Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a historic visit to Iraq in March 2019, his first trip to Iraq since his election in 2013. The visit was meant to solidify and strengthen religious, political, and economic ties between the two nations. Rouhani is only the second Iranian president to visit Iraq – former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in 2008. During his three-day visit, Rouhani met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and key religious leaders, criticized the United States, and made plans for
Iran and Iraq’s complicated relationship
The two Middle Eastern countries have come a long way since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. The overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 ushered in a new age of Iran-Iraq cooperation – although Iraq is a majority Shiite country, Saddam Hussein was a Sunni. After Hussein was toppled, majority-Shia Iran took a greater interest in supporting Shia leaders in Iraq. In 2011, the American withdrawal for Iraq gave Iran more room to exert influence in Baghdad. In the past few years, the Trump administration’s lack of financial support for the reconstruction and stabilization of post-war Iraq has led Iraq to turn to Iran for help. Today, Iraq and Iran have a long list of mutual interests including trade, tourism, finance and investment, water, oil, and electricity. Iraq relied heavily on the support of Iranian paramilitary groups in the fight against ISIS, allowing Iran to act as Iraq’s protector. President Rouhani likes to indirectly remind the world of this fact, saying, “In the recent years, the people of Iran have passed a test with pride, and that is wherever the peoples of the region faced a problem and asked for the help of the Iranian nation and government, we rushed to help them.”
Motives behind the visit
Officially, Rouhani’s visit was meant to foster closer relations between Iraq and Iran. Rouhani cited Iraq as “an important Islamic and Arab country [that] has a major role in the region.” He called for greater cultural alliance between the two countries, saying “[Iran and Iraq] want to be united countries…attracting others to our unity.” However, Iran’s true motives for this visit are more economic and strategic.
Rouhani is facing intense pressure at home – the Iranian economy continues to suffer under intense U.S. sanctions. After pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, which would have lifted American sanctions on Iran in exchange for greater nuclear supervision and restrictions, the Trump administration instituted a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. This policy essentially levels massive sanctions against Iran, impeding trade and economic growth in an attempt to force the nation to change its behavior. Iranians are frustrated with their president’s inability to revive the economy. Rouhani badly needs to reassure his people that prosperity will soon return, and he hopes to use Iraq as a way to bypass the American sanctions. Before his arrival in Baghdad, the president stated that he hopes to increase Iranian trade with Iraq from $12 billion to $20 billion annually. Should this goal be achieved, some of the economic pressure caused by the sanctions should be marginally relieved. Iran is also making a sort of economic investment in Iraq, offering to rebuild cities damaged by the war on terror. If this investment pays off, Iran will benefit from having a prosperous neighbor nation with whom they can trade. Rouhani’s visit is meant to find a way around the sanctions, while simultaneously demonstrating to the United States that “maximum pressure” will not stop Iranians from strengthening regional economic ties.
The visit was also orchestrated to send a message to the Americans that Iran is still in power in Baghdad. The Trump administration has been pressuring the Iraqis in recent months to minimize their relations with Iran, fearing Iraq will fall entirely under Iran’s influence. The arena of political power in Iraq has long been the site of a proxy war between Iraq and the United States. Iraq has strong and undeniable cultural and religious ties to Iran, and years of American interventionism has soured many Iraqis’ opinion of the United States. The American government would be extremely unhappy to lose Iraq to Iran, especially having spent billions of dollars and many years in the country trying to shape the Middle Eastern country into a U.S. ally.
Criticizing the United States
President Rouhani directly addressed the United States during his visit, particularly criticizing President Trump’s recent visit to Iraq. Trump flew into the country in the middle of the night, avoiding Baghdad and instead heading to a distant U.S. military base to greet American soldiers. Rouhani mocked Trump’s visit, saying the trip’s secretive nature and lack of official visit proves that the United States remains unwelcome in Iraq. “You have to walk in the streets of Baghdad…to find out how people will welcome you,” Rouhani said. The Iranian president also emphasized regional hatred for Americans, saying, “America is despised in [the Middle East]. The bombs that the Americans dropped on Iraqis, Syrian people and other countries cannot be forgotten.” Iran is attempting to capitalize on anti-American sentiment that is particularly prominent in Iraq, accusing the United States of “always [seeking] to create division.”
Iraq and Iran have the unique bond of being Shia-majority countries in a region of primarily Sunni Muslim nations. Between 64 to 69 percent of Iraqis are Shiite, while between 90 to 95 percent of Iranians are estimated to be Shiite. In a neighborhood of mostly Sunnis, Iran aims to give greater support to Iraqi Shias. President Rouhani visited important Shia sites in Iraq such as the shrine of Imam Kadhim, the seventh of 12 clerics revered by the Shia. Rouhani also met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during his visit, the most senior Iraqi Shia leader. Iraqis and Iranians alike were shocked by the meeting, as the Ayatollah rarely accepts visitors. This meeting with such a respected Shiite cleric will earn Rouhani some support from hard-line critics back in Iran.
The importance of religious solidarity between these two nations cannot be overlooked. Especially considering that Shia are in the minority of the Muslim world, an alliance between two countries that emphasized their Shia tie would be monumental. Iran’s continued religious influence in Iraq may upset Sunni giants like Saudi Arabia, which could be a source for potential conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran moving forward. It is also important to remember that roughly 30 percent of Iraqis are Sunni, and to alienate this part of the population would be very dangerous. After all, it was Iraqi Sunnis removed from power in the early 2000s who eventually helped form the Islamic State.
The next steps and potential conflicts
Having publicly declared their intent to strengthen relations with Iraq, it is time for Iran to start acting on it. In the coming months and years, we can expect to see increased trade and a stronger political alliance between the two nations. Iran’s increased attention is likely to put Iraq in a difficult situation. Completely allying themselves with the Iranians is perhaps the quickest way to anger the United States, which would be unwise. Iraq is going to have to find a way to balance the interest and influence of the two powers, without becoming a physical battleground for conflict between the United States and Iran.
The increasingly aggressive nature of President Trump’s Iran rhetoric has already been heightening tensions. The comments President Rouhani made about the United States during this trip will not be taken lightly and may serve to only worsen the conflict. Regardless of the promises or statements made on Rouhani’s historic trip to Iraq, the main concern is that Iraq does not suffer in the tug-of-war between Iran and the United States.