Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Baghdad on Monday morning. He stressed the close alliance between Iran and Iraq during comments at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport. Iraqi President Barham Salih also said that Iraq was working to make sure that US sanctions on Iran, that might potentially reduce Iran-Iraq trade, would not damage Iran. The visit underscores the pressure Washington faces in its Iraq policy and the challenges to US President Donald Trump's attempt to isolate Iran.
The visit to Iraq comes as the US-led Coalition is trying to defeat ISIS in its last stronghold in Syria. In addition, ISIS has been carrying out hit-and-run attacks across Iraq in the last year, and there are concerns that a new insurgency could develop in the next year. Tens of thousands of ISIS members escaped Baghuz or surrendered and may pose a danger. Iran has emphasized that it was one of Iraq's main backers against ISIS and that Tehran wants to enter a new stage in Tehran-Baghdad relations.
A key part of those relations are the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a group of mostly Shi'ite militias that became government paramilitaries in 2016. These units play a key role in security in Iraq, but also stoke sectarian tensions in Sunni areas. They also cause controversy in Shi'ite areas where there are concerns that they absorb government budgets that are siphoned off from infrastructure in places like Basra.
The PMU groups are closely linked to Iran, and the US Treasury Department recently designated one of them – Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujabaa – on a sanctioned terrorist list. This has increased tensions between the designated group and US forces. In fact, Iraq's Fatah Alliance, the second largest party in parliament, now wants to push for US troops to leave. Trump had said that the US might use Iraq to "watch" Iran, but now the US finds itself on the back foot in Iraq as Iran makes this high profile visit. Iraq's President has stressed that the country must not be an area of tension for Washington and Tehran.
US allies in Iraq, particularly among the Kurdish Regional Government in the north, now wonder about the US commitment. It is unclear how the US envisions its long-term goals in Iraq. However, Iran is clearer. It wants to increase trade to $13 billion a year and it wants to sign other agreements. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force that played a key role in Iran extending its influence in Iraq and Syria, received the Order of Zulfaqar from Iran's Ayatollah Khamanei over the weekend. This is Iran's highest military order and a symbol of Soleimani's power.
At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – who had carried out a kind of prima donna threat to resign last month – was in Iraq to pave the way for Rouhani's visit. Clearly, Zarif is now back in the picture and he is trying to burnish his image by showing off the Iran-Iraq alliance. Washington is quiet in the face of Rouhani's visit, knowing that Iranian media will use this to show off what Press TV calls a "blow to Trump." Iran's main goal is to showcase its power and influence in the region and stake a claim to another part of the chessboard of the Middle East. With the defeat of ISIS, one more piece has been removed from the board, and Iran wants to fill that vacuum.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.