In a meeting with Iraq's President Barham Salih on Saturday November 17 in Tehran, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called on Baghdad to keep a militia group the United States wants to be disbanded.
Khamenei asked Salih to preserve the Iran-backed mainly Shite militia group Hashd al-Sha'bi, which the Iraqi Parliament recognized as a reserve force for Iraq's army and police in December 2016.
Meanwhile Khamenei praised Hashd al-Sha'bi as "an outstanding example of relying on the youth in the campaign against Takfiri forces."
Iran's top military commanders have often expressed appreciation for Hashd al-Sha'bi (volunteer popular forces) and compared them to Iran's Basij, a militia force linked to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), maintaining that they are proud about the Iranian influence among the Iraqi militia.
Khamenei's demand for preserving Hash al-Sha'bi contradicts one of the 12 conditions the United States has set for a new agreement with Iran that would replace the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and would cover Iran's ballistic missile program, its interventions in the region and its nuclear program. Iran, however, has not welcomed the U.S. offer to enter negotiations for a new agreement.
"When ISIS became highly active in Iraq in 2014 and Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa for jihad against ISIS, Iran helped form the Hashd al-Sha'bi by recruiting the militia wings of various political groups in Iraq. The force, however, is still active in the post-ISIS Iraq with some 120,000 armed men," says Radio Farda's analyst Morad Veisi.
Despite international pressure, Iran has always supported militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad in the Middle East, and in recent years has set up Hashd al-Sha'bi in Iraq, and supported Houthi rebels in Yemen and Bashar al-Assad's militia in Syria.
The condition set by the United States, also calls on the Islamic Republic of Iran to respect Iraq's independence and to disarm and disband its militia groups there.
US Secretary of Defense James Matisse has recently said that NATO and U.S. forces should train the Iraqi army in a way that it could eventually rely on its own capabilities rather than depending on Tehran.
Iran's security chief Ali Shamkhani has said in a meeting with Salih that "various plots by the United States and some other countries to sow discord between Iran and Iraq will remain futile."
German-based analyst Ali Sadrzadeh says Iraqi politicians seek to distance themselves from Iran, while the Islamic Republic expressed support for Iraqi's decision to elect a Shiite politician, Mohammad Halbousi, as parliament speaker.
Barham Salih's visit to Tehran on Saturday is his first visit to Iran and his fourth to a regional country. He has previously visited Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan. His visit to Tehran, according to Reuters, coincided with the resumption of exporting Iraq's oil from Kirkuk via Iran after a one year halt.
The US embassy in Baghdad announced last week that US government will make Iraq exempt from secondary sanctions for 45 days so that Baghdad could continue purchasing natural gas and electricity from Iran "in order to proceed toward independence in the area of energy."
Salih said during a meeting with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani earlier on Saturday that he would continue his talks with the US and would call on Washington to consider Iraq's special situation.
Under the US sanctions regime, countries that do business with Iran without U.S. waivers risk severe retaliation and fines for banks and businesses, a threat that has forced many trade partners to cut ties with the Islamic republic.
However, at the meeting, Iran and Iraq vowed to significantly boost trade despite the U.S. sanctions, with Rouhani saying that annual bilateral trade with Iraq could rise to $20 billion from the current $12 billion.
Iraq is one of the biggest customers of Iranian non-oil commodities and its second-largest market after China, buying everything from food and machinery to electricity and natural gas from Iran.
However, as a result of US sanctions on Iran's banking system, Iraq cannot pay Iran in dollars and transactions will be carried out in Iraq's local currency dinar, which would limit Iran's options.
Iranian official statists for the period from March to September 2018, put the volume of bilateral transaction other than oil, oil products, natural gas and energy, at 4.5 billion dollars, which show a 45% increase compared to the same period in the previous year.
Iraq buys some 20% of Iran's non-oil products