By Ahmed Rasheed
DUBAI, March 11– Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sharply criticised U.S. military intervention in the Middle East on Monday as he began a first official visit to Iraq, aimed at shoring up Tehran’s influence and expanding trade ties.
The visit also sends a strong message to Washington and its regional allies that, in the face of U.S. sanctions, Iran still plays a dominant role in Iraqi politics.
Prior to his departure, Rouhani said Shi’ite Iran was determined to strengthen brotherly ties with its neighbour, Iranian state television reported on Monday.
Those ties “cannot be compared to Iraq’s relations with an occupying country like America, which is being hated in the region,” the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted him as saying before he left.
“One cannot forget the bombs that Americans dropped over Iraq, Syria and other regional countries.”
During the three-day visit a series of agreements will be signed in energy, transport, agriculture, industry and health, Iran‘s state news agency IRNA said.
“We are very much interested to expand our ties … particularly our transport cooperation,” Rouhani said at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport.
He will visit a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Baghdad’s Khadhimiya district prior to a welcome ceremony, the offices of Iraq’s president and prime minister 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 forIran‘s economy.”
The sharp downturn in Iran‘s economy since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last May to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers has pushed the country’s leaders to try to expand trade ties with neighbours.
The 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 programme.
The Trump administration said the accord was too generous and failed to rein in Iran‘s ballistic missile capabilities and its involvement in regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
Other signatories to the deal have been trying to salvage the pact, but U.S. 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 2015 deal unless EU powers demonstrably protect its economic benefits.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; additional reporting and writing by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by John Stonestreet)