Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard launched a military exercise Sunday in the country’s northwestern Kurdish region just ahead of Iraqi Kurds voting in an independence referendum, in a sign of Tehran’s concerns over the vote.
Iran also closed its airspace Sunday to flights taking off from Iraq’s Kurdish region following an Iraqi request, “due to the ineffectiveness of our political efforts and the insistence of Kurdistan authorities to hold a referendum.”
Iraq’s Kurds are set to vote Monday in a referendum on support for independence. The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.
The Guard, a paramilitary force answerable only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on its website that airborne and missile units would take part in the exercise. State television aired footage of explosions and smoke rising as part of the drill, in the mountains of Iran’s own Kurdish region.
“We are holding a drill here,” Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the Guard’s ground forces, said in the footage. “God willing, artillery, armored (divisions), drones and commandos will hold a well-coordinated exercise.”
Turkey, which is also home to a large Kurdish minority and opposes the vote, is holding military drills near its own border with Iraq.
On Saturday, Turkey’s parliament voted to extend a mandate that allows it to deploy troops in Iraq and Syria.
A bill read in the Turkish parliament included a reference to the threat of “separatism based on ethnicity,” the Qatari broadcaster al-Jazeera reported.
Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported that the Supreme National Security Council closed Iranian airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish area at the request of the central government in Baghdad.
Iran and Iraq have been close allies since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Both are opposed to Kurdish independence, and Baghdad has said the referendum is unconstitutional.
In a rare moment of agreement, Saudi Arabia has come out on the same side as its arch regional rival, Iran. It has publicly called for the vote not to move forward, citing current regional conditions and the potential for the vote to ignite a new crisis.
The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Sunday also voiced its “deep concern” over the planned referendum, saying it runs against the constitution of Iraq and could have a negative impact on Iraq’s ability to fight terrorism.
Monday’s Kurdish referendum has stirred fears of instability across the region as the war against the Islamic State group winds down.
The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.
Initial results from the poll are expected on Tuesday, with the official results announced later in the week.
The government in Baghdad has warned it will respond militarily to any violence resulting from the vote.
The United States and the United Nations have condemned the referendum as well.
Denied independence when colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds form a sizable minority in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
They have long been at odds with the Baghdad government over the sharing of oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories such as the city of Kirkuk, which are expected to take part in the vote.
“There are pressures on us to postpone, to engage in dialogue with Baghdad, but we will not go back to a failed experiment,” Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, said to roars of applause at a rally of tens of thousands in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Friday evening.
The idea of Kurdish independence has won cautious support among Israeli leaders, who see an independent Kurdistan as a potential ally in a region where most countries have shunned the Jewish state.
Yeni Safak, a conservative Turkish newspaper loyal to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Sunday pointed the presence of Israeli flags alongside “so-called Kurdish flags” at rallies organized by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and claimed that the referendum was part of a Zionist plot.
“Israel, using Masoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization as pawns, seeks to obtain the area between the Nile and Euphrates, which is regarded as ‘the promised land’ in the Torah,” said an article entitled “Barzani plans to deliver ‘promised land’ to Israel.”
It added, “Zionists call the ‘Kurdistan’ that Barzani and the PKK want to establish as ‘Kurdo-Judaic,’ the ‘Jewish Kurdistan.’”
Ten days ago, Turkish media published conspiracy theories claiming that Israel was planning to repatriate Israeli Jews of Kurdish origin to Kurdistan after the referendum.