Washington — 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.