Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post #325 - Geography is Destiny

I will post, in three consecutive installments, excerpts (the portions regarding Iran) from the new book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflict and the Battle against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan, which will be released next month. Kaplan is with the Stratfor consulting firm, which distributed the material below.

The Geography of Iranian Power

The most important facts about Iran go unstated because they are so obvious. Any glance at a map would tell us what they are. And these facts explain how regime change or evolution in Tehran -- when, not if, it comes -- will dramatically alter geopolitics from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

Virtually all of the Greater Middle East's oil and natural gas lies either in the Persian Gulf or the Caspian Sea regions. Just as shipping lanes radiate from the Persian Gulf, pipelines will increasingly radiate from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China and the Indian Ocean. The only country that straddles both energy-producing areas is Iran, stretching as it does from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf. In a raw materials' sense, Iran is the Greater Middle East's universal joint.

The Persian Gulf possesses by some accounts 55 percent of the world's crude oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole Gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz 990 kilometers (615 miles) away. Because of its bays, inlets, coves and islands -- excellent places for hiding suicide, tanker-ramming speed boats -- Iran's coastline inside the Strait of Hormuz is 1,356 nautical miles; the next longest, that of the United Arab Emirates, is only 733 nautical miles. Iran also has 480 kilometers of Arabian Sea frontage, including the port of Chabahar near the Pakistani border. This makes Iran vital to providing warm water, Indian Ocean access to the landlocked Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Iranian coast of the Caspian in the far north, wreathed by thickly forested mountains, stretches for nearly 650 kilometers from Astara in the west, on the border with former Soviet Azerbaijan, around to Bandar-e Torkaman in the east, by the border with natural gas-rich Turkmenistan.

A look at the relief map shows something more. The broad back of the Zagros Mountains sweeps down through Iran from Anatolia in the northwest to Balochistan in the southeast. To the west of the Zagros range, the roads are all open to Iraq. When the British area specialist and travel writer Freya Stark explored Lorestan in Iran's Zagros Mountains in the early 1930s, she naturally based herself out of Baghdad, not out of Tehran. To the east and northeast, the roads are open to Khorasan and the Kara Kum (Black Sand) and Kizyl Kum (Red Sand) deserts of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, respectively. For just as Iran straddles the rich energy fields of both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, it also straddles the Middle East proper and Central Asia. No Arab country can make that claim (just as no Arab country sits astride two energy-producing areas). In fact, the Mongol invasion of Iran, which killed hundreds of thousands of people at a minimum and destroyed the qanat irrigation system, was that much more severe precisely because of Iran's Central Asian prospect.

Iranian influence in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia is potentially vast. Whereas Azerbaijan on Iran's northwestern border contains roughly 8 million Azeri Turks, there are twice that number in Iran's neighboring provinces of Azerbaijan and Tehran. The Azeris were cofounders of the first Iranian polity since the seventh century rise of Islam. The first Shiite Shah of Iran (Ismail in 1501) was an Azeri Turk. There are important Azeri businessmen and ayatollahs in Iran, including current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The point is that whereas Iran's influence to the west in nearby Turkey and the Arab world has been well established by the media, its influence to the north and east is equally profound; and if the future brings less repressive regimes both in Iran and in the southern, Islamic tier of the former Soviet Union, Iran's influence could deepen still with more cultural and political interactions.

There is, too, what British historian Michael Axworthy calls the "Idea of Iran," which, as he explains, is as much about culture and language as about race and territory.1 Iran, he means, is a civilizational attractor, much like ancient Greece and China were, pulling other peoples and languages into its linguistic orbit: the essence of soft power, in other words. Dari, Tajik, Urdu, Pashtu, Hindi, Bengali and Iraqi Arabic are all either variants of Persian, or significantly influenced by it. That is, one can travel from Baghdad in Iraq to Dhaka in Bangladesh and remain inside a Persian cultural realm.

Iran, furthermore, is not some 20th century contrivance of family and religious ideology like Saudi Arabia, bracketed as the Saudi state is by arbitrary borders. Iran corresponds almost completely with the Iranian plateau -- "the Castile of the Near East," in Princeton historian Peter Brown's phrase -- even as the dynamism of its civilization reaches far beyond it. The Persian Empire, even as it besieged Greece, "uncoiled, like a dragon's tail ... as far as the Oxus, Afghanistan and the Indus valley," writes Brown.2 W. Barthold, the great Russian geographer of the turn of the 20th century, concurs, situating Greater Iran between the Euphrates and the Indus and identifying the Kurds and Afghans as essentially Iranian peoples.3

Of the ancient peoples of the Near East, only the Hebrews and the Iranians "have texts and cultural traditions that have survived to modern times," writes the linguist Nicholas Ostler.4 Persian (Farsi) was not replaced by Arabic, like so many other tongues, and is in the same form today as it was in the 11th century, even as it has adopted the Arabic script. Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent, including Mesopotamia and Palestine. There is nothing artificial about Iran, in other words: The very competing power centers within its clerical regime indicate a greater level of institutionalization than almost anywhere in the region save for Israel, Egypt and Turkey.

Greater Iran began back in 700 B.C. with the Medes, an ancient Iranian people who established, with the help of the Scythians, an independent state in northwestern Iran. By 600 B.C., this empire reached from central Anatolia to the Hindu Kush (Turkey to Afghanistan), as well as south to the Persian Gulf. In 549 B.C., Cyrus (the Great), a prince from the Persian house of Achaemenes, captured the Median capital of Ecbatana (Hamadan) in western Iran and went on a further bout of conquest. The map of the Achaemenid Empire, governed from Persepolis (near Shiraz) in southern Iran, shows antique Persia at its apex, from the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. It stretched from Thrace and Macedonia in the northwest, and from Libya and Egypt in the southwest, all the way to the Punjab in the east; and from the Transcaucasus and the Caspian and Aral seas in the north to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the south. No empire up to that point in world history had matched it. Persia was the world's first superpower, and Iranian leaders in our era -- both the late shah and the ayatollahs -- have inculcated this history in their bones. Its pan-Islamism notwithstanding, the current ruling elite is all about Iranian nationalism.

The Parthians manifested the best of the Iranian genius -- which was ultimately about tolerance of the cultures over which they ruled, allowing them a benign suzerainty. Headquartered in the northeastern Iranian region of Khorasan and the adjacent Kara Kum and speaking an Iranian language, the Parthians ruled between the third century B.C. and the third century A.D., generally from Syria and Iraq to central Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Armenia and Turkmenistan. Thus, rather than the Bosporus-to-Indus or the Nile-to-Oxus scope of Achaemenid Persia, the Parthian Empire constitutes a more realistic vision of a Greater Iran for the 21st century. And this is not necessarily bad. For the Parthian Empire was extremely decentralized, a zone of strong influence rather than of outright control, which leaned heavily on art, architecture and administrative practices inherited from the Greeks. As for the Iran of today, it is no secret that the clerical regime is formidable, but demographic, economic and political forces are equally dynamic, and key segments of the population are restive. So do not discount the possibility of a new regime in Iran and a consequently benign Iranian empire yet to come.

1 Michael Axworthy. A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, Basic Books, New York, 2008, p. 3.
2 Brown. The World of Late Antiquity, p. 163.
3 W. Barthold, An Historical Geography of Iran, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, (1903) 1971 and 1984, pp. x-xi and 4.
4 Ostler, Empires of the Word, p. 31.

[To be continued in the next Red Horse post.]

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