After the Kurdish Independence Referendum

How to Prevent a Crisis in Iraq

A boy riding a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq, September 2017. Thaier Al-Sudani / REUTERS

In the face of enormous opposition, on Monday Iraqi Kurdistan went ahead with a referendum on independence. Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States were among the major international powers that urged the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to reconsider or postpone the event. Regional powers, including Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, were less measured, issuing economic, security, and diplomatic sanctions against the KRG—most of which have not yet materialized. Even so, the mood in the KRG capital Erbil was festive. Initial results suggest a high turnout (over 72 percent), and it appears that a large majority of voters endorsed the bid for independence.

Of course, the vote is non-binding and its implications will be more political than legal. In fact, this is not even the first referendum that the Iraqi Kurds have held on the question of independence: they voted on the same question in 2005. Then, too, independence received almost unanimous support. But there is a qualitative difference between the two votes. The first was a civil-society-led initiative, whereas this is an initiative by the Kurdish government that has been ratified by the region’s parliament, which convened on September 14 for the first time in more than two years. The Kurdish leadership has emphasized that this makes the referendum more a statement of intention than a roadmap.

Even that statement, though, has caused much anxiety nationally, regionally, and internationally. Particularly alarmed are Iran and Turkey, which have threatened the KRG with dire consequences for going ahead with the vote. In fact, Iran closed its airspace to the Kurdistan region at the request of Iraq a day before the referendum, and the Turkish military held drills with the Iraqi military along the Turkey-KRG border. Both countries see the referendum as having transformed the Kurdish aspiration for statehood in Iraq from problem to be managed to a mounting crisis on their borders.


A series of miscalculations have gotten the region to its current position. For one, the international community, and particularly the United

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