Falah Mustafa wants to be a good neighbor. The minister, who has headed the Kurdistan Regional Government Department of Foreign Relations for over a decade, believes firmly in the right of self-determination for the Kurdish people, and that the KRG’s relations with Baghdad can remain strong even if Iraqi Kurds vote for an independent Kurdistan.
The KRG, led by President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is now under immense domestic and international pressure to postpone the planned September 25 independence referendum.
The United States in particular has lobbied Mr. Barzani to wait, citing fears the referendum would disrupt the ongoing fight against Islamic State and stir up regional tensions. On Thursday, the United Nations, United Kingdom and United States jointly proposed an “alternative” to holding the vote as scheduled. Shunas Sherko Jdy, a member of the opposition party Gorran (Change), told The Globe Post on Wednesday that Washington wants Mr. Barzani to postpone the vote until after the Iraqi parliamentary elections next year. Mr. Sherko Jdy said the U.S. has even suggested it could cut diplomatic ties and military support for Erbil if it proceeds.
But Mr. Mustafa told The Globe Post that claims the referendum would destabilize the region do not take into consideration the history of the Kurds.
“If I were to give a very clear and short message: What is their alternative? We the people of Kurdistan have lived for the past hundred years under oppressive regimes, regimes that have denied our identity, denied equality and justice,” he said.
“We have lived under monarchy, we have lived under presidential system or republican, we have tried autonomy, we have tried decentralisation, we have tried the federal system.”
The 30-40 million Kurds who live in the 190,000 square kilometer area historically known as Kurdistan are commonly called the largest population in the world without a nation. The lands spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and the KRG has controlled a 79,000 square kilometer piece known variously as Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Region, or Southern Kurdistan, since 1992.
Mr. Mustafa studied first in Mosul and then in Boston, and has served in the KRG since 1999. He was appointed a state minister in 2004 and the first head of the foreign relations department two years later.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds in Iraq reengaged with Baghdad, and Kurdish lawmakers played an integral part in shaping the 2005 Iraqi constitution. That constitution guarantees gives the KRG autonomy in a number of areas, including budget, security and the management of natural resources and infrastructure.
Mr. Mustafa said the Iraqi Kurds had committed themselves to the future of a “federal, democratic, pluralistic” system for Iraq, “but unfortunately, 14 years after the fall of the former regime, we are still talking about the same old issues that we were discussing … immediately after the fall of the regime.”
The KRG maintains that Baghdad has not upheld its obligations to the Kurdistan Region, especially regarding revenue-sharing, the status of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and hydrocarbon regulations. Erbil and Baghdad dispute the border in a number of areas, including the oil-rich Kirkuk province.
Despite the animosity with Baghdad and criticism from would-be allies in the region and abroad, Mr. Mustafa stressed that an independent Kurdistan would work with Baghdad, its neighbors and the United States while ensuring operations against ISIS continue.
Below are excerpts from The Globe Post’s conversation with Mr. Mustafa in the summer of 2017. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
On Kurdistan and Iraq Being ‘Two Good Neighbors’
Mr. Mustafa: We do not see any future for our people inside Iraq, and we don’t believe we have a future. That’s why the referendum is the beginning of a process, that the people of Kurdistan would exercise their right to self-determination. Then the leadership would be mandated with the legitimate mandate of the people of Kurdistan to go and negotiate.
But definitely we want it to be peaceful, we want that to be through an understanding with Baghdad and also to make sure that since we have failed to be equal partners in the same country, let’s agree to be two good neighbors with each other.
And I believe there is room, and history has proven to us that there are cases in history where nations were unable to live together they decided to be separate, and now they do well with each other. We are determined to make it a win-win solution so that it would not be a zero-sum. We believe we can become two good partners; we can have political agreements, economic agreements, and security agreements with Baghdad the moment we are independent and sovereign.
The Kurds’ Rights to Self-Determination
Mr. Mustafa: The U.S. does not oppose the principle of the referendum because it’s a given right, it’s in the U.N. Charter, and it’s a basic human right that is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well.
We should not be denied that right, but we disagree respectfully with them because we believe that nothing will distract us from the fight against ISIS. We are fully committed to the fight against ISIS and also against extremism and terrorism here in the region and also the rest of the world. That’s why there is no question about our commitment, we are fully committed.
