The Kurdistan Voice: As you know, one of the most disputed political topics in the Middle East is the independence referendum of Kurdistan, which will be held within the next three months. Until now, Iran has opposed the referendum more than Baghdad or even Ankara. Is Iran afraid of an independent Kurdistan because it is likely to become a catalyst for the Kurds of Iran?
Dr. Moradian: An independent Kurdish state, regardless of size, is a direct threat to Iranian political hegemony and the regional power of the Middle East.
Essentially, the long-term strategic goal of Iran is to create a Shiite block, or as they call it, a Shiite Crescent and claim the territorial and ideological leadership of the Shiite world.
The removal of Saddam Hussein created the space for the Iranian regime to further spread their influence in the region.
In Lebanon and in part of Yemen, Iran has already been able to establish their dominance and have widespread Shiite support. All of Iranian’s efforts in Syria are towards this same end.
While Iran has been involved in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, they became physically engaged in 2014 to preserve the power of an Alawite Shiite regime. The territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria and the preservation of the ruling powers in these countries is of paramount importance to Iran. Therefore, anything that threatens this plan is something Iran will vehemently oppose. Kurds are situated, physically and politically, in direct opposition to this plan. Kurds are also positioned to oppose Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitions to reestablish an Ottoman Sunni Crescent (please see Question 3 for more on this topic).
Establishing a Kurdish state will shake the balance in the region, as it does not reinforce the larger geopolitical visions of Iran and/or Turkey.
Furthermore, while the situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are different, there is cross-border influence and exchange. The formation of a Kurdish state in any one of these regions can catalyze Kurds in other regions.
Iranian Kurds established the first Kurdish state (The Republic of Mahabad 1946), so the history is there for people to be moved into action by what happens in Iraqi Kurdistan. There is a great deal of movement between Kurds in Iraq and Iran; therefore, we cannot minimize the power of the independence referendum in revitalizing resistance in other regions of Kurdistan.
Anytime we discuss Middle East politics, we must touch on the economic impact of regional changes. Iran, in part because of their position in OPEC, has a key economic role. An independent Kurdistan with their rich oil reserves will become a dominant voice regarding what happens to oil exports. Iran does not want to share this power. While Iran is afraid of a future state of Kurdistan threatening internal affair, the issue is more complex than that. Iran opposes the referendum because a Kurdish state threats Iranian political, economic, and ideological dominance in all aspects.
On the ideological front, Iran does not want to have a secular democratic state at its borders. Despite all of the internal party issues in Iraqi Kurdistan, the system can still be an antidote to Iranian theocracy. This would create tension within Iran, not just in the Kurdish region of Iran, as it can inspire the Iranian democracy seeking movement.
For example, the stance that Iraqi Kurdistan has towards women, religious tolerance, political pluralism and open media can all have an impact on Iran’s civic engagement.
The Kurdish region, in the past 20 years, has shown a much more progressive stance towards human rights issues. Travel and intellectual exchange between the two countries could threaten the Iranian regime’s ability to maintain a dictatorship and subdue resistance and activism. Religious tolerance and women’s issues are especially key.
The Kurdistan Voice: The former U.S. president, George Bush had an unsuccessful Great Middle-East plan for the democratization of the region. Is it possible that the Trumps’ administration pursues a similar plan to strengthen the U.S. power and reduce Russia’s influence in the region?
Dr. Moradian: Let me begin by distinguishing between Bush’s foreign policy towards the Middle East and that of Trump.
The two are actually different, at least in terms of messaging. Both Sr. Bush and Jr. Bush had the slogan of destroying dictatorship and establishing democracy in the region as their stated reasons for getting involved in the Middle East.
This was the case in the early 90’s with Bush Sr. and was also the case with Bush Jr. Trump says: “America First” and states that he is there for reestablishing America’s dominance, politically, economically and ideologically. Establishing democracy does not appear to be part of the plan.
On the surface, we might think that Bush’s vision of destroying dictatorship and establishing western style democracy is a worthy cause. The reality is not exactly as noble. First of all, establishing democracy was never clearly defined or classified. There was also no clear plan of how this was going to happen. For example, Bush failed to help foster a clear alternative that would fill the void left behind after the toppling of dictatorship. Furthermore, power was not properly divvied up between all the stakeholders on the ground.
The project was left completely unfinished. In part, as a result of this, the region has been plagued by the horrors of ISIS. The human, economic, and cultural costs have been enormous.
Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. succeeded in toppling dictators but then the region was abandoned to deal with the cascading consequences of war and instability. Whether Trump’s foreign policy is going to work better remains to be seen. Time will tell. So far there is no clear vision in mind.
The Bush administration, as well as Obama’s, were committed to the one Iraq, one Syria policy and were not interested in supporting the Kurdish quest for self-determination. They saw the continuation of Iraq as well as Syria (as an intact country) as a priority. At the same time, they did not have a plan of how to support the type of political system that would lead to democracy. Territorial integrity was chosen over the well-being of people. The cost has been great suffering and further instability. This policy has had a devastating impact on Kurds and has been one of the biggest blows to Kurdish interests.
While America has relied on Kurds to neutralize extremism and give tactical and military support to American troops, it has in turn, refused to support Kurds in their political ambitions.
We don’t yet know if the Trump administration is going to continue this policy or move in a different direction. The Trump administration has supported Kurds in Syria militarily but there is so far no indication that things will be different politically.
When it comes to Russia, the issue is even more complex. While Russia appears to want to reestablish its former Soviet supremacy in the world, it is entangled in more pressing concerns closer its own borders, such as in Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia is a strong player militarily but economically it is on the same level as a country like Italy. It, therefore, does not have the leverage to continue taking a strong stance in the Middle East. The most it can hope for is to recreate the balance of power between east and west that the old Soviet once had.
