Iraqi Kurds Cool Ties to Israel

Iran Stand-Off Sparks Friction in Hush-Hush Alliance

Hush-Hush Alliance: Iraqi Kurdish leader Marsoud Barzani has long been one of Israel’s only allies in the Middle East. Ties have been strained by Israel’s campaign to counter the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran.
getty images
Hush-Hush Alliance: Iraqi Kurdish leader Marsoud Barzani has long been one of Israel’s only allies in the Middle East. Ties have been strained by Israel’s campaign to counter the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran.

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 18, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

A decades-long relationship between Israel and Iraq’s Kurds, maintained mainly in the shadows, faces new challenges as the two sides are split over the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran.

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Region Government, visited Washington recently. Notably, he did not meet with Jewish officials, nor did he touch on issues relating to Israel. Ties between the Iraqi Kurds and Israel have cooled as Israel pushes for support in its fight against Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Iraqi Kurds, on the other hand, hope to reduce tension with a powerful neighbor and want to avoid giving Tehran ammunition to use against them.

“I don’t think [the Kurds] want to irritate Iran too much,” said Robert Olson, a University of Kentucky professor who specializes in Kurdish affairs. “After all, they live next door.”

Judith Yaphe, senior fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for Strategic Studies, said Israel and the Unites States should not count on help from the Kurds in case of a showdown with Iran. “There’s not much they can do,” she said.

The close relationship between Israel and the Kurds dates back to the 1950s, fueled mostly by their shared position facing several powerful enemies in the region.

The Kurds are an ancient Middle Eastern people numbering more than 25 million. They are scattered across the territory of several modern-day states, but have no independent state of their own. Iraqi Kurdistan has maintained de facto autonomy from Baghdad since the first Gulf War, when Western allies prevented Saddam Hussein from intervening in the region.

Due to its strategic location, Iraqi Kurdistan reportedly hosts undercover operations not only of Israel, but also of Iran.

David Pollock, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that during a recent visit to the Kurdish region, he spoke to a prominent political figure who told him he estimates Iran has more than 700 safe houses in Sulaymaniyah province in the Kurdish region. “I asked him what they are used for, and he said, ‘If I knew, they wouldn’t be safe houses any longer,’” Pollock recounted.

The Iranians’ long-term interest is to keep Kurds in check, particularly since Tehran has its own Kurdish minority to worry about, Marvin Zonis, a professor of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

“Iran’s interest, as is Turkey’s, always was to prevent any demonstration that something positive can come out of Kurdish autonomy,” Zonis said.

During his recent visit, Barzani pointedly sought to steer clear of any appearance of taking sides in the dispute between the West and Iran. As a venue for the only public appearance during his visit, Barzani chose the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a well-regarded Washington think tank known for its pro-Israel approach. In carefully crafted remarks, Barzani said his government would like to have normal relations with Iran, although it is committed to United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on the country.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.