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How Iran Is Outplaying the CIA in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iran's flag.

It has now been several weeks since an internal dispute within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political parties—erupted into the open. At issue is not only party leadership but also dominance over the regional security services. Jalal Talabani, the founder of the PUK and later the president of Iraq, had two sons: Bafel and Qubad. Among his nephews is also Lahur. His wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, is unwell: In addition to a history of manic depression, she now has severe dementia and so the leadership of the party, its affairs, and the multibillion-dollar monopolies and revenue streams it controls passed to the next generation. For some time, Bafel and Lahur served as co-presidents of the PUK while Qubad carried the PUK flag in Erbil as deputy to Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. but, last month, Bafel and Qubad made a move against their cousin.

Some commentators in Iraqi Kurdistan dismissed the possibility that the genesis of the internal party coup was external with its origins in both Ankara and Tehran by pointing out the divisive intra- and inter-family politics in the Kurdistan region. It is not an either-or prospect, however, as regional powers often take advantage of intra-Kurdish disputes. The Russians had warned about the plot in advance, while a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) delegation had reportedly gone to Tehran to discuss the plans. Qubad and Bafel’s first move to undercut Lahur was to replace the heads of the security and intelligence forces to remove those loyal to their cousin and replace them with two figures trained by Iran’s intelligence ministry.

It is surprising that Lahur, despite having been threatened by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and warned by others, did not move to head off the coup, but that miscalculation is only something Lahur can explain and, hopefully, someday will.

When the push to purge Lahur’s allies and then remove Lahur from party leadership went forward, his interlocutors in the CIA did not lift a finger to help him. They essentially showed him that to Langley, he was expendable.

Bafel, who now claims to be the PUK’s sole leader, has always been impetuous which is why his father often restrained his eldest son’s ambition. Qubad is far more polished but, at best, could be a valedictorian of the summer school class; neither are known as master strategists, especially in comparison to Lahur, former regional President Massoud Barzani, or current Iraqi President Barham Salih. In their quest to marginalize Lahur further and perhaps even force him to flee Iraqi Kurdistan, Bafel accused Lahur’s brothers of involvement in “smuggling, extortion, threats, and spying” and accused Lahur of abusing his party position for personal gain. All these accusations are likely true to some degree, but Bafel making such accusations is akin to Al Capone complaining that Mario Cuomo is too dishonest or self-serving. In recent days, Bafel and Qubad upped the pressure by issuing an arrest warrant for Lahur himself.

Enter Iran: Behind the scenes, Tehran appears to be signaling for Lahur to stand his ground. The sons of other PUK luminaries who backed Bafel and Qubad’s initial putsch are now backing away from their support for the duo. Lahur, meanwhile, says he will go nowhere. In effect, Bafel and Qubad have overplayed their hand and will likely lose the round. When they do, Lahur will have no choice but to conclude that the Iranian government had his back while the US Embassy and his contacts at Langley showed they did not.

Simply put, Iran had just run circles around the CIA whose leadership and Iraq team forgot that loyalty matters.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 1945 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).