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Iran looks to triple trade with Iraq after US sanctions

From colorful rugs to the latest industrial tools, Iranian manufacturers at the Baghdad International Fair in Iraq worked to find new export customers. But companies who do business with Iran cannot also do business with the United States.

Karim Kadim/AP
An Iranian chocolate vendor prepares materials at the Baghdad International Fair on Nov. 10. With US sanctions impeding Iran's economy, the country is seeking to expand its export business elsewhere.

At this year's Baghdad International Fair, Iranian businessmen displayed thick, colorful Persian rugs to impressed onlookers while others showcased the latest in Iranian manufacturing in power generators and industrial tools.

For Iranian companies, the annual Baghdad International Fair is a major event, as exporters in carpets, foodstuffs, and heavy equipment look to score sales in Iraq's import-dependent economy.

But this year's edition, running this week, is an even bigger deal than usual: Iran, already feeling the bite of newly re-imposed unilateral United States sanctions, is turning to its neighbor to soak up its exports in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy.

Ambassador Iraj Masjedi promised Iran would grow its already flourishing trade with Iraq. The sanctions, he said, "will not affect the relations between the two countries."

President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran struck with world powers in May. United Nations monitors say Iran still abides by the deal, in which it agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Since then, Trump announced what he billed the "toughest ever" sanctions regime against Iran and the country has seen its oil exports plunge and its currency lose more than half its value. The full brunt of the measures came into effect Nov. 5 when the US re-imposed oil and banking sanctions.

However, other major economies including Europe, Russia, and China have refused to take parallel measures, and Iran can still do business with the outside world.

Iraq is Iran's second largest export market. Since 2003, when the US invasion plunged the country into civil war, Iraq has depended on Iran for everything from food to machinery, to electricity and natural gas.

Mr. Masjedi boasted that trade between the two countries was on track to reach $8.5 billion this year and said Iran's outlook is to reach $22 billion annually – more than triple its $7 billion in volume in 2017. He did not give specifics.

Non-American companies are free to do business with Iran, so long as they do not also do business with the US, or through US financial institutions.

"We will not tie ourselves to the dollar," said Masjedi.

More than 60 Iranian companies are represented at the Baghdad fair, which runs until Nov. 19.

Mir Zad, director of Hisam, which sells generators and other electrical equipment, said he was aiming to secure deals worth around $1 million at the fair. He wasn't concerned about the new restrictions on the dollar; deals could be made in Iraqi dinar, he said.

Still, a substantial portion of trade between the two nations is done in energy and cannot easily be structured outside the new sanctions regime.

It puts Iraq in a delicate position as a partner of both Washington and Tehran.

With its electricity sector in tatters, Iraq depends on Iranian gas and power generation to power its economy. A temporary electricity reduction last summer fueled unrest in Iraq's southern provinces.

The US Embassy in Baghdad last Thursday announced it was granting Iraq a 45-day waiver to allow it to continue to purchase gas and electricity in Iran.

It said the exception would give Iraq time to "take steps toward energy independence."

But it could take a year or longer to secure enough new power to make up for lost imports, said economist Bassim Jameel Antwan.

In the meantime, Iraq may have little choice but to continue to import from Iran. And Iran's deep entanglement in Iraq's political and military affairs further complicates the picture.

Iran has the ear of several of Iraq's top politicians and trains, finances, and advises some of the largest militias in the country. While it is precisely this sort of influence the US is aiming to curb, Iran can still play the role of spoiler in Iraqi politics.

"You plan for one thing, and the result might be something else," said Mr. Antwan.

Since May, Iran's currency the rial has sank in the black market from 60,000 to the dollar to 148,000 to the dollar. Oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels per day in May to 1.85 billion in October and are expected to tumble some more.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Amir Vahdat contributed from Tehran.

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