Trump’s policy towards Russia has been to sit down with Russia and negotiate while making sure Russia does not have a leadership role in the world. In this regard, Trump’s policy is a conservative American stance and not a new one but it is a deviation from Obama.
Trump administration is interested in U.S. global dominance and not in power sharing. By helping Russia economically, it is likely that Russia will want to trade its influence in Syria and Iran for more dominance in the Eastern block and for more financial opportunities.
The Kurdistan Voice: It seems Turkey faces a dilemma between the United States and Russia concern to its regional policy and has been the failure to gain its strategic goals, especially in Syria as the United States has sent military equipment to the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protect Union without getting attention to the Ankara’s threats.
How is the Turkey’s policy in the region explainable?
Dr. Moradian: Before the year 2003 when AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power, Turkey’s main goals in the region were twofold:
One, it wanted to self-preserve through a strong nationalism. Its policies were geared towards fostering a secular nationalistic state. It did not expend energy and resources on expansionist policies.
Two, it wanted to become a strong economic force. It did so by being a key NATO member. It was able to do just that as it had the largest border with the East. Turkey was seen as the bridge between the East and West. It was able to gain tremendously on the economic front. For 44 years, Turkey benefited financially from the Truman Doctrine, of aid to countries that were moving away from Communism towards Democracy.
In an effort to control Communism, Turkey profited financially and politically.
The Turkish military was the guardian of this secular nationalistic state. Kurds, or anyone else, that threatened this vision were brutally repressed and slaughtered. The war against Kurds helped strengthen the Turkish state by giving the army a constant enemy. Turkey was the beneficiary of the Cold War but needed a new direction after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Understanding the recent history of Turkish foreign policy requires understanding Ahmet Davutoğlu doctrine and philosophy. He is the theoretical founder of the direction Turkey took after the fall of the Soviet Union. From 2002-2009 he had an advisory role and from 2009-2014 he was the foreign minister of Turkey and then became Prime Minister from 2014-2016.
Ahmet Davutoğlu’s philosophy was to move Turkey towards a regional power by emphasizing pan-Islamism and neo-Ottomanism. The direction of its foreign policy moved towards an expansionist one. An Islamist Pan-Turkish vision replaced secular nationalism.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan introduced laws that challenged secularism. He also started to bring forward Islamist ideology in its internal and foreign policy. It began meddling in regional affairs. For example, it became embroidered in a conflict with Israel in support of Hamas. It took positions on Afghanistan and then even more so in Syria. It supported Chechens against Russia.
Initially, Ahmet Davutoğlu attempted to minimize conflict with its neighbors by becoming closer to Iran, Greece, Armenia, Iraq, and Syria. He believed that he could have more influence in the region by neutralizing tensions. This was positive for Turkey. During the time Iran was internationally sanctioned, Turkey was able to go around these sanctions and benefit economically.
Ahmet Davutoğlu was also interested in a peace process with the PKK in order to;
1) Bring Turkey closer to joining the European Union,
2) Minimize tensions internally
3) Reduce the role of the army, which was traditionally the guardian of secular nationalism and not pan-Islamist.
Ultimately, Ahmet Davutoğlu’s vision was a failed one. The peace process with the PKK did not move forward in part because the army and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan itself had no interest in following through.
Furthermore, by the early 2012’s it was clear that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saw himself as an Islamic leader. It drew further and further away from Europe. Joining the European Union was no longer at the forefront of Turkish national interests. The first confrontations with the west came when the U.S first invaded Iraq. Turkey initially resisted the war by not allowing the U.S military to use its bases. Furthermore, in the conflict between Gaza and Israel, it took the side of Gaza. Ahmet Davutoğl’s philosophy was clashing with the West.
Ahmet Davutoğl then supported Muslim Brotherhood and in this way wanted to penetrate in the Arab region’s internal affairs. Turkey took up a leading role in the Arab Spring. It had a proactive foreign policy at the time. It would actively pursue opportunities to expand its power.
Turkey wanted to position itself as a model for the Middle East: an Islamic country that was (at least on the surface) democratic. However, Arab Spring was too large of a conflict for Turkey to be able to control.
With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s role also diminished. It was not able to hold on to any power in Libya or Egypt. It became further entangled in the conflict in Syria.
The Syrian uprising and civil war were another places that Turkey attempted to have great influence. In fact, Turkey’s role in the creation and expansion of ISIS is documented but needs further scrutiny. Turkey appears to have used ISIS, as well as the refugee crisis, as a way to further hurt the Kurds and expand its powers in the region. However, with the defeat of ISIS, Turkey’s role has been further questioned. Despite the evidence, the West has yet to directly hold Turkey responsible for aiding ISIS; however, the West no longer sees Turkey as a model for the region.
By 2016, as a result of Ahmet Davutoğl’s failures to establish the type of regional dominance it set out to do, he was forced out of the political arena.
Turkey today is forced into a reactive strategy, rather than proactive position. It is at odds with its neighbors and internally unstable and more polarized than ever.
Dr. Azad Moradian, a Kurdish- American Politician was born in Iranian Kurdistan (Eastern Kurdistan). Dr. Moradian specializes in Kurdish and Iranian politics. His articles are regularly published in several media outlets and magazines. He gives regular political comments on radio and TV broadcasts. He also analyzed Kurdish politics and internal fratricide between political factions, and its dire consequences.
Dr. Moradian is Chair of Kurdish American Committee for Democracy and Human right in Iran, and co-founder of Voice of Kurdish-American Radio for Democracy, Peace, and Freedom.
Dr. Moradian is a former member of the board of directors of Kurdish National Congress of North America.