After establishing an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and beginning to consider the prospect of formally breaking away from the rest of Iraq, the regional Kurdish government remained neutral in the ongoing fight between Sunnis, including the Islamic State, and the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki, which is backed by Iran.
The Kurds’ neutrality was maintained in spite of repeated efforts by the Iranian government to urge the Kurdish population within Iraq to participate in the conflict in support of the government in Baghdad. However, now that that population has been targeted by Islamic State, their neutrality may be coming to an end. But based on recent Kurdish statements, the ethnic minority may join the fight in ways that Iran had not bargained for when it sought help from elsewhere in Iraq.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) issued a statement on Sunday through its website, in which it called upon Kurds not only from the north of Iraq but also from Turkey, Syria, and Iran, to fight against Islamic State. “”All Kurdish political powers must take part in this resistance, shoulder-to-shoulder. When Kurds are attacked, they must show the attackers that they will find all Kurds against them,” the statement said.
Far from being a force in support of the current Baghdad government, such a unified Kurdish resistance may effectively turn the current Sunni-Shiite conflict into a three-sided war, with the Kurds of several nations using this as an opportunity to push for the long-suppressed cause of establishing an independent nation of Kurdistan. And because there is a significant Kurdish minority in Iran, such a conflict may foster more domestic resistance against the Iranian government, at the same time that it endangers the regime’s long-term supply of oil from the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Of course, the future dimensions of this conflict depend upon multiple factors. The foremost is the extent to which regional Kurdish populations are inclined to respond to the PKK’s statement. This may in turn depend on how serious a threat to their security they believe the Islamic State to be. The extent of that threat may also determine whether the Kurds are able to successfully fight against one of the current parties to the conflict without forming an alliance with the other.
Furthermore, a Kurdish alliance with Baghdad, and by extension with Tehran, will surely depend upon the broader relationship between the Kurds on one hand, and Iran and its current regional allies on the other. Despite recent attempts to reach out to the Kurds for help against the Islamic State, Iran has traditionally had a strained relationship with its own Kurdish population. Kurdish activists have been held and executed along with Iran’s many other political prisoners, and the Kurdish region has been subject to harsh restrictions on traffic across the Iraqi border to closely related Kurdish communities.
Meanwhile, the PKK has long fought for the independence of Turkey’s Kurds, but has recently been engaged in a peace treaty with the primarily Sunni Muslim country. Turkey and Iran have had similarly inconsistent relationships, with each depending on the other for a portion of their trade in spite of significant ideological differences. Whereas Iran has helped to prop up the embattled dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Turkey initially backed some of the Islamist rebels.
On the other hand, both Turkey and Iran have been major supporters of Hamas, and both Muslim nations have been identified as members of the extremist side of a proxy war that is being fought in Palestine between extremists and more moderate Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Analysts will have to carefully watch the interactions of various nations and groups in order to determine how the conflict will be structured if it continues to rage out of control, and what the ultimate effects of it may be for the Islamic Republic of Iran.