Iran’s Khamenei pushes Iraq on ousting US forces

The meeting between Iran's supreme leader and the Iraqi prime minister took place at a critical juncture in Iran-Iraq relations and amid the tug of war between Tehran and Washington over influence in Iraqi politics.

al-monitor A picture taken on May 18, 2017, shows the skyline of northern Tehran from the "Nature" bridge in the capital Tehran on the eve of the presidential elections. Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images.

Jul 21, 2020

The contentious topic of the US military presence in Iraq was at the heart of a meeting between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Tehran July 21. “The Islamic Republic expects officials in Baghdad … to follow up on ousting Americans from Iraq because their presence sparks insecurity,” Khamenei told the Iraqi prime minister while stressing that Iran is not after interfering in US-Iraqi ties. Still, he advised “the Iraqi friends” to know the nature of the US government as “the enemy” whose presence “anywhere can be a source of corruption and destruction.”

The comments by the Iranian supreme leader came within wider diplomacy and lobbying in Baghdad for the expulsion of US forces from Iraqi soil, a policy Tehran has been intensifying after top Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike outside Baghdad’s international airport in January. “They killed your guest … and openly confessed to their crime, and this is no minor issue,” Khamenei told Kadhimi, renewing the pledge that Tehran “will definitely respond to the Americans in kind” over the Soleimani killing.

According to Iranian state media reports, Kadhimi “expressed gratitude” to the Iranian leadership for standing by his nation in the fight against terrorism. However, he stopped short of making any mention of either the Soleimani case or the US military ouster from Iraq.

Kadhimi’s perceived pro-American approach, especially with new arrangements in the political and security structure, has not been welcomed by Iranian officials. What has also further countered Iranian interests is Kadhimi’s actions toward the Tehran-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The issue did not go unnoticed by Khamenei. “The PMU are a great blessing for Iraq and ought to be preserved,” the Iranian supreme leader said. The new Iraqi government, nevertheless, considers the PMU to be a parallel military organization that has to accept integration into the regular army.

The meeting in Tehran also marked Khamenei’s first one-on-one appearance in an official capacity since late February, when Iran was hit with the coronavirus pandemic that prompted an unprecedented cancelation on his frequent speeches to crowds of loyalists at his residence in Tehran. For Kadhimi, it was his first foreign visit since becoming Iraq’s new prime minister. Before meeting the Iranian supreme leader, Kadhimi wrapped up a presser with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, where the latter spoke of the two sides’ resolve to raise the bar in bilateral trade, by augmenting it to an ambitious volume of $20 billion. In the same briefing, Kadhimi made it clear that Baghdad seeks relations with Tehran based on the principle of “non-interference,” a clear message that the Islamic Republic is facing an uphill battle maintaining its influence in Iraq.

According to political circles in Tehran, among other agenda topics, Kadhimi was also expected to bring up mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two regional foes that have been in heightened tensions since 2016 when a group of Iranian hard-liners stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran over the kingdom’s execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. It was not immediately known if mediation was discussed in Kadhimi’s Tehran talks. In his original plan, he was scheduled to land in Riyadh first. His itinerary, however, had to be revised after the 86-year-old Saudi ruler, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, was hospitalized for medical treatment.

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