Friday, August 31, 2012

Post #327 - Kaplan, continued

This is the third part of the excerpt 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, begun in post #325:

Again, what makes the clerical regime in Iran so effective in the pursuit of its interests, from Lebanon to Afghanistan, is its merger with the Iranian state, which itself is the product of history and geography. The Green Movement, which emerged in the course of massive anti-regime demonstrations following the disputed elections of 2009, is very much like the regime it seeks to topple. The Greens were greatly sophisticated by the standards of the region (at least until the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia two years later), and thus another demonstration of the Iranian genius. The Greens constituted a world-class democracy movement, having mastered the latest means in communications technology -- Twitter, Facebook, text messaging -- to advance their organizational throw weight and having adopted a potent mixture of nationalism and universal moral values to advance their cause. It took all the means of repression of the Iranian state, subtle and not, to drive the Greens underground. (In fact, the Iranian regime was far more surgical in its repression of the Greens than the Syrian regime has thus far been in its own violent attempt to silence dissent.) Were the Greens ever to take power, or to facilitate a change in the clerical regime's philosophy and foreign policy toward moderation, Iran, because of its strong state and dynamic idea, would have the means to shift the whole groundwork of the Middle East away from radicalization, providing political expression for a new bourgeoisie with middle-class values that has been quietly rising throughout the Greater Middle East, and which the American obsession with al Qaeda and radicalism obscured until the Arab Spring of 2011.12

To speak in terms of destiny is dangerous, since it implies an acceptance of fate and determinism, but clearly given Iran's geography, history and human capital, it seems likely that the Greater Middle East, and by extension, Eurasia, will be critically affected by Iran's own political evolution, for better or for worse.

The best indication that Iran has yet to fulfill such a destiny lies in what has not quite happened yet in Central Asia. Let me explain. Iran's geography, as noted, gives it frontage on Central Asia to the same extent that it has on Mesopotamia and the Middle East. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union has brought limited gains to Iran, when one takes into account the whole history of Greater Iran in the region. The very suffix "istan," used for Central and South Asian countries and which means "place," is Persian. The conduits for Islamization and civilization in Central Asia were the Persian language and culture. The language of the intelligentsia and other elites in Central Asia up through the beginning of the 20th century was one form of Persian or another. But after 1991, Shiite Azerbaijan to the northwest adopted the Latin alphabet and turned to Turkey for tutelage. As for the republics to the northeast of Iran, Sunni Uzbekistan oriented itself more toward a nationalistic than an Islamic base, for fear of its own homegrown fundamentalists -- this makes it wary of Iran. Tajikistan, Sunni but Persian-speaking, seeks a protector in Iran, but Iran is constrained for fear of making an enemy of the many Turkic-speaking Muslims elsewhere in Central Asia.13 What's more, being nomads and semi-nomads, Central Asians were rarely devout Muslims to start with, and seven decades of communism only strengthened their secularist tendencies. Having to relearn Islam, they are both put off and intimidated by clerical Iran.

Of course, there have been positive developments from the viewpoint of Tehran. Iran, as its nuclear program attests, is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East (in keeping with its culture and politics), and as such has built hydroelectric projects and roads and railroads in these Central Asian countries that will one day link them all to Iran -- either directly or through Afghanistan. Moreover, a natural gas pipeline now connects southeastern Turkmenistan with northeastern Iran, bringing Turkmen natural gas to Iran's Caspian region, and thus freeing up Tehran's own natural gas production in  southern Iran for export via the Persian Gulf. (This goes along with a rail link built in the 1990s connecting the two countries.) Turkmenistan has the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves and has committed its entire natural gas exports to Iran, China and Russia. Hence, the possibility arises of a Eurasian energy axis united by the crucial geography of three continental powers all for the time being opposed to Western democracy.14 Iran and Kazakhstan have built an oil pipeline connecting the two countries, with Kazakh oil being pumped to Iran's north, even as an equivalent amount of oil is shipped from Iran's south out through the Persian Gulf. Kazakhstan and Iran will also be linked by rail, providing Kazakhstan with direct access to the Gulf. A rail line may also connect mountainous Tajikistan to Iran, via Afghanistan. Iran constitutes the shortest route for all these natural resource-rich countries to reach international markets.

So imagine an Iran athwart the pipeline routes of Central Asia, along with its sub-state, terrorist empire of sorts in the Greater Middle East. But there is still a problem. Given the prestige that Shiite Iran has enjoyed in sectors of the Sunni Arab world, to say nothing of Shiite south Lebanon and Shiite Iraq -- because of the regime's implacable support for the Palestinian cause and its inherent anti-Semitism -- it is telling that this ability to attract mass support outside its borders does not similarly carry over into Central Asia. One issue is that the former Soviet republics maintain diplomatic relations with Israel and simply lack the hatred toward it that may still be ubiquitous in the Arab world, despite the initial phases of the Arab Spring. Yet, there is something larger and deeper at work, something that limits Iran's appeal not only in Central Asia but in the Arab world as well. That something is the very persistence of its suffocating clerical rule that, while impressive in a negative sense -- using Iran's strong state tradition to ingeniously crush a democratic opposition and torture and rape its own people -- has also dulled the linguistic and cosmopolitan appeal that throughout history has accounted for a Greater Iran in a cultural sense. The Technicolor is gone from the Iranian landscape under this regime and has been replaced by grainy black and white. Iran's imperial ambitions are for the time being limited by the very nature of its clerical rule.

