Today, Kurds in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will go to the polls to vote in a non-binding referendum on independence from Iraq. Whatever one's view of the legality of the referendum – the Kurds are ignoring a ruling by the Iraqi Supreme Federal Court to delay the vote while it rules on several challenges that have been filed before it – holding the referendum at this time is particularly unwise. The Kurds risk losing international support and exposing political fissures within. More importantly, it places the gains the Kurds have made over decades at risk.
With the exception of Israel, virtually all the countries of the world have said that this is the wrong time for the Kurds to take such a step. Iraq, the Arab League, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United Nations, Turkey, Iran and most European states have urged the Kurds to postpone the referendum as a distraction from the fight against ISIL, and at a time when the Kurds have utterly failed to establish the basic rudiments of a state. The US has gone so far as to say that the Kurds' actions will be destabilising. Given the threats being made by Iran and Turkey, that may be something of an understatement. The US in particular, understanding the utter chaos into which its Middle East policy could be placed by the referendum, has warned the Kurds that proceeding with this unilaterally declared vote could "jeopardise trade relations and international assistance of all kinds."
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The Kurds themselves are not united. Their president is now in his fourth year past the end of the legal term of his office and has not faced the electorate in eight years. Two years ago, when parliamentarians began asking embarrassing questions about this state of affairs, the regional parliament was suspended. It has not met since, except when two thirds of its members were recalled a few days ago to give meek and obedient acquiescence to the referendum without the right to debate the wisdom of holding it. Though the mass of Kurds may have had their dreams of independence kindled, the political class is deeply divided in Kurdistan about the timing and the potential consequences of Monday's events. Iraq's president, an ethnic Kurd, has said that this is the wrong time for the referendum, as has Gorran, the embattled opposition party that garnered the second-highest number of seats in the last regional parliamentary elections. At this writing, there are reports that a controversy is raging within the ruling Kurdish parties as to whether the referendum should take place in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, unilaterally declared to be a part of Kurdistan by extra-constitutional means.
Politics aside, the Kurdish region is an economic shambles. Government salaries have been slashed, notwithstanding several accommodations from Baghdad. Over the past two years, the government has been allowed by Baghdad to keep 100 per cent of the revenues of the oil fields of Kirkuk, even though the legal share is 17 per cent. This accommodation has occurred even as Baghdad has continued to pay the salaries of the oil workers in Kirkuk. Moreover, Baghdad has not demanded an accounting for billions of dollars seized by the Kurdish Regional Government since 2014. Still, salaries in certain sectors are as much as two years behind. Baghdad, by contrast, has not missed a pay cheque. Politics aside, the economic instability of the government augurs ill for independence and is itself a potential cause for instability that the Middle East cannot afford.
The gains the Kurds have made in Iraq over the decades have been incredible. In the late 1980s, they were the objects of genocidal treatment by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Following that despot’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait, the Kurds secured the protection of the US and the UK. The result was that they set up two governments, one in Erbil and one in Suleimania. By the mid-1990s, the Kurds were fighting their own civil war, one which Suleimania, with the help of Iran, was on the verge of winning. Erbil allied itself with Saddam and beat Suleimania back. The two governments remained in place, even as the Kurds became isolated from Iraq.
Although the Kurds have made the appearance of unifying their two governments, the two Kurdish axes in Iraq remain divided. Still, they have been able to maintain stability within the region, while, thanks to the post-2003 dispensation, they have re-engaged in Baghdad, where they have an important voice. Their gains on the international arena have also been impressive. Fifteen years ago, Turkey regarded a federated arrangement with Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to its own unity. Now, Turkey is the Kurdistan region's leading trading partner, as Turkey has seen that Baghdad has accommodated the federal arrangement. The Kurds risk all these gains, as Baghdad predictably reacts with anger against being dictated to by Erbil and as Turkey and Iran, each with their own large Kurdish populations, look upon Kurdish independence as an existential threat.
A wise leadership would have sought to engage Baghdad and solve their problems without the unilateral declaration of a non-binding referendum. The Iraqi prime minister, unlike his counterparts in Erbil, does not rule: he governs through a coalition and is ultimately responsible to the federal parliament. The referendum makes it far more difficult for him resolve those issues. How, for instance, can Baghdad justify continuing to share the wealth of Iraq's south, where 90 per cent of its oil reserves lie, after the Kurds declare themselves in favour of independence? How can Baghdad tolerate a Kurdish president, ministers, members of parliament and thousands of bureaucrats once the Kurds reject Iraq?
A wise leadership would have asked itself these and a myriad other questions before embarking on this ill-conceived and ill-timed course. Wisdom, alas, has been in short supply throughout these events.
Feisal Amin Rasoul Al Istrabadi is the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University. He was ambassador and deputy permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations from 2004 until 2007