Does the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan fulfill with the right to self-determination?

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“ His letter to Henry Kissinger in 1974 aligning his movement with the US”

Hedayat Soltanzadeh

The following is an abridged translation of an article that has been published on several Farsi language sites. It was written on the eve of the referendum that was held in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, 2017.

1. Why referendum?

Every referendum derives its meaning from its aims. The aims therefore define its value, whether it is good or bad. In December 1979 Khomeini, wishing to exclude rivals in the political scene, relied on the stirred-up emotion of the most backward layers of Iranian society to put the Constitution of the Islamic Republic to a vote that still hangs heavily over the people of Iran.

For this reason it is important to analyse the aims of the referendum proposed by Masoud Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan in some detail. No referendum is in good or bad in abstract. The sum of conditions, including the aims of those proposing it, determine its positive or negative value. The Brexit referendum in the UK, under the pretext of regaining sovereignty and taking back the right to make our own laws, places the people, the economy and even the very Union under a cloud. In a world where the living conditions of all independent countries are determined more global issues the proposed referendum by Barzani is more like opening Pandora’s box in the complex situation of Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq and the wider Middle East. Rather than solving anything it will add numerous, and unpredictable, problems to the already damaged society in Iraq and Kurdistan.

One could ask: what more can Iraqi Kurds achieve, considering that they live within the framework of a federation with quasi-confederative autonomy and with privileges that no federative country has? While the spectre of a civil-war now hangs over them, insisting on holding such a referendum instead of a constructive dialogue with the central government, where Kurds have a political representation, can not only provoke new enmities, but opens the way for regional and international reactionary forces to interfere. Neither Kurds nor Arabs will benefit. Moreover, the breakup of any country into “Lilliputian republics” will only reduce its political and economic role locally and on a global scale.

2. The right to self determination

Abstract ideas are there to allow a logical approach to problems. They do not exist in a vacuum. There is neither such thing as an abstract horse, nor an abstract right. It is the specific conditions of any ‘right’ that define its contents and value.

It may be argued that this referendum is for the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination in Iraq. Is independence, however, the only criteria for self-determination? Conversely, have the Arabs in the tribal country of Saudi Arabia any say in their fate; a country towing the label of “independent”, which has stuffed half its population in a black sack in the name of Islam and whose people have not yet to glimpse the ghost of even the tightly-controlled election like that in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Other democratic necessities are needed before the right to self-determination realises its real meaning and context. A country can have all the legal requirements of a state in the international arena while its people are denied their most elementary rights. Are such people exercising their right to self-determination? Or can one achieve full political and civil rights in a single country and avoid paying the heavy price of opening up old wounds and inflicting new ones? Unqualified stress on the idea of the right of people to self-determination right up to the extent of total separation in all conditions is equally wrong as an unqualified and abstract emphasis on the inviolability of a state’s boundaries at the cost of repression and disenfranchisement of a people within that country. History sadly shows us that the cost of separation in many cases, which I will refer to later, has been heavier.

Undoubtedly the right to self-determination is a democratic right which no democratic movement can oppose. Over the last 100 years the Kurdish people have been subjected to repression. They have the right to take control of their own destiny. One must understand the relative place of independence in this just demand. The Algerians fought for their independence, and in the process lost one million out of a 9-million population. Its first president, Ahmad Ben Bella, said we saw after independence that all we got from that independence was a flag and an anthem. This is not to say that to struggle for the right to self-determination or becoming independent is not worth fighting for. But it requires an understanding of the limitations of that “independence” in the larger political, economic and military equations globally.

The left movement in Iran has regularly defended this right. But defending a right to self-determination is not necessarily the same as to give support to separation. To insist on an idea in isolation, in the abstract, without taking note of the national and international forces pursuing it, and without considering its specific aims is to fall into absolute fanaticism.

Unfortunately, both the idea of inviolability of national borders and the right to self-determination have become tools in the hands of global powers and local dictators. The defining characteristics have been their interests and those of their governments.

In that same country that Masoud Barzani wants to put the referendum for separation to a vote, once, with Saddam in power, the US defended the suppression of the Kurds in the name of inviolability of national borders. Then after 1990 it switched to their right to self-determination and armed them. In neither were the interests of the people in its sight.

