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Barzani Goes to Baghdad: Trouble in the Kurdish Oil and Gas Sector

A current Federal Supreme Court determination in Iraq has put a authorized stake in the coronary heart of Kurdistan’s oil and gasoline sector — the monetary lifeline of the area. Only one man has the energy to repair this. Masoud Barzani — the 75 year-old former president and de facto patriarch of the Kurdistan area — should go to Baghdad and lower a political deal. Only Kak Masoud has the gravitas, the relationships, the respect, and the political capital to make this occur. Should Masoud select not to take this chance or — worse but — ought to his well being start to fail him, it’s tough to see how the disaster in this important sector shall be resolved.

The Kurdistan area of Iraq has had a bumpy historical past with its dad or mum authorities in Baghdad. Though the Kurdish provinces have been de facto separated from Iraq since the finish of the first Gulf War in 1991, the 2005 Iraqi Constitution established it as a semi-autonomous area. That doc left a substantial amount of ambiguity as to precisely which rights and privileges could be accorded to the area, a lacuna that resonates to this present day.



The rocky relationship has been highlighted by continuous preventing — often rhetorical however often literal — on points akin to the so-called “disputed territories,” most notably the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, relations between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the safety forces of federal Iraq, price range sharing from the federal price range for the Kurdistan area and, most bitterly, the authorized standing of its oil and gasoline sector.

The disputes with Baghdad have additionally been deeply contoured by numerous worldwide pursuits. The United States has been usually supportive of the Kurdistan Regional Government and particularly the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party — although not to the level of independence, as painfully demonstrated in 2017 when federal Iraqi forces retook management of Kirkuk from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces that had assumed management as a part of the struggle towards ISIS. Turkey has been deeply conflicted, because it has a historic suspicion of the federal association of the Kurdish Regional Government however can also be the largest benefactor of its oil and gasoline sector. In reality, Turkey workouts nearly complete management over the Kurdistan area’s oil and gasoline sector, because it owns the pipelines inside Turkey and the exporting port of Ceyhan, an vital supply of arduous money as the Turkish lira continues to collapse. Iran maintains deep ties with each the main Kurdish events, however is deeply hostile to the Kurdish Democratic Party’s rumored ties with Israel — to the level of utilizing missiles for emphasis. Finally, each China and Russia see the space as a doable level of growth into the area. Russia owns a lot of the Kurdistan area’s inner pipeline and Chinese corporations seem anxious to interact in initiatives in the area. Of course, worldwide sanctions on Russia complicate their involvement.

The Kurdistan regional oil sector was primarily constructed underneath Masoud’s nephew, former Prime Minister Nechrivan Barzani from 2012-2019 and pumps between 400-500 thousand barrels per day of oil. But the standing of the Kurdish oil and gasoline sector is now sophisticated by two authorized difficulties. The first — an arbitration problem by Baghdad at the International Chamber of Commerce with Ankara about the legality of the Kurds placing oil into the worldwide pipeline with out approval from the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organization — continues to be pending. But the second, a lawsuit introduced in 2014 by the federal Government towards the constitutionality of the area’s oil regulation, was lastly determined by the Supreme Court in February of this yr. Why the determination — pending for years — was made at this specific second stays a degree of argument and hypothesis. But the Supreme Court has declared the Kurdish oil regulation unconstitutional, mandating that the Kurdistan Regional Government flip over all oil produced to the federal authorities, giving Baghdad the proper — although not the obligation — to invalidate contracts entered between Irbil and numerous oil and oil providers corporations.

Legally, this determination turned on the interpretation of Articles 110 and 111 of the Iraqi structure, which take care of possession and management of the manufacturing and export of Iraq’s pure sources — most notably oil. Without getting too deep right into a contested constitutional query (those that want to dig additional could learn right here), either side have reliable arguments. The Federal Government’s case rests on the clear mandate given in Article 110, whereas the Kurdish case rested on its interpretation of exceptions to the rule given in Article 111. In quick, the structure may be very ambiguous on this matter, most likely by design, and the courtroom had to select which article — and subsequently which authorities — to favor in its determination.

The determination additionally happens in the shadow of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s ill-fated 2017 Independence referendum. In the wake of an awesome victory in the non-binding referendum, Baghdad used federal Iraqi forces to re-establish management over Kirkuk province — technically a part of federal Iraq however disputed. The lack of this province made independence non-viable, significantly as Baghdad, with Turkish cooperation, demonstrated how shortly the KRG could possibly be remoted.

The courtroom has since made a collection of different selections implementing the February ruling. Just days in the past, 4 oil contracts signed by the Kurdistan Regional Government had been quietly annulled. Further, many companies are responding to the change in the authorized establishment and quite a few western corporations — Baker Hughes, Schlumberger, and Halliburton prominently amongst them — have begun to disentangle themselves from Kurdish oil initiatives. Other nationwide corporations — most prominently Turkey’s Genel, but additionally Russian and Chinese corporations — could use a unique calculus, however for these corporations which are from a part of the “liberal world order,” Baghdad’s determination is the related authorized framework. The exception right here is Chevron, which continues to function in the area. As a super-major, it could both be prepared to experience out the legalities and proceed to work in a grey market state of affairs, or it could less complicated be taking a slower, wait-and-see strategy to determination making.

