Kurdistan – Baghdad Power Struggle: Oil and Gas

Kurdistan Region and Baghdad are locked in a struggle for control over oil and gas sector. This is only a part of an old struggle. For decades Kurds have pushed for greater autonomy. Baghdad, on the other hand, has striven for stronger centralization. Kurds feel former Arab regimes have oppressed them and now they deserve more. Arabs see Kurds have already gained further rights and they should be controlled. The result is a never-ending power struggle between Erbil and Baghdad.
Kurds have made political achievements. Iraq’s constitution envisions some important long-awaited Kurdish ambitions. The Kurds practice a de facto independence on their oil-rich region and play an important role in Baghdad too. Economically, however, they are dependent on Baghdad. The Kurdish thinking is that controlling the region’s oil and gas sector, or even agreeing with Baghdad on a favorable mechanism, will significantly enhance Kurdish economic power.
Baghdad’s fear is that increased Kurdish economic power weakens its position vis-à-vis Erbil. There is a direct link between economy and politics. Stronger Kurdish economic power means weaker Baghdad’s political power. Baghdad uses Kurdish economic dependence as a political weapon against Erbil. It will lose an important political card vis-à-vis Erbil if Kurds exported oil independently. That same political card will be less effective in case Baghdad and Erbil reached an agreement.
The power struggle between Baghdad and Erbil has serious repercussions outside Iraq. Oil and gas exports are central to Kurdish future. They can be used for independence. Kurdish statehood in northern Iraq will have the domino effects. The Kurds in other countries may join them. However, Kurdish politicians do not see current circumstances suitable for independence. They have chosen to live in Iraq. This is not for free though. Kurds believe they deserve more political and economic rights.
Turkey is deeply engaged in this game. Its policy with regard to Kurdish oil and gas exports is based on a tri-party mechanism. Publicly, Ankara appears pro-Erbil and anti-Baghdad. Secretly, it encourages Erbil and pressurizes Baghdad into reaching an agreement. Ankara’s policy seems paving the way for Kurdish independence, but Turkey remains strongly opposed to that. Ankara’s liberal-oriented policy towards Erbil is aimed at keeping Kurds within a territorially integrated Iraq and not vice-versa. Turkey is diversifying its energy supplies and positioning itself as an energy hub.
Baghdad and Erbil have to reach an agreement. Both sides will have to make compromises. There is no another way. Erbil has already exported oil and Baghdad has cut Kurdish share of budget. Erbil will not declare independence and Baghdad will not stop oil exportation. Amid domestic and regional crises, Iraqi statesmen cannot stay paralyzed. The United States and Iran should play a better constructive role. Idrees Mohammed teaches International Relations at University of Duhok’s department of political science. He tweets @IdreesMohammd.