Kirkuk: City of Gold

Over the past year Iraq was liberated from the hold of ISIS.1 Prior to the liberation, political and economic activity was halted, and two main regional groups, the Iraqi central government and Kurdish regional government, came together with the help of the United States to push ISIS out of Iraq. One particular city, Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, is of great interest to the two regional authorities because it holds 40% of Iraq’s oil reserves.2  In order to understand Iraq’s new oil policy, it is first important to understand the regional relationship between the Arabs and the Kurds, and why Kirkuk is at the top of everyone’s agenda. 

The purpose of this paper is to discuss how regional conflict this past year is shaping current Iraq’s national policy, the implications of the new legislation, and provide recommendations for future regional stability. It will not discuss one particular policy, but instead analyse Iraqi and Kurdish policy from the past year and how that legislation affects regional relationships.

The conflict
The Kurds are an ethnic minority with several populations throughout Middle Eastern countries, but the largest population is in northern Iraq in the Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah provinces. In 2005 under the Iraqi constitution enacted after the United States invasion, Kurdistan was recognised as a federal region allowing it to become semiautonomous.

Although the Kurds claimed the city, they were not explicitly given control of Kirkuk, which is an ethnically mixed area.3 This issue of authority stems from grievances during Saddam Hussein’s rule when he attempted to ethnically cleanse the Kurds, and from wanting the oil reserves for economic autonomy.4 Policy has also driven the most recent disagreements over regional control of the city. In 2007, representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, and private oil companies drafted the Hydrocarbon law detailing a plan to restart oil production and exports from Iraq.5 The draft was sent to a U.S. – backed Iraqi cabinet, who brought it to the floor of the Iraqi parliament where it subsequently failed. Its main points of contention were disagreements between the role of federal, regional authorities, and private companies.6 Its points on revenue sharing in proportion to the Iraqi population were also vague, and it did not clarify who would be allowed to develop untapped oil fields.7 Part of the argument for vagueness was to allow private companies to help stimulate Iraq oil production.8 The Kurds then formed their own Oil and Gas Law in 2007, which angered the Iraqi central government. It created a regional council and articulated the vague points from the Hydrocarbon law granting the majority of the rights to the Iraqi people.9 In response, the Iraqi central government blacklisted several private and Kurdish energy companies, an action which undermined the state’s credibility since the government maintained similar contractual relationships with other energy companies.10,11

The Kurds and Iraqi central government then came to an agreement in which the government would pay the Kurds 50% of earnings for exported crude oil. This agreement failed in 2011 when the Kurds claimed the Iraqi central government owed them $1.5 billion in payment backlogs.12 Iraq subsequently ordered the Kurdish regional government to transfer its territories to the federal government. During the 2014 ISIS offensive, the federal government abandoned Kirkuk, and the Kurdish regional government forces took back control of the city and other disputed territories, claiming they were protecting local citizens from ISIS.13

The Catalyst and Current Legislation
On September 25, 2017, the Kurdish regional government carried out an independence referendum despite opposition from the central government and the international community.14 Voters were not only from the three recognised Kurdistan provinces, but also from disputed territories including Kirkuk. The Iraqi central government did not recognise the independence referendum, sent in military forces, and took Kirkuk back in October 2017.15

Since the Iraqi central government regained control of Kirkuk, it has worked to restart the oil economy. It approached oil giant BP days after regaining control of Kirkuk oil fields.16 The two parties signed a memorandum of understanding for BP to perform surveys and boost oil production from 120,000 to 700,000 barrels a day.17,18 The central government then targeted the Kurds and opened an investigation into the quantities of oil the Kurdish regional government exported over the past three years. The Kurds admitted to smuggling oil exports, but would not reveal where the revenue went or how it was spent. 19 The Iraq parliament also cut funding to Kurdistan from 17% to 12.6% in the 2018 budget. Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote out of protest.20 However, two signs of good faith between the regions occurred in early March 2018. The Iraq parliament voted to create a national oil company with the backing of Kurdish lawmakers,21 and decided to lift an international flight ban on Kurdistan province airports.22

