Is Kurdistan ready for a U.S.-Iran war?

By Michael Rubin:

Tension between Iran and the United States is at a peak. On October 11, Attorney General Eric Holder accused the Islamic Republic of plotting an attack on American soil. “Today, the Department of Justice is announcing charges against two people who allegedly attempted to carry out a deadly plot that was directed by factions of the Iranian government to assassinate a foreign ambassador here in the United States,” he announced.

Over subsequent weeks, tension increased. On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report finding that Iran’s nuclear program included components which had no civilian energy role, only military applications. A month later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recovered a top-secret U.S. spy drone. In just the last two weeks alone, Iranian authorities announced they had captured a CIA spy and the U.S. government announced a $10 million bounty on Yasin as-Suri, an Al Qaeda financier believed to reside in Iran.

Amidst the tension, Tehran is defiant. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Navy (IRGC-N) will soon hold a ten-day war game, reportedly to demonstrate the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian authorities have refused both Bush and Obama administration offers to set up a hotline to de-conflict any crisis in the Persian Gulf. On September 27, Ali Fadavi, IRGC-N chief, declared, the “only way to end their concerns is [for the United States] to leave the region.” The Pentagon is taking the opposite approach: Within weeks, three U.S. carrier strike groups will be within range of Iran, while normally only one or two are in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman.

Iran and the United States now appear on a collision course. On December 18, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that if the United States receives “intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it,” he added, further raising the specter of a military conflict.

Iraqi Kurds and Iraqis more broadly can argue about whether Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are justified and they can also debate responsibility for the recent tension between Tehran and Washington. Analysts—whether they are in Washington, Jerusalem, or Tehran—largely agree, however, that the Middle East is closer to a major war now than at any time since 2003.

Any conflict—whether between Israel and Iran, or the United States and Iran—will impact Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan gravely. While many diplomats and television commentators speculate that Iran might try to close the Strait of Hormuz in case of war, this is not likely. Not only can the U.S. Navy reopen the narrow waterway within 24 hours, but Iran also needs to export oil and important refined gasoline in order to survive. Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would be self-defeating for Iran.

How then might Iran lash out should war erupt? If Iranian-backed proxies were able to destroy the southern Iraqi oil terminal or sabotage the infrastructure in the Rumaila Oil field, Iran might be able to knock up to a million barrels per day of oil off the market driving up the price Iran can collect through its continued oil fields. The South Oil Company has no contingency plans to prevent such disruptions.

The question for Kurdish authorities is whether they have any such contingency plans. After all, oil is increasingly important to the Kurdish economy, yet Kurdistan’s oil fields are all quite vulnerable to disruption and sabotage. That Iran receives smuggled oil from Iraqi Kurdistan may not be enough to buy restraint. Kurdish oil’s value in any proxy conflict increases alongside production. That Western companies are so invested in Kurdistan simply make Iranian-backed sabotage more tempting.

Iranians may undercut the region for other reasons. Whereas before Saddam’s fall, many analysts expected Kirkuk to become a flashpoint between Kurds and Turks, the Turkmen more often turned to Shi‘i militias rather than the Iraqi Turkmen Front.  Iraqis across ethnic and sectarian groups understood that the Iraqi Turkmen Front was little more than a Turkish intelligence front, and Shi‘i Turkmen felt Ankara’s sectarian discrimination.

Jaysh al-Mahdi and Badr Corps activity in the Kirkuk government was not coincidental: Every neighboring state looks at Iraq through the prism of precedent. If Iraqi Kurds enjoyed strong federalism—with ample oil revenue supporting it—what would stop Iranian Kurds from making similar demands? The riots which occurred in Merivan and Mahabad shortly after the signing of the Transitional Administration Law only underscored Iranian insecurity. Therefore, Iran might take the opportunity to undermine Iraqi Kurdistan not only to hurt the Western economy and increase the price of Iranian oil, but also to achieve a political objective.

More broadly, the relative freedom that Kurds enjoy is an affront to Tehran, The Iranian regime has very little self-confidence. It understands that few Iranians believe anymore in the idea of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent and so Tehran wants Iraqis and Iraqi Kurds to enjoy no freedoms that Ali Khamenei will not tolerate in his own country.

