An Iraqi political source revealed to The Arab Weekly that Iranian President Hassan Rohani told Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein that “the unity of Shias is above any other consideration,” after the Iraqi minister conveyed Baghdad’s concern that the United States would follow through on its threat to close its embassy in Iraq and move to target Iran-backed leaders of armed groups and militias, the Arab Weekly reported.
Rohani borrowed the phrase “unity of Shias” from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has often used the phrase when addressing leaders of militias, factions and Shia parties wrangling over political influence in Iraq.
Sources close to the delegation accompanying the Iraqi foreign minister on his visit to Tehran noted that this was the first time that a high-ranking Iranian official had publicly spoken about “the unity of the Shias” as being “a key matter.”
Rohani’s statements, according to the sources, echo other statements from Khamenei that have often sounded more sectarian than political in light of the deep divisions among Iraq’s Shia political forces and their disagreements about Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
It is in this context that Rohani made his manoeuvres, telling the Iraqi foreign minister minister: “We still consider today the unity of the Shias and the interaction between the various groups, including Shias, Sunnis and Kurds in this country, as an important principle…
“We stand with the government and people of Iraq to support the unity and cohesion of Iraq.”
Rohani also told Hussein that “working to remove American forces is the duty of Iran and every country in which the Americans are present,” adding that his country “considers the Iraqi parliament’s vote on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq a positive step that the Iraqi people respect and is supported by Iran.
“The Iranian people and its government consider Iraq as a friend, and they have stood by the government and people of Iraq to provide them with support in various stages,” he added.
However, Rohani stressed that “Tehran does not interfere in internal Iraqi affairs and in relations between Iraqi factions,” in an indirect attempt to distance Tehran from recent militia activities.
Observers say that Iran will not deny responsibility for the militias’ actions, especially against the United States, as it will cause them to lose an effective pressure card, but at the same time cannot bear full responsibility for the moves.
Kadhimi does not count on Iran to play a positive role in Iraq to help contain the militias’ threat to diplomatic missions and forces of the international coalition fighting ISIS.
Instead, the Iraqi government wants to inform its Iranian counterpart that continuing to jeopardise Iraq’s security could put Tehran’s interests in American cross-hairs.
Observers say that the United States does not want to push Kadhimi’s government into an open confrontation with Iran and its allies in Iraq, but on the other hand cannot continue watching its mission in Baghdad be bombed almost daily with primitive war tools.
The US knows that it can respond and crush the militias’ leaders, as it did with Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.
Hussein conveyed to Rohani Baghdad’s concern that the United States would follow through on its threat to close its embassy in Iraq and to target leaders of armed groups and militias supported by Tehran.
The Iraqi minister carried messages from Iraqi President Barham Salih and Kadhimi to Iran’s leadership explaining how tense the country’s security situation is due to Iran-backed militias’ continued targeting of the US embassy.
Hussein told his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and Rohani that the continued attacks on the US embassy building and other Western missions, as well as on camps hosting international coalition forces, could lead to a broad confrontation. He warned that the United States and its allies can no longer remain silent in the face of these attacks.
There has recently been an increase in missile attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad, while operations targeting the international coalition’s convoys in Shia areas of Iraq have escalated.
Political sources said that Washington had hinted that it might close its embassy in Baghdad in order to devote itself to going after representatives of Iranian influence in Iraq, most of whom are militia leaders and politicians accused of corruption and embezzling public funds.
Iran, meanwhile, wants to expel US forces from Iraq at any cost, which Rohani clearly reiterated during his talks with the Iraqi foreign minister.