The Para-Diplomacy of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the Kurdish Statehood Enterprise
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The Para-Diplomacy of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the Kurdish Statehood Enterprise

Despite not having achieved statehood, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has been increasingly active in the international arena since the founding of its Department of Foreign Relations in 2005. This article assesses how successful this diplomacy has been at advancing the interests of both the KRG and the Kurdish statehood enterprise. This article then situates the KRG's foreign initiatives in the growing body of International Relations literature on the foreign policies of non-state actors.

Although several Kurdish principalities within the Ottoman Empire enjoyed some modicum of autonomy for many years,1 hopes for Kurdish independence were dashed by the partition of the Middle East after World War I.2 After the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Kurds were relegated to minority status in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Thus, the "hegemonic state-centred narratives" silenced Kurdish voices for the remainder of the 20th century.3 For most of that time, Kurds in Iraq experienced a brutal combination of coercive assimilation and Arabization imposed by successive Iraqi governments, which brought them to the verge of extermination during a genocide campaign of the late 1980s.4 Kurdish nationalist movements, however, continued to maintain a distinct ethno-national identity, and pursued autonomy and, in some cases, sovereignty.

These Kurdish movements took advantage of the dramatic events taking place in the region in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and launched an uprising against the Iraqi regime, culminating in the liberation of large areas of Iraq inhabited by Kurds. Although Iraqi troops were able to reassert control of the region, another uprising in October of that year drove back Iraqi regime forces. Consequently, Iraq withdrew its administration and military,5 and Kurdish political parties filled the political and administrative [End Page 587] vacuum. The following year, elections were held for the first Kurdistan Parliament and the new Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established.6

The United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent collapse of the regime of Saddam Husayn and its security and military apparatus set the scene for the resurgence of Kurdish nationalist fervor. As a result, the KRG embarked on forming a more detailed foreign policy and widening its relationships with the international community. With Kurdish players playing an active role in forming the new Iraqi political system, it is no surprise that the 2005 constitution officially recognized the three northernmost governorates (Erbil, Sulaymaniyya, and Duhok) as a federal region within Iraq.7 Furthermore, the autonomous Kurdistan Region's ability to operate internationally was given constitutional backing in Article 121, which states that "Offices for the regions and governorates shall be established in embassies and diplomatic missions in order to follow cultural, social, and developmental affairs." Of course, this did not give the region unlimited diplomatic power, since its foreign policy was still the jurisdiction to the federal government in Baghdad. As Article 110 delineated specifically: "The federal government shall have exclusive authorities in the following matters: First. Formulating foreign policy and diplomatic representation; negotiating, signing, and ratifying international treaties and agreements …"8 Nonetheless, the KRG has formulated its own foreign policy and fostered diplomatic ties independently of the Iraqi government. It also negotiated and signed international treaties disregarding the central government.9 This means that the KRG acts beyond the scope of a usual federal region as a de facto state.


Para-diplomacy is defined here, using Noé Cornago's definition, as the activities of sub-state governments in international relations through "the establishment of formal and informal contacts, either permanent or ad hoc, with foreign public or private entities, with the aim to promote socio-economic, cultural or political issues …"10 Mainstream literature in the field of International Relations (IR) is increasingly bringing paradiplomacy to the fore of extensive scholarly debate.11 The case study in this article, the Kurdistan Regional Government's foreign relations, has also attracted scholarly attention [End Page 588] since the late 1990s, when the autonomous region was in its early stages. Calling the KRG "a useful...