The Iranian president met Iraqi president Barham Salih and Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Sistani is a sign to Washington in times where US officials visited Iraq frequently.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq this week, alongside Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who recently tendered his resignation, which Rouhani refused.

The visit occurred after a flurry of foreign diplomatic visits in Iraq, beginning with US President’s Trump surprise visit to Iraq in late December, to Rouhani’s visit this week. The fact that the chief executives of both the US and Iran have made consecutive trips to Iraq demonstrates how this nation is contested by both a superpower and neighbouring regional power.

The visit was remarkable for another reason, as Rouhani was able to secure a meeting with Iraq’s highly-revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who rarely grants meetings to foreign leaders or diplomats. 

In terms of diplomacy, Rouhani’s visit to Iraq was a success at a time when he faces domestic rivalries in Tehran and pressure from Washington.  

The American Diplomatic Offensive

There have been three, relatively recent, high-profile and surprise American visits in Iraq from mid-December to the first week of January. The first included US energy secretary Rick Perry’s trip to Iraq in December, President Trump’s surprise visit to Iraq to greet American troops stationed there for Christmas, followed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip on 9th of January. 

While Trump’s trip did not include any meetings with Iraqi officials, the other trips had several objectives. 

Firstly, they were designed to strengthen sanctions against Iran, by encouraging Iraq’s energy independence, urging Baghdad to halt gas imports from Iran and contract American companies to develop Iraq’s gas fields. 

However, implementing this strategy has been difficult. In December, Washington granted Iraq a three-month waiver to purchase Iranian gas, and now Baghdad has requested another extension.

One-third of Iraq’s electricity production depends on gas imports from Iran, and it cannot abandon Iranian gas and electricity supplies any time soon. It could take between two to three years to develop the necessary infrastructure for Iraq to reduce its energy dependency from Iran.

Secondly, the American visits sought to argue for the continued presence of the 5,200 US troops stationed in Iraq, serving in an advisory capacity to the Iraqi military. Its original mission was to help combat Daesh after its invasion of Mosul in 2014, yet Trump also alluded these forces would also “watch Iran.” 

Trump’s statement was not only rejected by anti-American Iraqi politicians, some but not all of whom are pro-Iranian but also Iraq’s president, Barham Salih.   

Pompeo’s visit to Baghdad was immediately followed by Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who then announced Rouhani's plan to visit. 

The intense round of visits demonstrated the delicate balancing act maintained by the Iraqi government, by a Trump administration seeking to isolate Iran, and the Islamic Republic, whose diplomacy appears to have had more success in leveraging Iraq as a neighbour and a market that can help it withstand the American-imposed sanctions.

The Iranian Diplomatic Offensive

This week’s trip was the first by Rouhani in his capacity as Iran’s president, which is remarkable as since 2003 it is the norm for Iraq’s leaders to fly to Teheran to curry favor and approval by the Islamic Republic, including Arab Shi’a and Sunnis, as well as Iraqi Kurds. 

Just a week before Rouhani’s trip, Iraq’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbusi, a Sunni politician, travelled to Tehran to thank Iran for its support in combatting Daesh. 

The first overriding objective of Rouhani’s visit was to develop trade between the two nations, allowing Iran to resist the Trump-era sanctions. Iran and Iraq signed preliminary trade deals on energy and railway projects, with the goal of boosting bilateral trade from $12 to $20 billion.

Second, the visit resulted in a joint declaration to implement the 1975 Algiers Agreement. The demarcation of this border along the narrow Shatt al-Arab waterway is significant given disagreements over the boundaries is one of the reasons that influenced Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980. During this trip, borders were demarcated and also opened, as the agreement was reached on the need for lifting visa requirements between the two countries. 

Like any diplomatic visit between two countries, the event was designed for short-term public consumption in both Iraq and Iran and sent messages to Washington, but all of these measures were essentially declared goals, and the implementation of the trade accords and demarcation of the border will take some time to implement.

The third objective for Rouhani was meeting with Sistani in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf, a meeting that has eluded previous Iranian presidents and American leaders and diplomats alike.

Sistani’s Role

Rouhani’s’ visit to Sistani, alongside Zarif, was a major diplomatic accomplishment given the cleric does not normally conduct international diplomacy. In fact Sistani rejected a visit from Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who visited Iraq in 2008 and 2013, as well the powerful commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani delivered two messages simultaneously, to Iranian domestic audiences and Washington. 

Sistani is not only a revered figure among the Shi’a of Iraq, but also Iran. Sistani himself is originally Iranian, and according to one study, 49,000 students at 300 seminaries in Iran received stipends from Sistani’s foundation. Almost half the number of government-sponsored seminary students receive stipends from the Islamic Republic.  

Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani also gave him tacit support from the respected cleric, at a time when his moderate foreign policy has been attacked by Iranian hardliner politicians and the Revolutionary Guard.  

While Sistani issued a veiled statement after the meeting, that Iraq’s sovereignty should be respected, an indirect message to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, nonetheless it also served as a rebuke to Washington’s violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

The second message the Rouhani-Sistani meeting delivered was to Washington, signalling that the religious and cultural bonds between Iran and Iraq cannot be undermined despite persistent American efforts.  Even Iraq’s Sunni parties, who had resisted Shi’a Iran’s influence in Iraq and boycotted meetings with Ahmadinejad, raised no objections to Rouhani’s visit.

In terms of tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic, while America might have advantages in terms of hard power, by offering Iraq advanced weaponry, Iran has definitely deployed soft power more effectively in Iraq, securing a victory for its efforts to weather out the Trump-era sanctions.  

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