The Difference Between Iran and Iraq

Map of the Middle East

From the perspective of a U.S. citizen, it can often be hard to tell apart Iran and Iraq, especially when geography isn’t stressed as an important school topic. Yet, the two countries dominate recent U.S. international interactions and the common citizen is expected to know what’s going on. Here’s a breakdown of the histories and governments of Iran and Iraq, as well as their complicated history with the U.S.

Iran was formally known as Persia until 1935, but wasn’t considered the Islamic Republic of Iran until 1979 when the ruling monarchy abdicated. The last dynasty was installed in 1926 instituting the Pahlavi’s into power. “Shah” refers to the leader of Iran, translated as king, coming from Shahanshah, or “King of Kings”. The first Pahlavi shah had allegiance with the Axis powers of World War II, and subsequently experience Anglo-Russian occupation with international disposition favoring the crown prince, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. The reason the Western world felt any stake in Iran was due to untapped oil reserves.

Map of Iran and Neighboring Countries

Mohammad Mosaddegh achieves Prime Minister status in 1950. He is a nationalist hoping to get rid of foreign influence in Iran, starting with nationalizing the oil industry so that Britain (a owner of the industry) would no longer have a say in Iranian politics. In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammad Moseddegh was overthrown in a coup d’etat supported by the Shah and conducted by the U.S. CIA and British M16.

The Shah expands his powers and implements the “White Revolution” to modernize his country in the likeness of the Western world; the Shah encouraged industrialization while pushing out the opponents to his “absolute consolidation of power”. He relied more and more heavily on the state intelligence service, SAVAK, to gain information on dissidents and opposition. The main opposition came from a spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini (Ayatollah distinguishes him as a holy leader). The Shah also runs Iran’s deficit into almost bankrupt numbers, through building up its military with massive contracts with the U.S. These issues swelled until the masses could no longer take it and began rioting and producing massive demonstrations, which cause the Shah to enforce martial law, which does not help his case.

The Shah fled Iran, and his opposition leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, encouraging the revolution. In 1979, Khomeini is officially in power and Iran becomes a theocratic republic. This is is the beginning of contemporary Iran.

The Iranian government features overlapping power structures. With two leaders (the Supreme Leader and the President), as well as those that oversee them, the government of Iran is complex and hard to understand. The Supreme Leader (a Ayatollah) is selected by a group of wise and experienced ayatollahs called the Assembly of Experts. He is appointed for life and is the commander-in-chief. Nothing gets passed without the permission of the Supreme Leader. Presidential contenders must go through vetting with the Expediency Council; hundreds of people are rejected each cycle. When appropriate choices are refined, the masses vote from the choices. The legislative power rests in the Parliament (known as “Majlis”) and the Guardian Council. There are eight major political parties.

Iranian Government Structure

Iran has the 16th largest population in the world. The population is almost 100% Islamic (90–95% Shia), has an 86% literacy rate, and a GDP per capita of $18,100*.

Flag of Iran

The U.S. and Iran has a roller coaster of history. Previously mentioned, the U.S. backed the last Shah of Iran and overthrew the Prime Minister in 1953. After the revolution, Iranians took the American Embassy hostage in 1979, and the crisis lasted 444 days (with failed rescue attempts) until the hostages were let go. The Iran-Contra Affair (1985–1986) involved covert transactions between the U.S. and Iran: a weapons for hostages deal in which the U.S. did negotiate with terrorists. In 1988, a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian passenger plane. President Clinton invoked “dual containment” policy, which aimed to isolate both Iran and Iraq. In 1997, Khatami was elected president of Iran and as a reformist, he hoped to reestablish talks between Iran and the U.S. In 2001, after the advent of 9/11, U.S. President Bush referred to the “Axis of Evil”, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. This cooled relations between the countries than had been warming up. When President Obama is elected to office, he takes a call from Iranian President Rhouhani, the first time the heads of state talked in 30 years. In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is made public and Iran promises to downscale its nuclear capabilities to gain international legitimization.

Map of Iraq and Neighboring Countries

Iraq became independent from British rule in 1932, though Britain maintained a military presence due to the leader’s pro-Axis sympathies. It continued to have a monarchy until 1958. Iraq goes through a series of coups until the Ba’athist regime rises to power in 1968. Ba’athism is an ideology structuring around Arab pan-nationalism seeking the creation of a unified Arab state. Saddam Hussein becomes President in 1979.

From 1980–1988, Iraq was at war with Iran, which ended in a stalemate. In 1990, Iraq invade Kuwait, which resulted in the First Gulf War (known by the U.S. as “Operation Desert Shield” and “Operation Desert Storm”). In 2003, the Second Gulf War began (recognized as “Operation Enduring Freedom”). When Hussein’s regime fell, it meant the minority Sunni rule came to an end, allowing for the marginalized yet majority Shia to gain power. In 2005, Iraq voted on a new constitution, to become an Islamic federal democracy (formally known as the Republic of Iraq). Violence swept through the nation from the time of Hussein’s fall and continues to be dealt with.

Iraqi Government Structure

Iraq has both a President and a Prime Minister. The President is elected by Parliament, while the Prime Minister is selected by the President to lead the government. The President protects the Constitution; the Prime Minister executes direct action. Legislation power is vested in the two houses of parliament: the Council of Representatives and the Federation Council, with 14 major political parties with other major regional ones.

Iraq has the 36th largest population in the world. The population is almost 100% Islamic (55–60% Shia), has an 79% literacy rate, and a GDP per capita of $16,500*.

Flag of Iraq

The U.S. sided with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, because Iraq was more secular, more stable, and more likely to influence the region. The U.S. went to war with Iraq in 1989 because Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. has varied relations with Saddam Hussein until it was clear his regime needed to end. The U.S. eventually caught him and tried him for crimes against humanity, leading Iraq into a new era, with the U.S.’s leadership and military presence. Currently, the U.S. is supporting Iraq’d endeavor to become independent and stable, as well as become legitimate in the international sphere.

Iran and Iraq often get lumped together because no one cares enough to discuss their differences, to provide them and their claims legitimacy. The contemporary states have different origins, different goals, and different (through both are complex) histories with the U.S. These differences and legitimization processes need to be understood to bring in a new era of warming and positive relations.

*For comparison: The U.S. is 46% Protestant, 20% Catholic, 22% unaffiliated, with a lot of other religions representing under 2% of the population. The literacy rate is 99%. GDP per capita is $57,300.

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