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Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 41, No. 2, Winter 2018 Uneasy Neighbors: Iran and the Kurdish Regional Government Nader Entessar* Introduction The purpose of this article is to examine the evolving relationship between Iran and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The main thesis of the article is that despite some initial reservations about the emergence of a self-governing autonomous government in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran has now accepted the permanency of the KRG. As a result, both Iran and the KRG have focused on commonalities of interests between them and have sought to develop a functioning framework for expansion of their socioeconomic and political relations. Notwithstanding the desire of both sides to develop amicable and long-lasting relations between themselves, a variety of regional and domestic factors have served as impediments to the blossoming of Tehran-Erbil relations. The evolution of the KRG in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing 1990-91 Gulf War presented new political and security challenges for both Iran and Turkey. Iran’s policies towards the nascent Kurdish self-governing entity were driven by the following five considerations : • Opposition to Iraq’s disintegration and concern about the ultimate transformation of the KRG from a semi-autonomous entity to a fullfledged independent government. Consequently, Iran did not take steps towards recognizing the KRG. • Keeping an open channel of communication with the KRG and providing support, albeit minimally and cautiously, to efforts by the KRG to prevent the full restoration of the Bath’i control over northern Iraq. 73 *Nader Entessar is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama. His books include Kurdish Ethnonationalism and Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. 74 • Identifying areas of common security interests with the KRG, especially with respect to border security, and seeking to convince the KRG to curtail the activities of the armed Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraqi Kurdistan. • Preventing northern Iraq from turning into an anti-Iranian theater of operations and reducing, or ideally eliminating, the growing influence of the United States and Israel there. • Preventing the spread of pan-Kurdish nationalism among the Iranian Kurds and minimizing the spill-over effects of Kurdish ethnonationalism into Iran.1 Between 1991 and 2003, the Islamic Republic of Iran found it difficult, and at times impossible, to develop and sustain a consistent policy towards the KRG. Although both sides maintained some relations with each other as reflected in cross-border movement of goods, the deep political fissure between Iran and Iraq made any meaningful relations between the two countries, even in the KRG-controlled northern Iraq, extremely difficult. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein’s regime and the subsequent establishment of a federal structure in Iraq, allowed the Iranian government to expand its sociopolitical and economic outreach to both the new Iraqi government and the KRG. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, and the opening of Iranian consulates in Karbala, Basra and Erbil, and the concomitant opening of Iraqi consulates in Mashhad, Ahvaz and Kermanshah led to a major expansion of economic and political ties between Iran and Iraq as well as between Iran and the KRG. Today, the KRG’s representative office in Tehran serves as a de facto embassy. Moreover, in recent years, contacts between high-level officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the KRG have become routinized, and many top-level Iranian and KRG officials have developed working relationship with each other; something that would have been cumbersome at the turn of the 21st century when Saddam 1 For a brief analysis of Iran’s concerns towards the development of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq see Alex Vatanka, “Why Iran Fears an Independent Kurdistan,” The National Interest, ?page=show (accessed 25 July 2014), and Kaveh Qoraishy, “Tahavolat-e Kurdistan-e Aragh va Kurdhay-e Iran,” Rooz Online, opinion-article/-752371314e.html (Accessed 3 July 2014). Hussein was still in power in Iraq.2 Notwithstanding the aforementioned improvement in Iran-KRG relations since...


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