Rouhani’s Iraq visit: New steps for new chapter of ties

Alwaght – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has arrived in Baghdad in a significant visit to the neighboring country for talks with the Iraqi leaders on a range of bilateral and regional issues.

The Iranian ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi has said that during the three-day trip, the first since Rouhani was elected as president of the Islamic Republic, a large economic and political delegation accompany the president. Ahead of the visit, the officials of the two countries emphasized the influence of the trip on the bilateral ties and enhancement of the cooperation to reduce the regional tensions.

Expanding economic cooperation

Economic cooperation has accounted for a large part of the Iranian-Iraqi relations after the fall of Iraq’s Baathist regime led by Saddam Hussein. In less than two decades, Iran rose to become the top Iraq trade partner. Iraq is the second largest destination of Iranian non-petrol exports that are said to be $8.75 billion.

Iraq is widely known as one of the most important investment destinations in the world. For Iran, broadened diplomatic and economic relations with Iraq has strategic importance in Tehran’s security, regional, and international policies, an issue triggering a tense competition with other powers including the US and recently Saudi Arabia which are unwaveringly struggling to cut Iran’s sway in Iraq.

During a trip of the Iraqi President Barham Salih to Tehran in November last year, Iran’s Rouhani talked about efforts to increase the trade volume to $20 billion in the near future. The present time’s visit that contains a large number of Iranian businessmen and focuses on bilateral business indicates that the two neighbors are in a serious course towards the realization of the set goal.

Promoting the economic ties with the neighbors, particularly Iraq, at the present time is crucial for Tehran amid a Washington campaign of pressure to curb Iran’s exports through the banking and currency sanctions. American efforts do not seem to go anywhere, however. Despite the anti-Baghdad pressures by the US administration, over the past few months, Iraqi figures and politicians repeatedly highlighted their intention not to implement the ban.

Trade with national currencies is one way to steer clear of US sanctions. Iraq’s central bank in November stated that the country will pay Iranian gas price with Iraqi dinar. Iran’s ambassador on November 18 said that due to the increasing restrictions that target the trade with Iraq, the two sides will use dinar or barter system for bilateral trade.

Addressing security and border issues

Some security and old border issues are also on the agenda of the Iranian delegation in the negotiations with the Iraqi counterparts. Iran and Iraq share 1400 kilometers of sea and land borders. The dialogue and cooperation will help secure the borders and thwart the potential and practical threats posing dangers to the two countries. One of the key security issues of talks will be the fight against terrorism, mainly re-emergence of ISIS, and the Western forces’ presences in Iraq.

A principal anti-terror policy drove the Islamic Republic to be among the first parties to stand beside Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS terrorists. The joint combat ultimately obliterated the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS in 2017 with the recapture of Iraq’s Mosul that fell to ISIS in 2014. ISIS threats remain in place to date, however, in the form of underground re-organization efforts by the terrorist group’s remnants which are destabilizing the border regions with Syria. The ISIS destabilizing efforts appear to have the backing of the US military that seeks to strip the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus security corridor of its security.

On the other side, the Popular Mobilization Forces’ (PMF) fight against the ISIS remnants has recently been overshadowed by the US moves to set up military bases on the Iraq-Syrian border. This coincides with recent comments of the US President Donald Trump who said US forces will stay in Iraq to be able to watch Iran. The remarks angered the Iraqi government and parliament and triggered a bid to expel the American troops.

Yet another part of the trip will address the border issues, mainly the implementation of the Algiers Agreement that was reached in 1975 to put an end to the border disputes over Arvand River (known as Shatt al-Arab in Iraq). The dead set a sea demarcation line as a border between the two countries. A plan to dredge the river failed to go ahead after Saddam started a war against Iran in 1980 which lasted 8 years. In recent years, the two sides agreed to continue the effort. They launched coordination office but the agreements are yet to be operational.

Arvand is significant for Iraq as the river provides a route for Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Dredging it will allow huge commercial ships to reach Al-Maaghal and Abu Flous ports in Iraq. Revived shipping in the river will be of commercial benefits to such Iranian port cities as Abadan and Khorramshahr.

Iran-Iraq strategic relations; a pattern to the region

Due to cultural, historical, and political bonds between the two nations, Tehran-Baghdad relations are a clear pattern of strategic ties for the regional states based on democracy, independence, and respect. Weathering serious foreign conspiracies, terrorism, and split dangers, Iraq has now turned into an important party in the region’s politico-security future equations. Moreover, due to its Arab identity, the country for a long time had an important voice in Arab organizations like the Arab League. As part of the Arab League, Baghdad now tries to help force the bloc out of the domination of the Persian Gulf monarchies, apparently Saudi Arabia. It also tries to create a ground for dialogue to settle the differences between Iran and some Arab monarchies. Iran understands and values this role of Iraq. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif pointed to this fact a couple of days ago.

As a conclusion, President Rouhani’s Iraq visit is a long step to ramp up the security, economic, and political partnership. He is also expected to meet top Shiite clerics to strengthen the cultural and religious bonds between the two nations.