Saturday, November 12, 2011

Post #69 - Hot Properties

"The Lord had said to Abram, Get forth out of thy land and out of thy kindred and out of the house of your father, and come into the land which I will show thee." (Genesis 12:1)

Father of the "Abrahamic" faiths
Iran is located in a region that has been called “the cradle of civilization” – human beings have inhabited the area for as much as 100,000 years. This is the region that Abraham left behind, a crossroads area, a prize sought by all the world's great empires. The “age of oil” is only the latest in a series of episodes of development, defense and conquest. Iran is 4.5 times the size of California and twice as populous, despite the vast areas taken up by deserts and mountains. Average annual rainfall varies from zero in some uninhabitable desert areas to over 60 inches per year in some of Iran's rainforests.

To the north lies the Caspian Sea, the world's largest salt water lake, with a maximum depth of almost 3400 feet and an area four times that of Lake Superior. The Caspian region may hold another 175 billion gallons of petroleum – as much as two new North Sea fields. The sea itself has given Iran its bounty – the US market alone for Caspian caviar was $350 million in 1995, when sanctions had not yet been applied. To the south of Iran is the Persian Gulf, perhaps the world's most important waterway in regard to transport of goods, especially energy resources.

Bordering Iran are:

Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, whose people are culturally similar to the people of Iran's northwestern province (also called Azerbaijan);

Armenia, another former Soviet republic, one of the few countries in the region that is predominantly Christian, and which maintains close ties with the community of Armenians within Iran;

Turkey, a not-fully-Asian, not-quite-European country which swings between conservative Muslim leadership and an aggressively secular approach to culture and governance, and where a sizable Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey is subjugated by the majority Turks;

Iraq, where dictator Saddam Hussein was replaced by a uneasy and unpredictable patchwork of Kurds (part of whose cultural group live in western Iran), the majority Shi'ite Arabs, including the country's leadership (who are co-religionists of most Iranians), the minority Sunni Arabs and an military force of nearly 200,000 Westerners (at the high of the occupation), plus contractors, United Nations and aid workers, diplomats and journalists.

Pakistan, an uncertain and volatile land of Western-allied leaders, Taliban sympathizers, Baluchi tribesman (like the people of southeastern Iran), and mountain-dwelling tribesman like those in adjacent Afghanistan, Pakistan has long been in an antagonistic relationship with giant India to its East, which periodically erupts into war or bombs targeting civilians;

Forbidding Afghan terrain
Afghanistan, now partially controlled by a relatively young government and a U.S.-led NATO force. Afghans speak nearly the same language as that of the majority Persians in Iran; significant portions of the population are Shi'ite Muslim. “In 1997,” wrote Haleh Esfandiari (director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center) in 2005, “when [Shi'ites in Hezara] were massacred and a number of diplomats were killed [by the Taliban] in Mazar-i Sharif, Iran massed its troops at the border with Afghanistan.” She contrasts the situation of the two neighbors at that time: "While Pakistan had relations with and condoned the actions of the Taliban, Iran condemned the Taliban’s treatment of women and the excesses that were perpetrated under the name of Islam."
In the same Wilson Center report, Dr. Vali Nasr (at the time, Associate Chair of Research in national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School) was quoted by Esfandiari as saying:

"After 9/11…Iran’s objectives included…rekindling a dialogue with Washington based on cooperation in Afghanistan…Iran would benefit from a stable Afghanistan and a central government that can control the flow of drugs into Iran and entice Afghan refugees in Iran to return to Afghanistan…
Iranians found the U.S. to be in no mood to mend fences with Iran; in fact, the U.S. was buoyed by its victory in Afghanistan and became keen to challenge Tehran’s policies. This realization changed Iran’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan. Iran began to view long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a pro-American government in Kabul, and more generally a centralized Afghanistan state as strategic threats.

Turkmenistan, one of the poor, underdeveloped former Soviet republics that has been called “a comic opera regime.” The president of the Open Society Institute Aryeh Neier) has said. “The worst features of the Soviet totalitarian system are preserved in Turkmenistan: a gulag of penal colonies; the confinement of dissenters in psychiatric hospitals; show trials; and refusal to permit dissenters to leave the country.” Ethnic Turkomans also inhabit one province of Iran.

Bahrain skyline
Nearby, but not contiguous with Iran, are little Kuwait, whose capture led to the First Persian Gulf War, and Syria – often mentioned in the same breath with Iran as a nation that opposes Israeli power and Western influence, along with the tiny, wealthy countries of the Persian Gulf – Bahrain (with a large, sometimes restive minority of Shi'ites), Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates – and the much larger Saudi Arabia (seat of the holiest places of Islam and home of the super-conservative Wahabi Muslim sect).  Below Saudi lies little Yemen, site of the USS Cole bombing. Nearly all of these latter countries have been the scene recently of demonstrations and internal conflict -- part of what has been termed collectively "the Arab Spring."

Not to be forgotten is the near neighbor of Iran to the north, the giant Russian Federation. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a Middle East researcher based in Germany, and author of a study on the Iran crisis Iran in the Eye of the Storm: Why a Global War Has Begun, considers Russia to be the single potential strategic beneficiary of an assault on Iran by the United States. They are a major oil and gas producer and would benefit from more expensive fuels; they are still a rival of the United States, cold war or not, and would not be unhappy about America's becoming further “stretched” militarily, or about a power vacuum in the Middle East that could rapidly result from such U.S. actions.

On the far side of Pakistan lies giant India. While enjoying cordial relations with Iran, "the world's largest democracy" has a brewing problem in its Muslim minority. The recent Sachar Committee report showed that Indian Muslims are "disenfranchised, poor, jobless and uneducated. Their conditions are worse than those of the dalits, the caste commonly called 'untouchables.'" A journalism professor at Georgetown University, Asra Q. Nomani, citing that study said, "Unless something is done to improve the socioeconomic conditions of Muslims in India, it may be only a matter of time before extremist Islamic ideology takes root" among the members of this community, where "52 per cent are unemployed...91 percent [of women]."

This is the cradle of civilization -- the Middle East and South Asia -- not an easy neighborhood to move into. [More on this topic in my next post.]

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