By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The Islamic State (IS) appears to be staging a comeback in parts of Iraq, which could endanger the country’s oil deal with Iran.

Hamid Hosseini, the Iranian secretary-general of the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce, warned in late February that the countries’ plan can’t be implemented fully because of security concerns. The countries signed a bilateral agreement in July 2017 to install a pipeline to transport Kirkuk’s crude oil to Iran to be refined. In the meantime, the oil is being transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to attacks.

The Kurdish military, or peshmerga forces, took control of Kirkuk in 2014 after Iraqi forces fled as IS swept through the area. But in October, Iraqi forces reclaimed the oil-rich territory from the Kurds.

IS has been blamed for numerous recent attacks in the area. On Feb. 19, IS fighters ambushed a convoy of the Baghdad government’s Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in the Hawija district, southwest of Kirkuk, killing 27. On Feb. 27, gunmen had targeted the Turkmen Front with a rocket shell. Since Hosseini’s warning, security has deteriorated both in Kirkuk and Hawija. Local authorities have called for military enforcement.

Masrour Barzani, the head of Kurdistan security, stressed that the “IS offensive in Kirkuk province is not coming to an end anytime soon.”

These developments cast clouds of uncertainty over any investment attempts in Kirkuk city, particularly in the oil sector. Yet Rakan al Jibouri, Kirkuk’s Baghdad-appointed interim governor, doesn’t agree, though he acknowledges “there are unsecured areas.”

“This won’t obstruct the development of oil facilities and exportation projects, as the agreement signed by the [Iraqi] Ministry of Oil on Feb. 8 to construct a new refinery clearly demonstrates otherwise,” Jibouri told Al-Monitor.

Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad also told Al-Monitor the present security situation won’t affect Kirkuk oil investments. “The Iranian official’s [Hosseini’s] statement reflects his state’s point of view. The Iraqi side is committed to upholding the agreement as long as Iran is not backing down.”

Jihad said the contract provides for exporting 30,000-60,000 barrels of oil a day via trucks from Kirkuk fields to the border zone near Kermanshah, Iran.

“Work is still underway to install an oil pipeline to Iran with a capacity of over 250,000 barrels [per day],” Jihad added. “Moving forward, we are going to stop using trucks, which are more exposed, require more security measures and cost more.”

Moreover, one of the reasons behind the agreement was “Iran’s need of large amounts of Iraqi oil for refinement purposes, as well as for complementary industries in Iranian areas across [the border].” Jihad said Iraq will also benefit because it will be able to export oil abroad at lower costs.

All that said, however, Jihad noted the Oil Ministry has no authority to assess the security situation: “The ministry is only concerned with the technical end of things.”

Iskander Witwit, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, contradicted Hosseini’s evaluation. “We haven’t recorded any indications of oil investments in Kirkuk being too risky,” Witwit told Al-Monitor.

He said the Kurdish peshmerga wants “security anarchy so that the oil trade project between Iraq and Iran fails, because the [Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)] wants oil to be transported through its soil.” The KRG, he said, “seeks to stop all oil and economic projects as long as Kirkuk is not under its control.”

Witwit also challenged a statement by Hosseini that security is at risk because Iran doesn’t have X-ray machines to inspect trucks coming from Iraq.

“This is an irrational reason,” Witwit said. “Truck security is both countries’ responsibility, and oil-transporting trucks are registered and take off from secured points to their designated destination. Therefore, they can’t possibly be used for any other purposes, considering the strict security measures in oil zones. Also, army and PMU troops are dispatched throughout the route used by the trucks.”

Meanwhile, it appears Iraq is moving ahead to expand its export options. Aziz Abdullah, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s Oil and Energy Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Talks between the [Iraqi] federal government and the [KRG] government on transporting oil via Ceyhan [Turkey] pipe have reached advanced stages.”

Ahmad al Askari, the head of the Energy Committee of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, believes those talks reflect Iraq’s “new direction not to solely rely on one window that could be shut on account of political disagreements.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Askari added, “Political and security concerns compelled Iraq to consider more than one means of exporting Kirkuk oil. Iraq started a pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port that doesn’t go through the [Kurdish] region, besides the one that does go through the region. In addition, trucks have been moving to Iran since Iraqi forces took over Kirkuk.”

