Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018.
(photo credit: DANISH SIDDIQUI/ REUTERS)
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Iraq on Saturday night to pave the way for a major visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this week. Iran is seeking to cement closer ties with Iraq, a development that will undermine the US role in the country and seeks to spread Tehran’s ambitions throughout the region.
“We consider this trip a new start in our relations with Iraq,” Zarif said on Saturday, according to Iran’s Press TV. He discussed “joint interests” and “regional cooperation.” Zarif appeared to indicate that the trip to Iraq is part of a regional agenda. This means trying to use Iraq as a springboard to discussions with the Gulf states and Egypt and Jordan. It’s clear that Iran is also thinking about Iraq as an important southern flank in ensuring its role in Syria as well, where Iran, Russia and Turkey are seeking to broker a peace agreement.
Iraq is recovering from years of war on ISIS and is now at a crossroads. US President Donald Trump caused controversy in December and January by suggesting that US would use bases in Iraq to “watch” Iran. US forces returned to Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS and have been training the Iraqi army. However, many political parties in Iraq that are affiliated with pro-Iranian groups oppose the US presence. In addition, tensions have risen after the US left the Iran deal and imposed sanctions. Iraq is a major market for Iran and Iran has used the period since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to increase its role in Iraq. This role includes making Iraq dependent on Iran for energy supplies and also involves oil trade. Some Iraqis resent this and there have been protests in Basra against Iran’s role.
This is Zarif’s highest profile visit since he feigned resignation in late February. Now he is in Iraq for three days to show off his clout. This will mean arranging a meeting between Rouhani and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shi’ite cleric in Iraq and the man who helped mobilize the Shi’ite paramilitaries, called the Popular Mobilization Units, to fight ISIS in 2014.
Zarif describes Iran and Iraq as a beating heart of the region.
“Without Iran and Iraq, the region won’t be safe and stable,” he has said. He describes a partnership in "all walks of life” now between the two countries. An “inseparable union between the Iraqi and Iranian people.” He referenced the Iran-Iraq war as an example, noting that Shi’ite Iraqis served with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein. In fact, some leaders of groups like the Badr organization are veterans of that war, having served alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s.
This is an important reading of history from the Iranian point of view. It sees the current leadership in Iraq as having benefited from Iran’s support in the 1980s, and sees their reaching power as proof that Iran and Iraq, once enemies, are now joined in alliance. Iran will also be signing memorandums with Iraq in coming days. This will include a railway linking Basra with Iranian cities, and new industrial parks and visa arrangements, according to Iran’s state news agency IRNA.
Iran says it wants to boost bilateral trade to $20 billion from $13 billion. This is important for Iran because its economy has suffered under the new sanctions. IRNA stressed that “the bilateral trade has been seeing $2.5 billion annual increase with oil and gas exports making the most part of it.” This is clearly aimed at showing Washington that attempts to sanction Iran have not worked. The US poured $2.5 billion into training the Iraqi Security Forces between 2015 and 2018 to help fight ISIS.
Yet, in the end, Iraq is increasingly a close ally of Iran, receiving US funding while working with Washington’s adversary. This is the same model Iran has used in Lebanon, where the security forces get US funding and support while Iran uses Hezbollah to increase its alliance with Lebanon. Zarif visited Lebanon in February as the US was co-hosting the Warsaw summit aimed in part at confronting Iran. In Iraq, Iran is showing it has been even more successful than in Lebanon. Overall the Iranian model has worked in Iraq, it has increased its influence while undermining US influence. The Rouhani visit will seek to cement the next phase.
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