Kurdistan Regional Government’s Representative to the US, Bayan Sami Abdulrahman, has explained the current relations between Washington and Erbil as tensions between Kurdistan and Iraq growing. The Kurds, since Baghdad’s incursion in Kirkuk, have been concerned with Washington’s indifference while US-donated arms are being used by Iranian-backed militias against the Kurds.
[This interview was translated from Kurdish and edited for clarity and length.]
BasNews: Mrs. Bayan Sami Abdulrahman, could you briefly tell us what is the mission of Kurdistan Region’s Representation Office to the United States?
Abdulrahman: The mission of any liaison office or embassy is to deliver the message of its county and people to the host state. We are here working with the US government, Congress, think tank and academic institutions, media and civil society organisations as well as the Kurdish diaspora [in the United States]. In our meetings, we encourage them to support the Kurdistan Region. Recently, our focus has been on [gaining support to] resume dialogues between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Federal Government.
BasNews: Recently, and especially since the eruption of Erbil-Baghdad tensions on 16th October, you have been regularly visiting the Congress, and meeting with representatives there. What is that about?
Abdulrahman: As I said earlier, our focus recently has been on encouraging the US to work for the resumption of dialogues between the Kurdistan Regional and Iraqi governments, with protection of Kurdistan against the militias whom are backed by [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards Corps. We demand the US broker constructive talks [between Erbil and Baghdad].
BasNews: Kurdish political lobby in the US is being criticized for weak performance. Do you agree with the such an assessment?
Abdulrahman: In fact, our representation office has gained a well-deserved reputation for its lobbying team. Our mission would be considered successful if you take the very small number of our team into consideration. In an article on the New York Times, our diplomatic mission was praised for its active lobby. However, it is not an easy task and requires huge effort to maintain a constant line of communication with the government, official institutions and the people. Last year the US administration changed, and we were had to go the extra mile and establish new lines of communication with the new administration.
Diplomatic works and lobbying are time-consuming process [until we attain the goal]; yet we are an active group. Obviously, the financial situation has impact on the mission, and we could have travelled elsewhere [to spread our message] if the situation was favorable. However, it was only last month when we were in Canada and held meetings with officials, lawmakers and the Kurdish diaspora there.
BasNews: Kurdish lobby in the United States is blamed to have been failing in making a great success in comparison to the budget it receives. The developments after 16th October when Washington backed Baghdad in tension with Erbil, said to be a support to the claim. What is your comment on that?
Abdulrahman: Other countries’ embassies spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars every year for their mission. Most of them have contract with lobbying institutions. Compared to their budget, ours is very small. Lobbying is not all about funds. Israel, for instance, has one of the most successful lobby in the US due to their long partnership and huge number of people here. Of course, their financial source is much larger than ours.
In fact, the financial source of our representation office cannot, in any ways, be compared to other embassies’. However, last week in a discussion at a think tank, the performance of our office in lobbying for Kurdistan was said to have been at a high level. Compared to our existing sources, we are doing a great job.
BasNews: Kurds had been very optimistic about the Republicans winning the election. However, President Trump is in the office now and no drastic change is witnessed thus far in relation to the Kurds. Republicans or Democrats do you think have been better supporting Kurds since 2003?
Abdulrahman: I don’t think any political party in any country would put the interests of another state before its interests. No matter lefties or righties, Democrat or Republican, they work for the best interest of their own country. Therefor, we cannot say that a political party is better backing the Kurds than the other. You know that we have a historic relation with the United States and this relation has grown recently and through the rule of both parties.
BasNews: The US State Department is said to have been always posing obstacles to the Kurdish progress towards its goals. On the other hand, the Kurds are believed to have been enjoying a strong relationship with the Pentagon and the CIA. Is that a valid assessment of the ties between Erbil and Washington?
Abdulrahman: Kurdistan Regional Government’s representation office has a good relation with all the governmental institutions in the United States. We are holding regular meetings with the State Department, the Department of Defence, Homeland Security Agency, and other institutions. However, as a diplomatic mission in the US, our fist line of diplomatic communication is through the State Department.
BasNews: The US is now being blamed for making itself busy with North Korea, while living a gap in the Middle East for Iran to increase its influence in Washington’s absence. Is that true?
Abdulrahman: Of course we are concerned about some issues, especially the developments in the past few weeks. We have been a close and reliable ally of the United States. The Peshmerga forces have been fighting terrorism alongside the US and they have made huge sacrifices this way. We wish the US had played a greater role and put more pressure to resume the dialogue between Iraq and Kurdistan. We hoped that [Washington was working] to remove the threats against Kurdistan’s achievements and the strong relations between the two sides.
BasNews: Could you explain the current relations between Kurdistan and the US. The State Department, Congress and other institutions constantly express concern over the current situation between Erbil and Baghdad, and there is nothing more than showing concern.
Abdulrahman: In the past 15 years, especially during the last three years of fighting the Islamic State, our relations with the United States has significantly grown. Our ties are strong; and I believe that the relations with the United States are important even though both sides are now going through a difficult situation. There are American advisors helping us with reform plans, as well as military experts assisting the Peshmerga.
We call on the US administration and Congress to play an active and decisive role in resumption of talks between Iraq and Kurdistan Region. Fighting does no serve the interests of Iraq, Kurdistan and the United States. Therefor, we call on our American friends to make an active impact.
BasNews: Activities and gatherings by the Kurdish diaspora in the US are not eye-catching. What is the reason behind that?
Abdulrahman: I believe our Kurdish diaspora in the US is active. Prior to the independence referendum, they organized huge rallies in Tennessee, California, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, New York, and elsewhere. Here in Washington, we helped a rally by the Kurdish diaspora in support of independence, in which, according to local and international media, over 2,000 people attended.
Other protests in front of the White House were smaller in number because, according to laws and regulations, a larger gathering requires official permission through procedures. Also, we need to remember that the United States is a vast country with a small number of Kurds. Except in Nashville where 10,000 to 15,000 Kurds live, in other states a much smaller number of Kurds are residing.
BasNews: Critics believe that Kurdistan’s relations with the US is mainly through several retired diplomats, former congressmen and ex army generals. How do you describe your relations with the White House, Vice President and other institutions? Are there any fresh news or new achievements you want to reveal now?
Abdulrahman: Of course our official connection is through the current government officials, congressmen and representatives. However, we are pleased that we have friends among former diplomats and ex army generals as well. They voice their opinion and write articles to support the Kurdistan Regional Government. In fact, these opinions are very important and they certainly make an impact.
We however hold regular meetings with the members of Senate, House of Representatives, and other officials from the White House, Homeland Security, Department of Defense and the State Department. I believe that such an enormous diplomatic activity for a small region like Kurdistan is remarkable.
BasNews: There are reports claiming that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may not continue in his position to the end of his term. Do you thing replacing Tillerson with another figure could make any noticeable impact on the US position towards the Kurds?
Abdulrahman: There are many rumors circulating, but I may not predict whom will be replaced by who. Furthermore, the diplomatic ties between two sides or two countries are greater than individuals. Our relations will not alter with anyone taking over the State Department.
BasNews: As the Kurdistan Region Representation Office, have you explained the offensives against Kurdistan which are led by the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias of Hashd al-Shaabi, the Iraqi forces and Iranian elements in Iraq? Or, have you reported to Washington that the US-donated arms are being used by the Iranian-backed forces against Kurdistan?
Abdulrahman: Of course. We are constantly updating the US administration and Congress about the violations by Hashd al-Shaabi and other militia groups which are supported by Iran.