Russia and The United States
On February 27, 2018, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the Kurdish regional government and the central government had reached an agreement that would result in oil exports resuming soon. However, no details on the agreement were revealed, and discussions of Kurdistan’s debts and fund transfers from the regional to federal government have not yet concluded, raising the question as to when resuming exports will begin.23 Within Middle Eastern politics, there are also two other consistent external players with considerable influence at work: Russia and the United States. Russia’s state oil company Rosneft is involved with the Kurdish regional government and took over regional exports last year after agreeing to provide $2 billion in loans. The Iraqi central government did not recognise this agreement arguing independent Kurdish exports are illegal. Rosneft, however, also has several oil licenses in southern Iraq controlled by the central government that it inherited from Bashneft, a company it acquired in 2016. Rosneft has 60% of a controlling stake in the Kurdistan pipeline, which feeds into the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey. In November 2017 after taking back Kirkuk, the Iraqi central government announced an offer to begin work on a pipeline stretching from Kirkuk oilfield to Turkey, and that it was in discussions with Rosneft over logistics.24,25,26

The United States opposed the Kurdish independence referendum for fear of a domino effect causing more regional disputes within the area.27 After the 2018 Iraq budget passed, the State Department encouraged the regions to compromise as the budget is outside the U.S. scope of direct influence. Regional instability would hurt U.S. exports in the region, as U.S. company Chevron has only recently resumed drilling in the Kurdistan region after interruption from the independence referendum fighting. Chevron was one of the companies blacklisted by the Iraqi central government in 2012 for directly dealing with the Kurds.27,28

The agreement to resume oil exports between the central government and the Kurds is not autonomous in its decision-making. Russia is interested in maintaining its presence in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq, while the U.S. is interested in maintaining regional stability to ensure production. The agreement will also have a bearing on the Iraq elections in May. The U.S. favours al-Abadi and knows he is more likely to be elected with an agreement in place that also has support from the Kurds. However, there is also a possibility al-Abadi will wait until after the elections to propose a detailed agreement between the central government and the Kurds.

Implications for Region and Future Recommendations
Tension between Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government is multifactorial and stems from historical grievances as well as economic motives. Maintaining control of the Kirkuk is important to the Kurds because of the revenue oil exports provides. The Iraqi central government however, also wants to benefit from oil export revenue causing contention over how the region should be controlled and which authority benefits the most. The Iraqi central government also does not want Kurdistan to become fully autonomous, while the Kurds want independence and control over the disputed territories with untapped oil fields. Involvement of other countries further complicates the situation since Russia and the United States want regional stability, so as to avoid halting oil production and exports due to fighting, and avoid manoeuvring the politics of both regional authorities.

The Iraqi central government’s attempt to restart the country after three years of heavy fighting is slightly outdated in that the central government is operating under pretences potentially causing more instability. The most recent policies echo the 2007 Hydrocarbon law bringing about a new national oil company and accounting for private oil company influencers. Both the Kurds and central government want deals with private companies, which is apparent from their deals with U.S.-backed, and Russian-backed oil giants. Private companies have abundant resources to stimulate production and exportation. These new policies however, are only creating more tension because they are acts which exert control and start in the middle of the problem instead of the root. A few factors need to be addressed between the two regions before future deals with private companies.

It is necessary to create a structure of authoritative control between the Kurds and central government. A state-federal structure is a potentially beneficial option as it acknowledges the ethnic diversity between the regions, gives Kurdistan some independent control, and maintains a central government to oversee the whole country. The disputed territories could also go to Kurdistan, granting it more economical independence, while simultaneously funnelling a portion of the revenue to the central government. Revenue sharing then, also needs to be clearly articulated in two regards. Between regions, if there is a state-federal structure of authority, a single corporate tax system that taxes the corporations and the revenue at the state and federal level could be beneficial to both Kurdistan and the central government. As of now, Kurdistan has its own tax system that differs from the federal system,30,31 and other regions do not have a state or local tax. 32  This system also solves the issue of revenue sharing with the people of Iraq by using tax money to increase social program funding, thereby stipulating the Iraq Constitution mandate that oil in Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq.33

Under this system tensions may also diffuse over the new Iraq budget. By creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the regions, instead of one based on boarders formed 100 years ago, and competition and control, Iraq could enter into a new period of economic prosperity.34 Heavy foreign and private influence is also not a completely negative factor. Under a new authoritative structure, it could increase Iraq’s trade attractiveness with other countries creating jobs and global participation. Iraq now has an opportunity to reform the country in a way that could bring about significant beneficial change to its citizens and worldview.

