Turkish-Iranian Rivalry Threatens Stability in Kurdistan Region of Iraq

The shift in the balance of power in Iraq after the recent election could have an important impact in a key arena where Turkey and Iran play out their regional rivalry.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq borders both Iran and Turkey – two countries caught in a web of complex and often competing interests in the Middle East. After the 2003-US led invasion, Turkey and Iran competed for influence in the autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey nurtured ties with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while Iran built on relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). More recently, Iran-backed militias have operated in northern Iraq, attacking both Turkish and US interests.

Parties linked to these militias lost out in last month’s vote, and Sunni and Turkmen parties, which are often courted by Ankara, boosted their positions. The outcome raises the stakes in the battle for influence in Kurdistan. Turkey believes that Iran’s strategy is to undermine Ankara’s economic and diplomatic influence there. Tehran views the area as its own natural zone of influence and an extension of its implicit mandate over the rest of Iraq. While the two powers continue to lock horns, they threaten the stability of  the Kurdistan region, which escaped much of the bloodshed suffered in the rest of Iraq since 2003.

Both Ankara and Tehran historically used Kurdish armed movements operating across their borders for their own purposes. Their rivalry in northern Iraq centers around how each country handles various Kurdish political and armed groups.

Throughout the 1990s, Turkey frequently blamed Iran for tacitly supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, along with the US and UK, views as a terrorist organization. Iran allowed the PKK to organize camps along Iraq’s border region next to Turkey’s Hakkari province. Building on a 1983 agreement with the KDP, the PKK established several strongholds in northern Iraq. At the time, Iran backed the KDP but also cultivated ties with its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. In 1984, after the PUK’s overtures to Baghdad failed, the party turned to Iran as a patron. Tehran sees the PUK as a useful ally to control the Iraqi-Iranian border area and contain the influence of Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

After the 1991 Gulf War, competition for leverage over the Kurdish parties intensified and in recent years, Iran-backed Shia militias have added another element to the complex mix by carrying out attacks in the Kurdistan region. The militias are part of the Popular Mobilization Units – an umbrella organization for mainly Iran-backed armed groups created in 2014 to fight ISIS. In February, more than a dozen rockets targeted the US-led coalition base near Erbil International Airport killing a contractor and injuring several American nationals. A lesser-known group named Saraya Awliyla Al Dam (Guardians of the Blood) said it had carried out the attack. The group is believed to be a front for more well-known Iranian proxies.

The attacks in Erbil revealed growing Shia militia involvement in northern Iraq, using Iranian-made rockets launched from inside Kurdish governed territory. The aim is probably to drive out from the country the remaining US military force of around 2,500 personnel.

The militias have also gone after Turkey amid growing concern that Ankara is entrenching its presence by enlisting the support of Kurdistan Regional Government officials to oust PKK strongholds and undermine Iranian influence. Meanwhile, Iran seeks to spoil an agreement made in October last year between the Kurdistan government and Baghdad to remove both the PKK and Iran-linked armed groups from the disputed area of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. After Turkey launched an operation in February to rescue 13 prisoners held by the PKK, a number of Shia militia factions issued warnings against the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq. Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba threatened the Turkish armed forces if they moved into the Nineveh and Sinjar areas. Asaib Al Khayf posted a video of a missile it claimed to have fired against a Turkish military base in Bashiqa, Iraq.

How Turkey-Iran relations in Iraq will play out is dependent on several factors. First, the attacks by Shia militias against US and Turkish targets may continue sporadically, depending on the level of funding and support from Iran.

Second, Turkish-Iranian rivalry will undoubtedly be influenced by the pace of Iraqi national politics. The Oct. 10 elections delivered a major setback to the Fatah Alliance, a medley of parties linked to the militias, while parties more favorable to Turkey made notable gains. However, this will not guarantee Turkey unchecked influence over Iraqi affairs, nor does it spell the unmitigated demise of Iranian sway in Baghdad.

The third factor concerns how far Kurdistan Regional Government officials are willing to cooperate with Turkish intelligence and military units against PKK camps in northern Iraq. At the federal level, political and security elite in the regional government have amplified calls to punish or remove external spoilers from their territory, including the PKK, by force if necessary.

Compared to the rest of Iraq, the Kurdistan region has remained relatively stable in recent years. An autonomous parliament managed to function relatively unhindered and the economy has outperformed the rest of the country. But without a unified commitment to eliminate the influence of armed groups, the consolidation of democracy and stability in Kurdistan will continue to be hamstrung by messy proxy conflicts.

Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.