A small region, with a separate language and an independent culture, seeks secession from a larger country. The central government warns against the referendum, as do regional and global powers. The region pushes ahead anyway and the vote passes by a significant margin, over 90 per cent. The central government calls the vote illegal. Violence erupts. In the days after, the situation is tense, as politicians on both sides ponder their options. More violence is expected.
That outline describes both the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Spain's Catalonia region. Both have pushed too far, too fast for a referendum, and provoked a backlash from the central government.
In some respects, the situations in Erbil and Barcelona are similar. Both have comparable populations of around 8 million. Both have chafed for years under the rule of the central government. Both have framed their desire for a separate state as a question of simple rights. And both find themselves hemmed in by a wider region eager to maintain the status quo and fearful of what secession could bring.
In Europe, the European Union, already concerned at the impact of one of its largest members, the UK, leaving the bloc, fear accepting the Catalonia referendum would spark a rise in regions and perhaps countries also pushing for “self-determination”, either from individual countries or from the European Union. It was, after all, that message of self-determination that persuaded British voters to exit the union.
In the Middle East, Iraq's Kurds seek independence at the precise moment when the integrity of several countries are at risk or already shattered: neither Iraq, Syria, Yemen nor Libya are effectively governed from their capitals. Arab, Iranian and Turkish leaders fear that a separate Kurdistan in northern Iraq would provoke the Kurdish populations of Iran, Turkey and Syria to seek independence as well, further fragmenting the regional order.
For the Kurds, that precise moment of flux meant that a referendum – or at least the threat of one – carried a certain amount of political logic. But rather than use the moment to force a better deal on Baghdad, Erbil instead detonated the nuclear option of the referendum – and having wielded it, neither side can easily step back. The same applies in Catalonia. That's why the referendums, if not mistaken ideas, were held at a mistaken moment.
Both countries would have been better to have taken inspiration from another part of Spain, which played its battle for independence rather differently.
The history of the Basque fight for independence is well-known. For decades, the militant group ETA sought independence for the small northern region on the border with France. The Spanish government finally forced the group to give up its weapons and its struggle for secession. But Madrid went further, giving the region huge financial autonomy, effectively channeling money from the central government to that region, resulting in the Basque region being one of the richest in Spain today. The movement for independence has faded, as most begin to feel life inside the Spanish state is better than the uncertainty outside.
It is true that, after the 2003 invasion, Iraq's politicians tried to tie the Kurdish region financially to Baghdad, giving Erbil the autonomy to keep significant amounts of the revenue created in the region. That seems to have emboldened the Kurds to seek total independence and in retrospect it looks like Baghdad should have tied the greater financial autonomy to a pledge to stand back from independence.
Yet it is still not too late to find a way out of this impasse, but it will take political skill and compromise.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, wielded the weapon of independence badly, as did the Catalans. Unless it is certain that independence is possible and a better option, an independence referendum is best wielded as a weapon to seek further concessions from the central government.
It is now clear that Mr Barzani believed that calling the referendum would push outside powers, especially the United States, into supporting it. In fact, the opposite happened, a spectacular miscalculation.
The Kurdish bargaining position is now worse than before, because before they might have persuaded the central government that countries such as the US would not oppose independence. Now it is clear where all the outside powers stand – the referendum pushed them to declare their hand, painting the Kurdish leadership into a corner. Mr Barzani cannot easily walk back the referendum in front of his people, even if he wanted to. But declaring separation at this moment could provoke a conflict that would wipe out the gains of the past decades.
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What Mr Barzani should do now is declare that he accepts the decision of the Kurdish referendum and that independence for Kurdistan is now non-negotiable. But he should insist – given the very real dangers that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would face, not the least of which would an immediate conflict with better armed countries and the difficulty of being landlocked amid hostile neighbours – that a period of preparation is necessary.
That would give him the political cover to negotiate with Baghdad a better deal (a negotiation that Baghdad should ensure satisfies the Kurds), which would allow a transition of perhaps several years, or more. If the deal negotiated is financially favourable, as the deal Madrid struck with the Basque country was, and if Baghdad insists on more accountability and more democracy from the Kurdish region, then Erbil and its regions could flourish, which would dampen the movement for secession. The Kurds would still have the answer of the referendum, but the path to the exit door would be made just a little bit longer.
Madrid ended Basque separatism by offering the region financial, not political, freedom. Baghdad should offer the same deal to Erbil – and the Kurds should take that way out.
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