In a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest ranking Shia religious leader in Iraq, told the Iranian head of state that he welcomes steps to strengthening Iraq’s relations with its neighbours if they are based on respect of sovereignty to no domestic interference.
Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons kept by the state, the country’s senior Shiite cleric told visiting President Hassan Rouhani.
In the first meeting between an Iranian president and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the religious leader highlighted the importance of fighting corruption, improving services and keeping arms in “the hands of the state and its security services”.
The Shiite cleric, 88, welcomed “any steps to strengthen Iraq’s relations with its neighbours, based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs”.
Mr Al Sistani is hardly ever seen in public and rarely holds meetings with officials. In 2008 he refused to meet former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to Iraq.
While his views, always delivered through intermediaries, barely weigh in on Iraq’s political scene they have great influence in public opinion.
The meeting, conducted in Farsi, reflects a new pattern in Mr Al Sistani’s politics, tweeted Harith Hasan of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“It indicates that Najaf has become a player in transnational Shia politics, including internal Iranian dynamics,” Mr Hasan said.
He said it was also Mr Rouhani’s attempt “to rebuild his political capital, which was harmed by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal”.
Tehran has relied more on neighbouring Iraq since US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose sanctions.
After former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, Iran saw the opportunity to dominate politics in Baghdad through allies in government and parliament, which have considerable influence over parts of the country’s security forces.
Mr Al Sistani called on Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS in 2014, giving rise to more paramilitary militias also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, which include Iranian-backed Shiite groups.
Although they played an important role in defeating ISIS, the Hashed are deeply divisive and have been accused of abuse against Iraqi minorities in areas recaptured from the extremists.
Some of these militias have since been placed under the command of regular Iraqi forces and several former fighters are now members of the Iraqi Parliament
Mr Rouhani, who completed his first trip to Iraq since becoming president in 2013, spoke of Iran’s relations with its neighbour, saying they could not be prepared to have ties to “an aggressor country like America”.
Iran and Iraq signed several preliminary trade accords on Monday, Iraqi officials said, including deals on oil, health and a railway linking the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra and an Iranian border town.
There are also concerns about its links to Iran.