Why is Rohani going to Iraq?

Agreeing to let rivers flow from Iran to Iraq is like saving for a rainy day for Tehran.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Iranian ambassador in Iraq Iraj Masjedi prepares to speak during a news conference outside the building of the Iranian consulate in Basra, last September. (AFP)
Entrenched footprint. Iranian ambassador in Iraq Iraj Masjedi prepares to speak during a news conference outside the building of the Iranian consulate in Basra, last September. (AFP)

Iranian President Hassan Rohani is scheduled to visit Iraq starting March 11. A series of preparatory visits by diplomatic, banking, commercial and security delegations has already taken place.

The most important of these trips was by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who ended a visit in Karbala, saying: “They will go and we shall remain.” The symbolic implications of Zarif’s words are clear and go beyond the American presence in Iraq. He was referring to Iran’s historic incursion into Iraqi territory.

The last to arrive in Baghdad was Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to prepare for the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Iraq and Iran, described as aiming to achieve common interests.

A statement from the Iraqi cabinet press office mentioned hanging issues, the foremost of which is Iraq’s water rights. The statement emphasised the redrawing of water policies regarding the flow of rivers into their natural beds into Iraq after Iran diverted their estuaries into its territory.

It is assumed that the rights under discussion also dealt with the crisis concerning Shatt al-Arab and the erosion of the Teluk line towards Iraqi territory, which gives Iran space beyond its borders.

Available information suggests further understandings, although belated, about the damage suffered by agriculture in southern Iraq, which caused a migration of farmers, in addition to increasing water pollution and salinisation, specifically in Basra where protests broke out after thousands of people suffered from water poisoning.

These developments beg the question of why this sudden change in Iran’s mood towards more flexibility on several issues when it is known the Iranian regime has been quite indifferent about the negative and harmful effects of its policies on the lives of Iraqis.

Iran’s policies have even embarrassed its proxy militias in Iraq and parties loyal to Tehran. They just kept silent about the calamities suffered by the southern Iraqis caused by Iranian policies.

Iran is seeking to safeguard its interests by ensuring its political and economic presence in Iraq through developing relations with Baghdad in the framework of formal international relations. That way, it avoids allegations of violating US sanctions and eases the burden on the Iraqi government, as well as on pro-Iran forces participating in the power system. The idea is to provide all parties with a way out of the pressure of American scrutiny.

Agreeing to let rivers flow from Iran to Iraq is like saving for a rainy day for Tehran. Iran’s mullahs had invested in making Iraq thirsty and now it is time for payback. Returning river flows to their natural beds has become a bargaining chip and Iraq is going to pay for it, willingly, with its sovereignty, its economy and the health of its citizens, thanks to the cooperation of its Iranian-controlled political regime.

Iran has done it many times before in Iraq by simply controlling timing. Timing puts Iraqis at the point of choosing between death and acceptance of the disease. It was done by the way sectarian militias were created, then by drafting laws and forcing their adoption by parliament, in conjunction with the related powers and budget, and the necessary propaganda that went with the process for the purpose of leading the Iraqis to choose between the Islamic State or the explicitly pro-Iranian forces of Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.

What is happening in Iran explains the importance of Iraq for the regime of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Burning pictures of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and of Khamenei has become a daily occurrence in the protests sweeping Iranian cities.

After 40 years of oppressive and bloody rule of the mullahs’ regime, Iranians have come to consider commodities such as red meat and chicken as luxury items, considering the widespread poverty and hunger, high rates of unemployment, the fall of the Iranian rial and galloping inflation.

Following these years of occupation, there is no doubt that Iranian forces in Iraq resent any rapprochement with the Arab world, even if it is within the framework of regional balance unless such moves are countered by more dealings with Iran.

The Iraqi rapprochement with its Arab neighbours has resulted in real Iranian actions. These actions, however, indicate that Iran is unsure about its role in Iraq. It realises that it has begun to lag behind and is trying to catch up with the remnants of its project by playing with the pressures created by the interplay of its regional policies and by sending scattered messages, which are no longer believable, that it is willing to make concessions.

These developments came after Khamenei’s speeches in which he expressed sharp criticism of policies adopted by Iranian President Hassan Rohani. The latter has repeatedly acknowledged the IRGC’s total control of the country’s economy to justify his government’s failure to bridge the gap between the needs of the Iranian people and the demands of Khamenei’s regime.

If the offered — since refused — resignation of Zarif is an indication, the Iranian government has also failed in its international policies.

Rohani’s visit to Iraq seems to require too many preparations for a comprehensive memorandum of understanding that would bring back many of the concepts related to river flow but from Iraq towards the regime in Iran.