U.S. Won’t Recognize Kurdish Independence Referendum

The U.S is joining the rest of the world in refusing to recognize the independence referendum conducted by Iraqi Kurds.

Kurdistan Map

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement late last week stating that the United States would not recognize the independence referendum recently held by Iraqi Kurds in which pro-independence forces won an overwhelming victory:

 The United States on Friday declared illegitimate Monday’s Kurdish referendum on independence, as the Iraqi government imposed a ban on international flights to airports operated by the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi troops prepared to seize the semiautonomous region’s border controls.

“The United States does not recognize the . . . unilateral referendum,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Washington’s first substantive statement on the vote, in which nearly 93 percent of voters in the Kurdistan region approved declaring an autonomous state in northern Iraq.

“The vote and the results lack legitimacy,” Tillerson said, “and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” He urged both sides to reject the use of force and engage in dialogue, and to remain focused on the fight against the Islamic State, which he said was “not over.”

The flight ban was the first major step Baghdad has taken to express its outrage over the referendum. It has also threatened to close land borders between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq and to send troops into the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Iraqi soldiers are massing on the Iranian and Turkish borders with the Kurdish region, preparing to take control of the crossings from Kurdish authorities, according to a senior Iraqi official familiar with the plan. The Iraqi army chief of staff traveled to both countries this week to coordinate the move, the official said, which could begin as early as Saturday. Turkey and Iran, which have their own restive Kurdish populations, opposed the referendum, as did the United States.

The Iraqi military also temporarily closed a major road linking the Arab city of Mosul to the Kurdish city of Dahuk on Friday, cutting off a key route for basic goods between the two hubs.

Iraq’s government has said that all measures to isolate the Kurdish region would be temporary and reversed if the Kurds annulled the results of the vote, which Iraq’s Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s tough reaction to the Kurdish ballot got a boost from the country’s highest Shiite religious authority, the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. In a sign of the growing anxiety in Iraq’s power centers over the vote, Sistani’s representative used his weekly Friday sermon to criticize the referendum as destabilizing, arguing that it invites international meddling in Iraq’s affairs.

“I call on the government to consider the Kurds’ constitutional rights in their measures,” Sistani’s representative said, sounding a conciliatory tone. At the same time, he rejected any challenge to Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This announcement by the Secretary of State is hardly a surprise given the fact that the United States had been urging Iraqi Kurds to not go forward with the vote for months before it actually took place. Additionally, the referendum is not recognized by any major power in the Middle East, or even by nearly any nation on Earth or in the United Nations. To date, only three nations — South Sudan, East Timor, and Montenegro, all of which were formed over the past twenty years out of parts of other nations — have recognized the referendum as legitimate and the results of the vote have managed to unite Iraq, Turkey, and Iran in opposition. Each of these nations, of course, has their own restive Kurdish populations that has been a thorn in their sides for decades, with Turkey dealing with perhaps the biggest problem in that regard in the form of radicalized groups in Turkish Kurdistan that have been committing acts of terror spreading back into at least the 1980s. Without any international recognition, and given the fact that their referendum has served to unite all three nations with major Kurdish populations, it’s difficult to see how Iraqis Kurds will be able to make good on their bid for independence from Baghdad, must less any plan to unite with Kurds in other parts of the region to create a viable state.

This announcement came in the same week that Iraq and its neighbors announced a new series of crackdowns designed to tighten the economic and political noose around the territory claimed by Iraqi Kurds in an effort to get them to back down. The Iraqi central government in Baghdad, for example, has halted all international travel to the airports controlled by Kurdish forces, although domestic flights from other parts of the country are still allowed to travel to the region. Additionally, Baghdad is massing troops near the Kurdish borders and threatening to impose a land blockade on the region that could end up prompting clashes between the central government and the restive Kurds at the same time that both parties are essentially allied in a fight against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. Turkey, meanwhile, is threatening to bring troops over the border in order to assist the Iraqis in controlling the situation and to cut off the movement of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan through pipelines that cross into Turkish territory, a move that would deprive the Kurds of a significant source of income. Additionally, Iraqi and Turkish military forces have conducted joint military exercises in the area surrounding the Kurdish region of Iraq in what is obviously a show of strength meant to send a message to Kurdish leaders and civilians that pursuing this independence bid would be unwise and could have serious consequences.