The Kurdistan Regional Government may believe it can remain neutral. Neutrality will not bring security. Few in the United States have forgiven or forgotten Yemen’s abstention in the UN Security Council, for example, after Saddam Hussein originally invaded Kuwait. Distrust is already high. Kurdish leader are upset with their abandonment, once again, by the West. Meanwhile, the Kurdish sale of American secrets to the Iranians during the years of American presence created significant distrust toward the Kurds in the intelligence community and Pentagon.

Iranians might target Americans and other Westerners residing in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish security officials have kept quiet in the region not only through police state efficiency, but also by paying off Iranian intelligence with information on Americans in the region. That devil’s bargain might come back to haunt Kurdistan should the Iranians decide the desire for revenge overcomes the advantages of stability. At stake are not only hundreds of lives, but also Kurdistan’s reputation and the future of investment in the region.

Some Kurdish politicians may believe that their own close relationships with Iranian politicians and security officials preclude any serious Iranian action. When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a medical emergency and was evacuated to Jordan in 2007, one prominent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official met with Iranian intelligence officials along the border to seek their assistance—not America’s—should succession have been necessary. Rather than help that official, Iranian authorities exposed his outreach to exacerbate Kurdish divisions and undercut political stability.

Should war erupt between any Western state and Iran, the Kurds would be caught between a rock and a hard place. There would be no good outcome, either for the regional government or for Iraqi Kurds. Discussing the prospect of war, however, does not mean advocating for one. Rather consideration of such scenarios would allow the government to mitigate potential damage and blowback. Planning may not be the Kurdistan Regional Government’s greatest strength, but the price could be high if Kurdish authorities do not soon start.

Copyright © 2011


8 Responses to Is Kurdistan ready for a U.S.-Iran war?
  1. Baqi Barzani
    December 23, 2011 | 17:35

    Iraqi Kurds will by no means cooperate with the USA in confronting Iran.
    If the US backs an independent Kurdistan, then there might be a possibility.

    Simantanously, the US must vow the 10 million Iranian Kurds the same amount of autonomy for any chipping in.
    If any cooperation with the USA, it will be only confined to thwarting foreign forces from transgressing the designated boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan only.

    If the US is determined to confront Iran, it should start working on preparing (uniting) Kurdistan Peshmarge forces from now. A better proposition would be to install a military type regime for the time being.

  2. Michael Rubin
    December 23, 2011 | 18:46

    Kak Baqi,

    I wouldn’t expect the Kurds to cooperate, nor would I expect them to be asked. The question is that if something happens between the United States and Iran (or Israel and Iran), are the Kurds prepared for the fallout which might occur? The same question could be asked of other regional states.

    With regards,


  3. Baqi Barzani
    December 23, 2011 | 21:39

    Willy-nilly, just like most ex- wars, regional countries will directly or indirectly be drawn in most conflicts against their own will.

    Iraqi Kurdistan could be invaded by neighboring incomparably, militarily superior countries.

    Iran will strive to retaliate through its proxies in South, but that does not guarantee that Kurdistan will remain immune from Iranian cross-border invasions to contain Iranian opposition forces or to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan. If Iran could threaten Israel or its neighbor Turkey, Kurdistan does not even count.

    The United States will rely on its Kurdish friends’ assistance, especially the 10 million oppressed Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan, as it was the case before launching the invasion of Iraq.

    Flares of any possible conflict with Iran will spill over to Kurdistan. Remember President Bush quote back in 2001 saying “you’re either with us or against us”. Kurdish cooperation is key , and will be asked both prior and post attacks.

    As for as pre-planning is concerned, at the present time, all Kurds seem able to resort to is trying to guard the status quo. If invaded by any occupying force, there sure will be strong opposition and resistance even with or without the US support. But that would happen mostly by patriot Kurds, not the degenerate KRG administration that has been repeatedly asked to unify Peshmarg forces, but failed to do so.

  4. Kuvan Bamarny
    December 24, 2011 | 00:36

    If Iran attack kurdish poeple then of course kurdish people will attack them back.However kurdish poeple do not have strong military capablities to open a war front with the Iraninan Army.What Kurdish peshmerga can do is to fight a guerrilla type of war with the Iranian army.

