Iranian General: Iraqi Kurdish Referendum is Part of US Plot
The Iranian government remains broadly antagonistic to the 25 September 2017 referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) calling for independence. In the wake of the vote—in which Kurds overwhelmingly voiced their desire to break away from Iraq and form their own state— the Iranian government has redoubled its efforts to isolate the region and force the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to reverse its stance.
In the excerpted article, published by a news agency close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s security services, Brigadier General Fathollah Jafari, a senior advisor to the commander of the IRGC, argued that the referendum was part of a plot by the United States and Israel to fracture not only Iraq but also to encourage separatism more broadly. While Jafari’s description of US policy runs contrary to statements by the White House, State Department, and Pentagon which had all publicly opposed the referendum and urged the Kurdish government not to push forward with it—it reflects the paranoia of the Iranian government toward ethnic nationalism more broadly and highlights the deep hostility within Iran’s military that will undercut any significant rapprochement with the United States or moderation toward Israel.
Iranian unease at Kurdish separatism rests upon Tehran’s fears that Iraqi Kurdish separatism could create a precedent for Iranian Kurds to demand a similar referendum or, even absent such a vote, work more generally toward a break with Iran. The fact that Iranian Kurds celebrated the vote inside major Iranian Kurdish cities after the Iraqi referendum only augmented the concern of Iranian security services. Indeed, the IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence cracked down publicly on those cheering on Iraqi Kurds. According to Iranian Kurds, this resulted in dozens of arrests.
The concern for the IRGC, however, reflected in the vociferousness of Jafari’s statement, is likely based on Tehran’s worry that ethnic separatism may not only be limited to Iranian Kurds. Ethnic Persians may be a slight majority in Iran, but the country remains incredibly ethnically diverse. The Iranian leadership fears that Iran could face a potential upsurge in separatism among the Azeris, Baluch, Iranian Arabs, and other groups. While not all ethnic minorities in Iran are separatist, political upheaval and weak central governance have often sparked resurgences of separatism. While the Iranian central government remains strong, Kurdish separatism combined with a looming transition at the top of the Islamic Republic as the aging Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei faces his own mortality, suggests that a perfect storm for Iran could be on the horizon.
Jafari did not only speak about Kurdish separatism but also suggested that the United States was more broadly embracing a strategy of fracturing regional states. This reflects a belief among Iranian hardliners that the United States and its allies seek to divide Iranian client states such as Syria (where the Kurds also have declared an autonomous region) and Yemen, where South Yemeni separatism is once again looming large. If they can depict themselves as fighting broader US and Israeli strategy in countries like Syria and Yemen, they can better justify their continued expensive investment in supporting pro-Iranian proxies in Syria and Yemen.