With the Lausanne agreement signed earlier this month, it’s safe to say that Iran is on the march.
Tehran is now enjoying the benefits of a “diplomatic iron dome” it’s been building over the course of six-plus years of negotiation, nurtured and in a sense funded by US President Barack Obama’s desire to negotiate while not addressing the larger problem of a militant regime run amok. The result is that while diplomats agree on an acceptable number of centrifuges, the Iranian Islamic revolution has grown more aggressive, supporting, coordinating or running wars in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and now Yemen, while being increasingly open about its genocidal intent toward Israel.
Israel, on the other hand, has done what it traditionally does when it comes to strategic international threats, which is to sit on the regional sidelines and wait things out. Though this approach may have worked for it in the past, and is still popular with the Israeli public today, it ignores the unprecedented nature of the growing threats that now surround Israel.
It’s clear that Israel needs an independent strategy on Iran. And, though it may seem unexpected, it can find the potential for such a strategy in the Kurdish people’s fight for independence.
As a national independence movement, the Kurds have a claim to national sovereignty at least as strong as that of any other ethnic minority. Despite this, it seems when you look at the surface, there’s little room to break the hostilities, entanglements and intolerances created by the current regional players – Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia, and the Kurds themselves – who are involved in the Kurdish conflict. But, digging a little deeper, the Kurds offer Israel a unique opportunity to build from the ground up a new friend by helping with the sort of nation-building challenges that the “start up nation” is uniquely able to help overcome.
For Israel, there are a number of compelling interests and motivations that argue for the adoption of an interventionist Kurdistan policy that goes beyond the back channels and current lip-service support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thus far offered.
The Kurds, who number around 30 million people, have, like the Jews, suffered for centuries as a powerless and persecuted minority. They’ve been gassed, massacred and exiled, and to this day not only remain stateless but have watched as their land has been split into five separate countries. Furthermore, with a distinct claim and an ancient history going back millennia, the deep cultural parallels to the Jewish story generates the critical public support for a sustainable aid program in the Knesset.
There’s good reasons to believe the Kurds themselves have what it takes. Foreign Affairs recently called 2015 “The Kurds’ Big Year” in a lengthy piece arguing in favor of northern Iraq as the most likely seat for Kurdish independence this year. Islamic State (IS) has effectively removed Baghdad’s authority over the autonomous Kurdish majority in the north (who had been left to fend for themselves).
The world watched in horror at the end of 2014 as the Yazidis were butchered and enslaved, stressing the need for a solution to the ongoing Kurdish crisis, causing even the typically antagonistic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shift his stance on the Kurdish question, becoming more sympathetic and eventually putting in motion a political process to resolve his own country’s Kurdish problem.
The result is that the Kurds have extended control as far as Kirkuk and, in the process, have been legitimized on the world scene to the point of receiving foreign military assistance from NATO and signing their own global oil agreements (of which Israel was among the first customers).
Last year, Masoud Barzani, the leader of the ruling KRG, announced a highly touted independence referendum in northern Iraq, giving the Kurds their greatest hope of freedom in generations.
Looking at Israel’s national interest in a free Kurdistan, there’s a compelling case for an interventionist policy in the near-term. Inhabiting northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and southern Iran, the Kurds are situated on a strategic launch pad in the heart of the region, whose importance is hard to ignore. Moving strongly in support of a Kurdish state would also allow Israel to strengthen relationships with western Asian states, like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, who have a vested interest in Kurdish independence and a shared anxiety over their Iranian neighbor.
For the Kurds, Israel has much to contribute, not least of which is a highly advanced military-industrial complex that’s sophisticated enough to develop a bold military aid program to supply Kurdish fighters. Its premier intelligence agencies are able to assist Kurdish leaders in decision making and a highly-trained and experienced IDF officer corps could advise and train Kurdish soldiers. In addition to initiating clandestine support specifically for the Iranian Kurds’ independence movement, Israel has the means to provide arms and advisers to the Iraqi Kurds with the goal of assisting them in maintaining autonomous control over their region, degrading Islamic State (IS), and strengthening Kurdish resolve in the face of Iranian aggression.
That leaves the question of with whom – out of all the factions, tribes and militias involved in the conflict – does Israel ally on the Kurdish side? The short answer is no one and everyone. It’s critical that Israel not insert itself as a kingmaker (something it tried in Lebanon, where the attempt ended in disaster). Rather, from a diplomatic standpoint, Israeli needs to embrace the Kurdish cause, not a particular leader or cadre of leaders. Similarly, Israeli policy on Kurdistan should not encompass just the Iraqi Kurds, despite their strategic advantages, but all Kurds throughout the region.
Doing this means approaching the various Kurdish political coalitions and vying parties as a “big-tent” patron who is less interested in political winners and losers than in the building of uncorrupted organizations, strong institutions and a viable military force led by people who value Kurdish national life and liberty over personal gain. Though this kind of decentralized power distribution model has its complexities (especially when it is dealing within a network of inter-tribal interests) Israel can mitigate the challenge by allowing ground intelligence officers, and not politically interested parties, to determine how resources are allocated. This, of course, would require that Israel have intelligence resources on the ground embedded with local populations to guide careful, judicious and collaborative decision-making.
From the standpoint of economic aid, such a decentralized aid program aligns with Israel’s limited resources.
Instead of big investments, Israel should model itself on the IMF’s approach to using micro-lending to build town and villages instead of cities and states, similar to the kind of development initiatives Israel ran for African states with its periphery strategy of the 1970s.
Though there may not be immediate pay off in the short term, only this kind of big-tent policy on Kurdistan, which decentralizes its influence through divisional military assistance and local economic aid programs, will allow Israel to generate an enduring friendship with an emerging nation. To regain the security initiative and roll back Iran’s Islamic revolution, Israeli politicians need to think like the country’s most successful entrepreneurs do: bigger, more creatively, and with dogged determination.
Nature, we know, abhors a vacuum. As the US retreats from the region and the Middle Eastern sands shift, Israel is well-placed to fill this vacuum rather than be passively consumed by it. Now is the right time for Israel to shed its long-held island mentality and transform itself into a lighthouse nation that can shine its light on a free Kurdistan, reverse the Iranian march, and work toward the liberation of millions of Kurds now living in the shadow of Iranian totalitarianism.