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Iraqi PM Goes to Iran After Ailing King Stalls Regional Tour

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi landed in Iran on Tuesday for his first foreign trip as leader, with a mission to try to shore up his country’s sovereignty.

Originally the trip was to have included a first stop in Saudi Arabia on Monday, giving him a broader opportunity to try to reset Iraq’s role in regional rivalries. That leg was called off following Saudi King Salman’s sudden hospitalization that morning.

Iraq has struggled to protect its sovereignty against the clashing interests of its Iranian and U.S. patrons, at times becoming a battleground for settling scores. In January, a U.S. drone strike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and risked sparking a war.

The country continues to be a potential military flashpoint. American troops are stationed in Iraq to fight Islamic State amid thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias controlled by officials in Baghdad and sympathetic to Tehran.

The calculus may change under Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief who escaped Saddam Hussein and lived in exile in the West for years. He’s said to enjoy good relations with the Washington and Riyadh, and whose ascent won the agreement of their shared foe, Tehran.

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“A balancing act is essential for Iraq not be dragged unwillingly into someone else’s conflicts,” said Paul Pillar, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer and non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University. Additionally, Kadhimi “may hope to exploit the personal trust and good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia that he built as an intelligence chief to help mediate a reduction in tension between Tehran and Riyadh,” Pillar said.

While Tehran’s influence in Iraq created severe frictions with the U.S. under his predecessors, Kadhimi’s selection after five months of political deadlock has eased tensions with Washington, and there’s been talk that he’ll soon travel there, too. Before the king’s illness reshuffled his itinerary, he hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baghdad.

“Iraq seeks to assert its balanced and positive role in making peace and progress in the region,” Kadhimi tweeted while meeting with Zarif. Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said afterward that “we stressed that we want balanced relations with all neighboring countries, based on Iraqi interests, mutual interests and non-interference in internal affairs.”

The new Iraqi leader, who will be meeting in Tehran with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, is less beholden to Iran, as demonstrated by a recent raid on a major pro-Iranian militia and his pledge to rein in pro-Iranian forces, said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. After his appointment, the U.S. renewed a 120-day waiver allowing Iraq to import electricity from neighboring Iran despite American sanctions against dealing with the Iranian energy industry.

Yet although he’s cast as pro-American, Kadhimi was appointed with Iranian acquiescence, Dorsey said.

“The question is why Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif felt it necessary to meet him in Baghdad on the eve of his visit to Saudi. No doubt Zarif wanted reassurances,” though it’s “not inconceivable” that Kadhimi may want to try to revive back-channel contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia that dried up after the American killing of Soleimani, he added.

A delegation including the oil electricity and finance ministers accompanied Kadhimi to Tehran, where the sides will also discuss long-term plans to raise annual bilateral trade to $20 billion from about $9 billion, and payment terms for about $3 billion Iran is owed for energy exports to Iraq, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency, which cited the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce.

Source: Bloomberg, July 20,2020



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