Where things head from here depends largely on how the respective parties act. If the Kurds try to push ahead with independence then it’s likely that the central government in Baghdad will have no choice but to act to stop them in order to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq itself. Additionally, such moves would likely cause Iraq, Turkey, and Iran to become even more united in their opposition to Kurdish independence, and for the latter two nations to crack down on their own Kurdish populations in order to quell the possibility that the moves by Iraqi Kurds could cause their populations to make similar bids for independence. The worst of all possible worlds, of course, would be military clashes between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces, who have proven themselves in battle in the war against ISIS. Such an event would threaten to bring both Turkey and Iran into the fight, and it would also threaten to return Iraq itself to the chaotic state that ISIS was able to capitalize when it first began making territorial gains in Iraq itself. Hopefully, it won’t come to that but given recent history in Iraq it does seem like the worst possible outcome is typically what ends up happening there. That would be a problem for Iraq, the region, and for the United States.



FILED UNDER: Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    Operation Iraqi Freedom is sure paying off..

  2. Mu says:

    And again, the US decides to be on the wrong side of history. Really, it’s so easy to pick the winners, just look whom the US supports and bet against it.

  3. @Mu:

    And why exactly should we support the Kurds here?

  4. Chris M says:

    I am very confused here! Whilst the Iraqi Kurdish government has been stealing $10s of billions in oil revenue from their own people, they say they want to separate from the rest of Iraq because the central government does not care about the Kurds! Only few days ago the Iraqi Prime minister said that he has proof Iraqi Kurdish leaders have embezzled $13 Billion and it is in Swiss account and he is going to recover this and bring it back to Iraq.

  5. Gustopher says:

    If Czechoslovakia wasn’t able to hold itself together, why do we think that Iraq can?

    Peaceful, stable, multiethnic countries are really quite rare, and almost always require a dictator to keep things in line. Tito in Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a variety of kings and emperors in the Ottoman Empire, the English Empire, etc.

    People revert to nationalism when they feel threatened — economically, physically, culturally, whatever. People feel threatened, they cling to what feels most like themselves. We saw that in the breakup of Yugoslavia, we saw that in our own last election (so far, no genocide here).

    Holding Iraq together long term isn’t an option, not without a lot of force. We should be thinking about how and when to split it, rather than how to hold it together. And, yes, that’s our decision — the Iraqi government would fall apart very quickly without our support.

  6. @Gustopher:

    That’s a question for the Iraqis to decide, not us.

    And the Czechoslovakia situation was unique in many ways.

  7. Gustopher says:

    On the subject of nationalism, our conservative friends often talk of American Exceptionalism, and this is one spot where America actually is exceptional —we’ve been a stable, multiethnic democracy, drawing people from around the world, integrating them into our society and making them American.

    What defines us as a nation is our ideals and our values — a belief in personal freedom, equality and opportunity — not our ethnicity. Our nationalism has this multiculturalism at its core, to the extent that we attempt to impose it onto other people who don’t have those values (sorry assorted Iraqis)

    Even at our worst, when we lurch towards white nationalism, it’s worth noting that “white” covers a huge range of ethnicities that would split down ethnic lines pretty much anywhere else in the world. We have trouble with every new ethnicity for a while, and then we proclaim them white and move on — we even accept the Irish as white now, AND the Italians. Catholics are now fine. Asians are pretty much an afterthought.

    The claims that we sometimes get from the right that we are a white nation, or a Christian nation are simply unamerican and unexceptional.

    The only other countries that come close to matching us are Canada and England, and each has struggled with significant separatist movements in the past fifty years Quebec, Scotland)

  8. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis: if it’s for the Iraqis to decide, we should stop propping up the Iraqi government, and actually let the Iraqis decide.

    That would likely lead to complete chaos, and a resurgence of ISIS, or something that makes everyone say “huh, these people are so crazy that even ISIS wants nothing to do with them, and ISIS was so crazy al Qaeda wanted nothing to do with them, wow”. No one wants that.

