Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is visiting Iraq for three days, leading a large political and business delegation to deepen the relationship between the two countries. Rouhani met with the Iraqi President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament. The Iranian President visited Karbalaa this afternoon, is spending the night in Najaf and will be visiting on Wednesday the highest religious authority (Marjaiya) in the city the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, Sayyed Mohamad Saeed al-Hakeem, Sheikh Ishaq al-Fayyad and Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi. Rouhani’s public visit contrasts starkly with Trump’s recent covert visit to Iraq. Moreover, the projected economic and commercial cooperation between Iraq and Iran will not only mitigate US unilateral sanctions but will likely contribute to their failure. The bottom line question now arises: will Trump accept his loss to Iran or will he choose to lose Iraq as well by imposing sanctions on Mesopotamia?
During the last week of 2018, President Trump’s plane turned off its lights to land safely in the US part of Ayn al-Assad base in Anbar province. Trump’s visit was kept secret and the Iraqi Prime Minister was informed on the same morning. Trump refused to land on the Iraqi side of the same base (Iraq and the US share the same military base with US forces holding full sovereignty over their area). For this reason, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, the Speaker Mohamad al-Halbousi and the President Barham Saleh refused to meet Trump, who stuck to his schedule and landed at night.
Trump concluded his visit in three hours and left under darkness of the night. He is reported to have murmured that it was not right that, for security reasons, the US president was forced to visit in secrecy in the middle of the night a country where the US has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its stability.
On the other hand, Rouhani informed the Iraqi presidency of his visit a week in advance; the visit was publicly announced at the same time. Iraqi officials coordinated the schedule of the Iranian President’s trip with their Iranian counterparts. Rouhani is due to remain in Iraq for three days to conclude important economic-commercial deals, raising the level of commerce between the two countries to 20 billion dollars.
- Iran has prevailed over the US because the Iraqi officials have rejected any unilateral sanctions on Iran, insisting on commercial exchange, including energy supply and selling.
- Major General Qassem Soleimani achieved Iran’s goal of developing a friendly relationship with Iraq, where officials are ready to suspend relations with the US if Trump insists on imposing sanctions on any country dealing with Tehran. This achievement (and others) earned Soleimani Iran’s most prestigious medal of honour, “the order of Zulfiqar” awarded by Sayed Ali Khamenei. Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif was the first to congratulate Soleimani, describing him as “the man who made the Middle East a safer place”. It is Soleimani’s second medal; the first was “the order of Fath” received in 1989 from the same Khamenei.
- Iran will sell electricity to Iraq and will use dollars and the local currency in its exchange. The Islamic Republic has found new ways to counter the US sanctions by building industry infrastructure and railways, and by establishing large commercial exchanges with Iraq. This will bring more dollars to Iran and will, simultaneously, help the country rely less on US dollars by doing business in the local currency.
Trump’s foreign policy and sanctions around the world are forcing countries to find alternatives to the US monetary system and trade. Although so far with little impact, Europe is introducing a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to support trade with Iran as an alternative to the US Swift global financial messaging service. China, Russia, India and many other countries dealing with Iran have agreed to carry on their exchanges mainly but not exclusively in local currency to bypass US sanctions.
Iraq today is divided between a large faction of politicians calling for the total withdrawal of US forces from the country, and another which wants to maintain a reduced US force in charge of training and intelligence exchange. Both factions want to see most US forces leave the country, and can likely reach an agreement on accepting a small specialised force on the ground. The Iraqi government would like to strike a balance and maintain both a fair relationship with the US and excellent ties with Iran.
Trump has two choices. He could choose to cut his relationship with Iraq, which would amount to shooting himself in the foot. The presence of US forces in Iraq is essential to US objectives and hegemony in the Middle East. Moreover, it is unclear for how long US forces will be able to occupy Syria. The alternative would be for Trump to accept the fact that his sanctions against Iran will fail as Iranian-Iraqi energy and commercial deals develop. In this case, the US President would be accepting the failure of his sanctions and his plan to change the Iranian regime “in a few months”.
Whatever he decides, Trump has lost: the US establishment failed in its attempt to damage Iran and either change its ruling system or bring the country to its knees. All Trump has accomplished is to put stress on the Iranian economy, bringing hardship to the population while forcing local officials to find new solutions, with the help of Iraq’s new leadership. The US failure to impose its proxies as rulers of Iraq helped Soleimani win his medal of honour.
Proof-read by: C.B.