Grace Elowe is working towards a MSc in War and Psychiatry at the King’s College London Institute of Psychology, Psychology and Neuroscience. Her research interests include geopolitics, conflict and security, hostile reconnaissance, and energy policy.

Endnotes

[1] Levenson, Eric. “Iraq is ‘fully liberated’ from ISIS, its military says.” CNN. December 09, 2017. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/09/middleeast/iraq-isis-military-liberated/index.html.

[2] Beauchamp, Zack. “Why Iraq and the Kurds are fighting over the city of Kirkuk.” Vox. October 16, 2017. Accessed March 06, 2018. https://www.vox.com/world/2017/10/16/16481952/iraq-krg-kirkuk-seize.

[3]”Full Text of Iraqi Constitution.” The Washington Post. October 12, 2005. Accessed March 07, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/12/AR2005101201450.html.

[4]Beauchamp, “Why Iraq and the Kurds are fighting over the city of Kirkuk.”

[5] COUNCIL OF MINISTERS OIL AND ENERGY COMMITTEE . “REPUBLIC OF IRAQ DRAFT IRAQ OIL AND GAS LAW .” Cabinet.gov.krd. February 15, 2007. Accessed March 3, 2018. http://cabinet.gov.krd/uploads/documents/Draft%20Iraq%20Oil%20and%20Gas%20Law%20English__2007_03_10_h23m31s47.pdf.

[6] “The Iraq Hydrocarbon Law: How and When?” United States Institute of Peace. July 29, 2013. Accessed March 04, 2018. https://www.usip.org/publications/2007/06/iraq-hydrocarbon-law-how-and-when.

[7] “Why Iraqis Cannot Agree on an Oil Law.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 04, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/why-iraqis-cannot-agree-oil-law.

[8] Blanchard, Christopher M. “Iraq: Oil and Gas Legislation, Revenue Sharing, and U.S. Policy.” Congressional Research Service . November 3, 2009. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL34064.pdf.

[9] KURDISTAN REGION – IRAQ PRESIDENCY OF THE REGION THE PRESIDENT. “OIL AND GAS LAW OF THE KURDISTAN REGION – IRAQ.” Cabinet.gov.krd. August 6, 2007. Accessed March 7, 2018. http://cabinet.gov.krd/uploads/documents/Kurdistan%20Oil%20and%20Gas%20Law%20English__2007_09_06_h14m0s42.pdf.

[10] Kramer, Andrew E. “Iraq Criticizes Exxon Mobil for Its Deal With the Kurds.” The New York Times. November 13, 2011. Accessed March 07, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/14/world/middleeast/iraq-criticizes-exxon-mobil-for-its-deal-with-the-kurds.html.

[11] Neuhof, Florian. “Baghdad flexes muscles to bar Chevron over Kurdish oil deal.” The National. July 24, 2012. Accessed March 07, 2018. https://www.thenational.ae/business/baghdad-flexes-muscles-to-bar-chevron-over-kurdish-oil-deal-1.362618.

[12] Lawler, Alex. “Iraq Kurdistan oil export restart may be temporary.” Reuters. August 02, 2012. Accessed March 07, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kurdistan-oil/iraq-kurdistan-oil-export-restart-may-be-temporary-idUSBRE8710E120120802.

[13] Mills, Robin. “Under the Mountains: Kurdish Oil and Regional Politics.” Oxfordenergy.org. January 2016. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Kurdish-Oil-and-Regional-Politics-WPM-63.pdf.

[14] DiChristopher, Tom. “A small region in Iraq just became one of the oil market’s biggest concerns.” CNBC. September 26, 2017. Accessed March 07, 2018. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/26/a-small-region-in-iraq-just-became-one-of-the-oil-markets-biggest-concerns.html.

[15] Beauchamp.

