“One of the reasons I want to keep [US forces in Iraq] is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem," said US President Donald Trump in an interview aired by CBS News Feb. 3.
Two days later, Trump's Iranian counterpart responded with sarcasm. "So nice that the Americans expressed their heart," said Hassan Rouhani during a speech addressing a cultural event in Tehran. "They want to watch Iran. Is there any logic behind that?" Rouhani also accused the US government of lying about the Afghan war, noting that the real intention behind it was to counter Russia, China and Iran.
Earlier, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman downplayed Trump's comments. "One need not take his remarks very seriously, be it about the pullout from Syria or its presence somewhere," Bahram Ghassemi told semi-official conservative Fars News. He pointed to "good neighborly ties" between Tehran and Baghdad as a reason Iraqis will not let their soil be used as an American base for anti-Iran purposes.
Meanwhile, Iranian news outlets have been busy covering the categorical rejection of Trump’s remarks by politicians from across Iraq’s political spectrum. A joint statement by the Iraqi Parliament's Fatah and Sairoon factions was warmly received in Iran, as was the reaction by Iraqi President Barham Salih, who stated that Washington had not sought Baghdad's permission to use it as a base for monitoring Iran.
Moderate newspaper Jomhouri-Eslami reported a backlash of harsh responses from Iraqi politicians who consider Trump's plan a security alert. Hamdeli, a daily with Reformist affiliations, ran an article by Salaheddin Harsani on the US-Iran rivalry over Iraq. The piece referred to Trump's plan as part of the US battle to curtail Iranian influence and Tehran's rise as a new regional "hegemon." The article predicted a fresh stage of Iraqi chaos as a result of the intensifying proxy conflict between Iran and the United States. "Given the clash of the two players' interests, the main loser of such rivalry will be the worn out and crisis-hit Iraqi nation, for whom peace and stability is more like a dream than reality," Hamdeli's piece concluded.
The war of words between Tehran and Washington over Iraq has been escalating since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. Iran has been pursuing a geopolitical agenda by backing Shiite-led governments in Baghdad. The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 opened a new front in the proxy confrontation. Now, with IS largely flushed out of Iraq, both players equally boast about eliminating the militants. But in the meantime, Iran has repeatedly cast doubt on American intentions in the war on IS and has accused the US military of secretly assisting the extremist group. Most recently, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a former top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who currently advises Iran's supreme leader on military affairs, said Iran had gained "precise intelligence" about an ongoing "transfer of Daesh [IS] terrorists by the United States into Afghanistan."
To maintain public support at home for its activities in the region, the Islamic Republic has described the policy within the context of as a wider distant war against terror aimed at threats from beyond its borders. This official line was reaffirmed earlier this week by Hassan Firouzabadi, a former chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. He said, "The Iranian nation should understand the fact that if it were not for the 'defenders of the shrine' in Syria and Iraq, we would now have had to be engaged with IS inside Yazd," referring to Iran's centermost province.