Despite a countersuit by the Kurdistan Regional Government and supportive rulings in its personal provincial courts, the penalties of the authorized ruling by the Supreme Court are actually starting to multiply, threatening the long-term viability of the entirety of the Kurdish oil and gasoline sector. While Baghdad doesn’t have the potential or want to ship police forces into the north to implement its determination, it has no want to. As the pre-emptive actions of the oil providers corporations present, the mixed menace of worldwide authorized motion and “blacklisting” from the (a lot bigger) oil sector of southern Iraq will shortly consequence in many, maybe most, worldwide corporations departing the area. While the authorized regime has not but threatened the transporters and consumers of Iraqi Kurdish oil with authorized motion, there may be little doubt that shall be coming quickly. The actions of those corporations additionally replicate pre-existing issues that had already made an funding in the Kurdistan area of Iraq much less enticing — together with each a much less secure safety state of affairs and severe points with cost from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Kurdistan Regional Government — particularly the ruling Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party — and their Western supporters have reacted to this courtroom determination by sustaining to all listeners that the determination is a political one, wrapped up in authorities formation, longer-term anti-Kurdistan area sentiments, and Iranian affect. Only the judges know what was in their hearts, however this cost — even when true — is irrelevant to the information at hand. From a world standpoint, the selections of the Supreme Court signify the last interpretation of the internationally acknowledged Iraqi structure, which is why oil and gasoline corporations are shortly falling in line.

As a matter of legality, the dying knell for the legitimacy of the Kurdish oil sector appears to be last. This doesn’t imply that grey market export can not proceed, as Turkey appears to don’t have any want to sever this income supply, and there are many non-Western oil servicing corporations that shall be blissful for the enterprise. But shifting to such grey market choices removes a lot of the upside potential and additional depresses revenues.

However, legalities don’t stop both aspect from getting into a political deal that rewrites the Iraqi oil and gasoline regulation. Now clearly, the legalities contour the artwork of the doable in a political deal. Let’s be clear — in the Baghdad vs. Irbil contest over the legality of Kurdish oil contracts and exports, Baghdad has received. But that doesn’t imply an finish to the political negotiation. Keeping the Kurdistan Regional Government comparatively glad — and, for that matter, preserving the 400-500 thousand barrels per day of Kurdish oil on world markets — is in Baghdad’s curiosity. A political deal can but be reached.

The Kurds might ship — and likely, have despatched, although with out fanfare — a decrease degree, extra technocratic staff to Baghdad to negotiate. But this strategy is unlikely to produce any consequence, not to mention the type of consequence that gives actual potentialities to the Kurdistan area. A technocratic staff is just not empowered to make binding selections, and Baghdad is aware of that.

The Kurds have one nice however as but untapped asset — the particular person of Masoud Barzani, the former president and de facto patriarch. Only Masoud can go to Baghdad and hope to actually obtain a good consequence, as no matter Masoud legitimates shall be unconditionally accepted by the Kurdistan area of Iraq’s citizenry.

It is tough to overstate the gravitas and political capital that the eldest Barzani holds all through all of Iraq. While Arab Iraqi leaders have had quite a few confrontations with him over the years, he’s nonetheless held in the highest respect. This level was made very powerfully to me as soon as, when an Arab Iraqi pal of mine went to Irbil to see Masoud Barzani. When I noticed footage of the assembly, I requested my pal why he had paid such a public go to, throughout a politically delicate interval in which their sides weren’t aligned. My pal replied, “The man is a historical and important friend to me, and I am more confident in his patriotism than his Kurdishness.”

This deep regard that Arab Iraq holds for Masoud Barzani is singular, at the very least since the dying of his political counterpart, Jelal Talabani. No different residing Iraqi Kurd has this type of gravitas, or instructions this a lot respect from his Arab counterparts.

The authorized determination towards the Kurdistan Regional Government has put the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in a place of existential hazard. But Masoud — and solely Masoud — has a chance to go to Baghdad and lower a political deal. No different determine shall be so welcome in Baghdad, and no different determine has the standing to make the selections required to attain a compromise. And frankly, solely Masoud himself might get a deal that may be acceptable to Masoud. Sending a lesser emissary is a assure of failure.

In quick, there is a chance right here, as soon as Baghdad kinds a authorities, to lower a grand cut price. This grand cut price will inevitably contain compromise. While such a cut price could give the three Kurdish provinces an unequal share of revenues that the Arab provinces could discover unfair, it’ll nearly actually contain a level of entanglement with the Federal Oil Ministry that may make Irbil uncomfortable. It will even power a level of transparency on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s oil insurance policies that some pursuits could discover awkward.

“Only Nixon can go to China” metaphors are overused. But this occasion could also be a legitimate comparability. Only the creator of the Kurdish independence referendum can go to Baghdad to salvage the finest deal that may be had for the Kurdish oil challenge. As courtroom determination after courtroom determination start to cascade towards the Kurdistan Regional Government’s oil ministry, Barzani ought to make it clear that he desires to personally negotiate and then codify the inter-relationship between Baghdad and Irbil in the gentle of those selections. That stated, I don’t consider Masoud has even been to Baghdad since the days when he sat on the Iraq Governing Council. His coming down from Irbil could be a significant change in sample — however it’s from this that the gesture would draw its energy. His absence from private involvement “in the fray” for many years will spotlight the seriousness of the second in which he re-engages.

Masoud Barzani has a chance to cement a legacy. It is probably not the legacy of Kurdish independence that he dreamt of 5 years in the past. But a legacy of securing a privileged place for the Kurdistan area inside a unified Iraq just isn’t nothing. Kak Masoud can nonetheless be a hero to Iraq’s Kurds by cementing their long-term monetary future. It is difficult to see one other such alternative on the horizon. Former President Barzani ought to collect all his chips, all his political capital, all his private markers and go to Baghdad at the top of his appreciable energy, to lower a deal.


Douglas Ollivant is a former NSC Director for Iraq. He is a senior fellow at New America and managing associate at Mantid International, which has U.S. and Western shoppers in Federal Iraq. Follow on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.

Image: U.S. Army photograph by Sgt. Gustavo Olgiati