Iran’s 13 March missile strikes on purported Israeli strategic centers in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) was met with swift condemnation by Turkey. This is indicative of the conflicting nature of the relationship between both countries, but also of Turkey’s budding entente with Israel.
Amid escalations in drone and cyber warfare between Tehran and Israel, the IKR as an established venue of Israeli-Turkish strategic cooperation may become a target for an increasingly assertive and interventionist Iran determined to disrupt this partnership. This coincides with progress made in talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Israel, Turkey and Kurdistan
Since the First Gulf War in 1991, and especially following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the factions comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have taken advantage of the political disarray in Baghdad to govern Kurdistan like a de-facto independent state.
The KRG, in contrast with other Kurdish groups in the region, forged close relations with its northern neighbor Turkey. It declined sheltering or supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish insurgent group that Turkey has combatted since the 1980s, and has brokered Turkish-PKK peace talks.
In exchange, Ankara agreed to buy oil the KRG sold without Baghdad’s permission and to transit it to other markets too. Iraq’s adversary Israel was chief among these markets, buying cheap KRG oil shipped via Turkish Mediterranean Sea ports.
Israel’s ties with the KRG go further back than Turkey’s, as Tel Aviv has armed and supplied Kurdish insurgencies against Baghdad – led by Iraqi Kurdistan’s dominant Barzani clan – since the 1960s, as a way of weakening Iraq.
During Iraq’s war with the ISIS terrorist organization, the KRG took advantage of Baghdad’s preoccupation to militarily seize oil-rich Iraqi city Kirkuk and use its pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port and to pump greater volumes of oil to ship to Israel.
Iran’s missile attack
Iran, bordering Iraqi Kurdistan to the northwest, views Israel as its main regional enemy. At the core of Iran’s West Asian ‘strategic depth’ strategy is the removal of adversarial proximity to Iranian borders, instead taking the fight to Israel’s own frontiers, as seen by its alliances in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Any prospect of Israel gaining a lasting presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, right next to Iran, undermines this strategy.
Therefore, Iran does not want Turkey to be Israel’s conduit into Iraq. According to Turkish columnist Fehim Tastekin, the Israel factor is why Turkish targets in Iraq have come under fire from Iran-allied Iraqi Shia paramilitaries in recent months.
“Iraq appears to be the first front where Iran’s annoyance with Turkey is surfacing,” Tastekin explained.
In this context, Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s 9 March visit to Turkey convinced Tehran of the need to take on a more pro-active posture in Iraq against Israeli interests. Thus, Iran acted itself this time with its missile strikes several days later, which hit KRG-owned buildings in Erbil that US media and local sources reported were being used by Israeli intelligence.
Moreover, Turkey’s quick condemnation of the Iranian missile strikes appears to confirm that, to some extent, it considers Iraqi Kurdistan as an important testing ground for revitalizing relations with Tel Aviv.
Rather than a one-dimensional warning, Iran’s missile attacks likely aimed to remind Ankara of the limitations of Israeli-Turkish cooperation in Iraqi Kurdistan that became evident in the past, as well as the merits of Iranian-Turkish cooperation on shared security interests in Iraq.
After all, when the KRG attempted secession from Iraq via an independence vote in September 2017, Israel backed it, but Turkey did not. Despite good ties with the KRG, Ankara maintains a red-line when it came to any kind of Kurdish independence anywhere near its borders.
Accordingly, Turkey threatened to shut down the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline when the KRG declared independence, and even cooperated with Tehran and Baghdad as they militarily quelled the secession attempt. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even placed full blame for the KRG’s independence gambit at Israel’s doorstep, accused KRG President Masoud Barzani of ‘treachery’ and visited Iran to emphasize joint opposition to Kurdish secession.
Both countries previously carried out joint air raids against Kurdish militant targets in the IKR, as Iran has its own security concerns over an Iranian PKK offshoot, the militant Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).
This existing precedent for Iranian-Turkish pragmatism over Iraqi Kurdistan made it feasible for Iran to make its show of force in Erbil. Without it, Ankara’s default option to respond to Iran’s posturing against its Israel ties would be to treat Tehran as a zero-sum aggressor.
Iran cannot afford straining relations with Turkey too heavily, though, as alongside Turkey’s importance as a market for Iranian gas, Tehran benefits from the fact that itself and Ankara have traditionally avoided direct, bilateral confrontation despite differing on many regional issues. This stability provides a valuable contrast to Iran’s chaotic regional conflict with Israel and the uncertainty in its ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Thus, Iran’s missile strikes aim to induce a Turkish rethink on incorporating Israel into its Iraq policy.
The Iran nuclear deal
Despite months of ebbs and flows, recent developments suggest that the US could soon return to the JCPOA, which it unilaterally abandoned in 2018 under former President Donald Trump.
For Iran, the revival of JCPOA promises not only freedom from US sanctions, but also boosts its capacity for power-projection in West Asia. This is because a JCPOA revival would now happen in the backdrop of the escalated tensions between the west and Russia over Ukraine.
As the US prioritizes countering Russia, it will find sense in using the JCPOA, which reduces US-Iran tensions and ensures Iran does not go nuclear, as a concluding note for its West Asian commitments so it can shift focus on regions vital to the rivalry with Moscow, such as Europe.
This means that Iran can afford more aggressive moves in the region without fearing repercussions by the west whether via sanctions or any other means. Thus, firing missiles into Erbil turned out to be as a less risky move than it would have been had JCPOA negotiations not been taking place.
Additionally, Iran likely knows that the Israeli-Turkish entente is a work-in-progress and that it is important to try disrupting it early on. As such, progress with the JCPOA and Herzog’s Turkey visit presented Tehran with an opportunity to act which could have proven costly to ignore.
High stakes over Iraqi Kurdistan
Although KRG-Baghdad relations calmed after the KRG’s secession attempt failed, Iraqi Kurdistan remains a collision point for the geopolitical agendas of Iraq’s powerful neighbors.
Turkey and the KRG have engaged in talks to revive their energy cooperation in tandem with the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. Baghdad’s own capacity to monitor and regulate the KRG’s oil dealings does not seem any better than it was during the tumult of 2014–17, which may encourage Iran to continue taking matters vis a vis the Israeli-Turkish-KRG triangle into its own hands as it did recently with the Erbil missile strikes. Tehran ultimately wants less escalation over Iraqi Kurdistan, but is evidently willing to risk it if it feels its red-line regarding Israel is not being upheld.