Although the 2005 Iraqi Constitution makes foreign affairs the exclusive domain of the federal government, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has noticeably increased its international involvement in recent times. Kurdish leaders, including President Massoud Barzani, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and de-facto Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa, have paid official visits to many countries in Europe, North America, and the Middle East during the last two months, and have been received in foreign countries as official visitors. In last November, for example, President Barzani was received in UAE and Qatar as a 'head of state'. The region has also been welcoming several high-ranking foreign officials (heads of state, prime ministers, ministers and envoys) this year—the most notable being the visit of all Turkish top leaders.
In fact, KRG often deploys its own ‘foreign service’ apparatus and conducts foreign policy independent of Baghdad, in pursuit of its own objectives. KRG possesses an actual ‘diplomatic service’, complete with its own minister, a corps of officials specializing in international affairs, and a network of foreign representatives. The Kurdish Department of Foreign Relations is structured on the same model as the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and acts as a de facto ministry. KRG maintains between 14 and 17 representation offices or “quasi-embassies” across four continents, and its representatives abroad consider themselves to be 'diplomatic envoys'. In addition, there are 25 foreign diplomatic missions and permanent offices of international organizations in Erbil.
The KRG is involved in direct relationships with different international actors, including nation-states, international organizations, sub-national entities (e.g. provinces and regions) and transnational actors (e.g. global companies). Further, Kurdish officials participate in international conferences and in multilateral negotiation schemes on a geographical or functional basis. The Kurdish government places branding and public diplomacy campaigns, organizes its own international trade conferences, and appeals for foreign aid and assistance.
On numerous occasions, the KRG has acted contrary to the international commitments and positions of the Government of Iraq (GOI) on issues such as trade, foreign investment, minority issues in neighboring countries and rapprochement with foreign nations. KRG position toward the Syrian crisis is evident.
In fact, Kurdistan's growing international profile has raised questions on whether Kurdish leaders are using their high-level involvement in international affairs as a means to secede from Iraq and to form an independent state of their own. For some analysts, Kurdish leaders are definitely doing so. Not surprisingly, Bagdad is making all efforts to contain Kurdish international activities, but this has further spurred the KRG’s involvement in foreign affairs.
Others view growing foreign relations of KRG as being largely in the context of supporting and enhancing the Kurdish identity. This is achieved by promoting Kurdistan region as having an international character and creating popular consensus over the nationalist project. The involvement of the Kurdish officials in foreign affairs also gives them a podium for showcasing their region as a nation.
More important, the KRG is venturing into the international sphere to defend its economic, cultural and political interests among others. Kurdish economic interests include attracting foreign investments, marketing the region’s oil and gas reserves, receiving international aid and assistance, etc. Its cultural interests comprise asserting the cultural Kurdish component in Iraq and enhancing Kurdish culture in other countries.
KRG is also utilizing its foreign contacts to pressure or bargain with Baghdad for constitutional or institutional changes that recognize Kurdish political interests, namely flexible federal system in Iraq, the implementation of Article 140 of the constitution related to Kirkuk and other “disputed areas” and the “fair” distribution of hydrocarbon revenues. Another major motive behind Kurdistan’s drive to establish stronger external links is the desire to assert and enlarge its virtual autonomy vis-à-vis the central government and to achieve maximum control over economic resources of the region, especially oil and gas.
Some experts consider international involvement as a Kurdish strategy to gain international recognition for its political aspirations of being a “nation”, i.e., the region constitutes a nation different from the dominant Arab nation around it. A group among those experts considers external activism as a Kurdish strategy to gain international recognition for the “semi-state” status the region already enjoys. For them, the region seeks to achieve the benefits of independence as much as possible without caring too much about the official recognition of independence.
Whatever weight analysts give to each motive behind Kurdistan’s increased emphasis on foreign relations, there is an admission that the Kurdish state is still ambiguous, maybe because the Kurdistan region and the whole of Iraq is still going through a transitory phase even after the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011.
Ayman el-Dessouki is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, Egyp