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Is Iraqi Kurdistan Iran’s Trojan Horse?

Last month, Max Boot and I debated here about what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s consolidation of power meant. While we disagree on our assessments of Maliki, we do agree that that the Obama administration’s decision to throw the towel in on Iraq was a major strategic blunder, one which bolstered Iranian influence at a crucial time.

About the same time that Max and I were having our back-and-forth, Seyed Azim Hosseini, Iran’s consul-general in Iraqi Kurdistan, gave an interview in which he revealed that 70 percent of Iran’s Iraq trade is with Iraqi Kurdistan:

“‘The volume of trade between the two countries is officially $7 billion, but we believe the actual number in general is more than $10 billion, out of which 70 percent is with the Kurdistan Region.’ Hosseini said there are 500 active Iranian companies in the Region, and the number is increasing steadily.”

While journalists have reported on Kurdistan Regional Government oil smuggling to Iran, the proportion cited by Hosseini surprised me, so I check the figured with the Iraqi embassy in Washington; they confirmed the 70 percent.

There is an unfortunate tendency among the Washington foreign policy elite to be swayed by suave English-speaking representatives. Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, for example, too often took Bashar al-Assad at his word and so became useful idiots to a tyrannical regime. Qubad Talabani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s outgoing representative, massaged a bipartisan array of politicians, and helped channel senior retired generals and congressmen to Kurdistan where they were wined and dined in a highly stage-managed junket. Many U.S. senators swear by Barham Salih, a former Patriotic Union of Kurdistan representative who rose to the Kurdish premiership.  In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, Barham has cozied up with Muqtada al-Sadr in an effort to form an anti-Maliki coalition.

Three lessons can be drawn by Kurdistan’s pivot:

(1)  Exposure of Middle Eastern politicians to the West does not make them more Western; rather, it enables them to adopt a patina of liberalism in order to fool interlocutors.

(2)  Even if they are sincerely pro-Western (as I believe both Qubad and Barham are), such orientations go out the window when it comes to political survival. When the Americans are not present in strength, even the most pro-American peoples will make their accommodation with America’s enemies.

(3)  To assume that the Shi’ites will be Fifth Columnists is to display willful blindness—the Iranian regime will find many mechanisms to extend their interests, be they among Christians in Armenia, or Sunni Muslims in Kurdistan. Most Shi’ites have reason to resent Iran, although too often anti-Shi’ite sentiment among senior American officials forces them back into Iran’s embrace.

One thing should be clear, however: For America to lose Iraqi Kurdistan to the Iranians suggests the hemorrhaging of U.S. influence under President Obama is far worse than many in Washington would like to acknowledge.