The country is mired in a serious political crisis. Mass demonstrations against the corrupt political elite have been taking place since October. In December, the Prime Minister and his cabinet resigned. Since then, the search has been on for a new head of government who can mobilise a transitional administration and organise new elections. One has already failed, a second is currently trying to do this. The only way to face the pandemic is isolation and sealing off the country from the outside. The airport has been closed, borders with neighbouring countries are also closed, in Kurdish northern Iraq the curfew has been extended by another week.

But there are apparently exceptions. Two or three borders with Iran have stayed open, although this is where the virus is coming from. The first infected Iraqis had all just returned from Iran. The interdependence of the two nations runs deep.

Exchange occurs not just on a political level, but also on a social and above all religious level. Every year, millions of Iranian pilgrims visit sacred Shia sites in Kerbela and Najaf, as well as the shrine of Musa al-Khadim.

Situation out of control

The irony of the situation: Many Iraqis are receiving medical treatment in Iran, although the health system there is on the brink of collapse. With 1,812 coronavirus deaths, Iran is up there with China and Italy. It is thought that more than 23,000 Iranians have been infected with the virus (as of 23 March). A representative of the health ministry in Tehran who wanted to remain anonymous estimates that around 40 percent of the population of 81 million are affected by Covid-19.


"The situation is out of control," said the source. But instead of cooperating with neighbouring nations in the fight against the virus, Tehran is expressing irritation at the "inaccurate media reporting". In late February, Iranian deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi appeared before the media to calm the population – claiming that everything was under control.

He sat in front of the microphones, his forehead bathed in sweat. He had to cough repeatedly. Shortly afterwards he posted a video statement: "I would like to inform you that I have been infected with the coronavirus, the tests were positive." Since then, the credibility of the Iranian leadership has been severely eroded. In Iraq too. "They brought us the virus" is a view frequently heard on the streets of Baghdad.

Attitudes to neighbouring Iran have been a rollercoaster of emotions in recent months. While the mass protests in early October against the Iraqi political class were also directed at the influence of Iran and America on Iraq, the mood changed when Washington ordered the killing of the Iranian General Qassim Soleimani on Iraqi territory. Thereafter, the anti-Iran slogans disappeared from Tahrir Square. U.S. flags and Israel banners were burned and demonstration marches held calling for the withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq.

When the Iranian-controlled Shia militias took action against protesters in Iraq, shooting several of them dead and threatening their families, and the protest movement within Iran itself was brutally crushed, the picture changed yet again. The import of the coronavirus from Iran looks likely to further exacerbate tensions with Iraq's neighbour to the east.

Birgit Svensson

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

More on this topic