Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (left) met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (2nd left) and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (2nd right) in Najaf on March 13, 2019. Photo: Office of Sistani/handout
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani paid an important visit to Iraq’s influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf on Wednesday. The rare welcome from the Shiite cleric sends a message of support for Iran to lawmakers in both Baghdad and Washington.
Rouhani is wrapping up a three-day trip
to Iraq in which the neighbours inked
a range of deals, mainly in the oil, trade, health, and transportation sectors.
The president detailed the outcome of his trip and Sistani “welcomed any step to strengthen relations between Iraq and its neighbors as per mutual interests and on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of states and non-intervention in internal affairs," according to a statement from the cleric’s website.
Sistani, who was born in Iran, carries a lot of authority on both sides of the border and among Shiites worldwide. A meeting with him is an indirect stamp of approval, making his reception of Rouhani a message to politicians at home and abroad – especially as the United States continues to push Iraq to cut its ties with Iran.
The reserved cleric rarely meets with officials or dignitaries. He did not meet with Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2008. Sistani welcomed
the new head of the UN mission in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, in February and in January he met
with British lawyer Karim Asad Ahmad Khan who heads up the UN’s investigation into ISIS crimes in Iraq.
Rouhani and Sistani discussed the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), the sacrifices made by the Iraqi people in this conflict and the assistance received from Iran.
He also addressed “the most significant challenges faced by Iraq and this stage such as improving public services, restricting arms to the state and security forces."
After decades of war, Iraq is awash with weapons. Thousands joined the ranks of militia groups to fight ISIS with Iranian backing.
Washington has condemned what it calls Iran’s “malign” influence across the region. The US Treasury this month sanctioned
an Iraqi militia that has ties to Iran, the Harakat al-Nujaba. And the US is pressuring Iraq to cut ties with Iran.
The US has not extended
its waiver that allowed Iraq to continue energy imports from Iran. The US gave Iraq a 45-day waiver in November and gave a 90-day extension in December that is due to expire this month. Despite this, Baghdad has inked
a deal to buy Iranian electricity for another year.
Leaders in Baghdad have said it is impossible for them to isolate neighbouring Iran, with whom they share a nearly 1,500-kilometre-long border and a long history. Iraq is instead trying to position itself as a middle ground and a friend to both Iran and the United States.
Speaking with Rouhani, Sistani "expressed the necessity for balanced and moderate regional and international policies in this region to avoid further tragedies and damage."
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif also attended the meeting.