A headlong collision across Middle East fault lines is drawing close as Turkey, Iraq and ethnic Kurds who run their own region in between wrangle over oil exports.
Time is running out as more oil flows through a new pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan for export from Turkey, in defiance of Baghdad, which has threatened to punish both Ankara and Arbil for “smuggling” oil out of Iraq.
Talks have borne little fruit and, with the Kurds seeking buyers for the oil from their autonomous territory thanks to an agreement with Turkey signed in November, Ankara will soon be forced to take sides.
“Turkey must now choose either to turn its back on Baghdad and go ahead with its deal with the Kurds, or suspend direct exports from the region until an agreement is reached between the central government and Arbil,” said a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be named.
“Unfortunately, facts on the ground show that Ankara eventually will go ahead with their deals with the Kurds at the expense of their relations with Baghdad.”
Oil traders expect at least one symbolic cargo of the oil to be exported by the end of the month, preferably with Baghdad’s consent, but without it otherwise.
“That will put additional pressure on Baghdad to negotiate with a sense of urgency,” said a Kurdistan-based industry source on condition of anonymity. “We always thought that it (the pipeline) would be the catalyst for the initiation of serious discussion and resolution of the export problem.”
Behind the scenes, and the hotter rhetoric, the private voices in Baghdad and Arbil are, however more united – but in pessimism that an enduring compromise can be found to a dispute that has strained Iraq’s federal unity.
If a deal is elusive, the Kurds retain some powerful political cards to play in the formation of any Iraqi government after elections at the end of April. Equally, Baghdad could cut funding to the northern enclave.
Kurdish officials are positive Ankara will stand by them and publicly say they are hopeful a bargain can be struck with Baghdad, but in private admit their differences are almost insurmountable.
The latest round of talks ended inconclusively in Baghdad on Sunday. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussein al-Shahristani is due to visit the Kurdish capital Arbil for further negotiations in the coming days, although no date has been formally announced.
Turkey has sought to stay above the fray.
“We have repeatedly said, these are decisions that they will make among themselves,” Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters. “I believe our brothers will meet at a good point.”
Ankara may want to see a formal agreement in place before allowing continuous exports from the region, but industry sources there are sceptical any deal would hold.
“Turkey has come to a point where it has to take extra care,” said one. “I don’t see a lasting solution… but there could well be a temporary arrangement so that the pressure in the system can be relieved, at least in the interim.”
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