by Jamal Hashim
BAGHDAD, March 12 (Xinhua) -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani paid a landmark visit to Iraq on Monday with the aim of boosting bilateral ties and cooperation.
Iraqi experts believe that Rouhani's first official visit to Iraq during his tenure is a strong message to the United States and its allies in the Middle East region that Iran has a strong presence in Iraq and it retains influence in much of the region despite the U.S. sanctions.
Ibrahim al-Ameri, political expert, told Xinhua that "U.S. sanctions on Iran pushed it to focus on trade and investment in Iraq, as currently the bilateral exchange of trade stands at 12 billion U.S. dollars per year, and the two sides seek to increase it to 20 billion dollars."
It seems that the U.S. sanctions on Iran were designed to restrict its regional links, but apparently, the opposite has occurred because Iran has been focusing on neighboring countries by using its religious influence among Shiite communities in the Middle East countries, particularly in Iraq, al-Ameri said.
Iranian-backed Iraqi politicians want to make it clear to U.S. President Donald Trump administration and its Arab allies that at the time "Iraq is opened to achieve mutual benefits internationally and regionally, but the Shiite-led dominated government will not abandon its ties with the leading Shiite power Iran," according to al-Ameri.
"Iran views Iraq as its lung with which the Iranian economy can breathe to overcome the U.S. sanctions that Trump re-imposed last year, especially as Iran has ensured great political influence in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003," al-Ameri said.
However, Iraq is stuck in the middle of the U.S.-Iranian conflict as Iraq is under U.S. pressure to stop its import of Iranian natural gas and electricity.
Local power production in Iraq is still not enough as the summer is coming and the government in Baghdad cannot afford renewed civil unrest, particularly in southern province of Basra.
In last December, Trump administration issued a second waiver that allowed Iraq to continue importing natural gas and electricity from Iran for 90 days.
Another expert, Abdul Aziz al-Jubouri, professor of politics at al-Iraqiya University in Baghdad, told Xinhua that "while Trump administration wants to curb Iran's influence in Iraq and the Middle East region, it is in Iraq's interest to increase its trade with Iran despite recent sanctions.
"Such situation leaves Iraq caught between a rock and a hard place," al-Jubouri said.
In its continuing fight against the remnants of the extremist Islamic State (IS) militants, Iraq still needs Washington's military support and reconnaissance resources, and at the same time, Iraq also needs Tehran's military.
The decision-making process in Iraq is very complicated as Iran has gained influence over many Iraqi factions in the political system, making it hard for Iraqi politicians to abandon Iran's demands, al-Jubouri said.
On Monday morning, Rouhani arrived at Baghdad international airport and immediately visited the holy Shiite shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim.
In Jubouri's view, Rouhani's visit is a response to Trump's trip to Iraq last December and his comments that U.S. forces should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran.
Late in December last year, Trump paid a surprise visit to Ayn al-Assad air base in Iraq's western province of Anbar after an overnight flight, where hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed.
Trump left Iraq to Washington after the surprised two-hour visit without meeting with any Iraqi leaders.
"Trump's visit gave an impression that the U.S. has ... only a military presence (in Iraq), unlike Iran, which has inserted itself in Iraqi political life and military and is now seeking to promote its economic and cultural domination," al-Jubouri said.
Rouhani's three-day visit came at the invitation of his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih to discuss bilateral ties and promote cooperation.
In the first day of his visit, Rouhani and his accompanying delegation held a series of meetings with the Iraqi side.
He is expected to meet on Tuesday and Wednesday with Iraqi officials and religious leaders.
The visit came as the U.S. has been exerting sanctions on Iran's oil industry, banking and transport sectors, after Washington pulled out from the 2015 nuclear deal last May.