Events in Iraq over the last week or so have cast yet another shadow over US foreign policy in the Middle East, raising doubts about whether President Trump can follow through effectively on his promises to curb Iranian influence in the region. The Iraqi Army’s October 16 takeover of the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk—supplemented by Iran-backed Shiite militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—has prompted a significant shakeup within the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq. Now Iran’s Kurdish proxies are poised to exert more influence over local politics than at any point in the past 20 years.
Those proxies, in particular the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have been marginalized within the KRG since 1997, following the conclusion of the Iraqi-Kurdish civil war between the PUK and its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which ended in victory for the latter. Since the end of that war, the KDP has dominated KRG’s parliament, maintained control over the office of the presidency, and cultivated close working relationships with the United States, Turkey, and, some say, Israel.
The events surrounding the fall of Kirkuk have shaken up this balance in a way that will likely strengthen both the PUK and Iran, which as a result will enjoy increased leverage over KRG politics, likely at the expense of both the KDP and the United States. Military and political pressure that Iran’s proxies have exerted on the KDP since October 16 has already produced tangible results: Late on October 24, the KDP-led KRG government announced that it had decided to “freeze” the results of the controversial September 25 KRG independence referendum and engage in “open dialogue” with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. This comes just days after the top figures within the PUK leadership publicly denounced the referendum, warming up to the international and regional position regarding its legality.
Although these developments may be welcomed in Washington—which also opposes the referendum—this can hardly be considered a victory for the United States. American diplomats, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have made their opposition to KRG secession clear to Kurdish politicians for years, to little effect. Rather, it was Iran-backed hard power and diplomacy that produced a change in the KDP’s position, not the United States.
Relations between the KDP and Washington may also sour, in part because of Washington’s failure to provide military, diplomatic, or political support to Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, but also because of the Trump administration’s opposition to the independence referendum.
“When I served in Iraq, our goal was to constantly balance our responsibilities and commitments to both Baghdad and the KRG without appearing as if we favored one or the other,” Robert Ford, former diplomat and US ambassador to Iraq following the Iraq War, told The Nation. “I think now, that’s going to be a lot harder to do.”
A recent multibillion-dollar oil deal between Russia and KDP officials could also allow Moscow to draw traditional US allies farther out of Washington’s sphere of influence.