MOSCOW — Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim paid a formal visit to Moscow on Jan. 29 and 30. The foreign minister and his delegation met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Vice Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, members of the Senate and other officials in various meetings. Obviously, security and economic cooperation — in the oil and gas industry in particular — are the foundation of the relations between the countries.
During his press conference with Lavrov, Hakim expressed his gratitude for Russia’s help in the fight against the Islamic State and called the relations between the nations as a “strategic partnership.” Hakim said this year will mark the 75th anniversary of the countries' bilateral ties. He invited Lavrov to Baghdad; the top Russian diplomat accepted.
In addition, a session of a Russian-Iraqi intergovernmental commission is penciled in for the Iraqi capital in March, and a high-level meeting is likely to take place in Moscow — though decisions needed to actually organize the events are not yet set in stone.
The ministers emphasized the importance of an information and coordination center in Baghdad that involves Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian specialists.
Moreover, Lavrov said the sides “have common views on regional issues,” particularly on the Palestinian question and the peace process in Syria as set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Hakim also spoke about Iraq’s support for Syria’s return to the Arab League — a crucial point for Moscow these days. This issue is likely to be discussed during the league's March summit in Tunisia.
A number of Russian foreign policy structures are working to encourage the Arab world to accept Syria back. While Hakim was visiting Moscow, Mikhail Bogdanov, who is President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, went to Cairo to meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
A few days earlier, during his Maghreb tour, Lavrov had repeatedly asked Arab nations to accept Syria back into their “family.” Around the same time, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, a highly influential politician, visited Egypt and the United Arab Emirates; the latter recently reopened its embassy in Damascus and maintains flights to Syria. Another Gulf country that has reached out to Syria is Bahrain. This could indicate that Saudi Arabia would also take a more flexible stance on the Syrian settlement.
It is possible, however, that the Arab League will refuse to reinstate Syria’s membership; at the same time, the movement toward re-engagement with Damascus will have been set. The Gulf nations' approach would seek to balance out Iran’s influence and would generally improve the humanitarian situation once the reconstruction process actually starts in Syria. This would clear the way for Syria development. Iraq, in this setting, seeks to become a venue for dialogue between various regional and global actors. Baghdad obviously has its own interests — mostly the need for security along the border with Syria. As the prospects of the US withdrawal remain uncertain, this issue is becoming much more urgent for the Iraqi government. Russia, for its part, seeks to continue supporting the Iraqi security apparatus and working on bilateral military-technical contracts. Maintaining coordination between the two countries’ security services to quell remaining terrorist structures is also a priority.
The trade and economic partnership between the nations was one of the essential topics in Hakim’s talks in Moscow. During his meeting with Yuri Borisov, the vice prime minister and co-chair of the joint Russian-Iraqi commission for trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, Hakim discussed the opportunities to construct industrial facilities in Iraq as a measure to create new employment possibilities. The countries previously conducted joint projects in this field: In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union supported the industrialization of the Middle Eastern nation. More details on the project are to be disclosed during the intergovernmental commission session in Baghdad planned for March. The Hakim-Borisov meeting was attended by specialists from the Russian Energy Ministry as well as from other structures working in this field, showing that oil and gas exploitation is a priority in Russian-Iraqi economic relations. Both countries are major oil exporters; they rely on each other in the crucial issue of price regulation and cooperation in this area offers some promising prospects.
“As far as the work on investments and energy issues is concerned, we can clearly see great results. Such corporations as Lukoil, Gazpromneft and Soyuzneftegaz have already started to function in Iraq. Rosneft is interested in launching a project there,” Lavrov said.
He expressed his gratitude to Iraq for its attention to Russian companies and said, “The gross volume of the investments in this industry has already exceeded $10 billion.” The new possibilities will be assessed during the summit of the intergovernmental commission, which may also be accompanied by a business forum.
Hakim also met with a group of Russian senators led by Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Senate (Council of the Federation). Having confirmed their willingness to develop contacts between the national parliaments, the legislators brought up another important issue, suggesting an exchange of ideas on the “functioning of the upper houses.” Here it should be noted that although the Iraqi Constitution provides for the existence of an upper house of parliament, one has not been formed.
By the end of the year, a number of cultural events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the bilateral Russia-Iraq relations are supposed to take place. In terms of education programs, 4,000 Iraqis study in Russian universities and more than 100 diplomats have taken special training at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry. In general, Hakim’s visit to Moscow shows both internal and foreign audiences that Iraq aims to balance its international policy and serve as a venue for dialogue between various actors, both regional and global.