Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said Tuesday during a trip to Tehran that Iraq would not allow any aggression against Iran from its territory.

Speaking at a press conference alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, al-Kadhimi mentioned Iraq’s concern that it would not become a battleground between Iran-enemies Iran and the United States.

The Iraqi prime minister is facing a tough balancing act between Tehran and Washington, which have approached the opening of the conflict in the region, especially on Iraqi soil, in the past year.

At home, al-Kadhimi is under increasing pressure from groups aligned with Iran who perceive it by siding with the United States, because it has indicated that it wants to curb the power of the militias and political parties supported by Iran.

“The Iraqi people want good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of both countries,” he said at the press conference, which was broadcast live on Iranian state television.

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“Iraq is a country that will not allow any aggression or challenge to Iran from its territory.”

Balancing act

Al-Kadhimi rose to the premiere in May after serving as head of the Iraqi national intelligence service for nearly four years. He formed close ties to Tehran, Washington and Riyadh during that time, prompting speculation that he could serve as a rare broker between the capitals.

In its first two months in office, Iraqi security forces carried out two arrest raids against the militias, but most of the detainees were quickly released.

The United States praised these moves and supporters welcomed several appointments that al-Kadhimi made to the security forces, including the reinstatement of Iraqi counter-terrorism service chief Abdul Wahhab al-Saadi, whose dismissal under the previous government has fueled mass anti-government unrest last year.

On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Baghdad, stopping at the site where a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

That attack brought the region to the brink of a real US-Iran conflict before both sides took a step back.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a subsequent meeting with al-Kadhimi, praised the Popular Mobilization Forces, a state-controlled Iraqi institution that is an umbrella group of militias, many supported by Iran .

Khamenei also said that Iran will not interfere in relations between Iraq and the United States, according to its official website.

However, the supreme leader promised that Iran would “strike a mutual blow” against the United States for the killing of Soleimani.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Tuesday [Official Khamenei Website via Reuters]

‘Heroes’

Earlier this year, Rouhani hailed his chief Iranian general and Iraqi commander killed in the US drone strike at Baghdad airport as heroes.

“I consider it necessary to honor the two heroes of the fight against terrorism, the martyred generals Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis,” he said.

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Rouhani described them as “having worked for Iraq’s security in previous years” – a reference to Baghdad’s fight against the armed group, ISIL (ISIS).

Renad Mansour, senior researcher at Chatham House, said some Iranian officials believe that al-Kadhimi may have played a role in drone kills in the United States as head of the national intelligence service.

“At the time it was a very bad relationship, but over the months Iran has also experienced all the chaos that someone needed, so a compromise was made and Iran had to reluctantly agree and help facilitate its first, “Mansour told Al Jazeera.

“Clearly this is a very fragile relationship and it is more opposed to Iranian interests in Iraq – be it against their militia allies or economic practices – there will be many back and forth I would like to say.”

‘Turning point’

Relations between the two countries have not always been close: they fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988. Tehran’s influence in Baghdad grew after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Kadhimi’s visit, his first trip abroad since he took office in May, was expected to come after a trip to Saudi Arabia, but was canceled after the Saudi king was hospitalized for the gallbladder inflammation.

Rouhani called the visit of the new Iraqi prime minister a “turning point” in country relations and promised to continue supporting the neighboring Arab nation.

The official website of the Iranian presidency office subsequently published a photo of Rouhani and al-Kadhimi during a welcome ceremony in Tehran, both showing wearing protective masks to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

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“We are confident that the visit will represent a turning point in relations between the two countries,” said Rouhani after meeting the Iraqi leader. “We are still ready to support the Iraqi nation and apply the efforts for stability and security in Iraq and in the region.”

Al-Kadhimi said that Iraq’s foreign policy is based on “balancing and avoiding any alignment”.

Exchange of $ 20 billion

As a former Washington-backed head of intelligence, al-Kadhimi took office in May after playing a significant role for years in the war against ISIL, which was defeated in Iraq in 2017.

Rouhani said that Iran and Iraq are hoping to increase bilateral trade to $ 20 billion a year.

Iran sees Iraq as a possible way to circumvent the U.S. sanctions that President Donald Trump reimposed on Tehran in 2018, after tearing the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Last year, Iranian exports to Iraq totaled nearly $ 9 billion, the official IRNA news agency reported Tuesday.

Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq waged an eight-year war in the 1980s against Iran – a conflict that resulted in the deaths of nearly a million dead on both sides.

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