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Iraqi Kurdistan Is In A Moment of Crisis: Where Is the Biden Administration?

Iraqi Kurdistan Coup

Factional divisions not only between but also within Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling families are not new: One of the reasons why Iraqi Kurds have failed to fulfill their aspirations is that foreign forces readily exploit if not precipitate these divisions.

I wrote earlier this week in these digital pages about the ongoing coup within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its security and intelligence services. In short, Bafil Talabani, the son of late PUK leader Jalal Talabani moved against his cousin Lahur Talabani with whom he co-chaired the party.

The political fight is far from over but, in the short term, Bafil claims the upper hand. He has altered his own social media to declare himself the lone president of the PUK, never mind that the PUK did not legally mandate him as such. Qubad Talabani, Bafil’s brother, meanwhile has apparently ordered raids on both independent media and those affiliated with Lahur, and Bafil’s forces are arresting journalists. In effect, the Talabani brothers seem intent to stamp out one of the freest media environments in Iraq.

While some Kurdish observers, for example Abdulla Hawez, say it is reading too much into events to suggest a foreign hand rather than just the usual intra-Kurdish maneuverings, they are wrong: Foreign officials and intelligence agencies had privately issued threats or warnings about the plot in advance. Turkey and Iran both coordinated the move to undercut an official whom they opposed for different reasons. Hawez is right (and very much worth reading) on his internal analysis; he is wrong to assume that this happened in a bubble.

Turkey’s problems with Lahur are well-known. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has developed tight diplomatic and financial ties with Masrour Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister in Erbil. Masrour does his bidding; Lahur does not. More importantly, when the United States sought to work with Syrian Kurds more closely tied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Lahur assisted Washington’s efforts in a way that Erdoğan has never forgiven.

The Iran issue is more complicated. Lahur is often painted as more Iran’s man than anyone else’s. Certainly, he is an interlocutor, much like Iraqi President Barham Salih or Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi are. Often, this means addressing the reality of Iranian forces on their border and a need to make compromises to head off developments that are more dangerous. Lahur did what he thought best for the Kurdish region. Sometimes these compromises angered Washington, and sometimes they ameliorated it.

What motivates Iran and, more specifically, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is not hatred of Lahur, but rather a belief that they can better control Bafel. More than a decade ago, Bafel suddenly left Iraq for London. This was strange since Jalal Talabani was already ailing and Bafel, rather than Qubad, was in charge of the security portfolio. The backstory here is that the US intelligence community came to believe that Bafel had given Iranian intelligence information about American contractors that led to an attack. US authorities confronted Jalal Talabani and gave him a stark choice: His eldest son’s exile or Bafel would face American wrath. It would be years before Bafel would return.

Has Bafel learned his lesson with regard to upending the balance between Iran and the United States? Apparently not.

The new Zanyari [PUK intelligence] director is Salman Amin, also known as Azhi Amin. He was a former acolyte of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and a former mastermind of Ansar al-Islam who surrendered to the PUK in exchange for amnesty. The 9/11 Commission cited a Central Intelligence Agency paper describing Ansar al-Islam (which also operated as Ansar al-Sunna) as “Al Qa’ida’s ally in northeastern Iraq.” In a 2003 report, the International Crisis Group found that it “is indisputable…that the group [Ansar al-Islam] could not survive without the support of powerful factions in neighbouring Iran, its sole lifeline to the outside world.”

Amin had received training in operations and counterintelligence from the Ministry of Information and Security (Iran’s intelligence ministry) in Tehran. His father was an important figure in Islamist circles inside Iran. While Amin worked with the Islamic Movement and its more militant offshoots, he also served as a source and go-between for the Zinyari that understood that he was a man of conflicting loyalties. They worked with him, but knew better than to trust him.

The new counterterror chief Wahab Halabjay comes from a similar pedigree in the Islamic Movement, serving as the security chief for that movement’s leader. That, upon his coup, Bafil immediately appointed Amin and Halabjay hints that Iran’s security services believe they can work with Bafil to establish a new baseline in relations at the expense of the United States. So far appear to be correct, as Bafil appears to prioritize unchecked personal power over any principle or sense that his actions might have regional ramifications.

In short, Bafil appears to have been willing to pay a price that Lahur never was: Allowing the appointment of deeply anti-Western officials trained by Iran into the most highly sensitive security positions, ones with whom until now the United States intelligence community could expect to liaise. No longer.

Critics are right that it is wrong to focus more on the individual than the system. I agree with this castigation of American policy, and have often made it myself. Still, the reality is short of a truly professionalized, merit-based, and ideology-free system, individuals matter more than many intellectuals and policymakers care to admit. Too many Americans look at Iraqi Kurdistan as an island of stability in which they can operate productively as militia violence puts the rest of Iraq off-limits. For the first time since 2003, however, the United States is going to learn what it is like to operate without true friends in Iraqi Kurdistan. Simply put, Director of Central Intelligence Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear asleep at the switch as they allow Tehran’s men to fill the top political and security positions in Sulyamani.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).