Non-binding it may have been, but the people of three Kurdish governorates and the city of Kirkuk have voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Iraq. The movement for this has been building up over the years – Saddam Hussein’s administration kept it quashed but the subsequent political landscape in Iraq has encouraged it. The referendum, and its results, was quickly condemned by the central Iraqi government, as well as Kurdistan’s neighbours of Turkey and Iran.
The central Iraq government considers Kurdistan a renegade province, asserting that it holds sovereignty over the land and – more importantly – its oil riches. Yet, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) still calls the shots, and despite central protests, sells its own oil that powers its own economy. It is a situation analogous to China and Taiwan or Spain and Barcelona. The original proposition for the referendum was for the three major Kurdish regions. This had been given a lukewarm response by Iraq’s central government, but when it was expanded to include Kirkuk – where oil was first discovered in Iraq in 1927 – hackles were raised and retaliation was threatened.
At Iraq’s requests, Iran closed its airspace surrounding the Kurdish regions, preventing flights, while also conducting military exercises at the border in a show of force. Turkey condemned the referendum in no uncertain terms, going as far as threatening military intervention. The issue is optics. Turkey is dealing with its own restive Kurdish minority population, as is Iran, and the worry is that the referendum would spur Turkish and Iranian Kurds to band together to force an independent Kurdistan carved out of bits of Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
It is Turkey that the KRG should worry about. Even though the vote was declared as non-binding – merely an indication of the people’s desire of independence – Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the vote was ‘laying the ground for conflict.’ This is crucial because Turkey is the only conduit for Kurdish crude oil to reach the wider market, shipped via pipeline to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Kurdish oil could pass through Iraqi ports, but because the Iraqi central government considers all oil produced within its borders under the authority of state crude marketing agency SOMO, the KRG would receive no revenue from this. And now Turkey is threatening to close this sole valve, which would leave the landlocked KRG with much oil and no place to sell it. And the KRG has a lot of oil. The region produced some 550,000 b/d of oil last year, and looks set to boost output to 600,000 b/d, putting it on par with OPEC members Qatar and Ecuador. The entire region itself is estimated to hold some 45 billion barrels of crude reserves, which is more than Nigeria. This is the root of the conflict. The region is rich – very rich – in oil. And the Iraqi government will not let it go without a fight.
Worst still for the KRG is that Turkey is now leaning to treating all oil originating from Iraq as under Iraqi central control through SOMO. The current pipeline leading to Ceyhan is controlled by the Kurds and piggybacked upon by the federal North Oil Company; Turkey’s new policy would mean that revenue from all that oil will go to Iraq, not split between the KRG and Iran as it now is. It may not lead to that. Most signs are pointing to this being political bluster and grandstanding to indicate disapproval. Oil continues to flow through the Turkish pipeline without any interruption, and looks set to do so for a while. The KRG has recently signed plans with Russia’s Rosneft to build and expand natural gas pipelines in Kurdistan, while Chevron drilled its first exploration well in the Sarta block in Iraqi Kurdistan in two years.
What the referendum has achieved, is to draw the lines in the battleground for Kurdistan. These lines will not be crossed. They will form the basis of negotiation between the KRG and the Iraqi government on how best to move forward with their relationship. The KRG cannot afford to make new enemies; their ‘friends’ in Turkey and Iran are problems enough. But what they have is oil. And that is a very good bargaining chip in their quest for independence.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 16 September 2019 – Brent: US$69/b; WTI: US$63/b
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