Kurdish leaders in Iraq face tough decisions with respect to the central government in Baghdad and powerful neighbors Iran and Turkey. The Kurds are confronted with a formidable regional alliance that threatens to dislodge the ethnic group's considerable gains made since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The key issue is whether the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Administration (KRG) will eventually become an independent state, or whether it will remain within the bounds of Iraq's new federalist system. Aligned with this issue are a host of related questions, above all control of the oil-rich region surrounding Kirkuk. United Nations mediators have proposed compromises, like making Kirkuk an autonomous city run by all three ethnic groups. - Kurds, Turkoman and Arabs.
As the New York Times wrote in a May 3 editorial, "If an agreement cannot be crafted, Washington, Baghdad and the Kurds may have to consider outside, possibly UN-led administration for some period."
But Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, said in a press conference alongside the KRG leadership that the Kurds would not "barter Kirkuk", and would not be satisfied with anything less than complete control of the city and its outlying oil fields.
This spells trouble for Iraq, where a renewed campaign of terror attacks has eroded some of the stability gains of recent months. An outbreak of violence between the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters, or Peshmarga, may be just a matter of time, according to experts.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, is visiting Iraq's Kurdistan region this week to mediate between the Kurds and Baghdad. According to Mullen, a clash between the two would "reverse the progress in the country". Perhaps another way to describe this possibility would be Iraq's next civil war.
KRG leaders claim they are studying the UN plan, but have previously denounced it and insisted on complete control of Kirkuk. The Kurds have only a marginal majority in the city.
The KRG is already on the defensive following reports from rights organizations that have blamed the group for following a policy of Kurdification and ethnic cleansing. The groups claim that many non-Kurds have been forced to flee the area.
Compounding an already volatile situation is the KRG's provision of sanctuary for Kurdish militants opposed to the governments in Turkey and Iran. As a result, coordinated counter-insurgency actions by both governments have taken place inside KRG territory.
The news from Turkey is that Ankara is considering establishing two military bases in northern Iraq to confront the menace of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Meanwhile, Iran has recently escalated its responses to cross-border attacks by Kurdish militants with the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an offshoot of the PKK that - unlike the PKK - lacks grassroots support in Iran and is widely viewed by Tehran as a proxy for the US and Israel.
In early February, the US government for the first time designated the PJAK a terrorist organization. The designation comes after years of media reports that the US has aided and trained PJAK fighters to incite ethnic strife for Iran.
Iran's hot pursuit of the PJAK into KRG territory these past few days - including the May 4 shelling of villages in Kurdistan border regions - has sent a signal to the KRG regarding Tehran's unhappiness with Kurdish inflexibility on Kirkuk. The PJAK claims that Iran's attacks have occurred in areas not under their control.
The KRG's representative in Tehran, Nazim Omar Dabbagh, has warned that Iran's raids and bombardments could "harm bilateral relations". Although the KRG has called on the PJAK to refrain from further attacks on Iran, Tehran is weary of attempts by the KRG to leverage the PJAK in the course of negotiations with the Tehran-backed regime in Baghdad.
A pillar of Iran's policy toward the "new" Iraq has been to prevent the partition of Iraq and to ensure the country's territorial integrity. Tehran has also sought to quell violent secessionist insurgents who have been taking sanctuary across the long, porous borders with Iraq since the early 1980s.
The KRG, which is scheduled to hold a meeting in May aimed at ending decades of hostility between Turkey and the PKK, is now being pressured by Iran to take a similar initiative with the PJAK. Some experts believe the PJAK's latest incursions may be its last military salvo.
Unlike its PKK progenitors, who can claim grassroots support among the 20 million or so Kurds living in Turkey, the PJAK has no such internal backbone and suffers from an important perception problem as a Western proxy. Despite its spate of attacks in Iran, the PJAK represents a much less menacing threat to Tehran than the PKK has been to Ankara.
Iran's 4 million or so Kurds, mostly inhabiting the provinces of Western Azerbaijan, Ilam and Kurdistan bordering Iraq, have been much quieter than the Kurds in Iraq or Turkey. This is partly because they have a long heritage as an ethnic-Iranian group and have been integrated in the post-revolutionary political system.
There are valid criticisms of Tehran's handling of Kurdish rights and issues of cultural and linguistic autonomy. Yet government efforts to improve the living conditions of its Kurdish population cannot be overlooked.
For example, since the 1979 revolution the number of university students has risen 400% in Kurdistan province and literacy has gone up from 24% to nearly 80%. The province's six deputies in parliament have been vocal in their criticisms of government policies, specifically on joblessness. The central bank recently announced a new infusion of cash to the local Kurdish economy, in addition to hundreds of urban and rural projects.
According to Shaker Ebrahimi, the head of Workers' Islamic Council in Kurdistan, budgetary constraints have caused the shutting down of a number of smaller businesses over the past few years. Still, this is not specific to Kurdistan as 300,000 workers have lost their jobs throughout Iran in the past year.
In Western Azerbaijan, where the population is split between Kurds and Turks, the head of policy planning, Ghani Zadeh, has attributed the recent closure of some factories to old technology. According to Zadeh, the government has adopted 34 projects for Urumieh, the capital, and nine state-wide infrastructure projects.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has announced an impending visit to Kurdistan and several Kurdish officials have been quick to point out this will be a "turning point" for employment in the region.
Such progress doesn't mask shortcomings in the Iranian government's cultural policies toward the Kurds and other ethnic minorities. According to experts, Tehran has always had to amend its respect for minorities' rights with national security concerns.
Historically, this has been a complex balancing act. Should neighboring Iraq's experimentation with federalism prove productive - and this will be a matter of more than just a few years - it is likely that Iraq's example will influence Iran. At the present time, however, Iraqi Kurds give the impression of leveraging their federalist rights as a prelude to eventual independence.
Perhaps the best help that Iraqi Kurds could give their brethren in Iran would be to remain within Iraq's federalist system, setting a viable example for Iran to follow. Instead, they are only adding to Iran's security worries by allegedly supporting groups such as the PJAK.