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Iran’s Rouhani signs trade pacts in Iraq to help offset US sanctions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seen at a press conference following the 4th trilateral summit on Syria on February 14, 2019 in Sochi, Russia [Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency]
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seen at a press conference following the 4th trilateral summit on Syria on 14 February 2019 in Sochi, Russia [Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

Iraq and Iran signed several preliminary trade deals on Monday, Iraqi officials said, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began his first visit seeking to bolster Tehran’s influence and expand commercial ties to help offset renewed US sanctions, reports Reuters.

The deals, among them a plan to build a railway linking the neighbours, emerged soon after the start of Rouhani’s visit, meant to underline that Tehran still plays a dominant role in Iraq despite US efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic.

Iran and Iraq fought a devastating 1980-88 war but the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein prompted a long Sunni Islamist insurgency during which Iran’s regional sway rose at the expense of the United States.

Rouhani and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Mahdi signed several memorandums of understanding, Abdul Mahdi’s office said in a statement. They included agreements on oil, trade, health, and a railway linking the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra and the Iranian border town of Shalamcheh.

READ: Rouhani seeks to shore up Iran’s influence on Baghdad trip

They had also agreed on measures to make it easier for businessmen and investors to obtain visas, Abdul Mahdi’s office said. The Iranian state news agency IRNA said it was agreed that travel visas would now be free of charge.

Prior to his departure, Rouhani said Shi’ite Muslim Iran was determined to strengthen ties with its Shia-led Arab neighbour, Iranian state television reported.

Those ties “cannot be compared to Iraq’s relations with an occupying country like America, which is hated in the region,” the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Rouhani as saying before he flew to Baghdad. “One cannot forget the bombs that Americans dropped on Iraq, Syria and other regional countries.”

READ: Iran’s Khamenei doubted Europe could help Tehran against US sanctions

Rouhani was due to visit the Shia holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. He will meet top Iraqi Iraqi Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iranian state media said.

A senior Iranian official accompanying Rouhani told Reuters that Iraq was “another channel for Iran to bypass America’s unjust sanctions … this trip will provide opportunities for Iran’s economy”.

Iraq relies on Iranian gas imports to feed its power grid and has asked for extensions to a US waiver to continue importing Iranian gas since US President Donald Trump restored sanctions on Iran’s vital energy sector in November.

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