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US Withdrawal Brings The Kurds Closer to Iran

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The manner of the US withdrawal from Iraq has been appalling to say the least and greeted with dismay in Kurdistan Region and some parts of Iraq. In the latest survey by Gallup, three out of four American approved Obama's withdrawal from Iraq. Nevertheless, it is not clear what the strategic objective of the withdrawal is, except electioneering and cost cutting.

Apart from changing the balance of power the region by giving Iran a lifeline and freeing the Islamic republic from isolation, which should be the main concern of policy makers in Washington, the withdrawal will have a seismic effect on Iraqi politics.

The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) was taken by surprise when the announcement was made and the scale of the US drawdown became clear. Soon after the announcement, Iraqi provinces raised their voices demanding to become regions while calling for more decentralised Iraq. Waves of arrest took place throughout Iraq targeting the Baathists, which Maliki's government accused them of plotting a coup. In retaliation, the level of violence has increased markedly and possibly escalating further despite the fact that political leaders are calling for calm.

KR (Kurdistan Region) President Massud Barzani, was quick to visit Iran and seek assurances whilst gauging Tehran's mood. The soundbites after the meeting were positive and it appears that relations between Erbil and Tehran are thawing, much to the annoyance of Washington.

While the security, economic and cultural ties were discussed during Barzani's visit, it is not clear if oil exports and the future of the disputed areas in Iraq was part of the dialogue. KR oil operators are coming onstream rapidly but due to infrastructure limitation and disagreement over payment mechanism with Baghdad, production has remained subdued. Nevertheless, Iran can provide a short-term solution.

The uneasiness of the Iranian regime was obvious at the US presence in Iraq, sanctions and the inevitability of Syrian regime falling. However, as soon as the US army leave, Iran would be let off the hook and Tehran's influence will extend from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

Turkey and Iran are competing for influence in the area while different branches of Islam subjugate their governments, not to mention different styles of governance. Ankara has already come up with a plan in the form of offering military training to Iraq, but the Maliki's government being closer to Iran, instantaneously rejected the offer.

Barzani is due to visit the US and Turkey in the next coming days while Kurdish PM, Barham Salih, has already made his way to Washington.

There were talk of US bases in KR before Obama's announcement, but decision has not been taken yet. After Salih and Barzani's visit to Washington and talking to Turkey, the Kurdish positions may be clearer. Although the KRG have openly called for the US to stay, it is not clear how eager they are now and how far would they go to persuade White House.

The question which needs to be answered is, at what cost, because clearly the Iranian would not welcome a US base in KR. Kurdish and Iraqi politicians have being saying that, they have no choice with Iran as a neighbour and have to work out a way to live with Tehran. Moreover, Iran has been shelling KR for the duration of last summer - Shelling PJAK bases inside KR and Kurdish border villages- while the White House kept quiet about the Iranian aggression.

The Kurds have always reiterated the fact that KR is the friendliest nation in the region towards the US and have worked closely with the US even before the Iraq war in 2003. However, the alliance has not been on equal terms and the Kurds were always a pragmatic ally.

KR has limited options; to improve relations with Iran by making concessions and leave the US out of the equation, or ally itself with the US ideologically while still maintaining economic ties with Iran. The latter option requires the US to sell arms to the Kurds along with unconditional support and large US present in KR. Nevertheless, the first option appear to be on the table at the moment for KR, as the latter will no doubt has its regional objections like Turkey.

Turkey has a dilemma in the case of Kurdish-US alliance, to accept stronger KR with powerful friends and diminished Iranian influence or a more influential Iran. From Turkish strategic interest point of view, diminished Iranian influence is a more desirable outcome but politics in Middle East is never conducted dispassionately, therefore it is hard to see what the region be like after the US withdrawal.

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