In his first public meeting since the onset of the coronavirus crisis in February, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Iraq's visiting Prime Minister Mostafa Al-Kadhimi in Tehran on Tuesday July 21.
During the meeting, Khamenei vowed to take revenge for former IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January. He said: "We will definitely strike back at the U.S. in response to the assassination of our general."
Nevertheless, probably responding to Al-Kadhimi's call on Iran not to intervene in Iraq's affairs during an earlier meeting with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Khamenei said: "Iran has never had and will never have any intention to meddle in Iraq's affairs. Iran seeks a dignified, independent Iraq with its territorial integrity and internal unity and cohesion protected."
He reiterated: "Iran is certainly against anything that weakens Iraq," adding that "The U.S. outlook concerning Iraq is exactly the opposite to our outlook because the U.S. is the enemy in the true sense of the word and opposes an independent, strong Iraqi government elected by popular vote."
Khamenei’s words contrast with accusations that Iran finances thousands of Iraqi Shiite militiamen who operate outside government control and have been attacking Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. and other coalition forces. In addition, Iran is said to be actively interfering in Iraqi politics by grooming factions to dominate the parliament and by extension other government institutions.
Explaining Tehran's official position, Khamenei said: "It doesn't matter to the U.S. who the Prime Minister of Iraq is. They want a government like that of Paul Bremer,” the U.S. government official who served as director of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq (2003–04).
"Iran doesn’t interfere in Iraq-U.S. relations but expects the Iraqi friends to know that the U.S. presence in any country brings corruption and destruction. Iran expects the decision of the Iraqi government, nation and parliament to expel the U.S. to be pursued because U.S. presence causes insecurity," Khamenei said.
Khamenei further charged: "The U.S. crime in assassinating General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis is an example of the its presence. They killed your guest in your home, and they blatantly confessed to this crime. This is not a trivial matter."
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will never forget the martyrdom of Hajj Qassem Soleimani and will definitely strike a reciprocal blow to the U.S.," he said.
Khamenei expressed support for the Al-Kadhimi’s administration and praised Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Hashd al-Shaabi militia's role in Iraq but did not touch upon the outstanding economic issues between the two countries.
Although many analysts in Iran and the region expected some reference to Iraq's possible mediation to improve ties Iran’s ties with Saudi Arabia, there was no mention of it in the media.
During the earlier meeting with Rouhani, however, Al-Kadhimi and Rouhani mainly discussed security issues and said the two countries' security were interconnected. Meanwhile, Rouhani called for the expansion of bilateral cooperation.
The two officials agreed to set up a joint committee to follow up on previous agreements between Tehran and Baghdad. However, nothing came up at least in the official news about outstanding financial problems between the two.
Iran exports natural gas and electricity to Iraq thanks to a sanction waiver the United States awarded to Iraq for transactions with Iran. The two countries have been having problems about how to compensate Iran for its energy export as Iraq cannot pay Iran amid U.S. banking sanctions on Iran.
Many Iranian and regional analysts have said that Iran's influence in Iraq has sharply declined after Soleimani's death and it is not clear to what extent Iran can control or influence its proxy Shiite groups in Iraq.
According to Iranian news website Tabnak, during Iranian Foreign Minister's visit to Baghdad on Monday, three rockets were fired at areas around the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, but no group seems to have assumed responsibility for the attack.
After months of political turmoil in Iraq, Iran reluctantly agreed to support Al-Kadhimi, but some hardliner Iranian sources insist that he had played a part in developments that led to Soleimani's targeted killing.