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Turkey, Iran, Iraq join forces to thwart Kurdish referendum

Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas take part in a gathering to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 20, 2017. (AFP / SAFIN HAMED)
ANKARA: Turkey, Iran and Iraq on Thursday warned of possible countermeasures against the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) if it goes ahead with its independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan.
The foreign ministers of the three countries issued a joint statement underlying their concerns that the referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25, could trigger regional conflicts.
“The three ministers emphasized that the referendum will not be beneficial for the Kurds and the KRG, and agreed, in this regard, to consider taking countermeasures in coordination,” the statement read, without elaborating on the measures.
The statement urged the international community to intervene, reiterated the ministers’ commitment to maintaining Iraq’s territorial and political unity, and described the referendum as unconstitutional.
Turkey has the largest Kurdish population in the region, and Ankara — which said the vote would be a “grave mistake” — worries that it could boost separatist sentiment among Turkish Kurds.
Considered a terror organization by Turkey, the US and EU, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been conducting an armed insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades.
As a show of force, Turkey moved tanks and troops to its southern border with Iraq ahead of the vote, with rocket launchers affixed on armored vehicles directed at the frontier.
Turkey’s Habur border crossing is economically vital for the KRG, as it is the main passageway for cross-border trade for landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan.
Trade between Turkey and KRG reached $8.5 billion last year, and there are about 1,300 Turkish companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey is also a key buyer of oil and natural gas from the KRG.
Ahmad Majidyar, resident fellow and director of the IranObserved project at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the joint statement means to send a strong signal to the US and European powers that if they do not stop the referendum, the consequences will be dire.
“Both Turkey and Iran have threatened retaliatory measures, including border closures and economic sanctions, if the KRG goes ahead with the referendum. But it’s too soon to determine if their tough rhetoric will translate into action,” Majidyar told Arab News.
But despite recent steps by Tehran and Ankara to reconcile their differences and cooperate more on regional issues, there is deep distrust between them, he added.
“Turkey, for example, wouldn’t want to cut all relations with the KRG and allow Iran and other regional countries to fill the void,” he said.
Although Ankara has legitimate fears about the referendum, Majidyar said it has to consider both its strategic and economic interests, as Iraqi Kurdistan exports more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day via Turkey to the Mediterranean.
“Irbil and Ankara have also had close military cooperation, and Turkey has military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan,” he added.
“It’s unlikely that Ankara will sever all relations with the KRG, even if the latter proceeds with the referendum next week.”
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, head of the Ankara-based think tank ANKASAM, told Arab News that the joint statement is an ultimatum to the KRG, and shows its three neighbors’ determination to coordinate against a perceived common threat.
Gulriz Sen, an Iran expert at TOBB University in Ankara, said the statement demonstrates a strong alignment of interests in opposing Kurdish demands and aspirations for independence.
“Even though maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq has always been a common objective for Turkey and Iran, regional geopolitics so far have drawn Turkey and Iran apart by deepening their rivalry in the Syrian and Iraqi crises,” Sen told Arab News.
“This statement once again shows their mutual stance vis-a-vis the Kurdish issue. There were already hints of possible cooperation and coordination with the high-level visit of Iran’s chief of staff, Gen. Mohammad Bagheri.”
Sen said the three countries seem united in exerting military and economic pressure on the KRG, as shown by Turkey’s recent military drill at the Iraqi border.
Turkey’s National Security Council and Cabinet will convene on Friday to announce what countermeasures will be taken if the referendum goes ahead.

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