Nowadays we should see Barzani’s referendum as a tool for sidelining his opponents and consolidating a monopoly of power under the protection of “right to self determination”, by stoking popular sentiments on the one hand, and obtaining concessions from the central government on the other. In this policy only Israel appears to wholeheartedly support him.

The breakup of the Saddam regime and general weakening of Arab governments, particularly oil producers and those with strategic importance for the US and its regional allies, should be seen as part of the project for the greater Middle East. In this project the government of the Kurdistan district, as part of a federative government of Iraq, fulfils its role in the regional chess game. This project essentially aims at the breakup of countries rather than redrawing their external borders. An actual breakup of Iraq into separate countries can seriously destabilise Turkey, the most important arm of NATO in the region, with its large Kurdish minority. Politics is not a one-way game. Nor does it have a one-way result. The Turkish president Erdogan’s policy towards the Kurdistan region has gained greatest advantages from the changes in the region. Eighty percent of investment in Kurdistan Region comes from Turkey, and particularly from people close to Erdogan. Any upset in the balance of forces in that region may have dire consequences for them. It appears that the maintenance of the integrity of Iraq combining with its internal breakup is more in keeping with the interests of the US than its real breakup or a redrawing of national borders in the region. US opposition to the referendum can be seen in this light. For Turkey, the existing system is the best of all worlds.

Independence will not take the Kurdistan region out of its current siege. The long-term advantage for Kurdistan is in co-operation with the central government of Iraq. Independence instead will render it a permanent hostage to Turkey.

The referendum may improve the interest of limited sections of Kurdish society, and that for a short time. But in a wider perspective it will seriously damage the rights of the Kurds in Turkey and Iran, which house the greater number of Kurds.

3. History

The right of sovereignty was enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the European wars of religion and which recognised the sovereignty of kings in defined borders and became one of the basis of international law. The French revolution transferred that right from the monarchy to the nation. The theory of right to self-determination as understood today dates back to the French Revolution and was announced by Maximilien Robespierre in 1792. At the time the right to self-determination was thought as no more that the right of the citizens to democratically control government institutions. There was nothing in either regarding the right to separation. Robespierre was even opposed to any form of federalism and thought that it would fracture the principal of the absolute right of sovereignty. It was only in the beginning of the 20th Century that the concept entered political discourse of the left, specifically by Lenin in the Stuttgart congress of the Second International. It was not universally accepted by socialist parties and was mainly confined to the Bolsheviks.

With the entrance of America into the political arena in the First World War the idea of the right to self-determination to the extent of separation was introduced in President Wilson’s 14 Points as a political tool to break up large European empires, and became enshrined in international law. A US Secretary of State later called it an explosive article that is not necessarily defensible in all circumstances. There exist in today’s world five to ten thousand national groups (depending on the definition of a nation). If we were to apply the abstract right to self-determination here we would have to accept a vast increase in the number of nation states.

With the end of the Second World War and the creation of the UN to safeguard peace in the world, the right to sovereignty of nations as defined and the right to self-determination of peoples appeared in the Charter incongruously. In the liberation wars of the post WWII political rivals in the international arena used this right to self-determination according to their own interests. Their trajectory was not respect to the right of oppressed peoples but their own momentary interests, to be ditched whenever those interests required.

4. Exceptions

Sometimes international tension between super-powers created conditions for oppressed nations to escape the control by the power ruling them. It is natural for these nations to jump at this opportunity and use this rivalry to achieve their own sovereignty. In both world wars upsets in the balance of power provided this opportunity for some nations to emerge.

Ho Chi Minh, using the space provided in the post war rivalry between Britain and Japan and later the Cold War between the two blocs is a clear example. Ho Chi Minh was never a tool of anyone, nor used that to ride on the back of his own people. The power of self-determination was generated from within that society, not by outsiders, creating a client power.

