In the midst of the war against ISIS (Islamic State) now taking place in both Iraq and Syria, a possible shifting of alliances that could fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region is taking place, and no one seems to have noticed. Specifically, the burgeoning relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq has the potential to remake the political landscape of the Middle East. Naturally, such a development is part of a broader geopolitical gambit by Iran, and it will have significant ramifications for all regional actors. However, it is Turkey, the gulf monarchies, and Israel that potentially have the most to lose from such a development.
While Iran has long-standing disputes with elements of its own Kurdish minority, it has demonstrably taken the lead in aiding Iraqi Kurds in their war against extremist fighters loyal to ISIS. As Kurdish President Massud Barzani explained in late August, “The Islamic Republic of Iran was the first state to help us…and it provided us with weapons and equipment.” This fact alone, coupled with the plausible, though unconfirmed, allegations of Iranian military involvement on the ground in Kurdish Iraq, demonstrates clearly the high priority Tehran has placed on cooperation with Barzani’s government and the Kurdish people in the fight against the Saudi and Qatari-backed militants of ISIS. The question is, why? What is it that Iran hopes to gain from its involvement in this fight? Who stands to lose? And how could this change the region?
The Iran Equation
While many eyebrows have been raised at Iranian involvement on the side of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, perhaps it should not come as a much of a surprise. Tehran has steadily been shoring up its relations with Erbil, both out of a genuine desire to form an alliance, and as a counter-measure against the ouster of their close ally and partner, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Since the US war on Iraq began in 2003, and especially after US troops left in 2011, Iran had positioned itself as a key, and in some ways dominant, actor in Iraq. Not only did it have significant influence with Maliki and his government, it also saw in Iraq an opportunity to break out of the isolation imposed upon it by the US, EU and Israel over its disputed nuclear program. For Iran, Iraq under Maliki was a bridge both physically (linking Iran with its allies in Syria and Southern Lebanon) and politically (serving as an intermediary with the West in negotiations). In addition, Maliki’s Iraq was to be the linchpin of a new economic strategy which included the proposed Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline, a project which would have provided Iran overland access to the European energy market, thereby allowing the Islamic Republic to overtake Qatar as the region’s dominant gas exporter to Europe.