Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein has concluded a two-day diplomatic trip to Tehran, during which he met with top Iranian officials to discuss boosting political and economic ties, and the role of the United States in the region.
On Saturday, Hussein met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf.
The high-level meetings came after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in July met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Tehran during his first trip abroad since taking office in early May after nearly six months of political deadlock.
Rouhani told Hussein that Iran fully supports unity among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish factions in Iraq and said US troops are a destabilising factor in the region.
“We consider the presence of armed US troops in the region, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or countries south of the Persian Gulf to be detrimental to security and stability of the region,” he said, according to the president’s website.
It is a responsibility not just for Iran, but for any country with US forces on its soil, to try to end that presence, Rouhani said, adding that Iran supports an Iraqi parliament vote to expel US troops.
In early January, the US assassinated top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil, bringing Iran-US tensions to a boiling point.
Soleimani, thought to be the second most powerful man in Iran and a revered figure, was accompanied by Iraqi politician and military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and a number of other Iranian soldiers when a US drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump hit their convoy in Baghdad.
The unexpected move prompted large protests in Iran and Iraq, and the Iraqi parliament swiftly voted to expel more than 5,000 US troops from the country.
Trump quickly responded by threatening Iraq with sanctions and sending them a bill for billions of dollars for expensive US bases built in the country.
Trump has repeatedly maintained that as part of his promise to disentangle the US from “endless wars”, he plans to withdraw all US troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.
In early September, top US Middle East commander, General Kenneth McKenzie, announced the US will reduce its troops’ presence in Iraq to 3,000 by the end of the month. Remaining forces will continue to assist Iraqi security forces in “rooting out the final remnants” of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, he said.
In his meeting with Hussein on Saturday, Iran’s Rouhani also emphasised developing political, economic and cultural ties with neighbouring Iraq.
Hussein reportedly welcomed developing bilateral ties, saying his main goal in travelling to Tehran was to make progress in border, transport and trade relations.
He said a special committee, approved by the Iraqi prime minister, has been formed that will travel to Iran in the next two weeks to negotiate and finalise bilateral agreements.
The main topic of discussion in meetings with all officials was dredging portions of Shatt al-Arab, a river some 200km (124 miles) in length, which is called Arvand Rud in Iran.
The southern end of the river constitutes the border between Iran and Iraq and the mouth of the river discharges into the Persian Gulf. The two countries aim to expand trade ties via the river.
On Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif told his counterpart that Iraq’s sovereignty is very important to Iran, and denounced any attacks on Iranian diplomats or diplomatic grounds in Iraq.
During November unrest in Iraq, the Iranian consulate in Karbala was surrounded by hundreds of protesters, some of whom proceeded to light fires by the walls and throw objects aflame inside the consulate grounds.
“Reviewed practical steps to further enhance bilateral cooperation,” Zarif tweeted after meeting Hussein. “Discussed US terrorist murder of our hero – General Soleimani – and attacks on Iranian diplomatic premises. Underlined imperative of protection of diplomatic posts.”
Pleased to host my friend Iraqi FM @Fuad_Hussein1. Reviewed practical steps to further enhance bilateral cooperation. Discussed US terrorist murder of our hero—General Soleimani—and attacks on Iranian diplomatic premises. Underlined imperative of protection of diplomatic posts. pic.twitter.com/1EYzWPn5J3
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 26, 2020
Parliament Speaker Ghalibaf and the Iraqi foreign minister also reportedly discussed regional security, Iraq’s sovereignty and role in the region, and improving economic ties.
In addition to utilising the trade potentials of the river bordering the two countries, the two officials also discussed connecting Iraq’s Basra to Iran’s Khorramshahr via rail.
The speaker also brought up recent US-brokered normalisation deals signed by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates with Israel, saying, “Undoubtedly, the Islamic world must not be silent on this because the issue of Palestine is a priority for Muslim nations.”
On Sunday, Hussein met with Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of National Security.
Shamkhani also slammed the normalisation agreements that Bahrain and the UAE signed with Israel, saying they amount to “a huge betrayal and evident violation of the Palestinian peoples’ rights”.
He also praised “strategic ties” with Iraq and condemned the killing of Soleimani as an example of “state terrorism”.
“Following up on this cowardly assassination through international organisations is the minimum initiative expected of the Iraqi government,” Shamkhani said.
Hussein reportedly talked of his country’s will to further develop ties with Iran.
“Saddam Hussein couldn’t create division between our two nations with an eight-year war, and this is good reason to believe that no foreign actor can negatively impact the two countries’ good relations,” he was quoted as saying by Tasnim news website.
Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War when both countries remembered the legacy of the deadly conflict.