Alwaght- Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif visited Iraq on Sunday and talked to the officials in Baghdad.
The visit, the first to Zarif since a new government was formed in Iraq in early May by Prime Minister Mostafa al-Kadhimi, has drawn specific media and political sensitivity.
Moreover, making the visit before al-Kadhimi’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia has given rise to media speculation about the main objectives of the head of Iranian diplomacy. What are Zarif’s objectives behind his Iraq trip?
Boosting bilateral trade, political, and security cooperation
As two neighbors, Iran and Iraq have deep-rooted cultural, economic, military, and security relations. That is why in the trips of officials from two countries to the other country, expansion of bilateral ties is always high on the agenda of the officials who seek to remove the challenges ahead of boosting the ties.
As the US reinstated anti-Tehran sanctions after scrapping the nuclear deal in May 2018 by President Donald Trump, Iran locked on using the regional potentials and strengthening ties with regional states. Meanwhile, presence in the Iraqi market and boosting relations with the neighboring country became a focal point in the new Iranian policy. Currently, Iraq is the most important regional trade partner to Iran, with the non-oil trade between the two countries last year touched $9 billion.
When President Hasan Rouhani of Iran last year visited Baghdad, Iraq and Iran agreed to develop trade volume to reach $20 billion annually.
Zarif at a press conference with his Iraqi counterpart said that bilateral trade should be expanded for bilateral benefits. He called Iraq a priority in the Iranian trade policy, saying that two nations’ potentials in energy and trade should be used for their growth amid coronavirus crisis. “We are resolved to continue these good relations,” he told the reporters.
Iran’s highlighting of the economically destructive impacts of coronavirus pandemic on the whole world can signal the bilateral talks of the two countries on the need for them to advance trade especially after reopening of the border crossings which were shut down during the first peak of the COVID-19.
Zarif’s pointing to the issues discussed with Baghdad during Rouhani’s visit, including shipping, sea and ground borders, railways, energy, and religious and health tourism, showed that these issues take a center stage in the negotiations with the Iraqi side.
Another issue that casts a shadow on the Iranian-Iraqi relations is the US plan to shift Iraq’s electricity imports from Iran to the Persian Gulf Arab states. Day by day feeling the failure of its “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran, the US administration is struggling to influence the economic ties between the two nations. Since the past years, Washington had under the focus of its anti-Iranian pressure campaign the Iranian electricity exports to Iraq. But, knowing that snap sanctions on this sector could leave sheer impacts on Iraq as there is no immediate alternative electricity provider, it had to grant Iraq in May waivers from the sanctions for 120 days. So, this very likely was one of the crucial topics of discussion during Zarif’s trip.
Another goal of the trip is the counterterrorism fight. The two countries as the two leading members of the Axis of Resistance, which stretches from Iran to Lebanon, need to coordinate their anti-terror efforts. In the past few months, the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Israeli regime had designed an evil new scheme to re-immerse Iraq in instability and terrorism through the restoration of the ISIS terrorist group in the Arab country. The plot was nipped in the bud with astute moves by the Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Tehran very likely discussed common security interests with Baghdad. Security stability in Iraq, the interwoven security of the two neighbors especially when it comes to the confrontation of terrorist and separatist groups, Iraq’s provision of connection bridge between Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and raising the awareness and concerns about the negative effects of the American military presence on the Iraqi stability are part of Iranian security interests in Iraq.
Highlighting the broad cooperation between the neighbors in the anti-terror battle over the past years, especially when ISIS emerged in Iraq, Zarif told the reporters that the bilateral relations are standing firm thanks to the “blood of young martyrs of the two nations in the fight against terrorism.” “These relations will never be damaged nor destroyed,” he continued.
Iran also discussed health aids to Iraq amid coronavirus crisis. Tehran declared readiness to provide Iraq with experiences and potentials to help Baghdad in the battle against the pandemic.
Pursuing General Soleimani’s assassination case
Upon his arrival in Baghdad, Zarif went to the scene of the assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi colleague and Deputy commander of the PMF Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to commemorate them. They were assassinated just outside Baghdad airport in January by the US military with a direct order from Trump. He told reports that he would discuss the crime with the Iraqi officials.
In addition to insisting that the right response to the attack on the two leading anti-ISIS commanders is forcing the US out of Iraq, Iran is pursuing the case internationally to “bring to justice the criminals.”
On July 9, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard submitted a report asserting that the January done strike in Iraq that killed General Qassem Soleimani constituted a violation of international law. Calling the strike “illegal”, the report read: “The strike was in violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter with insufficient evidence provided of an ongoing or imminent attack.” The report rejected Washington claims that the assassination was in “self-defense.”
The report will definitely boost the two countries’ case against the US in international organizations.
Is there a mediation plan?
As over the weekend the Iraq PM office published al-Kadhimi’s scheduled visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran, media analyses about possible mediation between Tehran and Riyadh by Baghdad surfaced. According to Iraqi media reports, al-Kadhimi was planned to visit Saudi Arabia on Monday and talk to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and then on Tuesday visit Tehran to talk with Iranian officials, including the Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei. His visit was delayed, reports said on Monday, after the Saudi king was hospitalized “for medical checks.”
The speculations about possible Iraqi mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia are motivated by the visit schedules of the Iraqi and Iranian officials and also Baghdad’s record of mediation under previous PM Adel Abdul Mahdi. But Zarif’s trip was unlikely to have been made to request from al-Kadhimi to mediate. It was planned before al-Kadhimi’s visit plan to Saudi Arabia and Iran was publicized.