As U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at The Pentagon recently that the U.S. has not outlined a policy for regime change in Iran, some critics say the sanctions punish the Iranian people, not the regime, complicating the alliances to the U.S. in the region.
This summer, President Donald Trump’s rhetoric related to Russia, the European Union, NATO, North Korea and now Iran spotlights U.S. relationships with the rest of the world, most often negatively. But, for some of Iran’s neighbors, the view of America is rather different.
This is particularly true in the stateless region of Kurdistan, where the Kurdistan Regional Government, situated within Iraq, has been seeking independence since 2017. And while the Kurdish population is approximately 36 million, as a regional ally and resource, its importance cannot be diminished.
On my recent visit for a medical conference in Kurdistan (Iran’s immediate neighbor to the West), I met in an unofficial capacity with Kurds and the Kurdish soldiers, the Peshmerga, who each revealed to me a surprising resonance with President Donald Trump’s hardline anti-Iran stance.
During my 10 days in Iraq, I was an invited speaker at the University of Duhok at the first international conference on genocide. As an M.D., I was working with Masters’ degree candidates in psychology and other academicians.
At the conference, the Kurdish people I met were the psychologists treating Yazidi ISIS survivors traumatized by genocide, enslavement and sexual trafficking.
The psychologists explained their own survival of Hussein’s chemical warfare, legacy of the Iran Iraq war. Many of them had survived the 1988 genocide at Halabja of 5,000 people, the first time in history a leader used chemical weapons on his own citizens.
The vive dean of Duhok, Professor Mamoo Othman, my host in the country and himself a Kurdish Yazidi, remarked that Kurdistan remains allied strongly with America. Othman said all Iraqi minorities are with the United States.
Whether speaking fluent English, cobbling together broken English, or making themselves understood through my spotty Arabic, most everyone I met in Iraq upon learning I was from the U.S. exclaimed, “‘I love America!”’
Unofficially, I met with Peshmerga officers who had led the offensive repelling ISIS from Iraq during the bloody three-year war against ISIS. Interestingly, Iran has also reportedly armed Peshmerga to fight as proxies against ISIS, this in order to avert ISIS from spilling over into Iranian territory across Kurdish controlled borders.
The partition of Iraq (sometimes called the Three State Solution), includes Kurds to the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites to the south. This has also been called Iran’s “Nightmare Scenario.” Yet, an independent Kurdistan could well be America’s dream.
Herein may exist the ambivalence of Iran towards Kurdistan, even as the Kurds fight ISIS to the benefit of Iran’s national interest. The three state solution splinters Iran’s current power dynamics. It leaves present day Iraq (and Iran) weakened, rather than maintaining as the Shia-dominant state it is today.
Iran’s influence would perhaps contract and Kurdish diaspora populations in Syria, Turkey and Iran would possibly agitate for their own independence. This would force Iran to move to improve development as well as public infrastructure in the neglected Kurdish region of Iran.
ISIS has now splintered into cells of guerilla operations in both Iraq and Syria. It is conceivable then that Iran might finance ISIS in order to continue to drive Iraq towards a controlled instability. This would deter Iraq from emerging from its current status and would hold back Kurdistan from achieving its long-awaited and much deserved independence.
The Peshmerga I met explained how deeply the Iranian influence is in Iraq. During the fall of Mosul to ISIS, 300 ISIS fighters took a city of 2.5 million. This occurred as 6,000 Iraqi soldiers stationed there reportedly laid down their American ordinance and removed their uniforms, relinquishing Mosul, as well as the heavy American ordinance to ISIS. The fall of Mosul led to the exodus of 180,000 Christians from Mosul and left tens of thousands dead.
The Kurdish Peshmerga commanders I spoke with say they believe this was an arrangement between Iran and Shiite militia commanders in the Iraqi Army, driven by loyalties to Iran rather than Iraq.
Within Iraq, reports are that millions of Iraqis and Kurds fear that on the ground a ferocious power struggle looms between Iran and the U.S. inside Iraq.
Iraqis who faced Iran in a brutal eight-year war against Iran under Hussein’s rule well understand Iran cannot be underestimated as a foe. The Iran–Iraq War lasting from 1980 to 1988 claimed almost one million lives from both nations, leaving a legacy of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on Iranian civilians. Later Iraq, used such weapons specifically for genocide of its own Kurdish population.
In contemporary Iraq, those I met reported they continue to revere President George W. Bush. Because of him, they say, the United States is recognized as a liberator of Iraqis.
The Kurds have erected monuments to fallen American soldiers and assigned land for large scale commemorations recognizing American bloodshed sacrificed for Kurdistan.
As anti-Iran rhetoric from the U.S. is rising, Kurdistan poses a vital source of support for the United States, should conflict between the U.S. and Iran become manifest.
Inside Iran, persecuted Kurds sharing allegiance with the Kurdish diaspora and persecuted for years by the Iranian regime, may be best poised to launch an open challenge to Iran’s increasingly brittle Islamist government.
At a time when America herself is in a domestic crisis of optimism and belief confronting her place in the world, Kurdistan offers hope in America, a hope which arrives just when America might need it most.
Dr. Qanta Ahmed is author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in Saudi Arabia, a recognized expert on Islamism and a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her on Twitter: @MissDiagnosis.