Alwaght- After months of debate among the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s political parties, Nechirvan Barzani, the former prime minister, was elected as the president of the semi-autonomous region. The election of Barzani came without agreement between the two leading parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), first since the Kurdish region became autonomous in 1991. At the May 28 meeting, the regional parliament picked Barzani as the president despite objection from the PUK and absence of other political parties’ representatives. Barzani secured 68 yes votes out of a total 81 votes. He was sworn in on June 10.
Barzani’s presidency over Kurdistan comes while since the region was established in 1991, Iran and the Kurds engaged in deep ties. Now picking Nechirvan gives rise to a question: Where will the bilateral ties go under Nechirvan?
The 2017 independence referendum of Kurdistan, arranged by Masoud Barzani the uncle of Nechirvan and the former president of Kurdistan, sent Tehran-Erbil relations frayed. However, very fast they normalized their ties. But in the new conditions, in which Masoud has no official duty in the government, Iranian-Kurdish relations come under a special focus. There are some areas of cooperation, while some issues may challenge such a cooperation.
Common borders security
Certainly, the most important issue in the Iranian ties with the Kurdish region is the security of the shared borders. Under the presidency of Nechirvan this matter can be followed at even deeper levels. The heavy presence of the separatist groups, Israeli intelligence influence, and the American military presence on the Kurdistan borders with Iran are the key security obsessions of Tehran on its western and northwestern borders. Nechirvan will have the heavy duty of making sure that Iran’s borders with Kurdistan will remain secure. When he was prime minister, Nechirvan several times blasted the terrorist activities on the shared borders with Iran. He called any threat against the neighbors from the region’s borders unacceptable. So, it seems that in the new situation, Nechirvan will take even more serious and practical steps to meet the security concerns of the Islamic Republic.
Anti-Iranian sanctions provide opportunity for stronger relationship
While the US is pressing with the new wave of economic sanctions on Iran, the circumvention of the ban rises to become a key priority of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Iran, engaged in partnership with Iraq and services to the Iraqi people including the fight against the ISIS terrorism and reconstruction of the country, eyes expansion of economic cooperation with its old friends and neighbors. Tehran mainly expects Nechirvan to make it clear that he will not side with the American embargo and other anti-Iranian policies. Promoting the trade with Iraq and Kurdistan region to $20 billion per year is not practical with only the Iranian push. Rather, it needs a strong will of the Iraqi decision makers. The Iranian officials expect the business ties to boost considerably under the new president, who is himself a businessman.
De-escalation of Erbil-Baghdad tensions
Another issue that is expected to set itself as a priority under Nechirvan presidency is the de-escalation of tensions between Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Over the past two decades, Tehran played an unavoidably mediatory role between Erbil and Baghdad as it seeks a united and strong Iraq. In the new situation, as much as Nechirvan shows willingness to bolster ties with the central government, Iran will help bring the two under umbrella of unity.
Challenges and obstacles ahead
Although Nechirvan can be named the architect of the damaged relationship between Erbil and Baghdad and also the KRG’s ties with the neighbors, he faces indispensable challenges in his road.
First challenge will be Barzani family’s inner power struggle. Masrour Barzani, Masoud’s son, was chosen for the post of prime minister, which has broader administrative power compared to the post of president. The two are at odds over a string of matters in their view of the regional issues. That is expected to impact the president’s plans implementation. We should know that though Masoud has fully moved out of the political scene, he remains the top power holder and policy maker behind the scenes. This will cause friction with Nechirvan over time as the political differences between the two, including the ties with Tehran, are unavoidable.
Add to this case the unresolved issues between the Baghdad and Erbil, like the differences over control of oil-rich Kirkuk and the KRG’s share from the Iraqi annual budget. KRG has managed to strike a deal with Baghdad over its share from the national Iraqi budget in 2018 but other issues, including the disputed regions, will remain sticking points in Baghdad-Erbil relationships and carry the potentials to trigger tensions between the two sides.