Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim in Baghdad, Iraq May 26, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/KHALID AL MOUSILY)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a high-profile visit to Iraq on Sunday during US-Iran tensions. In a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim, he sought to stress that Iran was open to a “non-aggression” agreement with Arab states, while the Iraqis said they opposed US sanctions.
Zarif was clear that Tehran is prepared to confront any US threats or war against Iran. Last week, a rocket was fired near the US Embassy in Baghdad, further stoking tensions. The US has warned of retaliation against any Iranian attacks or from Iran’s allies in the region. This includes numerous pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq.
Iraq has sought to mediate between the US and Iran, calling for a reduction of tensions and also asking that any conflict not take place in its territory. There is consensus on this issue at the offices of the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament in Baghdad. Alhakim, for instance, indicated that sanctions by the US against Iran were not helpful for Iraq and would have no “effect.”
Tasnim News noted that Zarif’s visit came on the heels of important visits by Iran’s president to Iraq in March and reciprocal visits to Iran by the Iraqi prime minister. The two countries are becoming close allies, which puts the US in a tough spot as they also search for allies on the ground in Iraq. Some Iraqi politicians and the Shi’ite militias have called for US forces to leave. Even though some militias opposed the rocket fire near the US Embassy, they merely opposed the “timing” of the attack, not the attack itself. Alhakim says Iraq will help Iran mediate the current crisis. According to Iran’s IRNA, the Iraqi foreign minister said Iraq and Iran were “brothers.” He also said industrial connections were growing with Tehran.
Zarif also met the Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Halbousi, who said that Iraq could play a pivotal role in reducing US-Iran tensions. Washington, however, has warned American citizens against going to Iran and has withdrawn non-essential diplomatic staff. The US is also sending 1,500 more troops to the region.
The long-term goal of Iran is to outplay the Americans in Iraq. It wants allies at the offices of the Iraqi prime minister, president and speaker of parliament. In addition, it has sought through its allies in the large paramilitaries – such as the Badr Organization – to place those sympathetic to Tehran in the Iraqi Interior Ministry and elsewhere.
During the war against ISIS, Tehran helped Baghdad and advised it. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) encouraged Baghdad during the difficult years of 2014-2015. But Iran also cultivated close relations with the Popular Mobilization Forces of militias raised to fight ISIS. This includes Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Badr. Several of these organizations, along with the IRGC, are viewed as terrorist organizations by the US.
This complicates Washington’s relations with Baghdad because these groups also receive support as official paramilitaries. They were incorporated officially in 2018 into the security forces, and the former Iraqi prime minister called them the “hope” of Iraq and the region’s future. The US is now facing this hurdle in relations with Baghdad. The only major Shi’ite paramilitary it has not designated as terrorists are members of Badr, which is led by Hadi al-Amiri, a powerful politician who is close to the IRGC.
In January, Zarif went to Karbala in Iraq, where he met Amiri and other Iraqis. This visit in May is meant to hammer home Iran’s close connections with these key figures in Iraq. The message to Washington is clear: Iran and Iraq are closely connected and any tensions could harm Iraq.
On Saturday, IRGC commander Sardar Ali Fadavi also said that the US is currently weak in the region. He called US actions a “psychological war” and noted that America’s allies in the region were also “weak,” referring to Saudi Arabia and other countries. He said that in Syria and other countries, the “axis of resistance” opposes the US presence. Despite its presence in the Middle East since 1833, he said, America was today facing a low point in its influence, while Iran’s IRGC and Basij militia were gaining strength.
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