Iraq faces Iran’s pushback against US sanctions

Zarif is not the only Iranian minister to visit Iraq in recent weeks.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali al-Hakim (R) speaks during a news conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) after their meeting in Baghdad,  January 13. (DPA)
Deeply enmeshed. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali al-Hakim (R) speaks during a news conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) after their meeting in Baghdad, January 13. (DPA)

LONDON - Iraq has received three Iranian ministers within a 3-week period in an apparent bid by Iran to counter US pressure on Baghdad to abide by Washington’s sanctions against Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif began a 4-day visit to Iraq on January 13 during which he called for boosting business between Tehran and Baghdad.

“If a European or American company comes to Iraq to do rebuilding activities, the costs of protecting their workers and staff in Iraq exceeds its contract for reconstruction,” Zarif told Iran-backed Iraqi militiamen January 16 in Karbala. Zarif said Iranian firms could help rebuild Iraq at a “low cost.”

Iranian business with Iraq's Kurdistan 

In addition to meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in Baghdad, Zarif met with Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Nechirvan Barzani in Erbil. Zarif also attended an Iran-Kurdistan business conference with the KRG’s Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani in Sulaymaniyah.

Zarif said Iran was "prepared" to sign a deal with Iraq to drop bilateral customs tariffs to zero. He also said Iran and Iraq could increase annual trade volume to $20 billion from the current $12 billion.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) is welcomed by the leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, Masoud Barzani, in the Iraqi city of Erbil, on January 15. (AFP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) is welcomed by the leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, Masoud Barzani, in the Iraqi city of Erbil, on January 15. (AFP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) sits alongside the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, Qubad Talabani, at a joint-trade conference in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, on January 15. (AFP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) sits alongside the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, Qubad Talabani, at a joint-trade conference in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, on January 15. (AFP)

The subject of US sanctions against Tehran was the focus of discussion between the top diplomats of the two countries.

“We discussed the unilateral economic measures taken by the US and are working with our neighbour (Iran) on them,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali al-Hakim said at a news conference with Zarif January 13 in Baghdad.

The United States accuses the Iranian regime and its proxies of destabilising the region and of sponsoring terrorism — a charge denied by Tehran — and slapped sanctions against Iran in November.

Iraq lobbies US for more time on Iran sanctions 

Washington granted Baghdad a sanctions waiver until the end of March to allow Iraq to import electricity from Iran. US officials said they were encouraging Iraq to break its energy dependence on Iran. Iraqi officials have continued lobbying Washington for more time.

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, accompanied by a trade delegation, visited Baghdad in December to promote American investment in Iraq’s energy sector. “I'm here to tell you that America and its business community stand ready to assist you,” said Perry during the visit.

Iraq imports approximately 1,300 megawatts of electricity from Iran but, during a January 14 visit by Jordanian King Abdullah II to Baghdad, officials from the two Arab countries discussed exporting 300 megawatts of electricity from Jordan to Iraq.

King Abdullah’s trip to Iraq coincided with a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Baghdad, in which he offered the Iraqi authorities a loan of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) over four years to help with the reconstruction efforts in the country following the war on the Islamic State.

“French businesses are absolutely available to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction,” Le Drian said. France granted Iraq a $512 million loan in 2017.

Zarif’s long stay in Iraq is viewed as a reflection of panic in Tehran following the visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Iraq and other countries in the region during which he vowed to increase pressure on Iran.

Iranian ministers flock to Iraq 

Zarif is not the only Iranian minister to visit Iraq in recent weeks. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh visited Baghdad on January 10 when he said his country rejected the “fully illegal” US sanctions. During Zanganeh’s visit, Iraq’s Oil Minister Thamer Ghadhban said Baghdad and Tehran were to proceed with jointly exploring two oil fields shared by the two countries.

Iranian Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian visited Baghdad on December 27 when he signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraqi officials for a “long-term framework” for cooperation between the two countries in the energy sector.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani is expected to visit Iraq March 11, another high-profile event likely to increase pressure on Iraq, which is still being urged by the United States to distance itself from Iran.

Iraq tightrope

“The visits from top Iranian officials highlight the tightrope that Iraq walks as competition intensifies between Iran and the US for influence in Iraqi politics and market share of its economy,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

“Iraqi officials say they oppose the sanctions in principle but are reluctantly complying to avoid US punishment but they also can’t afford to antagonise their eastern neighbour, which wields significant influence in Iraq.”

Commenting on Zarif’s visit, Abdul-Mahdi said that his government’s policy was “to maintain close ties and strong partnership with all countries in the region.”

That may prove difficult. A report by the International Crisis Group think-tank said Iraq could bear the brunt if conflict intensifies between Iran and the United States.

“Iraq is where we have experience, plausible deniability and the requisite capability to hit the US below the threshold that would prompt a direct retaliation,” a senior Iranian national security official was quoted as saying in the report.

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