Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Sunday became the first foreign leader to meet Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi since the latter began his first term in office early last month.
For both ex-intelligence chief Kadhimi and former chief justice Raisi, the encounter was of great significance.
It was particularly timely for Kadhimi. Iraqi voters go to the polls on October 10th to elect a new parliament from a field of candidates weighted in favour of pro-Iranian politicians and militia commanders.
The Tehran trip counterbalanced Kadhimi’s meeting in Washington in July with US president Joe Biden, which launched negotiations on the mechanism and timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US troops from Iraq, a long-standing demand of pro-Iranian Iraqi militias.
Kadhimi secured Raisi’s backing for efforts to end Iranian-Saudi rivalries, which have negatively impacted Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. At the end of August, Kadhimi had hosted a regional reconciliation summit attended by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and French president Emmanuel Macron. Kuwait and the Emirates sent heads of government; Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia foreign ministers.
While it is not known if Iran’s new foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, the fact that the former attended the event indicated that Raisi is open to dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
That gathering, co-hosted by Macron, was a high-profile foreign policy achievement for Kadhimi, who seeks to be a regional mediator and crisis manager.
Baghdad has hosted three rounds of talks between Iranian and Saudi officials since April.
While Kadhimi took the lead in abolishing visas for air travellers between Iran and Iraq, his office also doubled to 60,000 the number of permits for Iranians to perform the annual Shia pilgrimage to Iraqi holy cities in two weeks’ time. Since the number of permits has been reduced by Covid-19, this change of policy suits Baghdad, which depends on pilgrim revenues, and Tehran, which has come under popular pressure to ensure Iranians can make the journey.
For Raisi, the meeting with Kadhimi was a means to break out of international isolation caused both by the accusation he was responsible for mass executions in the late 1980s, and by his victory in June’s allegedly rigged election.
Without elaborating, Raisi also announced that decisions were taken on cuts in Iranian exports of electricity and natural gas to power-starved Iraqi cities and towns that had been made due to unpaid bills.
Iraq is dependent on Iran for 30 per cent of its power generation. According to Hamid Zadboun, head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organisation, Iraq is also the second-largest importer of Iranian goods.