The breaking of the backbone of British army in WWII in Asia by the Japanese army provided an opportunity for the people of the Indian subcontinent. The Indians used the structure of the Indian National Congress, a creation of the British to run their colonial government, into a tool for national sovereignty without breaking it up. The Indian government did not become a client state because not only Britain, but no other country had the power to impose its will on it. The nature of Indian society was qualitatively different from that Iraqi Kurdistan.

The structure of the population and political leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan is more akin to the tribal societies of most African and Middle Eastern countries. It has a far more limited growth of civil society than Iranian Kurdistan. Before the British entered India, that country was contributing 24% of global GPD.(( After independence India was one of the founders and cornerstones of the “Non-Aligned Movement”. Such a prospect is unimaginable for the Kurdistan region, even as an independent Kurdistan. It will inevitably enter the sphere of influence of others. Iraqi Kurdistan is a region without access to the sea. Yet even such a large entity as the Indian subcontinent, with access to the sea, under intrigue of the elite split up into two, and later three (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) with up to two million dead tens of thousands raped and wounded, and over 12 million refugees. With the onset of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry vast quantities of the national wealth have been diverted to militarisation with outsiders taking side in a conflict with no end in sight.

5. Prospects for an Independent Kurdistan

Some have said that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Kurds to take their own destiny in hand. We all remember Saddam’s repression and the use of poison gas against the people of Halabcheh that indiscriminately slaughtered 5,000 civilians, or the dynamiting of Kurdish villages on the borders. Under pressure of popular uprising and civil war dictators show their real savage face. The left stood unequivocally beside the Kurdish people in all these events.

But Barzani’s referendum, opposed by the UN and all countries except for the apartheid regime in Israel, will seriously put the political and legal legitimacy of the country under question. The Barzanis’ one-sided look at the world of politics can have a heavy cost for the Kurdish people, creating a suitable terrain for neighbouring and regional countries to benefit by interfering. From a geopolitical standpoint Kurdistan has no outlet to the sea. Even Russia, despite being the largest country in the world has had difficulty in using sea lanes for its commerce. A tiny country like Kurdistan such difficulties will be many-fold, while as part of Iraq the same issue does not arise. According to the London journal the Economist, the Kurdish economy has a foreign debt of $20 billion and in the event of separation from Iraq another $10 bn will be added on.(( Despite exporting its oil the KRG has been struggling to pay its bills.

6. Already has more than autonomy

At least for the last 15 years the idea of an oppressed nation does not apply to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish region is part of an Iraqi federation. Except that in reality it is far more. No autonomous region anywhere has its own army. Yet, according to US news media, Iraqi Kurdistan’s army, supplied with modern weapons by European countries and the US, is larger and more effective than that of Iraq’s central government. In short, for a population of under 20%, an army greater than the remaining 80% has been built. During all these 15 years the Kurdistan section was been getting 17% of the oil income and the central government only cut this off when Barzani’s government started its own oil drilling and making its own contracts with twenty oil companies, including Mobil, Chevron, Total and the Russian Rosneft and selling it via Turkey to Israel. This was a time when oil prices had dropped to one third and this, plus Kurdistan’s independent extraction of oil, gave the central government an excuse to stop paying Kurdistan’s share. Such special concessions was only given to the Kurdistan region and did not apply to the area occupied by the Sunnis. It is no surprise that the Sunni Arabs who had ruled Iraq for 40 years feel discriminated against.

The autonomy in Kurdistan is far greater than that seen in Canada, Belgium or any other federative state in the world. It would appear that Barzani’s referendum is a manoeuvre to sideline his long standing internal rivals such as the Talebani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and consolidate the position of the Barzani family in all the institutions of power in that region. This is the prime reason for the referendum for Barzani: to ride on the democratic right of the people for personal gain.

7. Peter Galbraith and oil companies

The constitution of a federal Iraq was written by Peter Galbraith, one of three sons of John Kenneth Galbraith, economist and adviser to Roosevelt and two other US Democratic Presidents. Peter Galbraith was a personal adviser to Masoud Barzani from the time of the American invasion of Iraq. He was, and remains, at the same time advisor and employee of a Norwegian oil company and some US oil companies. Peter Galbraith has close relations with Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president who at the time of the invasion of Iraq was in charge of the foreign affairs committee of the Senate. Joe Biden, whose son also has close relations with oil companies, reflected the same views of Galbraith: that Iraq should be run as a loose federation rather than broken up.

