The commotion surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan's ongoing feud with Iraq's central government spread to the Texas Gulf Coast over the weekend. The U.S. Coast Guard, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and National Security Council were sent scrambling when a tanker tried to offload 100,000 barrels of Kurdish crude.
The sale of the United Kalavryta's cargo would mark the second time (the first was sold to an Israeli buyer) that Iraq's Kurdish leadership has sold crude oil in complete defiance of Baghdad. The Iraqi central government maintains that all Iraqi crude must be sold and distributed by federal authorities in order to maintain the territorial integrity of the country. Baghdad's position is endorsed by the United States and Iran but challenged by Turkey, which has backed the Kurdistan Regional Government's transactions so far and is reportedly loading a fifth tanker at the port of Ceyhan at the time of writing. Meanwhile, another tanker, the United Emblem, appears to be heading toward the Philippines, and the United Leadership remains in limbo off the Moroccan coast. All of the tankers carrying Kurdish crude are so far owned by the same Greek shipping company, Marine Management Services.
While the Kurdistan Regional Government is desperate for a buyer, it is little coincidence that United Kalavryta ended up off the U.S. Gulf Coast. The coast is the power base for U.S. energy firms, several of which are invested in Iraqi Kurdistan and desperate to see that investment pay off. Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and his Turkish backers are trying to force the U.S. government to adopt a mindset similar to many of the firms operating in Iraqi Kurdistan: Iraq is broken, Iraqi Kurdistan is effectively independent and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the central government he represents are finished. That the United States did not seize the tanker — instead, an unnamed U.S. State Department official very curtly described the entry of the controversial tanker into U.S. waters as a "private commercial matter" — will be taken up by Iraqi Kurdish leaders as proof of their ability to sway Washington on this issue.
Yet the reality is much more complicated than the version proffered by the Kurds. While the United States and Iran are still disputing details of the nuclear negotiations and are on opposite sides of noisy conflicts such as Gaza, the two do agree on much when it comes to Iraq. In fact, the recent election of Fouad Massoum as Iraq's new president was very much welcomed by Washington and Tehran, both of which are trying to uphold a central authority in Iraq and see Massoum as the man to do the job. Massoum is a long-standing member of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party on uneasy terms with Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and opposed to an aggressive Kurdish push for independence that could bring more trouble than it is worth to the region.
The same weekend that Barzani and his team worked furiously to ensure the transit of the United Kalavryta to Galveston in defiance of al-Maliki, the ailing Talabani received al-Maliki in his hometown of Sulaimaniyah. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan member Leyla Barzanji even went so far as to say that al-Maliki's ruling State of Law coalition achieved the most votes and therefore has the right to elect Iraq's next prime minister. She added that her party would defend whomever the coalition selected, even al-Maliki. This position is in stark contrast to that of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, which refused to deal with al-Maliki on any basis.
As Stratfor has stressed throughout the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraqi Kurdistan not only faces enormous external challenges in its bid for independence, but it must also deal with its own demons. The split between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party was bound to resurface, and that gap appears to be widening, particularly after the peshmerga took over the Kirkuk oil fields.
The sale of a tanker here and there will not advance Kurdish independence. Turkey must still weigh the controversy of releasing any funds from those sales to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Without an understanding between Arbil and Baghdad, Iran appears prepared to inflict substantial economic pain on Iraqi Kurdistan by closing its border should Arbil continue to bypass the central government. A Kurdish negotiation with Baghdad over energy is inevitable. But as economic and political pressures rise in Iraqi Kurdistan, the unavoidable rifts in the Kurdish landscape will only widen, making it more difficult for Iraqi Kurdistan to speak with one voice when that negotiation finally takes place.