Iran shuts down all flights to Kurdish region of Iraq

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IRAN has closed its airspace to all flights to and from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq at the request of the country’s federal government, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) says.

‘At the request of the central government of Iraq, all flights from Iran to Sulaymaniyah and Erbil airports as well as all flights through our country’s airspace originating in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region have been halted,’ Keyvan Khosravi, a spokesman for the SNSC, said on Sunday.

He added that the decision had been made during an emergency session of the SNSC earlier in the day after Iran’s ‘political’ efforts proved ineffective in the face of Kurdish officials’ insistence on holding a planned referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

The Iranian official warned that hasty decisions made by some officials of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region would limit the power of the Iraqi Kurds for engaging in constructive dialogue within Iraq’s government structure and would also pose serious challenges to security of the Kurdish people, the entire Iraq and the region.

There are conflicting reports as to whether a referendum on possible independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday will go ahead as planned after several regional officials warned the vote could have serious consequences.

The high council for referendum affairs, which is supervised by Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, rejected reports of a postponement as rumours, the Kurdistan 24 news station said. Iraq’s government has called the referendum unconstitutional with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejecting it ‘whether today or in the future.’

The planned referendum has raised fears of a fresh conflict in the region, which is trying to emerge from years of Daesh campaign of death and destruction. In a statement on September 18, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged Iraq’s Kurdish leaders to scrap the upcoming independence vote, saying it would undermine the ongoing battle in the Arab country against Daesh terrorists.

With a Kurdish delegation in Baghdad for talks with the Iraqi government, there are unconfirmed reports that Kurdish leaders have accepted to stay the plebiscite. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on international affairs, on September 16 expressed the Islamic Republic’s opposition to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum, warning that separatist moves in the region would ultimately serve the interests of the US and the Israeli regime.

‘The Islamic Republic of Iran opposes any move either knowingly or unknowingly towards independence of one part of Iraq or any other country in the region,’ Velayati added. A senior Iranian official says a referendum on independence of Iraq’s Kurdistan region will ultimately be beneficial to the US and Israel. The Iranian official noted that Iran was a ‘strategic ally’ of Iraq, which was in agreement with whatever demand put forth by the legitimate government in the Arab country.

• The ground forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have started heavy artillery fire drills in the country’s southwestern area. The security drills, codenamed Moharram, started out on Sunday, with Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s second-in-command, and Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, who commands the Corps’ ground forces in attendance, Sepah News reported.

The exercises are part of annual events held in Iran to mark the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 which led to an eight-year war. The manoeuvres, centred in the Oshnavieh border region, will include artillery, armoured and airborne units, state broadcaster IRIB reported.

The main part, which is already underway, involves practicing of defensive preparedness by infantry, armoured, electronic warfare, and rocket units, as well as the ground-operating squadrons of the IRGC. The Hamzeh Seyyed al-Shohadah Base of the IRGC ground forces plays the central part in the manoeuvres.

The country’s southwest has repeatedly witnessed inroads by terrorist and anti-revolutionary elements and hence constitutes a focus of the IRGC’s counter-terrorism operations. Clashes with PJAK militant groups based in Iraq are a frequent occurrence in the border area.

• Also on Sunday, Iran’s Army unveiled three new achievements in the area of artillery fire, named as Heydar 7, 41, and 44 Projects, in the presence of Brigadier General Kioumars Heydari, the commander of the Army’s ground forces. Heydar 7 comprises an eight-wheel drive vehicle, equipped with a new turret and a 23-millimetre gun.

Heydar 41 features a 122-millimetre howitzer, fitted with an automatic magazine loader, shorter combat readiness process, and remote activation capability. Heydar 44 has witnessed a 122-millimetre rocket launcher system being made smart and automated, resulting in sped-up and more precise fire, as well as its becoming interconnected with frontline surveillance drones, suitable for installment on all artillery systems.

• Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak says deliveries of Iranian crude to his country under the ‘oil-for-goods’ programme can start shortly. Asked in Vienna last Friday when he thought the long-heralded deliveries would finally begin, Novak said, ‘I hope, in the coming future,’ Russia’s Tass news agency quoted him as saying.

‘Arrangements are at the finalising stage,’ he said, according to the news agency which also cited feedstock importer Promsyryeimport as the company which would take the deliveries. Novak said last month the two sides were discussing sales of 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Iranian oil to Russia, with supplies being ‘either physical or swap-based’ and that the deliveries could begin within a month.

‘We are finalising the last details of regulatory documents. I think I will respond to your question within one month,’ he told reporters on the sidelines of an international fair in the Turkish city of Izmir. The arrangement dates back to 2014 when Iran tried to boost vital energy exports in the face of intensified Western sanctions.

At the time, it was said that Moscow and Tehran were discussing a barter deal that would see Moscow buy up to 500,000 bpd of Iranian oil in exchange for Russian equipment and goods. The initial arrangement was for swapping around 300,000 bpd via the Caspian Sea and the rest from the Persian Gulf, possibly Bandar Abbas port.

However, Russia appears not to be in a hurry as it is discussing a possible extension of oil supply curbs with major producers to clear a glut that has weighed on crude prices for three years. On Friday, Novak met with ministers of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna where they said they were still halfway toward clearing the global glut.

The ministers, however, stopped short of taking additional action amid reports that they wanted to wait until January before deciding whether to extend the curbs beyond the first quarter of 2018. The producers are heartened by an apparent market recovery which has seen the international benchmark Brent rise to a six-month high to more than $56.

The recovery has raised doubts about further commitment of the producers to consume the remaining overhang as well as the need to extend output cuts.Novak suggested that Russia’s commitment to the deal was not open-ended. ‘A gradual, slow exit strategy could begin between the second and fourth quarters of 2018 when demand can absorb additional supply,’ Bloomberg quoted him as saying.

Iran is exempted from the agreement struck originally in November 2016 as its oil production was affected by factors other than the global glut that sank prices. In fact, Iran’s oil exports more than halved after the West intensified sanctions on the Islamic Republic in 2011, prompting countries such as Saudi Arabia to ramp up production which led to the current glut.

Since the lifting of sanctions in January 2016, Tehran has been raising production to claw back its market share. Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zangeneh last Thursday said Iran had a major quarrel with non-OPEC producers over its push to win back the market share but it did not back off in the face of ‘many bad things which were said.’

‘We didn’t listen to any of them and I said we would never accept that our production fall below the pre-sanction level,’ said Zangeneh who also warned of a rapid fall in Iran’s oil production due to delayed investment.