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Iraq attempts balancing act as Iran’s Rouhani arrives for first official visit

Sabah Arar, AFP | Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a joint press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, March 11, 2019.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani arrived Monday in Iraq for his first official visit, as Baghdad comes under pressure from Washington to limit political and trade ties with its neighbour.

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Since Rouhani's election in 2013, Iraq has relied on Iranian support in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, 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 a maximalist pressure campaign by US President Donald Trump following his decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

“The big problem for the Iraqis right now is that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” explained FRANCE 24’s James Andre, who has reported extensively in the region. “On the one hand, Iraq has very strong ties with Iran, a powerful neighbour that they rely on for energy, for example. On the other hand, there’s the Trump administration who wants to sanction Iran. Basically Iraq has been relying on two countries that are enemies to fight the Islamic State group and now that this problem is being solved, the Iraqi prime minister is playing a balancing act.”

Rouhani is set to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Abel Abdul-Mehdi as well as other politicians and Shiite leaders during his visit.

Visiting revered Shiite shrine

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

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

He then met Iraqi 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 the IS group.

"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," said Salih.

Major trading partners

Rouhani's visit underscores how much has changed since the 1980s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking an eight-year war that killed an estimated 1 million people. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam, Iran began a campaign of backing militants who targeted US forces in Iraq.

Tehran also made political connections with Iraq's Shiite leaders, who had been persecuted by Saddam's government. Iran's former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Iraq on a trip in 2008.

Iraq and Iran share a 1,400-kilometer-long (870 miles) border and the two countries are major economic partners.

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 neighbouring 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.

“If you go to Baghdad today, you will see Iranian cars on the streets, the products in the markets are Iranian and there are very, very strong economic ties between the two countries. Iran is the second  economic partner to Iraq after Turkey. This is what the Iranians are hoping to build on,” explained Andre.

Currency crisis

Rouhani, who had visited Iraq privately before becoming president, had planned an official visit in 2016 but it was cancelled over unspecified "executive" problems.

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

Tehran sees the US military presence at its doorstep in Iraq as a threat - one that could also undermine Iran's influence over Baghdad.

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

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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