The constitution of the country has articles that give a special privilege to Kurdistan region that any new oil deposits discovered in the region can be exploited by the regional government without Baghdad having any rights. This included the discovery of oil in the Tawke (TAWA) region. At the time of the writing of the constitution the central government was preoccupied by trying to consolidate shi’a power and appeared to be ignorant of, or did not foresee the legal implications of this clause. Phillip Galbraith has personally benefited approximately $100 million from these oil contracts.

8. Human and economic costs to Iraq

One cannot talk of ones own pain and ignore the pain of others. The current autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which followed the invasion of Iraq has been achieved at enormous human and economic costs to the country. Its entire economic, educational and heath infrastructure, as well as its public welfare system was destroyed.

According to the Watson Institute in the US, (( in collaboration with 15 universities, more orphans were created than the entire population of the Kurdish region. Five million lost their homes and are without shelter, two million of whom have fled the country, including over 2,000 doctors. Up till 2013, the first decade after the invasion, 190,000 had lost their lives, of which 70% were civilians. This does not include indirect casualties, estimated as 290,000.

Even before George Bush’s attack, sanctions had caused the death of a half a million children through lack of medicine and malnutrition. During the time before the second Iraq war of 2003, western countries had created a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan. This was used to arm and train the peshmerga forces in Kurdish region as a bulwark against the forces of the central government. After the invasion the total destruction of the Iraqi army left the Kurdish military as the only viable army in the country.

The power vacuum in other regions of the country encouraged the rise of terrorism, which in turn provided the excuse for greater interference in the name of “war against terror”, the creation of multiple other terrorist networks and the intervention of other countries in the internal affairs of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani derived the greatest benefit from receiving arms and financial support in the fight against terrorism. This took place while both Turkish president Erdogan and Barzani, alongside their US ally(( aided Daesh (ISIS). Barzani stockpiled the arms handed over by the German government to him for the “war against terrorism” to sideline their internal rivals ((, or sold them. Some reportedly appeared in Daesh hands(( According to American Enterprise ((, it was the Barzanis that supplied Kormit anti tank weapons to Daesh before their attack on Mosul to cause damage to the central government army in that city. Therefore the rapid collapse of Mosul and the tragic crimes that followed were no accident.

When the Yazidi’s asked Masoud Barzani for help against the Daesh onslaught, or at least arms to defend themselves, not only were their desperate pleas were ignored, but he even withdrew his peshmergas from the vicinity of their territory.(( Indeed Daesh was a gift to the Barzanis, not only to secure them more arms, and millions of financial assistance, but an excuse to occupy territory outside control or authority of the Kurdistan regional government. A Daesh in whose creation the Barzanis had a role was a blessing. Barak Obama’s administration spent $450 m in the fight against Daesh by 2017 which according to Michael Rubin in the American Enterprise, (( reprinted in Newsweek, was given to those currents for whom the fight against Daesh was secondary. What he meant was the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

9. Costs of the occupation

Creation of the quasi-state in Kurdistan and the shia’ government in Baghdad, neither of which have any of the characteristics of a modern state, have been costly for the US. The cost of the attack on Iraq was initially estimated to be between $50 and $60 billion but had ballooned into a staggering $2.2 trillion over the first ten years. Just the banking interest on that expenditure will $3.9 trillion by 2050, which ultimately the people of America will have to pay through cuts in their living conditions.

10. Kurdistan as family fiefdom

What historic opportunities are we talking about that the Kurds need to grasp in their referendum? Fifteen years ago a great opportunity was opened for the Barzani and Talebani clan to enrich themselves by appropriating public wealth. The heads of the Kurdish clans, as local elites, are vying with the likes of East European and Arab oligarchs in purchasing luxury villas in foreign countries.(( Corruption is raging in their midst while the majority of the population live in poverty. This period has allowed the Barzanis an opportunity to create a family rule over the Kurdistan region: Masoud Barzani as head and kingmaker of the province, his son Masrur as head of security, his nephew as prime minister ….

