Iran announced on October 2 that its military conducted drills with the Iraqi military on the countries’ shared border. The military drills followed the referendum in support of independence for the Iraqi Kurdish Region. The Iranian military’s announcement on its website stated that the drill included armored vehicles, artillery, and air units.
On September 25, the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq held a non-binding referendum in which 92 percent voted for independence. The referendum attracted a turnout of over 70 percent. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), proposed holding this referendum in 2014; only after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began to lose ground in Iraq did he announce the exact date for the referendum. The United States and the international community failed to prevent the escalation caused by the referendum; Barzani’s clear intentions to hold the referendum and the continued tensions between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments over the Iraqi Constitution, Kurdish peshmerga forces, contested territories, and resource-management foretold this outcome.
Several countries reacted negatively to the referendum. The United States declared the referendum to be illegitimate. Iraq reacted by banning flights into Kurdistan, shutting down important roads, threatening to close borders, and sending troops into the contested city of Kirkuk. Iran and Turkey, which also house significant Kurdish populations, threatened to respond with military action, to shut down their borders with Kurdistan, and to impose economic sanctions, especially on Kurdistan’s oil exports.
Although neither the military and economic threats from Kurdistan’s neighbors nor the threat of an official declaration of Kurdish independence itself have been executed, Kurdistan is much more politically isolated than before. Iraq has held military drills with both Iran and Turkey, solidifying ties to states hostile to Kurdish independence. Iran also deployed tanks and artillery to its border with Kurdistan; an Iranian military official stated that Iran and Iraq agreed to establish border security. In a joint Turkish-Iranian press conference, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that the Turkish and Iranian governments would take the steps necessary to ensure that Iraq’s borders “remain unchanged.”
Turkey and Iraq carried-out military drills in the week leading up to the Kurdish referendum in the city of Habur, located near the Turkish border with Iraq. On September 23, just days before the referendum, the Turkish Armed Forces announced that they would “raise the level” of the military drills by bringing in more troops.
Iraq sanctioned Kurdistan further after the KRG announced that it would hold presidential and parliamentary elections on November 1. The Iraqi government placed sanctions on Kurdish banks and suspended foreign currency transfers into Kurdistan. Although the elections would be for the KRG and not an independent state, Iraq worries that the elections will help garner legitimacy for Barzani and other Kurdish officials and bolster the Kurdish bargaining position in
any future negotiations with the Iraqi state. However, Sadi Pire, a Kurdish senior official, expressed doubt that the elections would take place on November 1; he speculated that the government’s mandate would be extended by a year because of the chaos caused by large numbers of refugees and internally-displaced peoples who have entered the area fleeing ISIS.