    While we are the major power in the region, it is up to us to decide. And, like it or not, we are the major power in the region. Pick your term, but they are our client-state, or colony.

    I would go for a confederation of states drawn along ethnic and religious lines, held together by a federal government, which the assorted Iraqis can choose to weaken or abandon once there is stability in the region. Set up a structure that maximizes the local options when we can back away.

  9. Renas Kako says:

    @Chris M: you speak as you were living in Iraq. No money has been stolen by KRG, it is the Iraqi Government who blocked budget from Kurdistan since 2014 by former PM, Maliki. Kurdistan sells oil through Turkey pipelines and many international oil companies dealt with KRG like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, etc..
    Iraqi Government has become a DOCTRINAL state run by Iran not FEDERAL as mentioned in the constitution. So please think twice before you decide who is right.

    Shera Kurd

  10. Renas Kako says:

    @Doug Mataconis: US need to support Kurd because Kurds are the best allies of western states, especially US.
    Please read the following article written by the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Livy:


    My regards,
    Shera Kurd

  11. Gustopher says:

    @Chris M: Has there ever been any human institution that is not corrupt, or at risk of corruption?

    Does the corruption, alleged or proven, of any government or organization, mean that the professed policies and goals of that government or organization are themselves invalid?

    No, and no.

    Al Gore is fat, and his house is very large (it has to be, to House his immense girth). That does not mean that global warming is fraudulent, it just means that Al Gore, like every other human, does not live a life completely free of all hypocrisy.

    Likewise, a corrupt regional government pushing for independence does not mean that the people represented by that corrupt regional government do not want independence.

  12. Renas Kako says:

    KRG Responds to US Secretary of State’s Statement on Kurdistan’s Referendum:


  13. Mu says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Because supporting a sectarian Shiite bunch in Bagdad has failed already? Because the post-colonial “never change borders” was the most devastating policy of the 20th century? Because you either let nationalities sort themselves out into separate states or you end up with 100 years of war?

  14. Chris M says:

    It is amazing how fast the Kurdish government picks up on anyone that writes or make negative comments about them! Just as soon as I posted my comment, people began to attack. Do you, Shera Kurd, Renas Kako, Gustopher lobby for the Iraqi Kurds like so many other white foreigners (mostly Brit mates) in Kurdish Iraq? Do you know that a foreign adviser receives over £30,000 a month while their own Kurd teachers have not been paid for one year. The Kurds teachers in the city of Sulimani went on the streets today to protest against their own government for not getting their salary.

    The US and UK need to stop helping such people.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    No conversation about the independence referendum is complete without taking note of the fact that the entire Kurdish “government” is essentially a Barzani family business.

    Might be completely above board, even admirable. But definitely questionable.

  16. JohnMcC says:

    Also too, just a quibble about the map that illustrates this article; Kurdistan as imagined by every actor I’m aware of is completely landlocked. Your map showing a Mediterranean coast labeled Kurdistan is of course only there to draw eyeballs and not to actually describe where Kurdistan is located. And that’s kind of important if anyone is trying to figure out the chances a Kurdish mini-state would have of survival. It would be surrounded by it’s enemies.

  17. Gustopher says:

    @Chris M: If you have information on where I can apply to get some of this money that is being spent on online advocacy for the Kurds, let me know, as I would be happy to earn a little extra in my spare time.

    And for a good cause too! The Kurds have been our most steadfast and unrewarded allies in the region, and lines drawn by empires a hundred years ago really gave them the shaft in the present day. We have been on a mission to remake the Middle East since the start of the second Gulf War, and we should remake it in a way that helps us and our allies.

    I’m flexible on corruption. All things being equal I’d rather have less corruption, but lots of good things can be implemented corruptly.

  18. mike shupp says:

    Why of course the Kurds should just shut up and accept their current status in Iraq. This is how civilized multinational societies operate around the world. In the USA, we have Blacks (and some Moslems), In the United Kingdom, there are Irish. Spain, for the moment, has Basques. Russia has Chechens. Israel still has some native-born Palestinians. Indonesia used to have Chinese, and soon the Burmese will boast that they used to have Rohingyans. India has Untouchables. And Iraqis (and Iranians and Turks and Syrians) have Kurds.