By John Lee.

A new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says that Iraqi hydrocarbons “will either be exploited by Iran and its allies or used for Iraq’s own benefit, transforming the country into an energy export hub between the Gulf states, Turkey, and Europe. The United States has a strong strategic interest in promoting the latter outcome.

Authors James F. Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Michael Knights, who has worked extensively on energy projects inside Iraq, suggest that the US should put its weight behind a north-south energy corridor in which Iraq serves as an energy hub between ever-friendlier Gulf states and Turkey, ultimately forming an export bridge to Europe.

They add that Washington should also support the Basra-Haditha-Aqaba pipeline project to bring Iraqi oil and gas to Jordan.

The full paper can be read here.

(Source: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

By John Lee.

Iraq’s Minister of Electricity Qassim Mohammad al-Fahdawi has met with a visiting delegation from Tehran headed by Iran‘s Minister of Industry, Mine and Trade, Mohammad Shariatmadari.

They renewed for an additional year a contract under which Iran sells electricity to Iraq.

Through four major supply lines, Iran sends 1,000 megawatts of electricity to Iraq.

(Sources: Ministry of Electricity, Rudaw)

By Laura Rozen for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The dealmaker: Mueller witness helped broker $4.2 billion Iraq-Russia arms deal

A Lebanese-American businessman reported to be cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe helped broker a controversial 2012 Iraq-Russia arms deal valued at $4.2 billion, Iraqi sources tell Al-Monitor.

The Russia arms deal

George Nader, 58, traveled to Moscow in 2012, telling Russian interlocutors that he represented Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the deal should be negotiated through him, according to two Iraqi sources. Nader’s role in the deal was controversial to Iraqi officials because Iraq’s minister of defense was in Russia to conduct the negotiations, and they were unaware that Maliki was working with Nader to bypass official channels.

One of the Iraqi sources, a former Iraqi official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition that he not be named, personally witnessed Nader’s interactions with Maliki in their Moscow hotel when he accompanied Maliki to Moscow in October 2012 to sign the arms deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Nader’s career as a deal broker in Iraq ran from the mid-2000s until Maliki left office in 2014, the Iraqi sources said. Nader then became an adviser to the powerful Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It is in that capacity that Nader’s meetings with members of the incoming Donald Trump administration in 2016-2017 — including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former chief strategist Steve Bannon — brought Nader to Mueller’s attention.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Nader was arrested and questioned by the FBI when he landed at Washington Dulles International Airport on Jan. 17 en route to celebrate Trump’s first year in office at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He was questioned by Mueller’s grand jury March 2 and is reported to now be cooperating with Mueller’s probe.

One line of inquiry Mueller is reported to be questioning Nader about is whether the United Arab Emirates (UAE) might have funneled money to members of the incoming Trump administration in an effort to curry influence with them, including in their dispute with Qatar.

From journalist to deal-maker

Nader’s recent career as a Middle East deal broker is both an outgrowth and departure from his past. As an editor of Middle East Insight magazine in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, Nader interviewed President Bill Clinton and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

During this time, Nader also served as a frequent go-between in informal Syrian-Israeli talks encouraged by the Clinton administration before abruptly disappearing from the Washington scene around 2000.

“He was a reliable go-between, a facilitator,” Martin Indyk, who knew Nader when Indyk served as Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and ambassador to Israel in the 1990s, told Al-Monitor. “He was not a con man.”

Nader was connected to the Hafez al-Assad regime through then-Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and then-Syrian Ambassador to the US and current Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Indyk said. “He was going to Israel from time to time. He set up an interview of [Syrian Foreign Minister al-Sharaa] with Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari as a confidence-building measure. George is the one that made that happen. … Then he hooked up with [Ron] Lauder. He traveled with Lauder 16 times to Damascus in 1998” in efforts to advance an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

“And then when the Clinton administration was gone, George was gone,” Indyk, now executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.

“Last time I heard from [Nader] was after the US invasion of Iraq,” journalist Hisham Melham told Al-Monitor. “He called me from Kurdistan. But why would MBZ [the crown prince] need him when he has [UAE Ambassador] Yousef Al Otaiba?”

