President Masoud Barzani plans to hold a referendum to declare a sovereign Kurdish state. But will Iraq — and the United States — allow it to happen?
MASIF, Iraqi Kurdistan — In a career spanning 55 years as an independence fighter, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan is intent this year on reaching a landmark in his lifelong dream. President Masoud Barzani recently announced plans to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence, scheduling the vote for Sept. 25.
In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy on June 12 — his first since announcing the referendum — Barzani said amicable divorce from federal Baghdad is the only solution to Iraq’s woes and wider regional instability.
“A long time ago I reached the conclusion that it was necessary to hold a referendum and let our people to decide,” he said. “For a long time I have had this belief that Baghdad is not accepting real, meaningful partnership with us.”
Barzani acknowledged that the referendum will be the first step of what promises to be long and fraught negotiations with Iraq’s central government. But it’s not only Baghdad that might object: The United States remains committed to its one-Iraq policy, and neighboring Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest trading partner, has labeled the referendum “irresponsible” and a “grave mistake.”
Barzani, however, remains undeterred. When asked whether negative backlash from its neighbors could result in the Kurdistan region’s isolation, he said Kurds would rather die of starvation than live under oppression. “If this decision is made by referendum and the reaction is to isolate us, let our people die,” he said. “That will be a ‘glory’ for the world that they have killed our people by starvation just because those people wanted — through democratic means — to express their destiny.”
Barzani’s decision to call the referendum will likely be his last major decision as president. He has already stayed in office two years after his term expired, citing the war against the Islamic State as the reason for remaining in power, and says he will stand down when local elections are held in November.
Entering the last few months of his rule, the 70-year-old leader is considering how his life has been inextricably entwined with Kurdish independence. “Imagine what this means for my legacy. All of my life has been for the independence of Kurdistan,” Barzani said, speaking at his presidential palace in the foothills above Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region.
His father, legendary Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, led the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran. Masoud Barzani was born there, in the only time and place the Kurds have ruled over an independent state. “When they raised the Kurdish flag, I was born in the shadow of that flag,” Barzani said.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the Peshmerga at 16 and assumed leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1979. Most of his experience dealing with federal Iraq ever since has been defined by conflict and violence. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds suffered through wars, genocide, and persecution. “The Anfal campaign, chemical bombardment, the destruction of our villages, the mass graves, genocide — that was the lot of the Kurds from this time in its relations with Baghdad,” Barzani recalled.
Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed a rare decade of stability. From the ruins of conflict, Iraqi Kurdistan developed as a beacon of stability fueled by investors attracted by the region’s vast oil reserves. An international airport, glitzy shopping malls, public parks, and rapid expansion came to characterize Erbil.
All this was threatened in 2014 by the shock of advancing Islamic State fighters, tumbling oil prices, and an influx of Iraqis fleeing from neighboring regions. While Barzani and the Kurds won global acclaim for their role in the fight against the Islamic State, relations with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad only worsened. A dispute over oil exports led Baghdad to withhold funds from the region entirely. “Post-2003, what was the share of the Kurds?” Barzani asked. “They cut the budget of Kurdistan, and they have not abided by the Iraqi Constitution.”
Barzani still faces major obstacles in his attempts to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into an independent state. The oil-dependent economy has languished with the fall in prices; the majority of the workforce is on the public sector payroll and is only receiving partial salary payments from the cash-strapped government.
“If we wait to have the ideal situation to have a solution to every single problem, that’s not going to happen,” he said.
The issue of disputed territories — lands claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil and home to many of Iraq’s minority communities — also remains unresolved. The Kurdistan Regional Government hopes that de facto control of the territory it seeks to incorporate, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, will render this point moot. For minorities living in disputed territories, he said a “no” vote would suffice to indicate their preference for remaining part of federal Iraq. “They have the option not to vote,” Barzani said. “If they need another referendum, then maybe after that.”
The referendum also lacks a legal mechanism for implementing its results — at most, it will be seen as providing officials with a mandate to pursue secession talks. “We are going to start serious, peaceful negotiations and dialogue with Baghdad,” Barzani said. “We don’t want also to accept to be their subordinate. This is in order to prevent a big problem, prevent a bloody war and the deterioration of the security of the whole region.”
Since announcing the referendum, Barzani has spoken with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a conversation he characterized as positive. “We told him that we want to solve this issue with Baghdad through peace and not through violence,” Barzani said. “He was receptive and understanding.”
Barzani was eager to emphasize that fracturing Iraq didn’t have to result in instability. “We will do whatever is necessary to support Prime Minster Abadi to make him successful in his premiership,” he said. “We will continue our cooperation on counterterrorism. We will increase the coordination between the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Army.”
And eventually, Barzani hopes, the international community will come around to his point of view. “They are saying that maybe this is not a good time, or it may create problems, and I have my differences with them on these two points,” he said. “If these international players are against this referendum, that means that they are against their own values — the peaceful, democratic right of people to express their own decisions about their destiny. If they stand against the referendum, it means that they are against democracy.”
Whatever else Kurdish independence might bring, for Barzani it would seal his legacy. “I want to die in the shadow of the flag of an independent Kurdistan,” he said.