    Life as we know it in ALL civilized societies would just fall apart without some bottom rung group of people to serve as scapegoats and ethnic trash. I mean, would it be possible for true gentlemen to have Honor and Decency and Superior Credit Ratings in modern America if there weren’t N—–s? Of course not!

    So of course I’m just tremendously pleased to see the Trump administration is maintaining the traditional American standards of Christianity, fair play and respect for others for the Kurds that other great nations — such as Syria and Turkey and Iran — have so long maintained. Yes, this is the USA at its absolute best, in the Middle East, just as it is in Puerto Rico.

    Thank you for bringing these inspiring events to our attention, Doug.

  19. Andrew says:

    The Lucifarians (Israeli main tribe) would just love this, in order to sew more division and chaos, which is their forte.

  20. Not the IT Dept. says:

    This is another issue we’ve had plenty of time to prepare for – the Kurds have not been quiet about wanting their own homeland for decades now and their support for Operation Iraqi F*ck-up (or whatever we called it) was pretty much an equal trade for our support for them. Well, they came through; now it’s our turn.

  21. CET says:

    I don’t think it’s news that the US won’t recognize Kurdistan – regardless of what we ‘should’ do, Erdogan would sh*t a brick if we did. And since we haven’t drummed Turkey out of NATO yet (for reasons that escape me), that probably still matters.

    My guess is that the US won’t do much to help Iraq, Iran, or Turkey crush the Kurds either though (we might even provide some humanitarian aid to the region). There’s certainly a non-trivial amount of support for the Kurds among Americans who pay attention to the rest of the world. And frankly, Kurdistan would be a useful distraction for troublemakers like Turkey and Iran.

  22. CET says:


    Kurdistan as imagined by every actor I’m aware of is completely landlocked

    Yea – I was looking at that too. It does seem like Kurdistan would need to (a) take that coastal stretch of Syria between Latakia and Tartus, (b) manage to hold enough territory in Turkey or Iran to run a pipeline north to Russia (and become a Russian puppet state), or (c) give up on prosperity and live in the mountains in a semi-permanent state of guerilla war.

    Or perhaps this whole thing is intended as a bargaining chip to get greater autonomy and/or better oil rights from the Iraqi government?

  23. Chris M says:


    Yes, I will be very happy to give you information on how to make millions from the Kurdish imbeciles in Iraq. But, you need to hurry up because Iraqi Prime Minister is going after the stolen money in Switzerland and other places. You can contact the people that I am listing here and they will tell you how you can get some of this money and enjoy it. Like you Americans say: Get on the wagon of gravy train? Some are from US and some from UK

    1- Zalmay Khalilzad
    2- Peter Galbraith
    3-Dana Rohrabacher
    4-DiGenoa and Toensing LLP
    5-Jay Garner
    6- Nadhim Zahawi—–UK
    7-Boris Johnson——-UK
    these are only a hand full of people and there are dozens more but I have no time to write them now since it is my lunch hour now and need to go

  24. Ratufa says:

    I have nothing against Kurdish independence. But before people urge that the US jump in and unilaterally act as guarantor of an independent Kurdish state, they should consider the complexities involved, some of which are decribed in the article linked below.

    Also, while the US has a lot of power in the region, supporting an endeavor opposed by Turkey, Iran, and the Iraqi government (whose military is currently holding joint military drills with Iran) is not going to be straightforward.


  25. DrDaveT says:


    America actually is exceptional —we’ve been a stable, multiethnic democracy, drawing people from around the world, integrating them into our society and making them American.

    Eventually. Mostly.

    …But you’re leaving off the “…after eradicating the indigenous inhabitants” portion of the history, If the Romans and Moors and French and Spanish had simply eradicated the Basques, there would be no Basque separatist movement. Similarly with Kurds, Sikhs, Tibetans, Catalans, and (until recently) Macedonians, and all the many other local-majority ethnic groups whose traditional homelands straddle current borders.

    America is exceptional in this regard in that we DID eradicate the problem; there aren’t enough natives left to form a credible separatist movement on either border. That’s not a solution we should be suggesting.