From dabbling in Syria-Israel peace talks to Iraq postwar dealmaker

Nader appeared in Iraq in the mid-2000s, looking to translate his Rolodex of connections from his Middle East Insight days into work advising various Iraqi political clients, including some of Iraq’s new Shiite political leaders, as well as Kurdish officials.

According to Iraqi sources, Nader helped arrange meetings for the 2005 visit to Washington of leading members of an Iraqi Shiite political party with close ties to Iran, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In 2010, Nader similarly arranged meetings for then-Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani with high-level UAE officials, including the crown prince, a second Iraqi source now living in exile told Al-Monitor. But Nader failed to win over the KRG leader, the second Iraqi source said.

“Nader got Nechirvan Barzani meetings with MBZ and [Lebanese Prime Minister] Saad Hariri,” the second Iraqi source said, adding that he advised Iraqi Kurdish interlocutors at the time to be wary of Nader.

Nader had a “knack for claiming that he had unique access to ‘mysterious’ persons,” the second Iraqi source said. “This way he would be able to latch on from one new confidant to another.”

By 2012, Nader had forged close ties with the Iraqi prime minister and Maliki’s son and deputy chief of staff, Ahmed Maliki, Iraqi sources said. Nader had worked with the younger Maliki on power generation projects, the former Iraqi official said. The relationship that Nader forged with Maliki’s son apparently brought Nader into the father’s inner circle when the huge Russian arms deal was being negotiated.

In August 2012, Iraq’s Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi spent 24 days in Moscow to finalize negotiations for the $4.2 billion Russian arms deal. But during the negotiations, the former Iraqi official told Al-Monitor that he received a message from former Russian Energy Minister Yuri Shafranik warning him that there were other people in Moscow claiming that they, and not the defense minister, were representing Maliki, and that the deal should go through them.

Eventually, on Oct. 3, 2012, Shafranik went to Baghdad to try to clarify the situation with Maliki, the former Iraqi official said. Shafranik even offered Maliki a direct communication line with Russian President Vladimir Putin to avoid confusion and leaks.

“The third of October, Yuri [Shafranik] came to Baghdad, met the prime minister and told him clearly that ‘Mr. Putin is suggesting direct relations between you and him to avoid any leakage and … cut any unhealthy things,’” the former Iraqi official said. “The prime minister welcomed that.”

Maliki assured the officials that he welcomed the suggestion to streamline their contacts and signaled that the confusion over who represented Baghdad in the arms deal would be resolved.

So the former Iraqi official was astonished when he accompanied Maliki to Moscow in October 2012 to sign the Russian arms deal to see Nader enter their hotel and take the elevator to Maliki’s suite.

“We were in a Radisson hotel in Moscow,” the former Iraqi official said. “And all of a sudden, George Nader came, walking very fast, entered the elevator, went up and, I saw from the screen over the elevator, went to the level where the prime minister was staying.

“When the minister of defense came down to the ground floor, I asked, did you notice George Nader? And he said yes; he saw him entering the prime minister’s suite,” the former Iraqi official said. “By that time I realized the issue is in-house. The corrupted party, which went to Moscow to represent Maliki, they are not … strange people. They are in the circle with Maliki.”

The former Iraqi official continued, “Also, while we were there we discovered new facts. I myself did not know that those people who traveled to Moscow at the end of August, that they are connected to Maliki and his son. But George Nader I knew very well. I was shocked. Then it immediately came to me — Nader’s relations with the son of Maliki.”

Over the course of the trip to Moscow, “we came to know that one of the three people who had been in Moscow presenting themselves as [Maliki’s] representative was George Nader,” the former Iraqi official said.

A call Wednesday by Al-Monitor to an attorney who represented Nader in an earlier case was not returned. A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy said it did not have information on the matter.

The Iraqi-Russian arms deal was controversial in Iraq and long suspected to have involved corruption. In November 2012, just a month after it was signed, Iraq’s then-acting Defense Minister Dulaimi announced that the deal was canceled, “citing possible corruption in the contract,” Reuters reported.

But Maliki’s then-media adviser Ali al-Moussawi was cited by Reuters as saying that the deals would be renegotiated and any suspension of the contract was “a precautionary measure because of suspected corruption.”

