BAGHDAD: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani hit back Monday against pressure from the “aggressor” United States on Iraq to limit ties with its neighbor, during his first official visit to Baghdad.
Shiite-majority Iraq is walking a fine line to maintain good relations with its key partners Iran and the United States which themselves are arch-foes.
It has been under pressure from Washington not to get too close to the Islamic republic next door, particularly after the United States last year withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and hit Tehran with sanctions.
Baghdad was given limited waivers to continue buying electricity and natural gas from Iran, but Washington has urged Iraq to partner with US companies to become energy independent.
Rouhani, who is on his first trip to Iraq since becoming president in 2013, hailed his country's “special” ties with its neighbor.
These relations could not be compared to Iraq’s ties “with an aggressor country like America,” he said before flying Monday to Baghdad for the three-day visit.
“America is despised in the region. The bombs that the Americans dropped on Iraqis, Syrian people and other countries cannot be forgotten,” he added.
Iran is always ready to help its neighbors, he said, in a nod to the role Tehran played to help Iraq battle Daesh.
Iraq's President Barham Saleh, at a joint news conference with Rouhani in Baghdad, thanked Iran for its "support" and said he was "lucky" to have it as a neighbor, without making any reference to the US.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said that relations with Tehran were beneficial to the region on the whole.
Salih and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani spoke on the relations between the two countries.
Rouhani said that relations with Iraq were based on religion and go back thousands of years, adding that Iran cares about Iraq's stability and the stability of the region.
Rouhani arrived in Baghdad on Monday, Iraqi state television said, making his first official visit to the nation that Tehran once fought a bloody war against and later backed in the battle with the Daesh group.
Since Rouhani’s election in 2013, Iraq has relied on Iranian paramilitary support to fight Daesh, 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 President Donald Trump after his decision to withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Rouhani was received by an honor guard on landing in Baghdad, where he was welcomed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim. He is to first visit a Shiite shrine in the Iraqi capital and then meet with both Salih and Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mehdi, as well as visit other politicians and Shiite leaders.
Rouhani is accompanied on the three-day visit to Iraq by a high-ranking political and economic delegation.
It underscores how much has changed since the 1980s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking an eight-year war that killed 1 million people. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam, Iran began a campaign of backing militants who targeted American forces in Iraq.
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 on a trip in 2008.
Iraq and Iran share a 1,400-kilometer-long border. Trump made a snap December trip to Iraq and made comments that US forces should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran, something dismissed by both Iran and Iraqi leaders, whom Trump did not meet on the visit.
Rouhani, who had visited Iraq privately before becoming president, had planned an official visit in 2016 but it was canceled 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.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif alluded to that on Sunday while in Baghdad, 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.
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.