TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will make his first official visit to Iraq this week as he faces mounting pressure from hardliners at home in the wake of the unraveling of the nuclear deal under the Trump administration.
Hassan Rouhani’s trip — billed as “historic and noble” by his foreign minister — is meant to solidify ties between Shiite power Iran and Iraq’s Shiite led-government, a strong Tehran ally. It is also Iran’s response to President Donald Trump’s snap December trip to Iraq and the American president’s comments that US forces should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, with which Iraq shares a 1,400-kilometer-long (870 miles) border.
Rouhani’s visit to Iraq will provide an opportunity for reaching “serious understandings” between the two neighbors, Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif told the official IRNA news agency from Baghdad, where he was preparing for Rouhani’s three-day visit that starts on Monday.
Tehran sees the US military presence at its doorstep in Iraq as a threat — one that could also undermine Iran’s influence over Baghdad.
Zarif alluded to that on Sunday, saying that any country which tries to interfere with the 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 between Tehran and world powers.
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 neighboring countries to $20 billion. Also, some 5 million religious tourists bring in nearly $5 billion a year as Iraqis and Iranians visit Shiite holy sites in the two countries.
Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq waged an eight-year war in the 1980s against Iran, a conflict that left nearly 1 million killed on both sides.