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Kurdistan, Catalonia and the Iran Deal: The Perils of Overreach

Ted Galen Carpenter

In just the past few weeks, two examples emerged to demonstrate
the harmful consequences when political leaders overplay their hand
and provoke harsh responses. One occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan, the
other in Spain’s Catalonia region. Both entities now teeter on the
brink of calamity. There also are pertinent lessons from those
episodes for U.S. policymakers.

Despite abundant warnings from multiple sources, the Kurdistan
Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil held a referendum on September
25 regarding independence from Iraq. President Masoud Barzani’s
administration should have realized even before the vote that
matters were not likely to turn out well. Not only did Iraq’s Prime
Minister Haider al-Abadi make it clear that such a referendum
was unacceptable and would lead immediately to
retaliatory measures, but neighboring states, including Iran, Syria
and Turkey, did so as well. Even the United States, which
regards Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria as extremely
valuable allies in the struggle against ISIS, urged the KRG
to exercise more caution.

Barzani and his colleagues ignored such signs of trouble and
went ahead with the balloting. The results were predictable, with
more than 90 percent of voters favoring
independence. Both Baghdad and Tehran immediately closed air-traffic corridors into landlocked
Kurdistan, and those governments, together with Turkey, began to coordinate
policies to rein in the KRG. Abadi’s regime was the most proactive,
immediately dispatching troops to seize the disputed, oil-rich city
of Kirkuk and other sites in northern Iraq.
Peshmerga units (the KRG’s army) had to abandon Kirkuk and retreat
ignominiously from the other areas that were under siege.

Wise officials in any
country need to resist the temptation to overreach, thereby
jeopardizing existing achievements and the potential for modest
additional gains.

Within mere weeks after the bold referendum, the KRG had lost
much of what it had gained in the years since it established a
highly autonomous foothold in Iraq’s predominantly Kurdish region
following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqi Kurdistan had
become independent in nearly everything but name. It had its own
army, flag and currency, and it largely controlled the export of
oil from northern Iraq. Baghdad’s sovereignty over the region was
minimal and tenuous. The KRG even had been successful in exploiting
the ISIS threat and the setbacks that Baghdad suffered to establish control over Kirkuk, a long-standing
Kurdish objective.

Prudent statesmanship would have dictated leaving well enough
alone and consolidating those gains. Instead, Erbil reached for
full, formal independence. That was a provocation that neither
Baghdad nor any of the other capitals could let go unchallenged.
The Kurds are the largest distinct population in the world without
a homeland, and major portions of that ethnic bloc are present in
Iran, northern Syria and especially Turkey (some 50 percent of the
total), as well as northern Iraq. An independent Kurdistan is seen
as a threat to the territorial integrity of all of
those countries. Therefore, there was no chance whatsoever that
they would tolerate the results of Erbil’s independence
referendum.

Retaliation was predictable, yet the KRG went ahead even though
it lackedsufficient military power to repel
hostile forces and sustain its claim. At a minimum, it would have
been necessary to build up the power of the peshmerga enough to
pose a credible deterrent to coercive measures. Patiently
extracting more high-powered weaponry from Washington in exchange
for Erbil’s continued valuable assistance against militant Islamic
groups would have been a productive course. Instead, Barzani’s
government acted precipitously. In essence, his regime overreached
and wrote geopolitical checks that bounced. Now, many of the
hard-won gains since 2003 are probably lost-and perhaps lost forever.

Advocates of Catalonia’s independence from Spain appear to have
made a similar blunder. Sentiment for independence has been
building in that region for decades, and the regional government
decided to hold a referendum regarding that option on October 1. As
in the case of Kurdistan, there were clear warnings not to go down
that path. The central government in Madrid was emphatic that such a move would not be
tolerated. Indeed, the Spanish authorities sent police and other
security personnel to prevent the balloting. That move led to ugly
incidents in which those units behaved in a barbaric fashion, beating hundreds of mostly peaceful
pro-independence demonstrators in Barcelona.

Despite such actions, the referendum went forward and produced
an outcome favoring independence. Spanish authorities have since
greatly hardened their stance. Madrid’s first demand was for
Catalonia to hold new elections to replace the existing
regional government. When the Catalans refused, and instead issued
a declaration of independence, the Spanish parliament voted to oust
officials of that government and to dissolve the elected regional legislative body.
The vote also granted the prime minister unprecedented authority
under the Spanish constitution to put down the rebellion. Through
more subtle means, the Catalans might have achieved greatly
enhanced autonomy for their region. By boldly pushing for
independence, they are in danger of being subjected to harsh
repression from Madrid. As in the case of Kurdistan, overreaching
has led to a severe setback at a minimum and potential disaster at
worst.

One might think that U.S. leaders are perceptive enough to avoid
similar folly, but the record suggests otherwise. The United States
achieved its initial objectives in Afghanistan, routing Al Qaeda,
ousting the Taliban regime that had given that terrorist group safe
haven and eventually killing Osama bin Laden. However, Washington
was not content with such modest but important accomplishments.
Instead, U.S. leaders prolonged and escalated America’s military
intervention. They also changed the objective from punishing and
defanging Al Qaeda to a murky counterinsurgency and nation-building mission. The predictable result
is a war now in its sixteenth year, with little prospect of
achieving those impractical goals.’

The Trump administration shows signs of similar overreach with
regard to policy toward Iran. President Obama wisely collaborated
with other international powers to negotiate the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action with Tehran to limit Iran’s
nuclear program. By all reasonable accounts, the plan is working
and Iran’s program remains under severe restraints that would
prevent a breakout to build nuclear weapons. But President Trump,
succumbing to the blandishments of ultra-hawkish Iranophobes, has
refused to certify Iran’s compliance with
the JCPOA, opening the door for new U.S. sanctions and the possible
torpedoing of the agreement. Once again, the United States flirts
with overreaching, undoing an agreement that is working well, and
creating the prospect of a renewed, very dangerous crisis with Iran.

Wise officials in any country need to resist the temptation to
overreach, thereby jeopardizing existing achievements and the
potential for modest additional gains. Veteran Wall Street
investors have a saying: “bulls make money, bears make money,
but pigs get slaughtered.” Political leaders should heed a
similar admonition.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the
National Interest, is the author of 10 books, the contributing
editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 650 articles on
international affairs.