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Iraqi military officials at the Al Zurbatiya border crossing with Iran. With the coronavirus raging in Iran, a push to distance their country from their neighbor has gained broader appeal in Iraq. Image Credit: NYT

Baghdad: Truck by truck, border post by border post, a power struggle is unfolding between Iraq and Iran over when to reopen the frontier between the two countries, which Iraq closed five weeks ago to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Iran, which has been hit hard by the virus but needs trade with Iraq to help stabilise its economy, wants it reopened immediately.

Iraq, which fears opening the border to the region’s most heavily infected country, is resisting.

The dispute comes at a time of mounting pressure in Iraq to reduce Iran’s influence, which has been an increasingly powerful force in Iraqi affairs since the United States and its allies overthrew the government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The coronavirus first arrived in Iraq from Iran, and only through strenuous efforts has Iraq kept its caseload relatively low, with only 82 deaths attributed to the virus by Monday.

Iran is one of the world’s coronavirus epicentres, with more than 75,000 cases and 5,200 deaths reported, and some 1,400 new cases a day.

Porous border

Iraq closed its 1,600km border with Iran to Iranians on March 8 and a week later stopped allowing even Iraqi citizens living in Iran from returning to their home country. Until then, the border had been largely porous, with some Iraqis having family members on both sides and Shiite Muslim religious pilgrims going back and forth.

Now, Iran’s leaders are desperate to start reviving an economy staggering under American sanctions and falling oil prices. They recently reopened cities and ended the country’s stay-at-home policy to try to get Iranians back to work.

Without trade and movement between Iran and Iraq, however, Tehran will be hard put to get some of its non-oil industries fully functional again.

Until the coronavirus closed the borders, Iraq had been a major market for Iranian agricultural products, for construction materials, and for dairy goods as well as farmed fish.

Iran’s goal was to increase trade with its neighbour to $20 billion worth of goods over the next couple of years. Iraq may not be Iran’s biggest trading partner - China is - but it does offer access to the dollars Tehran desperately needs.

Iran also is a major natural gas supplier to Iraq, which depends on it to fuel its electricity plants in the south and centre of the country in periods of high use. While gas deliveries were not hampered by the border closures, Iran’s other products have not reached Iraqi markets in large quantities for more than a month.

Last week, the head of Iran’s Haj and Pilgrimage Organisation, Ali Reza Rashidian, announced that “planning has begun to reopen the borders between Iraq and Iran.”

Iraqi officials were aghast, and issued a quick denial.

“Our land border crossings with Iran and Kuwait are completely closed for the movement of passengers and commercial exchange and this closing will continue until further notice,” said Alaa Al Deen Al Qaisi, the spokesman for the Iraqi Border Authority.

Behind the scenes, Iran was lobbying the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to open the borders, said Badr Al Zayadi, a member of Parliament from Basra, a border city, who serves on the Security and Defence Committee.

Support for Iraq’s postwar development

The two countries have a charged and complex relationship, with overlapping ties and enmities going back hundreds of years. Both countries are majority Shiite Muslim, and Iran supported Iraq’s postwar development and sent forces in to help defeat Daesh.

But more recently, Iran has exerted political and economic pressure on Iraq that many Iraqis believe are not in the country’s best interest. Iran intervened in the selection of a prime minister and pushed Iraq to oust the US military from the country.

During anti-government protests in Iraq last fall, anti-Iranian sentiment emerged.

“During the protests, it started with a call to buy Iraqi products, and many people saw it as a patriotic thing to do, and demand even grew for some Iraqi products,” said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative.

But the anti-Iranian sentiment was limited to a relatively small group.

Now, in the coronavirus era, with the health of Iraqis at stake, the push to distance the country from Iran has gained broader appeal.

“People don’t talk about it as anti-Iranian,” Kadhim said. “There are niceties. But people speak about their health. They will support Iran, but not at the expense of health.”

In southern Iraq, cities including Najaf and Karbala have turned back trucks laden with Iranian goods - mostly foodstuffs.

Last week, when 20 cargo trucks arrived at the city gates of Najaf, the governor stopped them. The same thing happened in Karbala, which, like Najaf, is a city of Shiite shrines whose economy is heavily dependent on Iranian pilgrims.

“Karbala province is preventing the entry of all dairy and other soft materials, whether from Iran or other neighbouring countries, because of the possibility of that the coronavirus might be transmit in or on these foodstuffs,” said the deputy governor of Karbala, Jassim Al Fatlawi. “This is being done in keeping with public health guidance.”

He added, “Karbala does not allow any Iranian visitors to enter - we want to keep the coronavirus from spreading in the city.”

On Monday, the border patrol in Basra stopped members of Iranian-backed militias from taking Iraqi trucks to Iran, presumably to bring them back filled with Iranian goods for sale.

The closings have taken a toll on Iranian exports.

One company, Kalleh Dairy, which produces yogurt and cheeses, has laid off workers in Iran because of the decreased Iraqi demand and the limited border crossings, said Abu Jassim Al Kufi, an agent for the brand.

Political observers here see Iraq’s resistance to reopening the border as a signal that Iraqis no longer want Iran to assume it can get what it wants from their country, when it wants.