The PUK and Iran

It is hard not to see the PUK’s current unwillingness to cooperate in running Kurdistan as part of a wider drift toward increasing Iranian influence in the region.

A MEMBER of the Iraqi security forces takes down a Kurdish flag in Kirkuk, Iraq. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMBER of the Iraqi security forces takes down a Kurdish flag in Kirkuk, Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurdistan depends on a strong Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Indeed, the whole region does. Yet factionalism within Kurdish politics and the connections of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political party to Iran threaten to leave Kurdistan controlled by forces outside its borders.
Since 2005, the KRG has helped to provide stability within Kurdistan. It has fulfilled all the roles of a country’s central government within the region, coordinating the police and the peshmerga (local military forces), providing funding for infrastructure projects and passing laws. It has been the strong center holding Kurdistan together. If there were no KRG, then it would be difficult for Kurdistan to exist on anything other than a symbolic level; it is the smooth operation of the government that has allowed for the practical running of a state, rather than just dreaming about it.
Since even before the KRG was formed, however, there have been splits in the political spectrum of Kurdish politics. The PUK, now under Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, has long been at odds with its ostensible partners in Kurdistan’s government, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), under Nechirvan Barzani. The two have varied in their attitudes towards Kurdish independence and the speed at which it should be pursued, as well as the kind of distribution of power that should follow in the wake of any move toward it.
When they have come together, it has resulted in a relatively strong government for Kurdistan, able to govern across the region. More than that, it has resulted in obvious benefits for the autonomous region, ranging from a coordinated approach to international issues to effective defense in times of crisis. When Kurdistan is not riven by internal disputes, it allows for the more effective channeling of resources into projects that will allow Kurdistan to prosper, and a greater sense of coherence, so that inhabitants identify themselves first in terms of the region rather than in terms of political allegiance.
Such cooperation is even beneficial for the wider world around Kurdistan, allowing it to react in an effective way to threats of destabilization and to militants who represent a threat to both it and its neighbors. Kurdistan has long prided itself on providing a point of safety and stability in an otherwise dangerous region, but it can only do that when it is not itself torn apart by its politics.
 In spite of that, the PUK seems determined to push at the divisions. Perhaps it feels that it must do so in order to appear distinct enough for people to vote for. Perhaps, following its losses in the last political cycle, it feels that it needs to pick a fight in order to galvanize its support. Perhaps it suspects that it is unlikely to have full control of a more united Kurdistan, and therefore seeks to emphasize division so that it can have greater power within a few small areas.
If we are being generous, perhaps we could say that the PUK’s willingness to field candidates in Kirkuk in Iraq’s elections stems from a belief that one must be at the table to influence events. Or perhaps there is another reason for it. Perhaps they saw an election that the KDP took no part in as an easy path to victory.
If so, we must ask why control in Kirkuk mattered, and to whom. It is hard to deny that Iranian influence in Kurdistan and in Iraq has been increasing. These are times when Iranian investment within Kurdistan has become the norm, and Iranian businesses thrive there, often under the protection of the local political parties. Iraq, meanwhile, has begun to play host to Iranian military forces in scenes that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago, and Iranian backed parties have done well in the elections there. It seems obvious that Iran has been employing a strategy of using local political partners to extend its influence into regions that were once at odds with it, as part of its wider power competition with Saudi Arabia.
Where does the PUK fit into this? Qubad Talabani, who headed the PUK list in the recent elections, is known to be an ally of Iran. Indeed, there is close cooperation between Kurdish and Iranian forces in PUK-controlled areas of the region. During the invasion of Kirkuk in the wake of Kurdistan’s independence referendum, moreover, there seems to have been an agreement between Iranian commanders and the PUK’s leadership that led to the withdrawal of peshmerga troops from the city, prompting its occupation.
With this in mind, it is hard not to see the PUK’s current unwillingness to cooperate in running Kurdistan as part of a wider drift toward increasing Iranian influence in the region. Doing so could be dangerous, however. Kurdistan needs to maintain friendly relations with all of its neighbors, but being swept up in the Iran/Saudi greater game risks being abandoned down the line. It also risks alienating Kurdistan’s existing foreign allies, and worse, turning it into a kind of vassal state, beholden to the PUK’s Iranian benefactors.
It seems better to avoid this, for the PUK to recognize the need for stability and concerted action within Kurdistan for it to maintain its position within the wider region. There needs to be a move back toward harmony in Kurdish politics.
Moving toward Iranian influence doesn’t seem to be the way to do that.
The writer is a master’s student of law, author and political activist. Brought up in Kurdistan during the period when the Kurds were being persecuted by the Iraqi government, he currently lives in the UK, is a member of the British Association of Journalists, and is the founder of news site The New Mail. He has written three books on the region, including The Idea of Kurdistan and Kurdistan: Genocide and Rebirth, which was an international book awards finalist in 2015