Iraqi President Barham Salih, right, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a press conference at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq,  March 11, 2019.
Iraqi President Barham Salih, right, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a press conference at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, March 11, 2019.

WASHINGTON - U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, blasted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to Iraq and accused his government of trying to control Iraq by fueling sectarian conflict in the country.

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook sp
U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian, Dec. 18, 2018.

In an interview with Alhurrha TV, Hook said Rouhani's visit is not in the best interest of the Iraqi people, adding that Iran does not support the security and sovereignty of Iraq. 

"When President Rouhani comes into Iraq, you have to question the motive," Hook said Monday. "I think what Iran would ultimately like to see happen is Iraq turn into a province of Iran so that they can create a military highway across the northern Middle East that the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps can use to ferry missiles and weapons."

Hook said Iran is "the last revolutionary regime on earth," and it is trying to further destabilize the Middle East by reinforcing the sectarian divide. 

"The Iranian regime wants to replace a national identity. They want to dissolve it and replace it with a Shi'ite identity. This has been the core of their foreign policy to create sectarian divisions. They want to do that in Iraq, as well." 

The U.S. official's comments come as Rouhani arrived in Baghdad Monday and met with his counterpart, President Barham Salih, as a part of his three-day state visit to Iraq aimed at bolstering Tehran's influence and increasing commercial ties with Iraq. 

Iran's Rouhani Signs Trade Pacts in Iraq to Help Offset US Sanctions

According to Iraqi and Iranian officials, Rouhani and his delegation of 32 business people have signed several preliminary trade deals with Iraqi officials, including a major plan to build a railway linking the neighbors and easing visa restrictions.

"At a time when the United States is seeking to pressure the Iranian nation with its unjust sanctions, we need to develop and deepen our relations to stand against them," Rouhani said.

Rouhani claimed "world powers" were behind terrorism in the Middle East, adding that "Zionism and those who want to dominate the wealth of the countries of the region" were the root causes of instability.  He said his country played a key role in helping Iraq defeat the Islamic State, but more work was needed to achieve regional stability.

"Today, Iran and Iraq are enjoying the closest relations with each other," he stressed.

The Iraqi government, which is now trying to eliminate IS insurgents after regaining control of all its territory under the group, says good relations with Iran is key for accomplishing full stability. 

While hosting Rouhani Monday, President Barham Salih thanked Iran for its support during Iraq's fight against IS and stressed the need for future cooperation.

"The victory that was achieved against IS in Iraq was an important and huge victory, but incomplete, as the eradication of that sick, deviated line of thought and extremism requires more sustainable regional efforts and cooperation," Salih said.

FILE - Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Gua
FILE - Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps march just outside Tehran during an armed forces parade, Sept. 22, 2011.

?Iran-Iraq relations

Some experts see Rouhani's visit as an attempt by Iran and Iraq to take their relations to the next level as the fight against IS calms down in the region. 

Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told VOA that Iranian officials hope the visit can accomplish three goals: strengthening and deepening Iran-Iraq relations; sending a strong signal to the U.S. and Iraq's neighbors about the scope and breadth of Iran's relations in Iran; and messaging Iranian audiences about the success of Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East.

"Iran's influence in Iraq has so far been mainly deployed through military means, either by offering direct assistance to Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS, and mainly by training and assisting Iraqi militias. This visit might be the beginning of shifting this relationship to a state-to-state level, hopefully introducing some checks and balances on what has so far been unrestrained and unaccountable action by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard," Slim said.

Other experts, however, say deepening relations between Iran and Iraq face some challenges. Iraqi officials will ultimately find themselves between two countries with great influence but conflicting interests. 

Naysan Rafati, the Crisis Group's Iran analyst, told VOA that Iran could try to extend its influence in Iraq from the military to other areas such as culture, a move that might threaten U.S. interests in the region.  

"Iran is certainly playing the long game in Iraq, which is what you'd expect, given their history and the fact that they're neighbors," Rafati said.  

"But as the U.S. tries to check Iran's regional influence, Iraq could increasingly emerge as a theater for rivalry between Tehran and Washington," he added.