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Amid US Pressure, Iran's Rouhani Visits Iraq in Bid to Expand Influence

13 March 2019

BAGHDAD - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sharply criticized USA military intervention in the Middle East on Monday as he began a first official visit to Iraq, aimed at shoring up Tehran's influence and expanding trade ties.

Iran's state news agency IRNA said Rouhani's remarks came in a telephone conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who said he would soon have "good news" for Iran, according to the agency.

Iran´s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived Sunday in Baghdad to prepare for the visit.

Iraqi political analyst Ghalib Shahbandar said that even as the United States seeks to limit Iran's sway in Iraq, he believes that US officials want to maintain stability here.

"The vision of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi towards such issues asserts that Baghdad would not be drawn into policies that contradict the Iraqi interest", MP Abdullah al-Kharbit told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Iraqi President Barham Salih in Tehran in November, Rouhani said the value of trade and economic interaction between Tehran and Baghdad stands at around $12 billion, adding that the two neighbors have the potential for a $20-billion trade target.

He said that Tehran could benefit from Baghdad to restore its relations with Washington.

Rouhani´s visit to Iraq will be the first since he became president in 2013.

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President Rouhani said that Pakistan and Iran are neighbours and brotherly countries linked through centuries of closed historic cultural and people to people linkages and their role would remain central in promoting peace, stability and economic development in this important region.

Sistani had refused to hold talks with political figures since 2015, except for United Nations representatives responsible for humanitarian works.

Shiite-majority Iraq is walking a fine line to maintain good relations with its key partners Iran and the United States who themselves are arch-foes.

"Rouhani is coming to discuss. trade between the countries (and) the issue of easing trade exchanges in Iraqi local currency and finding other ways, like Germany and Britain, to adopt an alternative European currency to circumvent U.S. sanctions", Iraqi political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi told AFP. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam, Iran began a campaign of backing militants who targeted American forces in Iraq.

The Iranian president is slated to meet with Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi and a number of prominent lawmakers.

Rouhani is also set to visit the holy city of Najaf and meet with the great Shia Marja' Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The bulk of the trade balance is tilted towards Iran with gas and energy exports.

"Iraq is another channel for Iran to bypass America's unjust sanctions imposed on Iran". "I think the visit (also) aims at settling the trade and economic relation".

Amid US Pressure, Iran's Rouhani Visits Iraq in Bid to Expand Influence