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May 13 2024

Policy Briefs

Iraqi Kurdistan President Barzani Meets Islamic Republic Officials in Tehran

Andrew Ghalili

SENIOR POLICY ANALYST

Tymahz Toumadje

POLICY ANALYST

Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Nechirvan Barzani met with several senior Islamic Republic officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on May 6 and May 7. These meetings come at a time of increased strain in the relationship between the Islamic Republic and the KRG and highlight Tehran’s influence in Iraq. The visit should also serve as a reminder to decision makers and policy advisors around the world that promoting Iranian Kurdish parties is not a viable strategy to combat the Islamic Republic.


THE BOTTOM LINE

  • KRG President Barzani appears to have visited Tehran in an attempt to reaffirm the two sides’ mutual security concerns, combating Islamic Republic perceptions of the KRG being overly cooperative with Israel, the United States, and Iranian Kurdish militant groups.
    • Barzani met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Akbar Ahmadian, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian, and commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami.
    • The Islamic Republic regularly accuses Iraqi Kurdistan of being a staging ground for both the Mossad and Iranian Kurdish groups. Barzani stated that his government would “not allow any third party to harm the security of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”
    • On January 15, the IRGC launched at least ten Fatteh-110 short-range ballistic missiles at Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, under the pretense of targeting a “Mossad spy base” in the region.
  • Barzani also discussed the ongoing “full implementation” of the 2023 Iran-Iraq Security Treaty, which requires the Iraqi government to disarm and relocate Iranian Kurdish groups away from the Iran-Iraq border.
  • This visit underscores the power and influence that the Islamic Republic of Iran holds within both the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi government as a whole. Despite popular demonstrations within Iraq against Iranian influence as well as flagrant attacks on Iraqi soil, attempts to placate and appease the Islamic Republic are still at the forefront of Iraqi diplomatic efforts. The recurring Islamic Republic strikes into Iraqi Kurdistan show the lengths to which it is willing to go in order to maintain its control over Iraq, which is an essential base of operations for its proxies.

Tensions Between the Islamic Republic and Iraqi Kurdistan

  • On March 19 2023, representatives of Iran and Iraq signed a security treaty in Baghdad which stipulated that all Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, such as the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, must be disarmed and moved away from the border region in exchange for a decrease in Iran’s military interference in Iraq. The deadline for the implementation of the agreement was September 19 2023.
    • On September 12 2023, the Iraqi government announced that it was implementing the first phases of the agreement by beginning to move these groups away from the border and into the “center of the Kurdistan Region.” The Iraqi government further emphasized that it “expects the Iranian side will not turn to violence or threats of violence against Kurdistan or the sovereignty of Iraq.”
    • Following the January attack on Erbil, Iraqi Minister of Defense Thabet al Abbasi threatened to suspend the Iran-Iraq security agreement. Nonetheless, President Barzani reaffirmed the KRG’s ongoing “full implementation” of the security agreement. 
  • On January 15 of this year, the IRGC launched a swath of at least ten Fatteh-110 ballistic missiles into Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The IRGC claimed that they had struck the “Mossad espionage base” of Erbil and  “dispersed anti-Iranian groups.” These claims were categorically denied by Prime Minister Masrour Barzani who said the attack on Erbil was “a crime against the Kurdish people.” The attack by the IRGC led to large-scale anti-Iran protests within Erbil.
    • The well-known Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, along with his daughter, colleague, and housekeeper, were among the dead when at least one ballistic missile hit his home in residential Erbil. 
    • The Iraqi government said that it was not informed of the attack in advance and denounced the attack as a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty as well as the 2023 Iran-Iraq Security Treaty. Following the attack, Iraq temporarily recalled its ambassador in Tehran and summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires to Baghdad. 

Background: Who Are the Barzanis?

  • Nechirvan Barzani assumed the office of KRG President on June 10, 2019, previously serving as KRG Prime Minister from March 2012 until this time. Barzani last visited Iran in August of 2021 on the occasion of Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration. The Barzani family holds vast political power in Iraqi Kurdistan, with Nechirvan Barzani’s Iran-born uncle, Masoud Barzani, being the first KRG President from 2005 to 2017 and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1979. Nechirvan’s first-cousin, Masrour Barzani, is also the current KRG Prime Minister.
    • Nechirvan Barzani received his undergraduate degree in politics and international relations from the University of Tehran and has said he is fond of Persian poetry and culture, as opposed to some other members of his family, such as Prime Minister Masrour Barzani who received his undergraduate degree from American University in Washington, D.C. Due to these factors, he is a preferred point-of-contact between the Islamic Republic and the KRG. Despite this, Nechirvan has also portrayed himself as more “Western” or democratically-inclined relative to other members of the Barzani clan, positioning himself as a favored KRG politician by many in the U.S. and Europe.
    • As the Barzanis dominate the Kurdistan Region’s politics, meaningful competition occurs between members of the family, rather than between different families. President Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, have been locked into political competition for several years, with both of them trying to depict themselves as meaningfully different from the other.

Iranian Kurdish Militant Groups Based in Iraq

  • The KRG, specifically the Barzanis’ Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has historically had close ties to armed Iranian Kurdish separatist groups. The KDP’s founding in Iranian Kurdistan and the birth of its current head in Mahabad, along with their shared leftist ideologies and Kurdish identity, has fostered support between the KDP and Iranian Kurdish militant groups. Iraqi Kurdistan has, until the supposed implementation of the 2023 Iran-Iraq Security Treaty, been the site of the headquarters of many of these groups, which include the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Marxist-Leninist Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala).
    • As of 2018, Komala is a registered lobbying organization in the United States, with an office located in Washington, DC. 
  • These armed groups do not represent the views of the vast majority of Kurds within Iran, which studies indicate do not support ethnic separatism. 
    • Furthermore, the domestic Iranian perception of armed communist groups based in Iraq is resoundingly negative due to their ties with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. These factors, combined with their waning ability to operate within Iraqi Kurdistan, should prevent the West from viewing these groups as a viable method of combating the Islamic Republic.