Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has recently adopted an unusually aggressive tone against Washington and with his Iraq visit, experts say the Shia leader wants to send a message to both his internal and external rivals that he can hold his ground.
Iraq, an oil-rich country with a complex ethnic and sectarian composition, recently hosted the leaders of two rival countries on separate occasions: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Donald Trump. Both leaders used Iraq as a diplomatic platform to send messages to each other and the world.
In late December, Trump showed up in Iraq to pay a visit to the US troops, who have been stationed in the country since the 2003 American invasion. Two months later in February, Trump referred to Iraq as a place where the US can “watch over” Iran.
With Rouhani's high-profile visit to the war-affected country, many experts argue that Iran wanted to tell the world that Iraq cannot be a watchtower for the US to keep an eye on Iran.
Although the US occupied Iraq with a heavy military presence for about six years and then played a key role in drafting the country's new constitution and government, it was Tehran that eventually became the ultimate kingmaker in Baghdad.
Against the wishes of Washington, Iran managed to increase its influence in Iraq manifold, a fact that surprises many observers and historians as Shia rulers have not managed to hold sway over the Shia-majority Iraq ever since the former Ottoman Empire conquered the region in the 16th Century, ejecting the Safavid dynasty, and ruling it through friendly governors until World War I.
By overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, Washington ended up removing Iran's main political obstacle in Baghdad. Until Hussein was in power, the two countries were hostile to each other, even fighting a full blown war for nearly a decade in the 1980s.
With Hussein gone, the US decreasing its military footprint by 2009 and then the sudden emergence of Daesh in large territories of Iraq, Tehran threw its weight behind Baghdad, providing it a crucial military support when Daesh was in its heyday between 2014 and 2016.
Tehran organised Iran's military forces and sent Shiite militias across the border to boost the Iraqi government’s stand against the armed group.
"Both countries have been fighting against terrorism in the past few years and we are very happy that we have stood beside the Iraqi nation and army in hard days. We consider Iraq as an important country in our region which can play a very important role in regional security and close relations among the regional states," Rouhani said on Monday.
Under increasing pressure from hardliners, Rouhani, an Iranian reformist, needs an ally that it can rely upon not only for geopolitical reasons but also for economic and cultural benefits, especially now that the US has withdrawn from the landmark nuclear deal, partly engineered by the Iranian president and his moderate allies.
The nuclear deal created a mechanism called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing economic sanctions against Tehran.
But after Trump walked out on the deal, Washington imposed harsh sanctions on the regime and threatened its European allies not to develop commercial and political relations with Tehran, leaving Rouhani and his allies vulnerable to political attacks from hardliners.
Analysts think that Rouhani, who has recently began hardening his soft political tone against Washington, wants to use his Iraqi visit to show his internal and external enemies that he can hold his ground.
He also had a chance to meet with Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq’s high-ranking Shiite cleric, who is originally from Iran. In 2013, Iran’s former hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the fiercest political enemies of Rouhani, was not able to get an appointment from Sistani during his visit to the war-torn country.
As US sanctions are hanging over the Rouhani administration, the president wants to deepen economic relations with his neighbour, with which his country shares a 1,400-kilometre border.
"Today, we should endeavor to deepen Tehran-Baghdad cooperation in different fields, including trade, economy and higher education, through developing relations between political activists, parties and universities of the two countries," Rouhani said.
After Turkey, Iran is Iraq’s second biggest trading partner with an export volume of $9 billion from Tehran to Baghdad, reaching a total of $13 billion in trade, which Rouhani aims to increase to $20 billion.
Iran is also the main natural gas supplier to Iraq, whose more than 40 percent of power dependson Tehran.
Despite Washington’s long military presence in Iraq, an oil-rich country, the US has not been able to create reliable energy alternatives to Baghdad yet.