A diplomatic spat in the Gulf and why tinned meat has boosted the reputation of the US.
Who vs who: The Islamic Republic of Iran vs the Republic of Iraq
What it’s about: The name of the body of water that lies more or less between the two countries. The latest iteration of the Gulf Cup – the biennial football competition among the Arab nations of the vicinity – was hosted in the Iraqi port of Basra. In associated exultations, Iraq’s newish prime minister, Mohammad Al-Sudani, made reference to “the Arabian Gulf”, which, as far as Iran is concerned, is very much “the Persian Gulf”. Iraq’s ambassador in Iran was summoned to have this distinction explained to him; it seems unlikely, such was Iran’s dudgeon, that tea was served.
What it’s really about: Iran does have half a point, in geographical terms: it has 1,536km of Gulf shoreline, while Iraq has 58km (though the Saudis might answer that between their 1,300km worth, plus those of the Gulf emirates, the Arabs collectively come out in front). But it’s mostly Iran stoking nationalist paranoia at home, while yanking Iraq’s chain abroad: since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has worked hard and spent big in an attempt to turn its neighbour into a client state.
Likely resolution: There probably isn’t one, which isn’t necessarily a problem so long as no blows are come to. This is a glorious, pointless row over something about which no sane person cares. Diplomatic Spat aficionados will hope it goes on, if only to fill the void vacated by the now sadly resolved fracas over what North Macedonia should be called.
By the time readers across the northern hemisphere pick up this issue of monocle, they will hopefully be free from the gloomiest clutches of winter and looking forward to the first flush of spring: parting clouds, green shoots and an agreeable atmosphere of renewal and hope. Understandably, spring has served as a metaphor for similar moments in human affairs. There has been, among others, a Prague Spring, Croatian Spring, Damascus Spring, Yangon Spring, Seoul Spring, Harare Spring and, of course, an Arab Spring. That these mostly proved more or less illusory will hopefully not undermine the premise of this column, which is, essentially, that it would be nice to see 2023’s actual spring echoed by the political variety in Russia and Iran.
There have already been moments of optimistic upheaval characterised as the Moscow Spring and the Tehran Spring: the former, in the late 1980s, associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the ussr; the latter, circa the late 1990s, with the tentative reforms of relatively liberal president Mohammad Khatami (“relatively liberal” in the Iranian context meaning “still in favour of enforcing a dress code on women through threats of violence but maybe not quite as awful as the previous bloke”). But neither of those blossomed into any kind of endless summer; in both instances winter descended quickly and lingers still.
The mechanics by which a new Moscow or Tehran Spring might be enacted are easier imagined than assembled but imagined they should be. Russia and Iran both have colossal natural, cultural and human resources; only the adherence of their own governments to imperial hubris and/or ossified dogma prevent them from being prosperous, progressive, open, constructive and collegial nations. No immutable law of nature determines that Russia or Iran must be like this – and there are many reasons why neither should be.
Andrew Mueller hosts our radio show and podcast ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle 24.
Created in 1937 by the Hormel Foods Corporation in the American state of Minnesota, Spam is a product made up of the firm’s surplus pork meat, potato starch, salt and water. Despite its slightly unseemly reputation, more than nine billion cans have been sold worldwide and 12.8 cans are consumed every second. A large proportion of it is eaten in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, where it has long been a much-loved staple of home cooking.
It was the Second World War that first brought the processed pork to the South Pacific. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US blocked shipments of Japanese fish to Hawaii and Spam filled the gap for protein in people’s diets: its islanders consume seven million cans of the stuff every year. An important component of American GIs’ rations, tins of Spam were also handed out to the starving citizens of liberated islands and countries, such as in the Philippines and Korea. In these war- ravaged lands, where meat was scarce, Spam would become a symbol of American largesse – and largeness.
The Korean War in the early 1950s compounded Spam’s popularity. Combining it with kimchi to create budae jjigae, or “military stew”, became popular south of the 38th parallel. In the Philippines, its distinctive blue-and-yellow tins line the walls of high-end department stores and are a staple of Balikbayan boxes, a tradition that sees Philippine émigrés sending gift packages home to their native towns. This soft-power icon endured in East Asia as the US military’s influence in the region receded in the latter decades of the 20th century. In 2023, as American interests pivot to Asia once again, Uncle Sam would do well to remember that reputations and goodwill can be forged on brains as well as (literal) brawn.