Iraqi-Kurdistan: Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters

By Ines Tamaddon

Oil means power, and after almost a century-long struggle for independence, the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi-Kurdistan has wrested control over its oil resources, giving greater voice to Kurdish demands for independence.

Since the break up of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Kurds have been systematically displaced and denied their independence. The Allies of World War I divided up predominantly Kurdish territory between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Although the Kurds are the 4th largest ethnic group in the Middle East (following the Arabs, Persians, and Turks), they have had difficultly achieving independence. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Iraqi-Kurdistan gained any semblance of autonomy. In 2005, the region was finally granted an official, autonomous status within Iraq. Now known as the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq, the area is run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iraqi-Kurdish influence in the world of petro-politics is growing in the face of the Kurds' (increasingly autonomous) position on top of Iraq's richest oil fields.

At the insistence of major regional powers (Iraq, Turkey, and Iran) that do not want to see an independent Kurdish state—because of the possible flight risk from the large Kurdish minorities in their own countriesthe plight of the Kurds has been put on the back-burner. Most recently however, the Kurds have taken a bold step toward the betterment of their people through an oil pipeline that is planned to run from the field of Taq Taq to Turkey by August 2013.

Oil could be the answer the Kurds have been looking for. Although it will still be Iraqi oil, it will no longer travel through the Iraq National Pipeline, thereby giving the Kurds authority over the natural resources of their region. According to United Press International, “plans for Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish enclave to build an oil pipeline to Turkey points to a major political and economic realignment in the Middle East that will impact heavily on Iraq.” This decision not only signals to Baghdad and the international community that the Kurds have strengthened their autonomous state, but that they are seeking independence.

Estimated to have 45 billion barrels of oil, Iraqi-Kurdistan is the 6th largest source of oil in the world. Specifically, the field of Kirkuk—where a second pipeline is scheduled in 2014—holds a third of Iraq’s reserves. Baghdad refuses to recognize this land as Kurdish, even though it is clearly in Iraqi-Kurdistan. Iraq wants to retain the resource-rich land that has the potential to skyrocket the nation's economy above that of their neighbors. With this new pipeline, 17 percent of oil revenue will be allotted to the Kurds—the maximum allowed by Iraq’s National Budget—while the rest will go to the Iraqi federal government, stated the KRG’s Natural Resource Minister, Ashti Hawrami.

Aram Azez, a former Kurdish politician and current editor-in-chief of the Independent Kurdistan Journalism news website, says, “if Turkey would be sincere about the deal and [if] this oil pipeline [is] completed, it could mean a major step towards Kurdistan's complete independence from Iraq.”

David Romano, a columnist for Rudaw magazine as well as a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at Missouri State University, describes this development as a “strategic step” that would allow Iraqi-Kurdistan to create relationships independent of Baghdad.

For years, Iraqi-oil led to “the greed [that] encouraged authoritarianism and raised the stakes for controlling Baghdad, while the weapons purchased with oil money saw use suppressing Kurdistan year after year,” explains Romano in his recent article for Gulan magazine.

All sides must tread with caution since any regional dispute at this moment in time would not end well for either party. It is also not in the Kurds best interest to completely detach themselves from Baghdad as they have yet to establish themselves as independent players in the global oil market. By losing Baghdad and becoming dependent on Turkey, they would just be “shifting one patron with another. Their ideal scenario is that they mend fences with Baghdad and still do the pipeline with Turkey,” explains Romano. At least, for now.

The pipeline process may not be an easy one. Although some call the pipeline illegal, the KRG argues otherwise. Many simply fear the power Kurdistan will gain from this oil deal and how a powerful Kurdish state will impact their own countries.

Kurds have been struggling for their independence for nearly a century, and many experts recognize that oil could be their ticket. Romano believes that Iraqi-Kurdish independence is possible, but not without a “patron ally.” Ten years ago, he says, “no one would have expected this but [today] Turkey is emerging as that possible ally for the Iraqi-Kurds that could allow them independence.”

Not everyone agrees. Azez, for one, is skeptical. While “Kurdistan is surrounded by four unfriendly states that are suffering from their own Kurdish problems,” he personally doubts that “Turkey will be a friendly neighbor to Kurdistan.” In fact, the former Kurdish politician goes so far as to blame Turkey for any political friction. “Turkey is the only country that creates regional tensions. So, if Turkey will be a supportive country of [Iraqi] Kurds to export their natural wealth via Turkey, then there won't be any crisis even if the Kurdish leaders would be brave enough to declare independence from Iraq.”

Whether or not Turkey will or even wishes to become a Kurdish ally in the ethnic minority's struggle for independence, the pipeline marks the beginning of a relationship that could potentially benefit both parties—one that could facilitate the achievement of other "political, economic, and security plans," according to Azez.

If Kurds can control Iraq's oil spigot to Turkey, they will have the kind of wealth and influence they could only dream of until recently. Oil revenue will transform the future of Iraq's Kurdish population and quite possibly—put them on the road to true independence.



Ines Tamaddon is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal. 

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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