdad. The authors also consider how each of these scenarios could be influenced by a resurgence of Kurdish nationalism in which Kurdish populations in Iran, Turkey, or Syria not only support the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan in northern Iraq, but even seek to join the new nation.

Key Findings

Iraq's Perspective

  • The secession of the Kurds would pose a direct challenge to Baghdad's authority. However, Baghdad's ability to prevent the Kurds from gaining independence may be limited.
  • A unilateral declaration of Kurdish independence is likely to provoke the most hostile response from Baghdad. In contrast, a gradual estrangement between Erbil and Baghdad that led to a negotiated separation would enable Baghdad to mitigate the negative consequences of Kurdish independence and has possible long-term benefits for both parties.
  • If the drive for Kurdish independence were accompanied by the reemergence of pan-Kurdish nationalism, Baghdad might be able to coordinate with Ankara and Tehran against Kurdish independence.

Turkey's Perspective

  • Once a strong opponent of an independent Kurdistan, Turkey has now developed close political and economic ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
  • 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 by the KRG greater autonomy for Kurds in Turkey and Syria — pose political and economic risks.

Iran's Perspective

  • The issue of an independent Kurdistan is sensitive for the Islamic Republic because of fears that it would embolden its own large population of repressed Kurds.
  • Iran may tolerate an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq if Iran judges it would not threaten its own stability.
  • From the Iranian government's perspective, a gradual and preferably negotiated Kurdish separation from Iraq would be preferable, as it would decrease Baghdad's objections to Kurdish independence and provide Tehran with the time necessary to mitigate potential unrest at home.

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 (NSRD) of the RAND Corporation.

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