Now or never, Kurds in northern Iraq head to the polls this week. They are casting their ballots for one of two visions of the future: one to remain a part of Iraq, and one for an independent state. Many from the usual anti-Kurd crowd — Iran, Iraq and Turkey — are condemning or refusing to recognize the referendum, sending a strong promise of rekindled conflict if the results come out in favor of the new state. But time is not an available luxury. If the Kurds want to bring their national vision to fruition, it needs to happen now.
The referendum comes after the 2016-2017 liberation of Mosul, when the Kurds proved their battle prowess on the international stage. Gaining some legitimacy in the eyes of the United States and Iraq was a huge step toward independence. Still, nobody expected Iraq to support a Kurdish referendum. Iraqi Kurdistan still had U.S. support.
But then, the strongest ally backtracked on its commitment.
Once a longtime ally to Iraqi Kurds, the U.S. dealt a significant blow to the Kurds’ determination by making every effort to postpone the referendum. Those efforts failed. In a public statement cited by the Washington Post, State Department officials said, “‘The costs of proceeding’ with the vote… ‘are high.’” Washington is fearful that the referendum could destabilize the northern reaches of Iraq and scramble the country’s 2018 election.
Other states in the region are similarly wary. Turkey and Iran especially are worried about ripple effects within their own Kurdish populations — with good reason. As the Arab Spring showed, the Middle East is a tinderbox for progressive, transnationally-unifying issues.
It seems crazy to pursue a referendum at such a delicate time. If the new state manifests — as most predict — other Middle Eastern states will turn their attention to undermining and squashing the self-proclaimed Iraqi Kurdistan. But from the position of the Kurds, the time has never been better.
Right now, despite the lack of U.S. support, the Kurds are in good standing. They just took part in a successful international crisis coalition which saw them gain favorability outside of the Middle East. Turkey and Iran are somewhat distracted, while Iraq’s position on the Kurds may be softer now that their soldiers fought alongside each other on the battlefield.
Another factor is the oil. A 2016 report approximates that Kurdistan (not just the part in Iraq) has 130 billion barrels of proved and unproved reserves, or about 3 percent of the world total. Kurds can leverage this to deter opposition from Russia, Israel, the United States and Europe – all countries who have been buyers in the past. Even Turkey wants a piece of the pie, beginning in May to import Kurdish oil through a new pipeline. Going forward from this referendum, oil will be the Kurds’ greatest resource in binding together the new state from outside pressure.
Turkey, Iraq and Iran will push back politically — but this will always be the case. If the Kurds wait for a time when they won’t be driving against the grain for their independence, they will always be a stateless nation.
An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Kurdistan is piloting its destiny with this vote, cultivating the seeds of a nation. Economic conditions are suitable and the Kurdish vision of a state is strong, becoming more palpable every day. And if Iraq, Iran and Turkey’s worst fears come true and Kurds in other nations decide they too want to form an independent state, it will only be harder to subvert their ambitions.