President Hassan Rouhani is making his first official trip to Iraq Monday, a visit described as "historic and noble" by his foreign minister.
The visit is meant to solidify bilateral ties and will provide an opportunity for reaching "serious understandings" between the two neighbors, Iran's top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif said from Baghdad, where he was preparing for Rouhani's three-day stay.
Rouhani will meet with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, as well as Iraq’s top Shia authority Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Sistani.
Salih on Sunday called his Iranian counterpart’s visit as “very important”, the one that takes place at a “very important juncture”.
First and foremost, this trip is to deepen the relations between the two countries and the two nations. I was in Tehran about three months ago, where President Rouhani, the Leader and other officials of the Islamic Republic welcomed me, and we had long and detailed talks on the situation in Iraq and the relations between Iran and Iraq and the situation in the region, he said.
Rouhani, who had visited Iraq privately before becoming president, had planned an official visit in 2016 but that one was cancelled over unspecified "executive" problems.
This time, Rouhani’s visit comes in the wake of the United States’ unravelling of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and the restoration of sanctions on Iran last year.
It also follow US President Donald Trump's snap December trip to Iraq and the American president's comments that US forces should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, with which Iraq shares a 1,400-kilometer-long border.
At the time, Trump slipped into Iraq at night, without stopping in Baghdad, to greet US service members at a base far from the Iraqi capital.
Rouhani later mocked Trump's visit, asserting that flying into Iraq under the cover of darkness meant "defeat" for the US in Iraq and asking the US president why he didn't make an "open and official visit."
"You have to walk in the streets of Baghdad ... to find out how people will welcome you," Rouhani said at the time.
Iran sees the US military presence at its doorstep in Iraq as a threat.
Zarif alluded to that on Sunday, saying that any country which tries to interfere with the good Iran-Iraq relations would "be deprived of opportunities for itself."
Iran also sees Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions. Last year, Iran's exports to Iraq amounted to nearly $9 billion. Tehran hopes to increase the roughly $13 billion volume in trade between the two neighboring countries to $20 billion. Also, some 5 million religious tourists bring in nearly $5 billion a year as Iraqis and Iranians visit Shia 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 1 million killed on both sides.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali al-Hakim on Sunday said Baghdad is hopeful about the outcome of Rouhani’s trip.
He told a joint press conference with Zarif that Rouhani’s trip will be the beginning of a new chapter in Tehran-Baghdad relations.
AP, IRNA and Xinhua contributed to this story.