What Iran is billing as President Hassan Rouhani's first "historic" and landmark visit to Iraq, both the United States and Israel are seeing as a provocative move to solidify Iran's influence over Baghdad.
Just prior to arriving in Iraq Monday, Rouhani said on state television that his country is determined to "strengthen its brotherly ties" with neighboring Iraq. It's expected that the the three-day visit will result in a wide range of economic deals in fields such as energy, transport, and agriculture; however, as Israel's Haaretz writes based on a Reuters report:
The visit is a strong message to the United States and its regional allies that Iran still dominates Baghdad, a key arena for rising tension between Washington and Tehran.
Reuters further noted that Shi'ite Iran will is using the official visit to gain all the trade and energy export deals it can as Tehran suffers amidst US-led international sanctions, and as it continues to demand more concrete action from Europe in the wake of last year's US pullout of the JCPOA nuclear deal.
"We are very much interested to expand our ties with Iraq, particularly our transport cooperation," Rohani said at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. "We have important projects that will be discussed during this visit."
Crucially, a senior Iranian official who is accompanying Rohani on the trip told Reuters:
Iraq is another channel for Iran to bypass America's unjust sanctions imposed on Iran. This trip will provide opportunities for Iran's economy.
Rouhani was welcomed and escorted by Iraqi President Barham Salih and Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Hakim after the Iranian president touched down in Baghdad on Monday. The official itinerary begins with a visit to a Shia shrine in the Iraqi capital.
The timing of Rouhani's visit is further interesting in light of the US-led coalition's anti-ISIL campaign, which is fast wrapping up just across the border in Syria's Baghouz.
Over the past year immense tension has grown between allies Baghdad and Washington over Iraq's reliance on Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite paramilitary units to wage war against ISIS and other Sunni terror groups.
As Al Jazeera notes:
Since Rouhani's election in 2013, Iraq has relied on Iranian paramilitary support to fight ISIL following the group's capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul and other territories in both Iraq and Syria.
Now, with the armed fighters facing a final territorial defeat in the Syrian village of Baghouz, Iran is looking for Iraq's continued support as it faces a maximalist pressure campaign by President Donald Trump after his decision to withdraw the United States from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
But this is ultimately the lasting legacy of Bush and Cheney's 2003 regime change war and toppling of Saddam Hussein: they overthrew a Sunni Baath secular dictator in exchange for entrenching pro-Iran influence in Baghdad, to the delight of the Ayatollahs.
Washington can now behold the fruits of its neocon interventionist labor as Iran's president is granted a hero's welcome in the heart of Baghdad (this after Iran and Iraq were very recently bitter enemies) — all the while US officials in the same city will look on helplessly from the sidelines.