Iraqi Kurdistan’s drive for independence is generating new regional alignments that deepen Iranian – and potentially Russian – influence in Iraq at the expense of the United States. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq adopted a coordinated, aggressive force posture in retaliation for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum on September 25, 2017. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) conducted military exercises on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan with the Turkish Armed Forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Iranian Artesh. Turkey and Iran implemented a ban on direct flights from Northern Iraq on September 29. The ISF has also begun to establish security checkpoints at border crossings from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey and Iran. The tripartite has yet to enact economic embargos, although the three states threatened to block crude oil exports from the KRG following a temporary ban by Iran. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq nonetheless remain unlikely to escalate militarily in the near term. The U.S. has opposed the KRG’s unilateral campaign on the grounds that it will harm the prospects for a unified, independent, and representative Iraq. The tripartite response and Iran’s growing role also threaten that goal.
The tripartite cooperation between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq builds upon preexisting multilateral frameworks that ultimately expand Iran’s regional influence and undercut American influence. Russia, Iran, and Syria have begun coopting elements of the Iraqi government into a ‘Quartet’ for operations along the Syrian-Iraqi Border. Russia and Iran have also drawn Turkey into a diplomatic process that favors their own interests through the Astana Talks on the Syrian Civil War. Iran will exploit these overlapping forums to expand and legitimize its destabilizing involvement in Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East. Russia also sees opportunity in these forums. It has set conditions to engage more deeply in Iraq amidst the uncertainty surrounding the KRG’s drive for independence. These forums will undermine the prospects for establishing independent, representative, and unitary states in Iraq and Syria – a requirement for achieving broader U.S. objectives.