Iran Guards Flex Muscle ahead of Kurdish Independence Vote

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard conducted a drill Sunday and closed its airspace to flights taking off from Iraq’s Kurdish region following an Iraqi request in the country’s northwestern Kurdish region just ahead of Iraqi Kurds voting in an independence referendum, in a sign of Tehran’s concerns over the vote.

The Guard, a paramilitary force answerable only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on its website that airborne and missile units would take part in the exercise. State television aired footage of explosions and smoke rising as part of the drill, in the mountains of Iran’s own Kurdish region. Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported that the Supreme National Security Council closed Iranian airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish area at the request of the central government in Baghdad.

Iran and Iraq have been close allies since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Both are opposed to Kurdish independence, and Baghdad has said the referendum is unconstitutional.

The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Sunday also voiced its “deep concern” over the planned referendum, saying it runs against the constitution of Iraq and could have a negative impact on Iraq’s ability to fight terrorism. Monday’s Kurdish referendum has stirred fears of instability across the region as the war against the Islamic State group winds down. The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.