Iran vs. Iraq Political and Economic Differences

Political instability and conflict are major challenges that many Middle East countries continue to experience. Muslim extremist groups and military invasions by other countries have made the Middle East’s political environment hostile to good governance (Marks & Bell, 2019). One of the countries greatly affected by conflict is Iraq and Iran. These two countries have many things in common, including sharing a border and being predominantly Muslim. Additionally, Iran and Iraq are among the leading oil producers, with Iran ranking fourth while Iraq ranks fifth in global oil production (Haider, 2020). However, despite the similarities, revolutions and religion are the prominent factors responsible for the two countries’ political and economic disparities. This paper uses the most-similar system (MSS) design to illustrate the basic differences between Iraq and Iran regarding their political structure and economy.

One of the political differences between Iraq and Iran is that a religious supreme leader heads the Iran government while a prime minister runs the Iraqi government. Iran is a Muslim state where politics are greatly influenced by religion. The head of the government is the Supreme Leader, who has powers over all government arms, including the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary (Akhavan et al., 2018). Additionally, the supreme leader is the commander-in-chief of the Iranian military. Although the country has a democratically elected president, his major responsibilities involve executing the decrees of the supreme leader. Therefore, the political structure of Iran involves both a theocratic system and democracy. On the contrary, the Iraqi political structure is majorly based on democracy (Dickovick & Eastwood, 2018). The prime minister is the most powerful official of the government who holds authority over the executive (Akhavan et al., 2018). Although Iraq has a president, the prime minister is head of the government and controls most government functions.

Religious conflict is another significant element that differentiates Iraq from Iran. While the two countries are predominantly Muslim nations, the ideological differences in Islam between the Sunni and Shias are more intense in Iraq than in Iran (Koch, 2019). The conflict between the Shia and Sunni traditions have given rise to extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iran and Syria (ISIS), which destabilized the security of the country and the larger Middle East region (Koch, 2019). The conflict between these two Islamic factions was fueled by the regime of Saddam Hussein, who made people believe that the Sunni were the majority in Iraq, thus unleashing religious persecution on the Shia group. The need to control government institutions and exert significant influence in national politics has been the major factor contributing to the conflict (Dickovick & Eastwood, 2018). On the contrary, although there are Sunnis and Shias in Iran, there is a higher degree of tolerance and coexistence than in Iraq. In Iran, Sunni Muslims recognize themselves as the minority and are not fighting for political control like their counterparts in neighboring Iraq (Koch, 2019). However, religious persecution in the two countries continues to be higher among non-Muslims.

Despite being majorly Islamic countries, Iran and Iraq differ significantly culturally. While the dominant ethnic group in Iraq is Arabs, Iran is majorly dominated by Persian speakers. Iran originated from the Persian Empire, consisting of several dynasties (Procházka, 2020). The Persian Empire was first founded by Cyrus the Great, who transformed it into the largest empire in human history. Before the Arabs conquered the empire, the original religion was Zoroastrianism which later was consumed by the influence of Islam (Procházka, 2020). However, Zoroastrian continues to exist as a minority religion in Iran. On the contrary, Iraq was majorly influenced by the Mesopotamia civilization that existed between the river Tigris and Euphrates (Procházka, 2020). However, the Ottoman Empire shaped the country’s political structure. These cultural differences significantly influenced the disparity in the political history of the two countries. Before the Iraqi revolution, the country was majorly ruled as a monarchy. However, this system favored the growth of dictators who mismanaged the country’s affairs (Procházka, 2020). On the contrary, the unification of different states in the Persian Empire to form Iran laid a foundation for democracy and representation of the people.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple the Saddam Hussein regime and disarm the country of weapons of Mass Destruction is another significant factor that distinguishes Iraq and Iran. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, which was being ruled by the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, in a campaign to fight terrorism in the Middle East (Marks & Bell, 2019). The Saddam Hussein regime was characterized by atrocities against the ethnic and religious minority groups. The invasion occurred when the U.S. was fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in response to the 911 attack. Saddam Hussein had gained significant influence in the region and was struggling to destabilize the Iranian government to have control of its resources (Marks & Bell, 2019). Despite the invasion, the United States maintained close relations with the Iraqi government.

Although the United States did not invade Iran, the U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with Iran as with Iraq. Iran does not have an embassy in Washington D.C, as the U.S. does not equally have an embassy in Tehran (Banks, 2019). The strained relationship between the U.S. and Iran has been one factor that differentiates Iran from Iraq. The 1979 revolution in Iran, which led to a hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, tainted the relationship between Iran and the West (Banks, 2019). Other factors that have fueled tension between Iraq and the West include its nuclear program and human rights abuse. The United States considers Iran’s nuclear program a major security threat to global peace and has constantly imposed sanctions on the Tehran government to weaken its economy and deter it from engaging in escalatory military programs (Banks, 2019). On the other hand, Iraq embraces positive diplomatic relations with the U.S. and the Western Allies.

The justice system of Iraq and Iran is another major factor that distinguishes the two middle nations. In Iraq, the superior judiciary institution is the Higher Judicial Council which oversees the function of the other judicial institution such as the Supreme Court, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, and the Central Criminal Court (Al Hajjaji, 2018). For the Iranian Judiciary, the highest institution is the Supreme Court, headed by the Minister of Justice. While the judiciary in Iraq, through the Supreme Court, can hear and determine cases involving the Prime minister, who is the dead of the government, the Iranian supreme leader is considered immune to the law, and the judiciary, therefore, does not have powers to listen to lawsuits against him (Al Hajjaji, 2018). This is because Iranians consider the supreme leader to be divinely appointed to lead the country according to the Sharia laws. This system makes it difficult to challenge the decisions made by the supreme council or hold him accountable for bad policies that he makes (Al Hajjaji, 2018). As a result, government accountability is more embraced in Iraq than in Iran due to the powers of the judiciary to probe the government officials.

