Iraq warns of 'danger of war' as Iran foreign minister visits Baghdad
Iraqi leaders have warned of the risks of war during a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose country is locked in a tense standoff with the United States.
Zarif's visit to neighbouring Iraq, which is caught in the middle of its two allies the US and Iran, follows a decision by Washington to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi warned of the "danger of a war" during a meeting with Zarif on Saturday night, his office said.
Abdel Mahdi pleaded for the "stability of the region and the upholding of the nuclear deal," it said, referring to a 2015 agreement between Tehran and major powers.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh discussed with Zarif "the need to prevent all war or escalation," his office said.
Speaking at a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed al-Hakim, Zarif said Iran would defend itself against any military or economic aggression, calling on European states to do more to preserve the nuclear agreement his country had signed.
Zarif also said Iran wanted to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbours and that it had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.
"We will defend against any war efforts against Iran, whether it be an economic war or a military one, and we will face these efforts with strength," he said.
'Iraq stands with Iran'
Strains have increased between Iran and the US, which is a firm backer of Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, after this month's attack on oil tankers in the Gulf region that Washington has blamed on Iran.
On Saturday, Zarif called the deployment of extra US troops to the region "very dangerous and a threat to international peace and security."
It follows a US decision in early May to send an aircraft carrier strike force and B-52 bombers in a show of force against what Washington's leaders believed was an imminent Iranian plan to attack US assets.
Washington says the latest reinforcements are in response to a "campaign" of recent attacks including explosive devices that damaged the four tankers near the entrance to the Gulf, a rocket launched into the Green Zone in Baghdad, and drone strikes by Yemeni rebels on a key Saudi oil pipeline.
Iran has denied any involvement.
Iraq stands with Iran and is willing to act as an intermediary between its neighbour and the US, Hakim said, adding that Baghdad does not believe an "economic blockade" is fruitful, a reference to US sanctions.
"We are saying very clearly and honestly that we oppose the unilateral actions taken by the US. We stand with the Islamic Republic of Iran in its position," said Hakim.
The US this month ended the last exemptions it had granted from sweeping unilateral sanctions it reimposed on Iran after abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal in May last year.
In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani floated the idea of holding a referendum over Iran's nuclear programme, Iranian media reported.
A referendum over the controversial nuclear programme could give Iran's leaders space to manoeuvre and a chance to resolve the standoff with the US.
Top Iranian leaders have said they are not seeking war with the US and officials speaking to the Reuters news agency from Tehran said last week that despite the sharpened rhetoric with Washington, authorities are trying to avoid an open conflict.
"Article 59 of the Constitution [referendum] is a deadlock breaker... and could be a problem-solver at any junction," the semi-official news agency ILNA quoted Rouhani as saying late on Saturday.
Rouhani said that, when he was a top nuclear negotiator in 2004, he had proposed holding a referendum on the nuclear issue to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran has only held three referendums since its 1979 Islamic revolution - to approve the setting up of an Islamic Republic and then to approve and amend the constitution.
Washington says it has built up the US military presence in the region, accusing Tehran of threats to US troops and interests.
Tehran has described US moves as "psychological warfare" and a "political game".
Separately, a deputy commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards said the US military presence in the Middle East was at its "weakest in history" despite the talk of a build-up.