0513 GMT August 18, 2019
President Hassan Rouhani made his first official visit to Iraq, a trip aimed at solidifying strategic ties and bolster trade despite US efforts to keep the two neighbors apart.
During Rouhani's three-day visit a series of agreements will be signed in energy, transport, agriculture, industry and health.
Rouhani, who is accompanied by a high-ranking political and economic delegation, was received by an honor guard on landing in Baghdad, where he was welcomed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim.
Rouhani then visited the shrine of Imam Musa Kazim (PBUH), the seventh Shia Imam.
He then met President Barham Salih and spoke to journalists, telling them that a “stable Iraq will lead to stability in the entire region.”
“We want to be united countries, not against others, but attracting others to our unity,” Rouhani said.
He said relations between the two countries should be further "reinforced and developed."
"We have the right conditions for cooperation in all areas, including trade and investment..., energy, electricity and gas, banking ties and cooperation on roads and railways," Rouhani said at a joint news conference.
"Iraq is an important state in the region and it can play a bigger role in providing security," he said.
“Strengthening ties between Tehran and Baghdad works to the benefit of both countries and we won’t let this positive path toward progress slow down to a halt,” Rouhani added.
Salih described the trip as “very important” and said the two sides had agreed on new frameworks for cooperation.
“We need to get past trivial details in mutual relations and think about the bigger and broader space for cooperation and ties because this would best serve the interests of both countries,” he added.
Salih said Baghdad’s central location made it crucial to resolving regional issues. He thanked Iran for its support and said he was "lucky" to have it as a neighbor.
“The victory that was achieved against Daesh in Iraq was an important and huge victory, but incomplete as the eradication of that sick, deviated line of thought and extremism requires more sustainable regional efforts and cooperation,” Salih said.
Rouhani’s visit also signaled to Washington and its Persian Gulf Arab allies that, in the face of US sanctions reimposed after President Donald Trump pullout from world powers' nuclear deal with Iran, Tehran still plays a dominant role in the region.
Prior to his departure, Rouhani said Iran was determined to strengthen ties with Iraq.
Those ties "cannot be compared to Iraq's relations with an occupying country like America, which is hated in the region," Rouhani said before he flew to Baghdad. "America is despised in the region. The bombs that the Americans dropped on Iraqis, Syrian people and other countries cannot be forgotten," he added.
Iran is always ready to help its neighbors, he said, in a nod to the role Tehran played to help Iraq battle the Daesh terror group.
Iran was the first country to respond to Iraqi calls for help after Daesh terrorists in June 2014 captured the main northern city of Mosul as they threatened to overrun the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. It dispatched "military advisors" and equipment along with the famous Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Rouhani on Monday said Iran has supported the Iraqi people "during difficult times" and would continue to back them "through times of peace and security."
His visit underscores how much has changed since the 1980s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking an eight-year war that killed an estimated one million people.
Rouhani also met Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi on Monday.
He is set to meet Iraq’s chief Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is also revered by many Iranians. The meeting in the Shia shrine city of Najaf will be the first between the top cleric and an Iranian president.
After Turkey, Iran is the top supplier of imported goods to Iraq, including cars, gas, home appliances and vegetables.
Trade between Iran and Iraq now stands at around $12 billion a year – tilted toward Iran with gas and energy exports – and Rouhani has said he would like to see it rise to $20 billion.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who traveled to Iraq ahead of Rouhani, on Sunday thanked Baghdad for having "refused the unjust and illegal (US) sanctions imposed on the Iranian people."
Some five million religious tourists generate nearly $5 billion a year as Iraqis and Iranians visit Shia holy sites in both countries.
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 Trump restored sanctions on Iran's vital energy sector in November.
The slump in Iran's economy since Trump's decision last May to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers has pushed the Islamic Republic to try to expand commercial ties with neighbors.
The 2015 agreement lifted sanctions that had been imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations in return for Iran curbing aspects of its nuclear program.
Other signatories to the deal have been trying to salvage the pact, but US sanctions have largely scared off European companies from doing business with Iran.
The Europeans have promised to help firms do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal. Iran has itself threatened to pull out of the agreement unless EU powers demonstrably protect its economic benefits.
Reuters, AP, AFP and Press TV contributed to this story.