The Iraq-Iran relations: yogurt and beyond

Since 2003, there have been many articles pushing the narrative that Iran’s influence in Iraq is growing uncontrollably. In a recent article with the same contention, the New York Times talks about how Iran was able to increase its influence in Iraq through several approaches, including the sales of dairy products. 

I made fun of it in this thread.

Soon, others started to realize the importance of yogurt in diplomacy.

Somebody suggested a new term for diplomacy through yogurt.

(For those who didn’t get the drift: Dogh in Farsi is yogurt mixed with water).

And then, people began to wonder what effect yogurt might have on other diplomatic crisis in the region.

Which made me realize that it indeed does have an effect.

Others even suspected that yogurts might have been used by the US itself as a secret weapon to increase its influence in Canda.


Jokes aside, one should not be surprised that Iranian products in Iraqi markets are selling well. Saudi and Turkish products are sold too, but when Iraqis hear that Turkey is giving safe passage to ISIS fighters and that Saudi Arabia is involved in financing ISIS, while Iran supports Iraqis in their fight against them, the least that is going to happen is a decrease in the sales of Turkish and Saudi and an increase in sales of Iranian products.

Truth is, many simply don’t want to accept that the relationship between Iraq and Iran is deeper than they would like to have it. It is a strong and multifaceted relationship that goes beyond the sales of dairy, medicine, or the political influence of Tehran. The social, economic, cultural, and historical ties between the people who live in the area that today comprises Iran and Iraq is as old as civilization itself. Many thought that the war between the two countries would damage the ties forever. But the state of the relationship between the two countries during the war only temporarily suspended the other deeper and historical ties. Once Saddam’s regime was gone, things started to return to their natural state.

This relationship can not only be summarized with the fact that both countries have a Shia majority. Iran has also a large Arab community in its West provinces, related to the Arabs of Iraq’s South and East provinces. Several major Arab tribes are scattered on both sides of the border. On the other hand, a substancial number of Iraqis from Kadhimiya, Najaf, Karbala and other provinces like Maysan are of Iranian origin. Furthermore, many from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have strong family ties with the population of Kurdistan province in Iran, speaking the same Kurdish dialect.

In all this, the food was mentioned in a sarcastic way, but even the food culture in both countries is strongly related. Iraqi and Iranian cuisine have more in common let’s say Iraqi and Syrian or Turkish cuisine.

On top of that, every year hundreds of thousands, and probably in the future millions travel from Iran to Najaf, Kadhimiyah, Karbala, and Samara for pilgrimage, enjoying Iraq’s unprecedented hospitality during the Shia holy seasons. Iraqis too travel in tens of thousands throughout the year to Qom and Mashhad in order to visit the religious sites, and to benefit from Iran’s excellent yet affordable medical services.

As much as Iran’s military and economic support has enabled Iraq to fight back against ISIS, Iraq’s tourists have also played a vital role in supporting Iran’s economy during the embargo imposed by the US and its allies. Many Iranians have started to learn the Iraqi slang, and many Iraqis who live in the holy cities in Iraq can communicate in fluent Farsi with Iranian pilgrims.

It is in the interest of Iran to have a neighbor with a stable political system because needless to say, the security problems in Iraq are impacting Iran strongly. The recent terror attacks in Iran are a clear example of what could have happened more often on its soil if it wasn’t collaborating with Iraq in its fight against ISIS.

On the other hand, it is in the interest of Iraq to have the embargo against Iran lifted completely so trade between the two countries can reach higher levels. Iran offers good products, services, and expertise with competitive prices, something that is important to to support Iraq’s rebuilding efforts. Iraqis could also in the future support Iran’s economy through foreign direct investment. That said, issues between Iraq and Iran exist, but they should not be the concern of other countries. Iraqis and Iranians have managed to negotiate many of them away without the help of a third party.

On the other hand, it is clear that the United States was and still is not interested in strengthening its ties with Baghdad on a strategic level. Americans keep complaining about Iran’s increasing influence, but beyond their military support that came pretty late, the US has not much to show for the allegedly strong relationship with Baghdad. One can talk forever about diplomatic ties and mutual interests, but what is happening on the ground indicates the real status quo of the relationship which is not especially strong, despite what many believe.

Not only did the US commit lethal “mistakes” during the occupation year, which were in the magnitude of hundreds of thousands dead Iraqi civilians, and scandals like Abu Ghraib and Blackwater, it also left Iraq vulnerable without an air force when it pulled out of Iraq, and never really implement the ‘Strategic Framework Agreement‘ it signed before leaving. Iraqis did not see any serious projects sponsored by the US in Iraq, nor did US universities welcome many Iraqi students, as the framework was supposed to achieve. It was actually the other way around. Iraqis witnessed their infrastructure bombed during the US invasion and not rebuilt after, with lots of money disappearing in Iraq without much to show for it.

The US also failed to respond promptly to the requests of Iraq to intervene early in the ISIS crisis. President Obama at that time didn’t take the issue seriously, making his famous ‘JV’ statement and only after many weeks started to intervene, after about a third of Iraq was lost to ISIS. Shouldn’t we stop wondering why the Iran-Iran ties are getting stronger? And does it really make sense to portray the ties between Iraq and Iran in grim colors?

Major media organizations like the New York Times not only report on US foreign policy, they also shape it. The continued publishing of similar articles over the years indicates a persistence on ignoring the deep ties between the two countries, always reducing them to the regional interests of Iran, and neglecting many hard facts. In my opinion, this discourse is misleading and reflects some strong biases, at a time when the New York Times is supposed to be a leading publication followed and trusted by many diplomats and decision makers around the world.

I say, let the people of the region decide what is best for them. Let them manage their relationships with their neighbors. Furthermore, let them decide what yogurt they want to buy. As for me, I am going to have some Iranian yogurt now.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s