11. Long history of appealing to outsiders

Mulla Mostafa Barzani, fonder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who returned to Iraq at the invitation of Abdul Karim Ghasem, after he had overthrown King Feisal in a coup, began a secret liaison with Israel(( in the early 1960s. This relationship is now open. Years ago Seymour Hersh reported Israeli experts training pishmergehs(( His letter to Henry Kissinger in 1974 aligning his movement with the US (( at a time of carpet bombing and use of napalm in Vietnam speaks volumes.

The old Barzani’s methods of relying on outside help continue to this day and other Kurdish parties have tried not to fall behind. It may be a historic irony that Netanyahu, who does not recognise any rights for Palestinians and continues to extend settler settlements in the Occupied Territories, who has created a ghetto in Gaza reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi times, supports the Kurdish referendum with such passion, exclaiming they are like us. Haaretz newspaper endorses the decision by reporting on a close genetic connection between Jews and Kurds!(([

12. Borders and democracy

The Kurdistan region does not have fixed borders. Since the appearance of Daesh it has doubled its geographic reach, compared to the UN supervised borders agreed after the US invasion. Included in this expansion is the oil rich Kirkuk area which was outside Kurdish region’s jurisdiction. It was occupied by the regional government after the fall of Mosul and the fleeing of the Iraqi army. A calculated migration of large number of Kurds into this area overturned the ethnic mix and rendered it effectively part of the Kurdish regional jurisdiction. In a recent interview Barzani(( said that these new occupied territories are non returnable and non-negotiable. “Concessions will not be made over the identity of Kirkuk,” he stated. With such a logic used by our Kurdish brothers, that wherever a Kurdish population settles is Kurdish territory, are we to anticipate a bloody ethnic cleansing over the oil wells?

This is the same policy pursued by Syrian Kurds. Any land they liberate from Daesh they call their historic land and incorporate. They are also trying to extend that to Syrian oilfields. It is true that conditions in Kurdish occupied territories in Syria are different than in Iraq and more democratic conditions operate there, yet any policy of incorporating new lands is pregnant with bloody conflicts.

Whatever the destiny of the war in Syria, the Kurds there will not have the same conditions as before. Even though their population is small, the central government has little control over the region and no government emerging in Syria can ignore the national rights of the Kurds. It is likely that they will have autonomous power within a federal Syria. Even now they are calling their region “federative”.

In Turkey too, a move away from demanding secession to a more federative solution in their fight for a right to self-determination can force the reactionary Erdogan’s party to retreat from its present intransigence. The victories of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the 2015 election and subsequent events was followed by Erdogan muddying the water and fanning internal strife to prevent the spread of democracy and reduce HDP influence. The gains of HDP were particularly in the European sections of Turkey like Istanbul and Ankara where there has seen a large Kurdish migration, which has been absorbed into the economy. This can be a model for Kurds and democratise politics in the Turkish landscape.

Thus independence is not the only form of ensuring self-determination; not the only way of defining that right. There are other frameworks for securing that aim without going down a costly route and provoking ethnic enmities. The HDP is not a purely Kurdish party but is supported by left and democratic layers of Turkish society. Turkey is not reducible to Erdogan and his clique. Its long-term and enduring interests lies in the coexistence and solidarity of the nations within it. The migration of Kurds across the country, the more it will remove them from their ethnic roots, and directs them towards participating in a democracy in a federative system. The present reactionary forces will not have the power to resist that prospect.

13. Iranian Kurds: dependency on outsiders

The role of Turkey and Iran in the Kurdish areas has been persistently destructive, inhuman and anti-democratic. They have no other tool than repression. The policy of Iran after the American invasion of Iraq was to relentlessly pursue increasing shia’ power in in the whole of Iraq. This was particularly marked when Nuri al-Maleki was in power. Effectively this totally derailed the national question and the possibility of peaceful co-existence.

