Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has arrived in Iran’s capital, Tehran, in his first visit abroad since taking office more than two months ago.
Al-Kadhimi, who was greeted by officials at Mehrabad Airport on Tuesday, is expected to meet top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
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His delegation includes Iraq’s ministers of foreign affairs, finance, health and planning, as well as his national security adviser, according to Iranian media.
“We hope to have constructive talks for deepening relations” between the two countries, said Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei.
The Iraqi prime minister had been scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia for his first trip abroad, before heading to Iran in a carefully calibrated balancing act between the two regional rivals.
However, his trip to Riyadh was postponed after Saudi King Salman was hospitalised on Monday.
Baghdad has often found itself caught in the tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States, which al-Kadhimi is also set to visit within the next few weeks.
Over the weekend, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Baghdad in his first trip to Iraq since a US drone strike in January killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside the Iraqi capital’s international airport.
The attack pushed Iraq to the brink of a US-Iran proxy war that could have destabilised the Middle East.
Before Zarif’s visit, Iraqi security analyst Ahmad al-Abyad told Al Jazeera the trip was meant to communicate “two messages”.
“One is a cushioned warning to al-Kadhimi not to go forward with attempts to shore up economic links with the Gulf states, and the other is a message of mediation to its regional rival Saudi Arabia.”
In Baghdad, Zarif paid a visit to the site where Soleimani, who led the overseas arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed, saying “Iran-Iraq relations will not be shaken”.
Al-Kadhimi, a former head of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, became prime minister in May after nearly six months of wrangling in the wake of a political crisis sparked by months of anti-establishment protests.
He has been a strong advocate of Iraq’s sovereignty, and has upset armed groups within Iraq that are affiliated to Iran, such as the Kataib Hezbollah militia. Last month, al-Khadimi ordered a raid on a Kataib Hezbollah base in Baghdad, which led to the detention of 14 of its members. Within days, 13 of the detainees were released, and the militia pledged to take legal action against al-Kadhimi.
Iran, meanwhile, sees Iraq as a possible route to bypass crippling US sanctions that President Donald Trump re-imposed on Tehran in 2018 following Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers.
Last year, Iran’s exports to Iraq amounted to nearly $9bn, the official IRNA news agency reported Tuesday. It said the two nations would discuss increasing that amount to $20bn.
Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, religious tourism between Iraq and Iran has stopped. Before the pandemic, some five million tourists – bringing in nearly $5bn a year – visited Shia holy sites in the two countries.