Ahmadinejad in Iraq / Baghdad's New Strategic Partner

The historic visit to Iraq by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which began yesterday, suggests that Tehran is finding ways to bypass efforts to pressure it. On the eve of a UN Security Council discussion about another round of sanctions against Iran for its refusal to cease uranium enrichment, Ahmadinejad was photographed embracing Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, in Baghdad. Iranian dignitaries may not be able to travel to New York due to the sanctions, but at the focal point of American strategic interests in the Middle East, Ahmadinejad is a welcome guest.

U.S. President George Bush did warn Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, about Tehran's exports of lethal explosives to militants, who use them to kill Iraqi soldiers and civilians, but Maliki is interested in other exports from Iran - namely, the nearly $2 billion worth of goods it sells to Iraq every year. Ahmadinejad promises more trade, more joint ventures and investments worth $5 billion, which could jump-start Iraq's economy.

And while the United States is holding talks with Iraq on the details of a bilateral cooperation agreement that will define America's status in Iraq following a U.S. withdrawal, Ahmadinejad's arrival raises questions about Washington's ability to set up permanent military bases in Iraq in the future.

The official visit by Iran's president also holds out a promise of cooperation and economic ties with the Kurdish autonomous region. If Turkey continues to pressure the PKK guerrillas and imposes sanctions on Kurdistan, Iran will become the Kurds' main economic outlet.

With its links to the Kurds, its economic contribution to Iraq and its close political ties with the main Shi'ite parties, Iran is increasingly becoming a strategic partner of Iraq. Hence Washington's recognition of the need for political dialogue with Tehran about Iraq's future. But this development worries the Arab League, and especially Saudi Arabia, which is being faced with another large Shi'ite state on its borders.