Masoud Barzani told Reuters in an interview that the timetable for independence after a Sept. 25 vote on the issue was "flexible but not open-ended". He expected a "yes vote".
At his palace in the hillside village of Salahaddin, Barzani said the vote would decide the fate of Kirkuk, which Kurdish Peshmerga forces prevented Islamic State from capturing in 2014.
"Whatever the people of Kirkuk decide within the referendum, that decision should be respected," said Barzani.
The Peshmerga effectively runs Kirkuk, also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs.
Barzani added that negotiations with Baghdad, neighbors and international powers would start immediately after the vote in order to reach an amicable agreement.
"Our main goal is to implement and achieve the decision of our people through peace and dialogue," he told Reuters
Barzani accused the Iraqi government of not sticking to a constitutional agreement of allowing the Kurds to have greater powers under a federal state set up after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"For 14 years we have been waiting and we have been discussing this partnership but we have always been told it's not a good time and it's not acceptable timing so my question is, when is the right time?"
Barzani said the Kurds were ready to take responsibility for the outcome of the referendum.
"We have to rectify the history of mistreatment of our people and those who are saying that independence is not good, our question to them is, if it's not good for us, why is it good for you?"
Barzani played down speculation that the referendum would spark violence, saying "the legitimacy of the people is bigger than the legitimacy of any of the political parties or any of the external interventions".
"I don’t think anybody can stand against the big wave of the people of Kurdistan when they decide their destiny. Maybe there will be some attempts to foil (it)... We will try our best not to allow that to happen."
He said he was ready to allay the security concerns of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, saying that postponing independence would actually lead to greater instability.
"We have proved that we are factors of stability," he said. "So what we do through a referendum is prevent that upcoming instability. We want to cut any possibility of bloodshed in the future."
He said his "Kurdish state" would give full assurances to ethnic minorities including Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks, indicating his Peshmerga forces had already lost hundreds of fighters to retake their areas from Islamic State.
As the battle to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul draws to a close, Barzani said victory is incomplete without a political reconciliation plan.
He accused the Iraqi government of failing to prepare a post-battle political, security and governance plan.
"I warned if you are not going to have this political plan, the situation will reverse."
He said a high-level committee formed by the Kurdish region, the Baghdad government and a U.S.-led military coalition to help Mosul leaders rebuild the city had never convened.
"I have big concerns about the situation in Mosul and about post-liberation, because the end of Islamic State in Mosul doesn’t mean the end of Islamic State. Those factors, the environment that brought it into Mosul have not (changed)."
"I have a big concern about the future of the area. I hope I will be wrong."
Reporter’s code: 50101