From Iraq to the UAE

After the end of Maliki’s run as Iraq’s prime minister in 2014, Nader made his way to become an adviser to the Abu Dhabi crown prince. Until Trump’s election, however, he had maintained such a low profile that even several Washington consultants who have advised the Emirates said they were entirely unaware of his role.

It may now be left to Mueller to help deepen understanding of Nader’s mysterious activities and what role they may have played in influencing the Trump administration’s policies toward the Middle East.

By John Lee.

Iran’s First Vice President, Es’haq Jahangiri, has said Iran is ready to provide Iraq with a line of credit (LOC) of “up to” three billion dollars to pave the way for the Iranian private sector’s active participation in the reconstruction of the country.

According to Iran’s PressTV, he made the statement at a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, saying the two sides should work to remove the restrictions in bilateral banking relations, which he said is the main obstacle to closer trade ties between the two nations.

He also emphasised the need to connect Iran’s and Iraq’s railways, saying the route will enable Iraq to have access to the Central Asia and China and link Iran’s railway to the Mediterranean.

(Source: PressTV)

By John Lee.

Iran‘s Minister of Industry, Mine and Trade, Mohammad Shariatmadari (pictured), has said it is hoped that upcoming visit of Iran’s first vice president Es’hagh Jahangiri to Iraq will “outline the economic cooperation roadmap between the two countries.

Shariatmadari and his accompanying delegation held talks on Monday with Iraq’s Minister of Housing and Urban Development to “boost cooperation in relevant issues“.

He added that “banking problems between Iran and Iraq will be settled once credit lines are launched,” estimating that non-oil trade between the two countries is worth around $6 billion.

(Source: MNA)

By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iranian Interference in Iraqi Election stirs Anger among Iraqis

Ali Akbar Velayati (pictured), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top adviser on international affairs, paid an official visit to Iraq from Feb. 15-18. He made statements on issues related to Iraq’s internal affairs, including the upcoming elections, which sparked controversy in the Iraqi political scene.

“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Velayati said during a speech Feb. 17 at the Founding Conference of the Iraqi Assembly of Islamic Unity in Baghdad.

It is clear that Velayati was referring to the electoral alliance between the Sadrist movement, the civil movement and the Iraqi Communist Party in the upcoming elections. Since the last elections in 2014, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, has been adopting a stance independent of Iran.

His followers have repeatedly shouted slogans against Iran and its regional symbols such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Raed Fahmi, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, running in the elections with the Sairoun coalition allied with the Sadrist movement, saw Velayati’s statement as an intervention in Iraqi affairs and against the Iraqi Constitution.

Velayati’s statement stirred the ire of other civil entities, too. Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, a member of parliament with the civil movement, said in a Facebook post Feb. 17 that it expresses contempt for and disregard of the Iraqis. “The civil movement, liberals, communists, nationalists, democrats and all the honorable people of Iraq will not allow Ali Akbar Velayati and other Iranians to interfere in Iraqi affairs,” he wrote.

In turn, the Sunni currents were also disturbed by the statements of Velayati. Parliamentarian Abdul Karim Abtan, a prominent leader with the Iraqi National Movement, said in a TV interview, “We do not work for Velayati or any other person. … We are Iraqis. Our national project is an Iraqi project. Even if Velayati has power over one or two Iraqis, this power will not last. We will not allow anyone to have influence at the expense of the Iraqis and to intervene in Iraqi affairs.”

In addition to his official meetings with President Fuad Masum and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Velayati met with Shiite leaders close to Iran, such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the Wisdom Movement Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri and Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

The choice of the figures Velayati met with indicates that Iran is apprehensive about the state of political disintegration within Iraq’s Shiite community, which could have serious post-elections repercussions that would result in the formation of an Iraqi government that is more distant and independent from Iran.

An official in the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, Haidar Nuri Sadeq al-Mulla, told Al-Monitor, “Iran’s tools in Iraq can no longer play the Iraqi sectarian card since the Iraqi people have become aware of such maneuvers. Therefore, Iran is trying to mobilize the Iraqi street from abroad so that the elections lead to results in favor of the blocs that still support its agenda.”

