Official welcome cannot hide Iraqis’ misgivings about Rohani's visit

Rohani’s visit reflects concern by Iranian officials over Iraqi trade deals with other neighbouring countries.
Sunday 17/03/2019
© Yaser Ahmed for The Arab Weekly

BAGHDAD - Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s visit to Iraq concluded with the two countries signing trade deals touted as showcasing the solid relationship between Baghdad and Tehran. For many Iraqis, however, the neighbouring Iranian president was an unwelcome guest.

Iraqi commentators said Rohani made his first trip to Iraq because Iran is feeling the economic pinch of US sanctions, which would likely worsen should Baghdad give in to Washington’s pressure to abide by the punitive measures against Tehran. The visit was also viewed as an attempt by Iran to use Iraq to bypass US sanctions.

“The visit is a strong message from Tehran to Washington that Iraq is a region under Iran’s influence and an important territory for Iran to counter US sanctions,” said Iraqi analyst Mohammed al-Qaisy.

The Iranians, Qaisy said, also applied their own pressure on Baghdad to end the presence of US troops in Iraq. Pro-Iran politicians in Iraq were preparing a motion in parliament calling for a withdrawal timetable of US troops from the country.

Rohani, who spent three days in Iraq, was accompanied by a delegation of businessmen and senior officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who made a 4-day visit to Iraq in January. Just prior to that, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Iranian Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian were in Baghdad.

The successive high-profile visits by Iranian officials are meant to counter the US push for sanctions but, for Iraqis who blame Iran for their country’s woes, there is no sympathy for Tehran. Their list of grievances includes Iran’s suspected backing of corrupt politicians and rogue militias.

Anti-Iran slogans were particularly noticeable in protests calling for better services that rocked the southern Iraqi province of Basra since last July.

“I did not see any benefit to Iraq from Rohani’s visit. He is seeking wealth for his country. As usual, Iraq is paying for the cost of Iran’s intervention in Iraq, as the most powerful militias here are supported by Iran,” said Basra resident Mohammed al-Ali. “I am so disturbed by Rohani’s visit. He is not welcome today or tomorrow. Not welcome by me and by all Iraqis.”

Some Iraqis did not object to Rohani’s visit per se but did not welcome trade deals they see as benefiting Iran more than Iraq.

“I welcome Rohani’s visit as the Iraqi government had welcomed him, too. It is no more than welcoming any president of a neighbouring country visiting Iraq. But I never agree with establishing a commercial railway (between the two countries) because it will weaken the Iraqi economy and reduce the movement in Iraqi ports,” said Basra resident Ali Hassan Nwayyir.

Nwayyir’s views were echoed by Ibrahim Ghanim, another Basra resident, who said he suspected the agreement between Iraq and Iran to cancel visa fees between the two countries from April is intended to benefit Iranians more.

“The cancelling of the visa fees certainly will enhance the Iranian economic and tourism sector to attract more Iraqis and lure them to spend their money in Iran’s market,” Ghanim said.

Many Iraqis are unhappy with Iran’s cutting water supplies, which has especially affected Basra.

Abu Oday, a 63-year-old Basran, compared the pollution of Basra’s waters to the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS). “The Shatt al-Arab is now like ISIS. It is a cup of poison because of the Iranian blockage of Karun River,” he said.

Such views are common not only among Basra’s residents but also for Iraqi Water Resources Minister Jamal al-Adili, who blamed Iran for the water problems in Basra.

“The water crisis in Basra occurred as a result of the closure of the Karun and Karakha rivers from the Iranian side,” Adili said March 7 at the annual Sulaimani Forum. He called on Iran to address this problem.

Iraqi observers said Rohani’s visit reflects concern by Iranian officials over Iraqi trade deals with other neighbouring countries.

“Recently, Iraq has welcomed many Arab and foreign officials in a bid to resume trade ties with other countries,” said Nagham Talal, an activist from Mosul. “This led Iran to worry as it fears that these visits will affect Iraq-Iran trade relations.

“Iraq has been under Iran’s influence since 2003 and they (Iranian officials) want to keep ruling Iraq. That is why the visit has come at such a high level like the president of Iran.”