What Is the Difference Between Iran and Iraq?

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Iran and Iraq share a 900-mile border and three-quarters of their names. However, the two countries have different histories and cultures, influenced by shared and unique invaders, emperors, and foreign rules alike. 

Many people in the western world, unfortunately, tend to get the two nations confused. This can be insulting to Iranians and Iraqis, who have fought a number of wars against one another over the millennia to assert the independence of each nation's governance.

Where there may be similarities between these two rival neighbors, there are also significant differences between Iraq and Iran, pitting each against the other for centuries as everyone from the Mongols to Americans invaded their countries, only to later be run off by their military powers.

The Differences

Iran, pronounced "​ih-RON" instead of "AY-ran" roughly translates in English to mean "Land of the Aryans" while the name Iraq, similarly pronounced "ih-ROCK" instead of "AY-rack" comes from an Uruk (Erech) word for "city." Both countries have also been known by different names, Persia for Iran and Mesopotamia for Iraq. 

Geographically, the two regions differ in more aspects than just their shared border. The capital city of Iran is Tehran while Baghdad serves as the seat of centralized power in Iraq. Iran ranks 18th largest country in the world at 636,000 square miles while Iraq ranks 58th at 169,000 square miles. Their populations differ proportionally, too. Iran boasts 80 million citizens to Iraq's 31 million.

The ancient empires that once ruled the people of these modern-day nations are also vastly different. Iran was ruled in ancient times by the Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian empires while its neighbor was ruled by the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires. This resulted in an ethnic disparity between these nations. Most Iranians were Persian while Iraqis were of Arab heritage.

Government and International Policy

The government also differed in that the Islamic Republic of Iran operates within a syncretic politics format of a theocratic Islamic governing body including a president, parliament (Majlis), "Assembly of Experts," and their elected "Supreme Leader." Meanwhile, Iraq's government is a Federal Constitutional government, essentially a representative democratic republic now with a president, prime minister, and Cabinet, much like the United State's president. 

The international landscape that influenced these governments also differed in that Iraq was invaded and reformed by the United States in 2003, unlike Iran. As a carryover from the Afghanistan War of years passed, the invasion and resulting Iraq War continued America's involvement in Middle Eastern policy. Ultimately, they were largely responsible for implementing the representative democratic republic that is currently in place.


Confusion is understandable when differentiating these neighboring Islamic nations given general common misunderstandings of Middle Eastern politics and history, which often included boundaries that changed with time and war and resulted in shared culture between neighboring nations.

One of the stark similarities between Iran and Iraq is its shared national religion of Islam, with 90% of Iran and 60% of Iraq following Shia tradition while 8% and 37% follow Sunni, respectively. The Middle East has witnessed a battle for dominance between these two versions of Islam across Eurasia since its foundation in the early 600s.

Certain cultural traditions associated with the religion and former rulers also carry over, as they do for much of the Islamic-majority Middle East. However, governmental policies on such religious philosophies as the necessity of hijabs for women differ nation-by-nation. Jobs, agriculture, entertainment, and even education all lend heavily on the same source material and as a result, also correlate between Iraq and Iran. 

Both are also large producers of crude oil with oil reserves in Iran totaling over 136 billion barrels and Iraq having more than 115 billion barrels itself, which constitute a large portion of their exports and provide the unwanted source of political turmoil in the region as a result of foreign greed and power.

The Importance of Differentiating

Iraq and Iran are separate nations with unique histories. Although they are both located in the Middle East with predominantly Muslim populations, their governments and cultures differ, making for two unique nations, each on their way to independence, peace, and prosperity.

It's important to understand the differences between them, especially considering that Iraq has only recently stabilized as a nation after the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation. And, both Iraq and Iran have become major players in the continued conflicts in the Middle East.

Additionally, it's important to realize that the best way to differentiate Iran and Iraq and truly understand the complex issues surrounding current Middle Eastern power struggles is to look back, study these nations' histories, and determine what the ideal way forward might be for their people and governments. Only with these nations' pasts in mind can we truly understand their way forward. 

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is the Difference Between Iran and Iraq?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/iran-and-iraq-differences-195595. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 28). What Is the Difference Between Iran and Iraq? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/iran-and-iraq-differences-195595 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is the Difference Between Iran and Iraq?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/iran-and-iraq-differences-195595 (accessed June 2, 2023).