Tension between Iran and the United States is at a peak. On October 11, Attorney General Eric Holder accused the Islamic Republic of plotting an attack on American soil. "Today, the Department of Justice is announcing charges against two people who allegedly attempted to carry out a deadly plot that was directed by factions of the Iranian government to assassinate a foreign ambassador here in the United States," he announced.
Over subsequent weeks, tension increased. On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report finding that Iran's nuclear program included components which had no civilian energy role, only military applications. A month later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recovered a top-secret U.S. spy drone. In just the last two weeks alone, Iranian authorities announced they had captured a CIA spy and the U.S. government announced a $10 million bounty on Yasin as-Suri, an Al Qaeda financier believed to reside in Iran.
Amidst the tension, Tehran is defiant. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Navy (IRGC-N) will soon hold a ten-day war game, reportedly to demonstrate the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian authorities have refused both Bush and Obama administration offers to set up a hotline to de-conflict any crisis in the Persian Gulf. On September 27, Ali Fadavi, IRGC-N chief, declared, the "only way to end their concerns is [for the United States] to leave the region." The Pentagon is taking the opposite approach: Within weeks, three U.S. carrier strike groups will be within range of Iran, while normally only one or two are in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman.
Iran and the United States now appear on a collision course. On December 18, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that if the United States receives "intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it," he added, further raising the specter of a military conflict.
Iraqi Kurds and Iraqis more broadly can argue about whether Western concerns about Iran's nuclear program are justified and they can also debate responsibility for the recent tension between Tehran and Washington. Analysts—whether they are in Washington, Jerusalem, or Tehran—largely agree, however, that the Middle East is closer to a major war now than at any time since 2003.
Any conflict—whether between Israel and Iran, or the United States and Iran—will impact Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan gravely. While many diplomats and television commentators speculate that Iran might try to close the Strait of Hormuz in case of war, this is not likely. Not only can the U.S. Navy reopen the narrow waterway within 24 hours, but Iran also needs to export oil and important refined gasoline in order to survive. Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would be self-defeating for Iran.
How then might Iran lash out should war erupt? If Iranian-backed proxies were able to destroy the southern Iraqi oil terminal or sabotage the infrastructure in the Rumaila Oil field, Iran might be able to knock up to a million barrels per day of oil off the market driving up the price Iran can collect through its continued oil fields. The South Oil Company has no contingency plans to prevent such disruptions.
The question for Kurdish authorities is whether they have any such contingency plans. After all, oil is increasingly important to the Kurdish economy, yet Kurdistan's oil fields are all quite vulnerable to disruption and sabotage. That Iran receives smuggled oil from Iraqi Kurdistan may not be enough to buy restraint. Kurdish oil's value in any proxy conflict increases alongside production. That Western companies are so invested in Kurdistan simply make Iranian-backed sabotage more tempting.
Iranians may undercut the region for other reasons. Whereas before Saddam's fall, many analysts expected Kirkuk to become a flashpoint between Kurds and Turks, the Turkmen more often turned to Shi'i militias rather than the Iraqi Turkmen Front. Iraqis across ethnic and sectarian groups understood that the Iraqi Turkmen Front was little more than a Turkish intelligence front, and Shi'i Turkmen felt Ankara's sectarian discrimination.
Jaysh al-Mahdi and Badr Corps activity in the Kirkuk government was not coincidental: Every neighboring state looks at Iraq through the prism of precedent. If Iraqi Kurds enjoyed strong federalism—with ample oil revenue supporting it—what would stop Iranian Kurds from making similar demands? The riots which occurred in Merivan and Mahabad shortly after the signing of the Transitional Administration Law only underscored Iranian insecurity. Therefore, Iran might take the opportunity to undermine Iraqi Kurdistan not only to hurt the Western economy and increase the price of Iranian oil, but also to achieve a political objective.
More broadly, the relative freedom that Kurds enjoy is an affront to Tehran, The Iranian regime has very little self-confidence. It understands that few Iranians believe anymore in the idea of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent and so Tehran wants Iraqis and Iraqi Kurds to enjoy no freedoms that Ali Khamenei will not tolerate in his own country.
The Kurdistan Regional Government may believe it can remain neutral. Neutrality will not bring security. Few in the United States have forgiven or forgotten Yemen's abstention in the UN Security Council, for example, after Saddam Hussein originally invaded Kuwait. Distrust is already high. Kurdish leader are upset with their abandonment, once again, by the West. Meanwhile, the Kurdish sale of American secrets to the Iranians during the years of American presence created significant distrust toward the Kurds in the intelligence community and Pentagon.
Iranians might target Americans and other Westerners residing in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish security officials have kept quiet in the region not only through police state efficiency, but also by paying off Iranian intelligence with information on Americans in the region. That devil's bargain might come back to haunt Kurdistan should the Iranians decide the desire for revenge overcomes the advantages of stability. At stake are not only hundreds of lives, but also Kurdistan's reputation and the future of investment in the region.
Some Kurdish politicians may believe that their own close relationships with Iranian politicians and security officials preclude any serious Iranian action. When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a medical emergency and was evacuated to Jordan in 2007, one prominent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official met with Iranian intelligence officials along the border to seek their assistance—not America's—should succession have been necessary. Rather than help that official, Iranian authorities exposed his outreach to exacerbate Kurdish divisions and undercut political stability.
Should war erupt between any Western state and Iran, the Kurds would be caught between a rock and a hard place. There would be no good outcome, either for the regional government or for Iraqi Kurds. Discussing the prospect of war, however, does not mean advocating for one. Rather consideration of such scenarios would allow the government to mitigate potential damage and blowback. Planning may not be the Kurdistan Regional Government's greatest strength, but the price could be high if Kurdish authorities do not soon start.