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04/10/2007 | The Kurdish Oil Reality

Stratfor Staff

Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said on Tuesday that it is moving ahead with oil development in its region, independent of Baghdad's oil policies. To be more precise, since the Baghdad government hasn't passed laws enabling an oil policy, the Kurds have decided to take steps on their own.

 

For its part, Iraq's Oil Ministry said any oil deals signed by the KRG would be "ignored or considered illegal." The KRG denies that it has violated any law -- since, after all, there isn't one. Deals have been struck for production-sharing agreements with a number of companies, including Canadian and American companies such as Texas-based Hunt Oil Co.

There are many symbolic moves toward separatism in Iraq, but this is the heart of the matter in the most practical sense. Whoever is able to make deals over extracting oil from Iraq can define who gets the money from those deals. That is where the power lies, and that is where the money comes from. Once these deals are struck and the money begins to flow into Kurdish hands, the Kurds will have the wherewithal to resist Baghdad's demands. It won't simply be a matter of money. The oil companies they are signing deals with will have a major stake in preserving the status quo. Therefore, those companies' governments will come under pressure to support increased autonomy for the Kurds.

That will put the United States in a difficult position. Officially, the U.S. policy is to supported a united, federated Iraq with a coalition government that will define both oil policy and the extent to which the Kurds (or others) have the right to determine whom they will do business with. But the Kurds are now moving to create a new reality on the ground -- and at least some oil companies are prepared to bet that the deal they are making with the Kurds will be upheld in whatever Iraqi oil agreement is finally signed.

Washington has had a special relationship with the Iraqi Kurds since the early 1990s. It helped the Kurds against the Saddam Hussein regime. The United States also does not mind seeing American oil companies benefit from deals with the Kurds, since it is still unclear what kind of oil policy will eventually come out of Baghdad. The special relationship also, we would imagine, gives the United States leverage with the Kurds. We suspect the Americans could have blocked the deals if they wanted to. But they haven't.

Part of the reason could have to do with a U.S. desire to force the Iraqis to create oil legislation. The fact that the northern deposits are going to be controlled by the Kurds -- and that the United States is going to allow it to happen -- is sure to cause more than a little consternation in Baghdad, particularly among the Sunnis. The Sunnis have no oil of their own -- they either get a share of the revenue from the central government, get a piece of the northern fie lds, or wind up with nothing. So this could be directed against them. But the Sunnis are not, at the moment, Washington's main problem. That is the Shia -- who control the southern oil fields and are ambivalent on the whole issue. This could simply encourage them to accelerate their unilateral exploitation of their own oil reserves.

It could, in other words, lead to the de facto division of Iraq into three regions -- with the Sunnis the odd man out -- faster than any other process. This might be what the United States is thinking. But there are complicating factors. An autonomous Kurdish region is not something that Turkey wants to see, and the United States would then be following a policy in direct opposition to Turkey's interests. At the moment, the American dance card is already filled with Muslim enemies. We doubt that it wants another one in Turkey.

Most important, we find it hard to imagine that the United States really wants to see a tripartite divisio n of Iraq. That would leave southern Iraq, and the border with Saudi Arabia, in Shiite hands -- and therefore, in all likelihood, in the hands of a regional government with close ties to Iran. That would give the Iranians strategic opportunities Washington clearly doesn't want to give them. In some ways, Iranian domination of southern Iraq would be better for Tehran than dominating all of Iraq. Less fuss and bother, and a clear road into the Arabian Peninsula.

Too much should not be made of these contracts, nor of the unwillingness or inability of the United States to block these deals. But there is a tendency developing now to impose realities on the ground, regardless of Baghdad's position, and oil is what will impose realities most effectively. Kurdish oil policy will be one of the best indicators of where this is all going.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 



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