How do you believe the Kurdistan Region was able to progress from the repression of the previous regime in Baghdad to where it is now?
When you have the clarity of vision, when you want to live in peace, when you want to build democracy, you need partners and you need to work from a strong foundation. We were able to lay down that foundation in accordance with our “roadmap”. In our mind, we had to determine our objective. So, we decided that we wanted to build friendly relations with our neighbors and with the international community, we wanted to develop our economy, and we wanted to provide services for our people.
When the goal is clear, you then just have to find the right mechanism to accomplish it. With the fall of the previous regime, we wanted to be partners with the rest of our colleagues in Iraq in order to build a new country. We assumed that together we would be able to build a new Iraq both in terms of politics and economy. This Iraq would be based on a federal system of governance, would ensure the sharing of both power and wealth, and would guarantee a better future for all of us. Unfortunately, our partners did not have the same view. Some of our partners, it seems, wanted to dominate everything. They wanted to marginalize and exclude people, including the Kurdistan Region, which had the only functioning democracy and Parliament in Iraq.
How did that functioning system of governance benefit the Kurdistan Region in terms of recognition from outside countries?
It allowed us to make progress day after day. So, even for the countries that have embassies in Baghdad, when they came to the region, they saw a totally different picture. Now when they come here, they see a political system that works. They see a President who represents the region to the outside world and to the rest of Iraq. They see a Parliament that has both ruling and opposition parties, and conducts deliberations and debates in order to pass laws for the people of this region. They see an executive branch that implements these laws and an independent judicial council.
We have been able to prove to our neighbors that we are a reliable partner, that we are committed to the contracts and agreements that we have made, and that, above all, we are a legal entity.
However, if you ask me if we never make mistakes, I will say no. We are not there yet, but we are determined to be. There may be flaws in our system, but we are working to fix them. More importantly, we are able to admit that we made mistakes in the beginning. Our past did not allow us to have significant experience or opportunities. Even in 2003, the international community was not ready to recognize Kurdistan Region. We were a de facto reality on the ground, but people would not recognize us. They came and visited, but said, “We don’t want this visit to be publicized. We don’t want to be seen on TV. We want this to remain private.” Since then, there has been a massive change. Now, people invite us officially to go to these countries. We meet with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Trade and Economy Ministers. In these meetings, we have been able to prove to our neighbors that we are a reliable partner, that we are committed to the contracts and agreements that we have made, and that, above all, we are a legal entity. We operate according to the Constitution of Iraq and the laws that have been passed by the Parliament of Kurdistan. We abide by both. Most importantly, our leadership has delivered what it has promised. So, when our leadership shake hands, it has real meaning.
How do you think the Kurdistan Region was able to make such a change in a relatively short amount of time?
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, I believe we have proved to our neighbors that we are a good partner. We are friendly, we do not pose a threat, we are not interested in involving ourselves in their internal issues and we are ready to work with them to find common ground. I believe it is normal to have differences and to have disagreements. However, it is abnormal not to have talks. Therefore, we have always called for open dialogue in order to find proper ground on which to work. In essence, we have proved to them that we are a factor for stability.
With that in mind, how you would categorize your current relations with Turkey, Iran, and Syria?
The largest Kurdish population is in Turkey, the second largest is in Iran, the third largest in Iraq, and the fourth in Syria. So, this in itself is a kind of a complication in terms of maintaining good relations. However, thanks to our leadership, we have been able to prove to our neighbors that we have no intention whatsoever to harm their interests. We want to have good relations based on respect, understanding, and mutual benefits. So, I can tell you that we enjoy very good relations with the Republic of Turkey and with the Islamic Republic of Iran. I don’t believe any country today could enjoy good relations with the Republic of Syria, given the situation there.
Therefore, we have come a long way. We had the Turkish Prime Minister visit Erbil and PM Erdogan and President Barzani opened Erbil International Airport, which was a project designed by a British firm and implemented by a Turkish partner. We have had Turkish Foreign Minister visit a number of times. So have Turkish Minister of Trade, Finance, and Economy. This is how far we have come. It’s the same for the Islamic Republic of Iran. We had Iranian Foreign Minister, Trade Minister, Vice-President, and other delegations visit the Kurdistan Region.
Overall, we want relations with our neighbors that based on mutual respect and understanding. We expect from them not to interfere our internal affairs and respect the governmental institutions of the Kurdistan Region. It’s one thing to have good relations, but it’s another thing to have interference. So, we are very clear. Having relations according to international norms and conventions is something that we welcome. Beyond that, that’s something different.