A flood of Iraqi shoppers to Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province in the southwest has led to protests and tensions.
Following large demonstrations against the influx of Iraqi visitors, the province’s representative to the influential Assembly of Experts said on Monday, September 10, “The issue of Iraqis’ presence in Abadan and Khorramshahr needs a thorough investigation and should be resolved.”
The recent dramatic fall in the value of the Iranian national currency (rial) has attracted tens of thousands of Iraqis to Khuzestan markets for an “almost free” shopping spree that has substantially increased prices for many goods in the cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr.
Meanwhile, dozens of enraged Iranian citizens have accused Iraqis of harassing local young women and girls.
Based on images circulated on social media, protests against the influx of Iraqis in the two cities have turned into large demonstrations where people chanted vitriolic slogans, condemning the behavior of their neighbors to the west.
A footage circulated on social media showed hundreds of demonstrators in Abadan chanting, “Iraqis, out, out,” in Persian, referring to visitors who came from Iraq’s southern provinces.
Responding to a question about “moral corruption” and “perversion”, Khuzestan’s representative to the Assembly of Experts, mid-ranking cleric, Mohsen Heidari, told state-run Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) on Monday, September 10, “Generally and implicitly speaking, I believe that the authorities should study the recent events in a comprehensive way and, then, properly address the problem.”
Accusing “imperialist and arrogant forces” of attempting to disturb the environment of cooperation and understanding between Iran and Iraq, Heidari maintained, “These forces have been hit hard by the unity of Iranian and Iraqi nations. Therefore, one should not forget that creating pessimism and suspicion will be detrimental to Iranians as well as Iraqis.”
It is not clear what kind of interference Heidari was referring to and who was he blaming. “Imperialist and arrogant” are adjectives usually reserved for the United States.
Heidari’s comments are published at a time that people in Shi’ites’ holiest city in Iran, Mashhad, have been protesting against Iraqi visitors in recent weeks, accusing them of being “sex tourists”.
According to a travel agent, Mostafa Fathollahzadeh, 150,000 Iraqis visit Arvand free trade zone on daily basis to buy goods, sweep the markets and return in the evening.
“These visitors, who do not need an entry visa, pour from Basra and southern Iraq into Arvand free trade zone, Abadan and Khorramshahr solely to buy their staple foods, including meat, chicken and even salt,” Fathollahzadeh told state-run Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA.
As the rial has lost most of its value, Fathollahzadeh argued, “The Iraqi have taken advantage and enjoy an almost free shopping spree in southwestern Iran.”
Buying a chicken in Iraq costs six dinars in Iraq which amounts to 600,000 Iranian rial, Fathollahzade has noted, adding, “Whereas, an Iraqi can easily buy the same chicken for 100,000 to 120,000 rials in Abadan or Khorramshahr.
Describing the situation as extremely harmful and detrimental to Iran’s economy, Fathollahzade has lamented, “These Iraqis are not tourists since they do not buy an air ticket or book a hotel room. They do not spend any money at the local cafes or restaurants. They just rush to the markets to grab cheap goods and leave.”
Furthermore, a member of the free economic zone in Abadan, Ismail Zamani maintains there is growing dissatisfaction within the free-trading border area as Iranian business interests are vulnerable to the ongoing economic crisis and weak currency.
“The protests in the city of Abadan are against the dramatic drop in the value of the rial and the increase in the value of the Iraqi dinar against the local currency, prompting Iraqis, especially the people of Basra, to come to the city of Abadan to buy goods and other products,” Zamani added.
Iran and Iraq, which share a 1,400 kilometers-long (870 miles) border, have maintained strong economic and political ties since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.