In September 2013, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held elections for its parliament. One of the two ruling parties the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) came in third place, while a break away party and member of the opposition the Change List finished second. This sea change in Kurdish politics has left the make-up of the new ruling coalition up in the air. There are questions of whether all the winning parties will be included or whether it will be a more limited government. Iran is hoping to influence this process by getting the PUK and Change List to cooperate, and both join in the new administration.
Some members of the PUK were not happy with its showing in the 2013 election (AFP)
When the results of the 2013 balloting began to trickle out some members of the PUK were none too happy, and Iran stepped in to try to calm the situation. One leading member of the party for instance claimed that its ruling partner the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had cheated, and that was why the PUK came in third. Around the same time some armed PUK members took to the streets in Sulaymaniya and assaulted a vote counting center attempting to change the results. It seemed like more PUK followers might follow in their footsteps. Adnan Mufti a senior PUK official said that Iran called the party leadership at this time, and told them to abstain from any violence. Tehran and the PUK have long standing ties going back decades. The party’s base in Sulaymaniya borders Iran, there is a large amount of trade between the two, and Tehran used to be one of the main sponsors of the Patriotic Union. Many predicted that it would do badly in the 2013 vote, and Iran probably did not want to see its ally be discredited by making rash decisions.
Tehran is now trying to influence the make-up of the new Kurdish government. It is following a two-track policy. First it is trying to get the PUK and Change List to mend ties and cooperate. This started immediately after the election. Rudaw claimed that two members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force visited Sulaymaniya and met with the PUK and Change. Both parties have also been invited to Tehran. The goal is to get both lists to join the new government. This followers earlier efforts by Iran to woo the Change List such as when party head Nishurwan Mustafa travelled to Iran in July 2012. Second Iran seems to be trying to help the PUK with its leadership crisis. Since December 2012 the head of the Patriotic Union Iraq President Jalal Talabani has been incapacitated and out of the country after suffering a major stroke. The party has been adrift since then, and that was a major reason why it did so badly in the election. There are stories circulating that deputy secretary general Barham Saleh may assume the head of the PUK. He’s supposed to be going to Iran perhaps to get their blessing for this change. There are counter reports that the PUK will not have any discussion of replacing Talabani as long as he’s alive. Now that the Patriotic Union has declined in popularity Tehran is attempting to adjust. It wants to increase its relations with the Change List since it has become an important party in the region. It also wants to make sure that the PUK remains a prominent list. By getting them to overcome their differences, cooperate, and join the new government Tehran can maintain its influence. Finally, it wants to counter the growing power of Turkey, which is allied with the KDP.
Iran has historically been one of the major outside influences in the Kurdish region. It does not want to lose its position in the KRG after the shake-up in the standings of the ruling parties in the 2013 election. Tehran is now doing its best to reach out to the Change List, get it to cooperate with the PUK, while attempting to help that party after its loss. As a PUK official told BasNews, Iran has played a role in forming previous Kurdish governments, and will do so again this year. Its political and economic relations with Kurdistan are too important to Iran for it not to.
Ahmed, Hevidar, “Reading Nawshirwan Mustafa’s Visit to Iran,” Rudaw, 7/4/12
Barzinji, Shwan, “For new Kurdish government PUK and Gorran head to Iran,” BasNews, 10/8/13
Barzinji, Shwan & Hessian, Taha, “Will Barham Salih replace Jalal Talabani ? GORRAN GOES ISLAM,” BasNews, 10/22/13
Al Rafidayn, “Salah and Hero the page Talabani and determine the presidency of Iraq from Tehran,” 10/23/13
Rudaw, “Iraqi Kurdistan’s Next Government: No Clear Picture,” 10/22/13
- “PUK: Iran Intervened to Preserve Calm after Kurdistan Poll Results,” 10/16/13
Shafaq News, “PUK: We have paid high tax in Talabani’s absence,” 10/23/13
Shekhani, Sherzad, “Diplomatic cable leak: Nechirvan Barzani fears Iranian influence in areas under the influence of the PUK,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 10/23/13