TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Iran and Iraq have pledged to improve border cooperation and boost trade between the two neighbors that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
"We remain committed to increasing political, economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries,” President Hassan Rouhani told visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein late Saturday.
Hussein called for implementing bilateral accords in areas including border cooperation, transportation and trade between the two countries.
The pandemic has led to border closures and disruptions to trade and visits by millions of pilgrims and tourists.
Iran is one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners. Last year, Iran’s exports to Iraq amounted to nearly $9 billion, the official IRNA news agency reported. It said the two nations will discuss increasing the amount to $20 billion.
The Iranian president used the meeting to denounce the U.S. military presence in the region.
"We consider the presence of American forces in the region, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or the southern states of the Persian Gulf, to the detriment of security and stability in the region,” he said.
It was the duty of "every country where Americans are present” to try to remove them, he said.
The president praised the Iraqi parliament’s "positive step” in January in demanding the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
After the vote, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Iraq with sanctions and seizure of its oil money held in American banks if the country’s leaders followed through their pledge to expel U.S. forces.
Iraqi resistance groups have promised to take up arms against U.S. forces if Washington fails to comply with the parliamentary order.
Rouhani said on Saturday, "We have always stood by the Iraqi people and the country’s legitimate government.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif called for the protection of diplomatic installations
in Iraq as he hosted his Iraqi counterpart.
The top diplomats also discussed the U.S. assassination in Baghdad of top Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani in January, and bilateral cooperation between the two neighbors.
Zarif, in an English-language tweet, said they discussed "attacks on Iranian diplomatic premises” in Iraq, adding that he had underlined to Foreign Minister Hussein the "imperative of protection of diplomatic posts”.
They also "reviewed practical steps to further enhance bilateral cooperation” and "discussed (the) U.S. terrorist murder of our hero General Soleimani”.
His comments come more than a week after three separate attacks targeted diplomatic or military installations in Iraq.
General Soleimani was martyred in January in an American drone airstrike near Baghdad airport, alongside top Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Days later, Iran launched a volley of missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. and other coalition troops.
The Zarif-Hussein talks come three days after the U.S. granted Iraq a 60-day extension to a sanctions waiver, allowing it to import Iranian gas for its crippled power grids.
The U.S. blacklisted Iran’s energy industry in late 2018, but has since granted its ally Baghdad a series of temporary waivers to stave off country-wide blackouts.
Gas imports from Iran generate as much as 45 percent of Iraq’s 14,000 megawatts of electricity consumed daily. Iran transmits another 1,000 megawatts directly, making itself an indispensable energy source for its Arab neighbor.
Iraq and Iran share a 1,400-kilometer-long border. For their run-of-the-mill maintenance, Iraqis depend on Iranian companies for many things from food to machinery, electricity, natural gas, fruits and vegetables.