Kurdistan Independence After the Referendum
Mr. Mustafa: The referendum is the beginning of a process. We do not say that the next day, on the 26th we will declare independence, we say that we will go and engage with Baghdad in a very serious process and we would be flexible in giving enough time to Baghdad so that we can sort out these differences, so that we reach an understanding, a peaceful understanding because we do not want to do that through violence, we do not want to provoke Baghdad, we want to work with Baghdad as partners who share a lot of history.
And it’s time for us to sit down very openly, very honestly to say: “Sorry we failed to be together. Let’s try to find a different alternative and have a different look or different approach to the question that may be in their interest and our interest.”
Relations With the U.S.
Mr. Mustafa: We are seeking U.S. support. I believe Kurdistan has proven to be a factor for stability. Kurdistan has proven that it is a partner for peace and coexistence. Look at our record in protecting the minorities and providing help and support, and also the tolerance that we enjoy here in this society.
I believe Kurdistan is the success story of the United States, and we are a beacon of hope to our people, but also to the other nations or minorities who live with us.
We do believe that we have many friends in the United States, both in the administration and on the Hill. There are many who are supportive of the rights of the people of Kurdistan, but there were some especially in the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees.
They have assured us that they also appreciate the role of the Peshmerga forces. They consider Peshmerga as a partner, and they appreciate the role of the people and government of Kurdistan in hosting these large numbers of refugees and IDPs and also they want to make sure that this relationship will continue. For us, it’s a relationship that we value and we cherish. We are proud to be friends, partners and allies of the United States, and we want that relationship to continue. They assured us that the partnership with the Kurdistan region will continue. Their support to Kurdistan Region will continue.
Relations With Turkey and Iran
Mr. Mustafa: If we go back to our history we have proven to the neighbors but also to the international community that we are a factor for stability. We want good neighborly relations. We did not interfere in the internal affairs of these countries. Therefore KRG has proven that it’s a partner for peace and also we want to have political relations, economic relations, cultural relations.
We do understand that they may have some concerns, but this is only for Iraqi Kurdistan territory; there would be no change to the international boundaries of Iraq. Definitely we want to continue with the relations that we have with both Turkey and Iran, because they are two important neighbors. We want to assure them that this will not affect their interests. We are mindful of the historic ties that we have, and we can be two good partners with both of them. We hope that they understand Kurdistan Region is not a threat, and we will not pose any threat to our neighbors.
We are for normal ties with our neighbors. We have no problems with our neighbors and we don’t want to have any problems with our neighbors. And definitely when we agree or disagree, that doesn’t mean this is the end of the world. It’s normal to agree on certain matters, and also to disagree, but when you disagree, that doesn’t mean you have to enter war. There’s dialogue, there’s negotiations, you go and you talk to them.
That’s why we hope and expect that our neighbors will respect the will of Iraqis especially when Erbil and Baghdad would engage in negotiations in order to put an end to this relationship that did not work, and also to end this unhappy marriage.
Mr. Mustafa: We have taken a lot of measures: austerity measures to reduce our expenses, measures to increase our revenue, measures to have a biometric system of registration so we know who we are paying, and also an audit where we invite Ernst & Young and Deloitte in order to audit our oil and gas and energy sector. The president wrote to the Kurdistan High Commission so that in November there will be parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Future for IDPs in Kurdistan
Mr. Mustafa: We will remain a steadfast and faithful partner and ally with the United States in making sure that this region would be a safe haven for not only the people of Kurdistan but also all those who have sought safe haven and refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
These are the principal issues that we stand for. We don’t believe the issue of the referendum would have that negative impact on it. On the contrary, if Kurdistan is independent and sovereign, we would be in a much better position to safeguard the rights of these people, because at that time we would be a sovereign nation, we will be partners.
The problem is that when Iraq goes [to international conferences] and represents the entire country, they cannot because they do not have figures and statistics for Kurdistan, and they do not share anything with us. We are the ones who have opened the door for all these refugees and IDPs to come to Kurdistan regardless of their ethnic or religious background. That is why we deserve to be there. There were conferences (in Spain) about the rights and protection of minorities where we were not invited. There were others in Brussels – we were not invited. Even for the humanitarian situation we were not invited. That’s why we seek sovereignty and independence. We want to be represented.