Stop Favoring Baghdad over Erbil

Iraqi Kurdistan would be a great friend, yet outmoded concepts keep America on Iraq's side.

With international attention focused on the rebels’ campaign to oust Bashar Assad in Syria, another budding regional conflict—the internecine Iraqi discord—quietly intensifies. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism has deeply divided Iraqi politics, sowing mistrust within both the Sunni opposition and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The self-governing Kurdish enclave in Iraq’s north and Maliki’s government in Baghdad are locked in a contentious dispute over oil. For a country that derives 95 percent of its national budget from oil revenue, this issue is—quite literally—everything.

The dispute stems from the KRG’s efforts to develop the rich deposits of oil and natural gas within its region. Maliki’s government objects to the KRG’s independent exploration deals with major multinational oil companies, arguing that all oil development deals must be coordinated by Baghdad. The Kurds maintain that Iraq’s constitution sanctions their pursuit of exploration deals and that Baghdad has failed to meet its constitutional obligations. Tensions are rising. In the last year, Baghdad withheld oil revenues to which the Kurdish enclave is entitled, while Erbil advanced plans for oil distribution that bypassed the central government.

While other major foreign-policy developments have consumed U.S. attention, Washington maintains consistent support for the central government’s proprietorship over oil contracts and revenue disbursal. In so doing, U.S. leaders are making a serious mistake. Since gaining a measure of autonomy from Iraq, all the Kurds have done is establish some of the most robust democratic structures in the region. At the same time, Maliki has revealed a deeply antiliberal approach to rule and worked in direct contravention of U.S. interests.

The recent history of U.S.-Kurdish relations and the aftermath of the Iraq War help explain Washington’s misbegotten policies. But the time has arrived for a substantial shift in U.S. policy in Iraq. The United States and critical regional allies stand to gain immensely from shifting its support in Iraq toward the KRG—and its attendant oil claims.

U.S. involvement in Iraq and Iran throughout the 1970s and 1980s helps explain Washington’s historical reticence to support the Kurdish cause. With Kurds spread across national borders and seeking freedoms from the various nation-states under which they lived, Kurdish groups often worked at cross purposes with U.S. interests. During the 1970s, the Iranian Kurds—with support from the Soviets and Saddam Hussein—aided Iraq against the Shah’s regime. After the overthrow of the Shah and the incremental shift in support toward Hussein himself, the United States once again saw Kurds acting against perceived U.S. foreign-policy goals, with Iraqi Kurds and their patron Ayatollah Khomeini seeking to undermine the Baathist regime in Iraq. Whereas Kurds were fighting for a whiff of autonomy, the United States saw Kurdish interests and U.S. interests as oppositional. With the rise of the Marxist Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) insurgency against Turkey—a critical U.S. ally—the American foreign-policy establishment cemented its perception of Kurdish political actors as working against U.S. interests.

When not perceived as oppositional, the Kurds were merely deemed insignificant. Viewed through a Cold War lens—in which the United States vied with the Soviets for regional influence—Kurdish interests were irrelevant. Compared with the region’s strongest powers and oil titans, the Kurds were a trivial actor and treated with commensurate apathy. In the 1970s, the Shah supported Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein’s rule. The dual pressure on Iraq from Iran and Iraq’s northern Kurds forced Hussein to sign a 1975 agreement ceding territory to Iran. The U.S.-supported deal called for the Shah to cease support for the Kurdish resistance in Iraq. The Kurds were brushed aside once no longer necessary or convenient—a traded pawn in the short-lived U.S.-brokered Iraq-Iran peace.

When Turkish forces entered Iraqi territory in the early 1980s, U.S. officials dryly noted the importance to Turkey of “eliminating its Kurdish opposition.” Though American journalists—including William Safire of the New York Times—reported on the gruesome Halabja massacre, the United States failed to act in time to prevent Hussein’s killing spree. Only after the Gulf War—with the threat of a Kurdish massacre imminent—did the United States implement a no-fly zone to protect the Kurdish citizens of northern Iraq. But the perception lingered that the Kurds were the region’s insignificant actors.

In a dramatic twist, the diligently enforced no-fly zone created the preconditions for the flourishing of Kurdish democracy. Iraqi Kurds developed strong political parties, held free parliamentary elections, and—despite worrisome backsliding on free speech in the last year—upheld the civil liberties enshrined in their laws. Through the duration of the Iraq War, while the U.S. combated a tenacious insurgency, the Kurdish region was markedly different—a relative safe zone in a violent conflict.