Some years back I was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, from whose vantage point Tehran and Mashad over the border in Iranian Khorasan have always loomed as cosmopolitan centers of commerce and pilgrimage, in stark contrast to Turkmenistan's own sparsely populated, nomadic landscape. But while trade and pipeline politics proceeded apace, Iran held no real magic, no real appeal for Muslim Turkmens, who are mainly secular and are put off by the mullahs. As extensive as Iranian influence is by virtue of its in-your-face challenge to America and Israel, I don't believe we will see the true appeal of Iran, in all its cultural glory, until the regime liberalizes or is toppled. A democratic or quasi democratic Iran, precisely because of the geographical power of the Iranian state, has the possibility to energize hundreds of millions of fellow Muslims in the Arab world and Central Asia.

Sunni Arab liberalism could be helped in its rise not only by the example of the West, or because of a democratic yet dysfunctional Iraq, but also because of the challenge thrown up by a newly liberal and historically eclectic Shiite Iran in the future. And such an Iran might do what two decades of post-Cold War Western democracy and civil society promotion have failed to -- that is, lead to a substantial prying loose of the police state restrictions in former Soviet Central Asia.

With its rich culture, vast territory and teeming and sprawling cities, Iran is, in the way of China and India, a civilization unto itself, whose future will overwhelmingly be determined by internal politics and social conditions. Unlike the Achaemenid, Sassanid, Safavid and other Iranian empires of yore, which were either benign or truly inspiring in both a moral and cultural sense, this current Iranian empire of the mind rules mostly out of fear and intimidation, through suicide bombers rather than through poets. And this both reduces its power and signals its eventual downfall.

Yet, if one were to isolate a single hinge in calculating Iran's fate, it would be Iraq. Iraq, history and geography tell us, is entwined in Iranian politics to the degree of no other foreign country. The Shiite shrines of Imam Ali (the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law) in An Najaf and the one of Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Prophet) in Karbala, both in central-southern Iraq, have engendered Shiite theological communities that challenge that of Qom in Iran. Were Iraqi democracy to exhibit even a modicum of stability, the freer intellectual atmosphere of the Iraqi holy cities could eventually have a profound impact on Iranian politics. In a larger sense, a democratic Iraq can serve as an attractor force of which Iranian reformers might in the future take advantage. For as Iranians become more deeply embroiled in Iraqi politics, the very propinquity of the two nations with a long and common border might work to undermine the more repressive of the two systems. Iranian politics will become gnarled by interaction with a pluralistic, ethnically Arab Shiite society. And as the Iranian economic crisis continues to unfold, ordinary Iranians could well up in anger over hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by their government to buy influence in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. This is to say nothing of how Iranians will become increasingly hated inside Iraq as the equivalent of "Ugly Americans." Iran would like to simply leverage Iraqi Shiite parties against the Sunni ones. But that is not altogether possible, since that would narrow the radical Islamic universalism it seeks to represent in the pan-Sunni world to a sectarianism with no appeal beyond the community of Shia. Thus, Iran may be stuck trying to help form shaky Sunni-Shiite coalitions in Iraq and to keep them perennially functioning, even as Iraqis develop greater hatred for this intrusion into their domestic affairs. Without justifying the way that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was planned and executed, or rationalizing the trillions of dollars spent and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the war, in the fullness of time it might very well be that the fall of Saddam Hussein began a process that will result in the liberation of two countries; not one. Just as geography has facilitated Iran's subtle colonization of Iraqi politics, geography could also be a factor in abetting Iraq's influence upon Iran.

The prospect of peaceful regime change -- or evolution -- in Iran, despite the temporary fizzling of the Green Movement, is still greater now than in the Soviet Union during most of the Cold War. A liberated Iran, coupled with less autocratic governments in the Arab world -- governments that would be focused more on domestic issues because of their own insecurity -- would encourage a more equal, fluid balance of power between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East, something that would help keep the region nervously preoccupied with itself and on its own internal and regional power dynamics, much more than on America and Israel.

Additionally, a more liberal regime in Tehran would inspire a broad cultural continuum worthy of the Persian empires of old, one that would not be constrained by the clerical forces of reaction.

A more liberal Iran, given the large Kurdish, Azeri, Turkmen and other minorities in the north and elsewhere, may also be a far less centrally controlled Iran, with the ethnic peripheries drifting away from Tehran's orbit. Iran has often been less a state than an amorphous, multinational empire. Its true size would always be greater and smaller than any officially designated cartography. While the northwest of today's Iran is Kurdish and Azeri Turk, parts of western Afghanistan and Tajikistan are culturally and linguistically compatible with an Iranian state. It is this amorphousness, so very Parthian, that Iran could return to as the wave of Islamic extremism and the perceived legitimacy of the mullahs' regime erodes.15

12 Vali Nasr, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, Free Press, New York, 2009.
13 Roy, p. 193.
14 M. K. Bhadrakumar, "Russia, China, Iran Energy Map," Asia Times, 2010.
15 Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Random House, New York, 1996, p. 242.

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