What started as a diplomatic success and a unique occasion of interfaith dialogue for Iraq as well as its Kurdish autonomous region ended up triggering some unforeseen implications that have caused quite a headache for both Kurdish officials in Erbil and chancelleries in Ankara and Teheran. Indeed, on March 10, Turkish and Iranian authorities reacted in anger over one of the stamps commemorating Pope Francis’ historic visit to Erbil issued by the Ministry of Transport of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which presented a map of Iraqi Kurdistan that comprised chunks of Turkey and Iran’s predominantly Kurdish southeast and northwest provinces, respectively. In a harsh statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry accused “certain presumptuous authorities” in the KRG of abusing the Pope’s trip “to express their unrealistic aspirations against the territorial integrity of Iraq’s neighbouring countries”, and did not hesitate to reminisce “the disappointing outcomes of such deceitful aims”. In a similar vein, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh declared that the stamp in question “goes against international principles and regulations” and called on the KRG “to immediately recall and correct such an unfriendly act”.
But neighbouring countries have not been the only ones to express their concern. Disapproving reactions towards the stamp, which Erbil quickly defined as a “mere proposal submitted by artists” and “not officially approved”, also came from within Iraqi Arab and Turkmen communities in the disputed city of Kirkuk, where the leader of the local Turkmen Front Niyazi Mimaroglu highlighted the threat posed by the stamp’s map to the territorial integrity of Iraq and the security of the region, and a member of Kirkuk’s Arab Council went as far as to label the map as “separatist”.
Albeit not official, the KRG’s endorsement of the stamp risks to be nothing less than shooting oneself in the foot in a very delicate moment for the autonomous region, for two main reasons. First, the stamp has fuelled new intercommunal tensions, especially in the disputed territories of Kirkuk and Nineveh that are home to Turkish-speaking minorities, and now risks to further deepen the federal government’s distrust towards the KRG and its fear of lurking Kurdish secessionism. Since the failed 2017 independence referendum and the loss of Kirkuk to the Iraqi Security Forces, the KRG’s political (and territorial) influence has weakened significantly and Erbil has negotiated with Baghdad from a second-place position, as Kurdish unsuccessful attempts to obtain a higher share of the 2021 federal budget and the subsequent stalemate indicate. Such a situation could negatively affect Kurdish political leverage in view of the crucial parliamentary elections scheduled in October.
The second reason pertains to Iraq’s foreign politics, as the stamp’s map created a diplomatic quarrel with its neighbours, which are amongst Erbil’s major economic partners and, therefore, remain instrumental for its own survival as a de-facto state entity. Turkey, for instance, represents the first trade partner of the KRG, both in terms of exports and investments – especially in real estates and business activities – and imports, receiving almost all the oil produced by the KRI (430-450 thousand barrels per day on average) and pumping it to the strategic Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through the Taq Taq-Ceyhan pipeline. As for Iran, not only it provides the KRG with at least 35 thousand b/d of vital petrochemical products such as kerosene, diesel and gasoline, since most of the Kurdistan region’s hydrocarbon production is intended for export, but it also sells food products and other goods – worth half a billion dollars per month at the beginning of 2021 – in the region’s market. Overall, in 2020 the bilateral trade between Iran and the KRG amounted to three to four billion dollars, or half of the year’s total value between Teheran and Baghdad, which was at least 4 billion less than the previous year due to the constraints imposed by the pandemic.
When it comes to Ankara and Teheran’s reactions, however, there is more than meets the eye. Besides the deep disapproval towards any symbols of or reference to Kurdish nationalism and self-determination – which could revive the separatist struggle from their respective Kurdish populations – Iran, and Turkey even more, were driven by long-standing geopolitical aims over the strategic governorates of Nineveh and Kirkuk. In the case of Turkey, such an interest dates back to the Ottoman period, when the Mosul vilayet – at that time including Kirkuk – was a key crossroad along the trade routes linking Persia, the Levantine Mediterranean coast and the Anatolian heart of the Empire – and now mainly revolves around the protection of Turkish-speaking populations (Turkmen), the access to Kirkuk’s oil resources and, not least important, the strategic depth it provides in the fight against the PKK. Ankara also remains a key security player in Nineveh, by maintaining a forward operating base (FOB) in Bashiqa, in the vicinity of Mosul, as well as in the northernmost part of Iraqi Kurdistan by conducting frequent cross-border operations against the PKK. More generally, keeping a strategic presence in Nineveh is also a way to keep in check the growing Iranian meddling in northern Iraq, where the two countries’ spheres of influence are encroaching. For Iran, access to the KRG and its economic space is equally vital, especially after the US withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed harsh sanctions against the Islamic Republic in May 2018. Since then, several border crossings such as Parviz Khan – through which it is transferred more than 50% of Iranian goods to Iraq – Haji Omaran and Bashmaq have offered Teheran an essential economic lifeline.
Last but not least, Turkey’s harsh reaction towards the stamp’s map also conveys an indirect message to the new Biden administration in Washington about Ankara’s resolute stance against Kurdish self-determination, including that pursued by some Kurdish groups within the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s northeastern territories, and its unconditional support to Iraq’s territorial integrity, a precondition that not many years ago then Delaware Senator Joe Biden was ready to sacrifice for putting an end to the country’s sectarian civil war.