In Turkey too, Erdogan government with its coup d’état and initiating a civil-war prevented the emergence of a democratic space which the victory of HDP had opened up. But it cannot continue with the same policy. Its security services with Saudi financial help, and that of the Gulf wealthy, had transformed Turkey into a terrorist haven and a transport tunnel for international terrorism. At the same time the Islamic Republic of Iran by exporting shia’ terror in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is effectively fanning the fire of sunni terrorism. The battle against shi’ism has allowed reactionary sunni forces to flourish. Both Iran and Turkey have used sections of their Kurdish population to push their geo-political ambitions in the region.

In Black September 1971, the massacre of Palestinians in Jordan took place. Under such conditions it was quite understandable for a people to ask for help from reactionary regional states and America. The savage massacre of Palestinians by Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal drove them into the arms of Israel – like running away from a snake to the embrace of a dragon.

In both Turkey and Iran, which houses a greater population of Kurds than Iraq or Syria, the Kurds do not have even minimal rights. Just being a Kurd in Iran is tantamount being guilty. So the direction taken by its political parties, particularly Iranian Kurdish parties, is towards outside their borders, away from their traditional supporters on the left, and towards disreputable governments. Under the continuous repression of the Islamic Republic, such political trajectory is understandable, but insupportable.

All parties in prolonged exile lose their organic links to the population they served. A new generation appears that is unknown to them. For the party bureaucracy, the separation of Iranian Kurdish parties from their social base over the last thirty odd years has meant a tendency to look outward in order to survive. Their financial dependence on the two Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, necessarily brings with its political dependency. Inevitably this slowly erodes a political party’s ability to think independently. Many generations have fought for the right to self-determination in Kurdistan. The move towards Israel and regional reactionary forces in order to safeguard the interests of this bureaucracy will without doubt damage the general interests of the Kurdish people.

The announcement of support for the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan by Iranian Kurdish parties went further than a simple support for a referendum. In it lies the seeds of a pan-Kurdism with expanding borders that will be damaging in their union with other nations and a democratic life. The same regional and international powers, when their interests requires, will easily use them as a bargaining chip. Let us recall the treaty between the Shah and Saddam with its consequent repression of both Iraqi and Iranian Kurds. Political and moral authority and trust is acquired at a great cost but is easily lost.

14. Consequences

The referendum for separation of Kurdistan has been compared to the separation of the Czech republic from Slovakia(( or Norway from Sweden. This is more like a fantasy than reality. At present there are many areas disputed between the central government and Kurdish regional government and a prelude to bloody conflicts. This is not Czechoslovakia or Sweden and Norway before separation. Even the countries of the Russian Federation, with by and large clear defined borders, there took place bloody border disputes which caused a huge amount of bloodshed and still harbours hatred and animosity and continued bloodshed. Let us not delude ourselves. The Kurdistan region is home to a society totally different from the advances European countries with long traditions of democracy, well entrenched political institutions and the rule of law.

The Kurdistan region has up to recent times witnessed bloody conflict between different political groups for hegemony. The nearest comparison is with Libya after the fall of Gadaffi, which put the regions of Benghazi and Tripoli at each other’s throats despite sharing religion and language. The first consequence of the declaration of independence of the Kurdish region will be the uncontested control of Iran over the shia’ government in Baghdad. Presently the presence of the Kurdish region and Sunni Arabs in central government act as a relative reigning in of the regime in Baghdad. The second consequence is a political and economic blockade between the centre and Kurdistan.

Perhaps the worse result of this referendum will be further repression of Kurds in Iran and Turkey. The central governments in both countries will have the necessary excuse for increasing repression under the excuse of combating the breakup of the country. There is nothing new in using this stigma, but now they will be emboldened. Moreover separation in the name of right to self-determination will undoubtedly damage the solidarity and fellow feeling of ethnic and democratic groups within Iraq.

On a larger scale this referendum will reroute the civil and political struggles in these societies from a generally democratic direction to a dangerous ethnic and national trajectory. This is a perilous route. Are there no political and democratic solutions to address the issues between the Kurdistan regional government and the centre? In the Middle East, there are numerous disputes and no shortage of arms but political wisdom is rarer than diamonds. The referendum proposed by Barzani will increase tension rather than seeking a rational solution to solve the problem of the right to self-determination within the framework of his country.

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