Mulla pointed to other similar statements by Rahim Bor Azghadi, a member of the Iranian Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution. Azghadi had said, “We are intervening in the countries in the region that are close to the United States in order to bring down the ruling regimes in those countries and to be able to control them. There are five countries that are no longer controlled by Washington and currently under the control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Mulla called upon the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to take a clear stance on Iran’s interference in Iraq’s affairs, saying, “Iraq will not be part of the sectarian axis policy that Iran seeks to create in the region.”

“Iraq is not subject to the domination or control of any foreign country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Mahjoub said Feb. 22 in response to Azghadi’s statements that Iran controls five countries in the region, including Iraq, and that it was Iran (via its agents) that executed Saddam Hussein.

As usual, Velayati failed to meet with top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani and other religious authorities during his trip to Najaf, because of the policy of the city’s religious figures not to receive Iranians who make inflammatory statements about Iraqi domestic affairs.

Lebanese Shiite activist Mustafa Fahs said that Velayati, in a statement at the Baghdad conference, called Khamenei “the leader of the Islamic nation,” without any mention of Sistani despite the latter’s major role in the stability of Iraq. Fahs said this is evidence of Iran’s resentment of Sistani.

Velayati also called on the Popular Mobilization Units to stand tall in the face of the American forces in Iraq. “Americans are in the process of creating a NATO base in Iraq with the help of some Islamic countries to prevent unity among Muslims,” Velayati said in his speech. He said Iran will not allow the American plan to see the light; he said the plan aims to block land passage between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

During his encounter with Maliki, Velayati said US troops should not be present east of the Euphrates. He added, “The resistance front should not allow NATO to set up a base in western Asia.”

Recently, NATO agreed to carry on with and expand its mission in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces, upon the request of the United States.

Pro-Iran Shiite militias promptly responded. The secretary-general of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, said Feb. 21 that his movement is making tremendous efforts “to clean up Iraqi soil of any US presence and terrorist sleeper cells; we have warned against their being under US protection under different names and descriptions.”

Parliamentarian Abdul Bari Zebari, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Velayati’s remarks, saying, “Any remarks that do not come following coordination with the Iraqi government could influence Iraqi public opinion and have negative repercussions — particularly as the election approaches.”

Iran will continue to pressure its proxies in Iraq to set up a strong political alliance against their rivals in order to make sure they win a political majority that would enable them to form a government following the election.

(Picture Credit: Tasnim, under Creative Commons licence)

By John Lee.

A plan to export Iraqi crude oil by truck to Iran has reportedly been postponed due to security concerns.

Under the oil-swap agreement, Iraq was to export 60,000 bpd of crude oil by truck from Kirkuk to Iran’s Kermanshah refinery (pictured), and ship back refined Iranian oil for southern Iraq.

Hamid Hosseini, the Iranian secretary-general of the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce, said Iran does not have X-ray machines to scan the trucks coming from Iraq, adding that Iran is in talks with Iraq to use their X-ray facilities.

(Sources: Xinhua, Rudaw)

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

By Saleem al-Wazzan.

As Saudis Prepare To Open Basra Consulate, Iran Opens Border To Iraqis

Iraqis can now visit a special visa-free zone in neighbouring Iran, over the border from Basra. Some locals see the open border as a cynical economic and political move that helps Iran, but not Iraq.

An Iraqi passport is one of the most difficult in the world. Only a handful of countries will allow Iraqis to travel there without applying for a visa a long time in advance. But now, Iraq’s next-door neighbour, Iran, has opened some of the areas closest to Basra to Iraqis, that they may access without a visa.

The decision has been greeted with both enthusiasm and cynicism in Iraq. Locals in southern Iraq have often made pilgrimages into Iran for religious and medical reasons and they welcome the decision, even though it only applies to the areas of Khorramshahr and Abadan, which lie directly on the border. Meanwhile local businessmen say it’s a commercial decision that will mainly benefit Iran.

The decision has been made and now Iran is only waiting for the Iraqi government’s go-ahead, Ahmed Sayhaboush, head of mission at the Iranian consulate in Basra, said. He explained that the decision was made in the interests of encouraging friendly relations between the two countries.

