Armenia Cautiously Expanding Ties With Iraqi Kurdistan

By Paul Goble
Over the last year, Armenia and Iraqi Kurdistan have exchanged a series of high-level delegations. The diplomatic visits were the result of Erbil’s interest in gaining support for its apparent drive toward greater autonomy or even independence. At the same time, Yerevan is interested in improving ties with a place where there is a significant Armenian minority; building an alliance with a people long at odds with Armenia’s bête noire, Turkey; and gaining benefits for itself while limiting the possibility that Kurdish aspirations will in any way threaten Armenia’s position either in the region or within the borders of Armenia itself.
Last month (February 2015), Armenian Foreign Minister Edvard Nalbandyan received Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masood Barzani. And judging from media reports, the two discussed many of these issues, some longstanding and some new. The two agreed to increase their cooperation not only to ensure added protection for the Yezidis, a significant minority in Iraqi Kurdistan and the second largest ethnic group in Armenia, but also to develop the five Armenian villages in Kurdistan whose populations total some 5,000 people (, February 27).
Many Armenian officials and academic specialists are convinced that the region’s roughly 35 million Kurds will finally achieve their goal of an independent state sometime soon. And Yerevan wants to be sure that it develops a friendly relationship with a potential new state that is certain to find itself at odds with Turkey. Moreover, an independent Kurdistan would have the potential to create problems for Christian and Armenian minorities on its own territory and for mobilizing some in Armenia itself.
Indeed, Yerevan apparently believes the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq is already an entirely legitimate state formation, and that its strengthening could lead to the formation of a second Kurdish autonomy or even state within Turkey. Such a development would force Ankara to moderate its opposition to Armenia. Consequently Yerevan wants to be an active participant in any such developing trend. Building the relationship now is thus important to Armenia if it is to play that role in the future.
But Armenia has three additional reasons to want to be involved with a Kurdish state. First, many Kurds talk about a Greater Kurdistan, which would approach or even impinge on Armenian territory. Therefore, any such discussions could set the stage for conflict in the region at some point in the future. Second, because of Iraqi Kurdistan’s proximity to Armenia, Yerevan wants to make sure that Armenia has access to oil and gas from there and also to open the door for Armenian specialists to work in Kurdistan.

And third and most intriguingly, there is an idea—which has periodically surfaced over the last 25 years—that the restoration of Kurdish autonomous districts in Armenia and Azerbaijan could be a possible precondition for the settlement of the Karabakh dispute between those two countries. Such districts existed early in Soviet times. However, this idea seems remote since the numbers of Kurds in the South Caucasus today is quite small—only a few thousand declare themselves officially as Kurds, although many more were forcibly re-identified as Armenians and Yezidis in Armenia or as Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, given Armenian sensitivities about anything that touches on Karabakh, it seems likely that this issue, too, is part of the mix.