[16] AFP. “Iraq signs deal with BP to develop oil fields retaken from Kurds.” The Times of Israel. January 18, 2018. Accessed March 07, 2018. https://www.timesofisrael.com/iraq-signs-deal-with-bp-to-develop-oil-fields-retaken-from-kurds/.

[17] “Subscribe to the FT to read: Financial Times BP strikes deal with Iraq to exploit giant Kirkuk field.” Financial Times. January 18, 2018. Accessed March 07, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/dd55468c-fc46-11e7-a492-2c9be7f3120a.

[18] “Iraq, BP Sign Deal to Develop Kirkuk Oil Fields.” ASHARQ AL-AWSAT. January 19, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1148346/iraq-bp-sign-deal-develop-kirkuk-oil-fields.

[19] “Iraqi government orders probe into Kurdistan region’s oil exports.” Arab News. January 09, 2018. Accessed March 07, 2018. http://www.arabnews.com/node/1221261/business-economy.

[20] “Iraq adopts 2018 budget, slashing allocations for Kurds.” Middle East Eye. March 5, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2018. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-adopts-2018-budget-slashing-allocations-kurds-1116415756.

[21] Rasheed, Ahmed. “Iraq parliament votes to create national oil company: lawmakers.” Reuters. March 05, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-oil/iraq-parliament-votes-to-create-national-oil-company-lawmakers-idUSKBN1GH1XB.

[22] “Kurdistan Airports to Resume International Flights Before Nawroz: Abadi.” Basnews. March 7, 2018. Accessed March 8, 2018. http://www.basnews.com/index.php/en/news/kurdistan/420557.

[23] Rasheed, Ahmed. “Iraq PM agrees with Kurdish authorities to resume Kirkuk oil exports.” Reuters. February 27, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2018. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-iraq-abadi/iraq-pm-agrees-with-kurdish-authorities-to-resume-kirkuk-oil-exports-idUKKCN1GB2IB?rpc=401&.

[24] Kurdistan24. “Russian company mediates Erbil-Baghdad oil export talks: Sources.” Kurdistan24. March 07, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2018. http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/91bb3e02-006f-4a40-94a6-dac7c4c3fc25.

[25] “Russia’s National Oil Champion Goes Global.” | Center for Strategic and International Studies. December 05, 2017. Accessed March 08, 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-national-oil-champion-goes-global.

[26] Zhdannikov, Dmitry. “Russia becomes Iraq Kurds’ top funder, quiet about independence vote.” Reuters. September 20, 2017. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum-russi/russia-becomes-iraq-kurds-top-funder-quiet-about-independence-vote-idUSKCN1BV1IH.

[27] Jaffe, Amy Myers. “Unraveling the Oil Geopolitics Intertwined in the Kurdish Independence Referendum.” Council on Foreign Relations. October 4, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/blog/unraveling-oil-geopolitics-intertwined-kurdish-independence-referendum.

[28] “CORRECTED -Chevron restarts drilling in Kurdistan region of Iraq…” Reuters. February 20, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/chevron-kurdistan/corrected-chevron-restarts-drilling-in-kurdistan-region-of-iraq-idUSL4N1Q92AA.

[29] “US oil giant Chevron restarts drilling in Kurdistan Region.” Rudaw.net. February 20, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2018. http://www.rudaw.net/english/business/20022018.

[30] “Doing business guide Understanding Iraq’s tax position.” Deloitte. 2017. Accessed March 9, 2018. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/xe/Documents/tax/me_doing-business-guide-Iraq-2017.pdf.

[31] “Taxation in the Kurdistan Region.” Invest in Group. January 01, 2016. Accessed March 9, 2018. https://investingroup.org/insight/252/taxation-in-the-kurdistan-region-kurdistan/.

[32] “Iraq Corporate – Taxes on corporate income.” Iraq – Taxes on corporate income. Accessed March 9, 2018. http://taxsummaries.pwc.com/ID/Iraq-Corporate-Taxes-on-corporate-income.

[33] Anderson, Scott R. “The constitutional context for Iraq’s latest crisis.” Brookings. November 07, 2017. Accessed March 9, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/11/07/the-constitutional-context-for-iraqs-latest-crisis/.

[34] “Iraqi Kurdistan profile.” BBC News. October 31, 2017. Accessed March 9, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28147263.
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