Passports will still be stamped at the border, the head of communications at the Iranian consulate, Mohammed Ismail, explained. Iraqis will be able to stay in the visa-free border areas for up to a month and during that time, they can obtain a visa to travel further into Iran if they wish. There will be special crossing points in Khorramshahr and Abadan. Many Iraqis on religious pilgrimage like to go to the shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, for example, but this is well out of the visa-free area.

The border authorities have decided to limit the entry times of Iraqis wishing to cross into the visa-free zones to between 6am and 5pm daily, Ali Yousef, a spokesperson for the Basra council, explained further.

“The Iranian move will increase the number of people moving between the two countries and this will benefit both nations” Jabbar al-Saedi, the head of the security committee on Basra’s provincial council, said. “We have however stressed the need to follow up on security controls to prevent any illegals crossing the border.”

One local from Basra, Mohammed Marhoun, believes that the visa-free zones will be good for business. He says he has already purchased a house and an apartment in Khorramshahr and says the process was relatively uncomplicated, compared to the bureaucracy he faced in Iraq. The number of visitors from Iraq into Iran means that there is more construction in border areas to accommodate visitors. The only problem, Marhoun said, was that one did have to have an Iranian name on the deed.

And he is not the only one utilising this opportunity, Marhoun points out. “Members of the provincial council and MPs from Basra have also invested in real estate in the visa-free zones,” he noted. “But they don’t want anybody to know about these investments, which are now being managed by Iranians.”

While businesspeople like Marhoun and investors in real estate might be pleased, there are some observers who are not so enthusiastic. They believe that the move will only benefit Iran in the long run.

It’s just another way to deplete Iraq’s currency reserves and to encourage more consumerism among Iraqis, says Nabil Jaafar Abdul Redha, a professor of economics in Basra. “Even if Iraq now allows Iranians to enter Iraqi cities without a visa nothing will change because there are no local products to be sold to them,” Abdul Redha argues. “So, the Iraqi economy is the loser in this process.”

“Iraqis might benefit from being able to go to Khorramshahr or Abadan and buying Iranian goods at slightly lower prices,” he concedes. “But overall, this does not benefit Iraq.” The main problem is that Iraq doesn’t produce much other than oil – it remains what is known as a rentier economy, one that is basically dependent on exporting oil to fuel its economy. Most manufactured goods are imported, in exchange for the money the oil raises.

“Our economy is not as diversified as Iran’s,” Abdul Redha tells NIQASH. “So, any commercial exchange with our neighbours – that includes Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia – tends to be one sided.”

There has been an influx of Iranians into Iraq in recent years for religious reasons. But that doesn’t outweigh the trade balance, he adds.

“The number of Iraqis entering Iran every day numbers between 2,000 and 3,000,” posits Abdel-Saheb Saleh, deputy head of an association for Basra’s businesses. “If we estimate that each of them will spend between US$100 and US$500 over there, that’s a good income for Iran.”

Saleh thinks the visa-free areas could be a positive for another reason. Iraq has been isolated for a long time due to security and political issues, Saleh says. This could be seen as a positive message to other regional governments who block the entry of Iraqis. “For example, a visa to visit Kuwait costs US$1,800 on the black market,” he complains.

Meanwhile local man, Ahmad Fadel, a civil society activist who recently visited what will be the visa-free zone, isn’t that impressed. For one thing, he says, the Iranian border guards treat the Iraqis crossing into their country badly. For another, there’s not much in Khorramshahr or Abadan that could really attract tourists. “The cities have poor infrastructure,” he notes.

And Fadel has another theory as to the reason behind the visa-free zones. He believes it may also be the Iranian reaction to Iraq’s new détente with Saudi Arabia, a country the Iranians tend to see as a geo-political rival. Saudi Arabia is about to reopen its consulate in new premises in Basra; it closed the original one way back in 1990.

By John Lee.

Iran is said to be negotiating a deal to import around 100,000 tonnes of wheat per month from Russia, enabling private millers it to increase flour exports to Iraq.

Iraq imports about 3 million tons of flour a year, almost half of its demand of 6.9 million tons a year.

According to a report from Reuters, private millers in Iran are not allowed to use domestic wheat for flour exports.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Iranian flour millers are operating at 50 percent of capacity.

(Sources: Bloomberg, Reuters)