Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has officially nominated Barham Salih, a life-long member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to be Iraq’s new president.
Barham is a capable politician, a former minister of planning for Iraq, and is popular among many journalists and officials in the United Kingdom and Washington D.C., where he had been based for decades. He has carefully cultivated an image as a reformist and, indeed, probably aspires to be one although during his time in power, he was unable to overcome impediments put in his path by Barzani and others. Importantly, against the backdrop of Iraqi realpolitik Barham has also won Iran’s confidence to preside over the largely ceremonial position. Barzani’s decision to nominate Barham ends months of internal infighting, especially within the PUK because Hero Khan, the current first lady of Iraq who is also a PUK power broker and a gatekeeper to PUK finances, absolutely despises Barham for reasons both real and imagined.
Being nominated by Barzani and assuming the Iraqi presidency are two different things, however. The nature of Iraq’s constitution means that the president, prime minister, and speaker of the parliament will often be decided together as part of a package meant to assuage various political (and ethnic, and sectarian) constituencies.
Kurdish officials insist Iraq’s presidency should be reserved for a Kurd. That ultimately is a decision for Iraqis—Arab and Kurd alike—but the assumption does condemn Iraq to a sort of Lebanon-style confessionalism where religion and, in Iraq’s case, ethnicity mean more than ability. Nevertheless, after years of oppressions, Kurds seek the symbolism of holding the Iraqi presidency, even if the power of the presidency is less than that of the speakership of the parliament.
Barzani’s nomination of Barham for the presidency right now, less than a week after Barzani called for a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan independence, raises some very real questions, however, about the future of the Kurds inside Iraq and Barzani’s true intentions. After all, it is unclear why any Iraqi Arab would accept an Iraqi Kurd (or at least an Iraqi Kurd from the provinces which together form the Kurdistan Regional Government) for the presidency of their country when Kurds could within months move down the path to complete independence. Barham has always handled his dual roles in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan well, but it is unclear how he can or should hold the presidency while the political party in which he is an activist if not the major policy-setter seeks at the same time Iraq’s division.
I have often argued that Barzani has treated Kurdish nationalism more as a policy tool to be wielded against his opponents rather than a sincerely-held belief and been the target of opprobrium by many of those surrounding Barzani because of it. I base my argument on historical evidence: After all, in 1996, he invited Saddam Hussein into his capital Erbil. It seemed that Barzani prioritized maintaining power against Kurdish rivals (including, at the time, Barham’s party) over the risk of losing all Kurdish autonomy to a man like Saddam who had conducted genocide against the Kurdish people and, indeed, had murdered 8,000 members of Barzani’s tribe just years earlier.
More recently, Barzani has allied himself with Turkey against Kurds seeking autonomy or federalism in both Turkey and Syria, again because those Kurds follow political leadership which does not subordinate itself to Barzani’s more tribal model of power and because they look to other Kurdish leaders beyond Barzani for their future. Perhaps I am wrong, however.
Still, it was noteworthy that, when speaking before his rubber-stamp parliament last week, Barzani did not offer a date for a referendum, again suggesting Barzani was treating nationalism as a political tool rather than a personal goal. And while Kurds across Iraqi Kurdistan overwhelmingly seek independence, a complete break with Iraq would mean forfeiting Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of revenue from southern Iraq’s oil fields which produce far more than those than the much-storied but declining fields around Kirkuk. Only time will tell how sincere Barzani is when it comes to prioritizing Kurdish nationalism above the material benefits he derives from remaining a part of Iraq.
However, with the nomination of Barham Salih to be Iraq’s president, it is unclear how Barzani can act simultaneously as a Kurdish nationalist while also seeking to remain a power broker within Iraq proper. The same holds true with Barham Salih, who should tell Iraq’s parliament without ambiguity or delay about where he stands on the issue of Kurdish secession and to which entity, Iraq or independent Kurdistan, his ultimate loyalty would remain.
If Kurds are going to remain in Iraq for the next four years, then they should participate fully in the horse-trading and any political bargains involved in forming the next Iraqi government. But if the Kurds are going to split within weeks or months—and that is their right and the overwhelming desire of their people—then they should make their intentions 100 percent clear now and abandon their demands for the leadership of Iraq proper and push ahead with independence.
The formula for political compromise in Baghdad would be far different if Kurdish leaders from those provinces splitting away did not seek to take any plum positions that might otherwise go to Iraqis—Shi‘ite, Sunni, or anything else—intending to remain a part of Iraq. At the same time, the possibility for Iraqi stability would be far higher if the bargaining to form the next government could move forward with clarity about the Kurdish nationalist intentions rather than creating a situation where, just months into the new government, the Iraqi president, foreign minister, and other cabinet officials simply abandoned their posts in favor of a new country.