Iraq’s new premier visits Iran, his first visit abroad

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iraq’s new Prime Minister arrived in Iran yesterday, his first official visit abroad since taking office more than two months ago, Iranian media reported.

State television showed footage of Mustafa al-Kadhimi landing at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport. The TV said al-Khadhimi would meet top Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.

“We hope to have constructive talks for deepening relations” between the two nations, said Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei.

The visit came after Iranian foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Baghdad over the weekend, Zarif’s first visit to Iraq since a United States (US) airstrike in January killed a top Iranian General Qassim Soleimani outside Baghdad’s international airport. The strike catapulted Iraq to the brink of a US-Iran proxy war that could have destabilised the Middle East.

In Baghdad, Zarif paid a visit to the site where Soleimani was killed, saying “Iran-Iraq relations will not be shaken” despite the general’s death. Soleimani led Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force and was the architect of its regional military activities.

A former intelligence chief backed by Washington, al-Kadhimi took office in May after he played a significant part for years in the war against the Islamic State group, which was declared defeated in Iraq in 2017.

The Iraqi prime minister had planned a visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday, before his trip to Tehran, but postponed it following news that Saudi King Salman was admitted to a hospital in the capital, Riyadh.

Iran sees Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions that President Donald Trump re-imposed on Tehran in 2018, after pulling America out of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Last year, Iran’s exports to Iraq amounted to nearly USD9 billion, the official IRNA news agency reported yesterday.

It said the two nations will discuss increasing that amount to USD20 billion.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, religious tourism between Iraq and Iran has stopped. Before the pandemic, some five million tourists — bringing in nearly USD5 billion a year — visited holy sites in the two countries.

Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq waged an eight-year war in the 1980s against Iran, a conflict that left nearly one million killed on both sides.