  5. Haval
    December 24, 2011 | 12:52

    first of all i would not expect any war under Obama administration,the chap he want to be elected again and promised American people to not waist anymore live on futile wor means Afganistan and Iraq.US has had a huge political set back in the middle east as a result of his action in Iraq.Can i say the Arab spring as some people called i wil l called Arab winter,come as the result of US supporting all dictators in the middle east,Mubarak,Ghdaffi,Zinabiddin etc.American resources for another war has been exusted.I DONT think US will have the plan to wage the war on Iran ,hence the aim and object are not clear.Yes if Israel attack Iran tomorrow ,this is understandable ,it is the national security issues.Kurdistan in all cases should play the game very carefully .

  6. Hamma Mirwaisi
    December 24, 2011 | 16:36

    Is Iran Bombing will lead to the US-Iran War?

    As I wrote in the article below,

    the war on Iran won’t come soon.

    Iran’s Atomic Bombs & President Obama’s re-election bid

    Iran Atomic Bombs making are possible because of President Obama’s weakness. The US interests are in stake in the entire Middle East. It is not for Israel’s protections to fight Shi’ism of Iran expansions. It is to safeguard the interest of the USA Mr. President. Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is formidable enemies of the US, EU and Israel too

    Shi’ism of Iran is on March consolidating their power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.

    Dr. Rubin and his group are in business again. Turkey is on board to buy more weapons from the USA. The entire region could go to war in any time.

    Turkey did not helped the US in Iraq war, but the US need Turkey’s help in Iran bombing now.

    The US Government gives in to Turkey and dumped Kurds. The Kurds are not given choice in the US-Iran war. The US Governments are listening to advisers like Dr. Rubin. I believe the US government is wrong in their calculation about Iran war. Turkey could double cross the US and Israel now.

    It is best for Kurds to stay out of the wars period.

    After the war the US, EU and Israel will need Kurdish people friendship for sure.


    Is Kurdistan ready for a U.S.-Iran war?

    Written on December 23, 2011 by Editor in Iran, Iraq, KRG, USA
    By Michael Rubin:
    Should war erupt between any Western state and Iran, the Kurds would be caught between a rock and a hard place. There would be no good outcome, either for the regional government or for Iraqi Kurds. Discussing the prospect of war, however, does not mean advocating for one. Rather consideration of such scenarios would allow the government to mitigate potential damage and blowback. Planning may not be the Kurdistan Regional Government’s greatest strength, but the price could be high if Kurdish authorities do not soon start.

  7. mafa barzani
    January 17, 2012 | 14:03

    excellent artical but kurdish history full of sadness and tradgies.I hope and pray the 1975 will not repeat again,i pray this time the west and America will assist the kurds.The kurds have been there since many Empires,langauges and states eleminated,but the Kurds resist and that is Gods plan for them.There are many common relationship between the kurds and the israelies when we read the holy book of TORAH and also in oldtetoment,the kurds have saved the JEWS from the atrocities by Assyrian and the persian.Please read book of Jeremiah 50,51 and book of ESTER,and many jewish profits graves in kurdistan such as Daniel in kerkuk,Jonah and the wells in Ninavaalso Nakhom in Alkoosh.Today the KURDS need help so this is the time where the world jewish communties to come for helping these kurds.Let the historian,archiologies,socialigists,to come and to see the truth and reality of <GARDEN OF EDEN.THE BEST SECURITY FOR OSRAEL AND WEST IS TO CREAT A STATE FOR GREAT KURDISTAN AND THAT IS FINAL FOR MIDDLE EAST PROPLEMS.

  8. mafa barzani
    January 17, 2012 | 14:26

    KURDITAN is starting place to practice Democracy for whole region.I beleieve the kurds will forgive the ARABS,PERSIANS,TURKS and the syrian arabs what they have done to the kurds and other minorties in kurdistan.The west and America should work hard to train and teach the new kurdish generation how to run the governmet institutions,they will help them selves and the region.This wave of changes in middle east the kurds must use wesdom,patient,love,and ready to for building and prosperties.

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

Trackback URL