Iran president on first Iraq visit seeks to deepen alliance, evade US sanctions

Underlining how ties have changed since Saddam invaded Iran in 1980, Rouhani meets counterpart Barham Salih, touts ‘unity and cooperation’ between Shiite neighbors

Iraqi President Barham Salih, right, walks with visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, after inspecting an honor guard at Salam Palace, Baghdad, March 11, 2019. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqi President Barham Salih, right, walks with visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, after inspecting an honor guard at Salam Palace, Baghdad, March 11, 2019. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Baghdad on Monday, making his first official visit to the neighbor that Tehran once fought a bloody war against and later backed in the battle with the Islamic State group.

Since Rouhani’s election in 2013, Iraq has relied on Iranian paramilitary support to fight IS, following the militant group’s capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul and other territory in both Iraq and Syria.

Now with the militants facing a final territorial defeat in the Syrian village of Baghouz, Iran is looking for Iraq’s continued support as it faces increased pressure from President Donald Trump following his decision to withdraw the US from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Rouhani, who is accompanied on the three-day visit by a high-ranking political and economic delegation, was received by an honor guard on landing in Baghdad, where he was welcomed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim.

Rouhani then visited the shrine of Imam Kadhim, the seventh of 12 clerics revered by Shiites. Rouhani, himself a Shiite cleric, paused to reach out and touch the gate surrounding the imam’s tomb.

He then met President Barham Salih and spoke to journalists, telling them that a “stable Iraq will lead to stability in the entire region.”

“We want to be united countries, not against others, but attracting others to our unity,” Rouhani said.

For his part, Salih said Baghdad’s central location made it crucial to resolving regional issues. He thanked Iran for its support during Iraq’s fight against IS.

“The victory that was achieved against IS group in Iraq was an important and huge victory, but incomplete as the eradication of that sick, deviated line of thought and extremism require more sustainable regional efforts and cooperation,” Salih said.

Rouhani was also set to meet Prime Minister Abel Abdul-Mehdi and meetings are planned with other politicians and Shiite leaders.

Rouhani’s visit underscores how much has changed since the 1980s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran (in 1980), sparking an eight-year war that killed an estimated one million people. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam, Iran began backing militants who targeted American forces.

Tehran also made political connections with Iraq’s Shiite leaders, who had been persecuted by Saddam’s government. Iran’s former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Iraq in 2008.

Iraq and Iran share a 1,400-kilometer-long (870 miles) border. Trump made a snap December visit to Iraq and said US forces should stay there to keep an eye on Iran. The remark was dismissed by both Iran and Iraqi leaders, whom Trump did not meet during his visit.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and Iraqi President Barham Salih prepare to address the media in Baghdad, March 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

“Relations between Iran and Iraq are special,” Rouhani was quoted as saying before he flew to Iraq. “In the recent years, the people of Iran have passed a test with pride, and that is wherever the peoples of the region faced a problem and asked for the help of the Iranian nation and government, we rushed to help them.”

Rouhani visited Iraq privately before becoming president and had planned an official visit in 2016 but it was cancelled without a reason being given.

This time, Rouhani, who is in his second four-year-term, is particularly vulnerable because of the economic crisis assailing the Iranian currency, the Rial, which has hurt ordinary Iranians and emboldened critics to openly call for the president’s ouster.

Tehran sees the US military presence in Iraq as a threat — one that could also undermine Iran’s influence over Baghdad.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif alluded to that on Sunday while in Baghdad, saying that any country which tries to interfere with good Iran-Iraq relations would “be deprived of opportunities for itself.”

Iran also sees Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions that Trump re-imposed last year after pulling the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Last year, Iran’s exports to Iraq amounted to nearly $9 billion. Tehran hopes to increase the roughly $13 billion volume in trade between the two neighbors to $20 billion. Some five million religious tourists also bring in nearly $5 billion a year as Iraqis and Iranians visit Shiite holy sites in the two countries.

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