Economically, Iran and Iraq are significantly different due to political conflicts and Islamic extremism that characterized the two countries. Despite being one of the largest oil producers in the world, Iraq continues to suffer severe economic problems compared to Iran (Jassim, 2021). Iraq has experienced political instability caused by the conflict between the Sunni and Shia. Besides, the country has been one of the most affected countries by Islamic extremism in the Middle East region. Terrorist groups such as Islamic State have made it difficult for Iraq to elevate its economic statutes and effectively address the high cost of living and inflation that has negatively impacted the people (Jassim, 2021). Iraq heavily relies on oil exports as the main source of government revenue. The economy of Iraq is majorly state-controlled, with little interest from private investors to venture into the economy due to poor insecurity posed by the growing number of insurgent groups.

On the contrary, the Iranian is a mixed economy that relies on oil exports and agriculture as major economic contributors. The Iranian economy ranks in terms of nominal GDP in the Middle East (Jassim, 2021). Although the country has been struggling to revive its economy due to the U.S. sanctions and other political factors, Iran generally fairs better economically than Iraq. Religion plays a significant role in determining the economic policies in Iran. For instance, the three are religious charity organizations known as bonyads that control the oil market of Iran. These charity organizations obtain more than 20% of the revenue generated from oil exports (Jassim, 2021). The money is then shared among the groups that support the government. Although economists consider the existence of these charity organizations as a major hurdle to the thriving of the Iranian economy, political analysts argue that sharing the national revenue with the people has been significant in reducing the political conflict between ethnic groups for control of the government institutions as it is the case in Iraq.

Additionally, the tourism industry contributes to economic disparities between the two countries. Tourism in Iraq has been one of the most affected industries in the country by political instability and poor policies (Omer & Yeşiltaş, 2020). Despite being a culturally rich country with a substantial number of tourist attractions that define the country’s history during the Ottoman Empire. Some of the major tourist attractions in the country include Taq Kasra, one of the ancient structures in the history of Iraq, and the holy city of Samarra (Omer & Yeşiltaş, 2020). However, these sites have been turned into ruins and deserted due to the wars ravaging the country. Besides, the government lacks effective policies to revive the tourism sector. Insecurity has largely discouraged both domestic and international tourists from visiting some of the attractions in Iraq.

However, the situation is different in the Iranian tourism industry. Due to the relative peace and stability that Iran has portrayed, its tourism sector has been significantly attracting both domestic and international tourists. Aside from its rich cultural centers that describe the ancient history of the Persian Empire, the Iranian tourism industry is considered diverse and provides other attractive activities such as skiing and hiking (Heydari et al., 2018). According to the World Travel Tourism Council, the Iranian tourism sector is progressively becoming one of the major sources of revenue for the government, contributing at least 6.5% of the total GDP (Heydari et al., 2018). Despite the U.S. sanctions, Iran continues to receive visitors, including the West, to explore its culture. As a result, the industry is reported to have contributed to 5.4% of the total employment (Heydari et al., 2018). Unlike Iraq, the Iranian government has favorable policies that govern the tourism industry. Iran has at least 22 of its cultural centers registered by UNESCO, which has marketed the country as an ideal tourist attraction to foreign travelers.

Lastly, Iran has better infrastructure and social amenities than Iraq. Iraq’s long political wars and instability have negatively impacted the country’s vital social services, such as the education system. During the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq was considered to be having one of the unprecedented service sectors in the Middle East and most parts of the world (Hamad, 2020). In 1972, Saddam Hussein nationalized international oil interest, which skyrocketed the global oil prices (Hamad, 2020). Iran’s income and foreign exchange generated from the oil exports significantly improved. Saddam used revenue to improve the education sector and develop other social amenities. However, since the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the country has struggled to restore essential services to the previous states. Mismanagement of funds meant for education and infrastructure has been one of the contributing factors that have derailed the development of Iraq. Besides, conflict and tribal wars have led to the destruction of basic facilities such as hospitals and schools.

Unfavorable political policies in the country offer little room for the reconstruction process. According to UNESCO, immigration and internal displacement of populations have significantly increased the illiteracy levels in Iran due to a lack of a conducive environment for children to go to school (Hamad, 2020). On the contrary, Iran has one of the most developed education systems in the Middle East. The country’s infrastructure on social amenities is more improved than its neighbors. According to UNESCO, Iranian society is highly educated due to easy access to education (Hamad, 2020). Iran has substantially invested in education, with most public schools offering free education. Women are more empowered to seek education in Iran compared to Iraq. A report by UNESCO indicated that Iran was the leading country to spend most of its GDP on education in 2014, translating to 19.7% of government expenditures (Hamad, 2020). Other sectors such as transport, health, and housing are more developed in Iran.

The table below summarizes the major differences between Iraq and Iran.

Iraq Iran
Political leader Prime Minister Supreme Leader
System of government Democratic Theocratic and democratic
Culture Dominated by Arabs Dominated by Persians
Security and stability Insecure and unstable Relatively secure and stable
Diplomatic relations with the U.S. Has diplomatic ties with the U.S. Does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S.
Economy Relies on oil exports Has a mixed economy with oil exports and agriculture
Tourism industry Tourism is neglected Tourism is highly valued
Infrastructure and social amenities Underdeveloped and poorly managed Effectively managed and developed.

In conclusion, despite being similar in many ways, there exist significant differences between Iraq and Iran. Some of the major factors responsible for the disparities between these two countries include political conflict, religious conflict, and international relations. Furthermore, some disparities result from the two countries’ government policies and leadership practices. Political stability has proved to be the major factor differentiating Iran from Iraq.


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