The Physical Ecology, Communal Loyalties, and Geopolitics of Iran
by David Pence and A. Joseph Lynch
Physical Ecology: Natural Resources and Physical Geography
Iran is the second largest in land area of the Mideast countries (Saudi Arabia is first). If Iran were compared to a U.S. state, it would be nearly four times the size of California. The Iranian plateau at the heart of the nation is dominated by mountains, particularly the Zagros Mountains running along its borders with Turkey and Iraq. Although Iran's climate is mostly semi-arid, Iran is situated near major water areas in the region, particularly the oil-rich Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf. Iran is ranked third in the world in oil reserves. Almost all of them are along its western border with Iraq and the Persian Gulf. In addition to petroleum, Iran is also rich in natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur.
Communal Loyalties: Ethnicity, Language, and Religion
Iran is the most powerful of the Shia-majority states (the others of which are Iraq, Azerbaijan, and tiny oil-rich Bahrain which is ruled by a Sunni king). It is an inspiration and at times supplier of Shia minorities (Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.) The Iranians speak Persian (60%), Kurdish (10%) and Azeri (15% - a Turkish dialect spoken in northern provinces adjacent to Azerbaijan.) Iran had a significant religious and military history before its conversion to Islam (A.D. 633-655). It was the center of Zoroastrianism; and Cyrus of Persia freed the Jews from their "Babylonian [modern day Iraq] Captivity" in 539 B.C. Iran has 80 million people - comparable to Egypt (88 million, comprised of 85% Sunni and 10% Christian) and Turkey (78 million, another non-Arabic country with 70% Sunni and 15% Shia).
|Many present-day Shiite populations in Sunni countries correspond to the boundaries of the last Persian empire of A.D. 200-650
Geopolitics: Political Geography and Foreign Policy
Iran borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan to the east and north east; the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to the north; Turkey and Iraq to the west; and the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman to the south.
Modern Iran formed the geographic core of the old Persian Empire. Persia, weakened by war with the Byzantine Empire, was rapidly overrun and converted to Islam in the seventh century. For centuries the non-Arab Muslims of Persia stood apart from their religious brethren. The rise of Shia Islam in Persia, however, made this non-Arab, non-Sunni area of the Mideast anathema to the majority of Muslims in the region.
In 1953 Iran was one of the first Mideast countries to nationalize its oilfields. The US-inspired overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953, and return of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, is a history event better remembered in Iran today than the USA. The secular Shah ruled in the name of modernity like Ataturk of Turkey. He introduced female suffrage and compared his national goals with the post-war economic resurgence of Japan. During his rule, Iran and Israel had a multi-layered alliance against their majority Arab and Sunni neighbors. Most Arab nationalists were secularists but still hostile to the Jewish and Persian states. Israel in the early 1950’s under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion struck an “Alliance of the Periphery” with Muslim non-Arab states.
The Shah ruled until his overthrow by the popular Ayatollah Khomeini in the Shiite Spring which preceded the Arab Spring by twenty years. The "Holy Defense War" of 1980-88 against the secular Saddam Hussein leading his majority Shiite nation further shaped the Iranian understanding of their national identity and destiny. They correctly accused the U.S. of supporting Saddam’s invasion.
As religious identity has trumped Arab nationalism as the organizing principle in the Mideast, the Shiite nation-state of Iran is at the top of the ISIS enemy list. The Wahhabi-driven Saudis have long seen Iran across the narrow Strait of Hormuz as a religious and geo-strategic enemy. The Likkud party in nuclear-armed Israel also defines Iran as its greatest existential threat. In the US Congress there has not yet been a serious argument that Shiite Iran might be a proper ally in the war against the jihadist Salafist purification movement of Wahhabi Islam and their supporters in the house of Saud.
Stratfor on Iran's Geographic Challenge
Stratfor - short for Strategic Forecasting, Inc. - is a private global intelligence company that offers geopolitical insight into the interplay of nations. Stratfor has developed an excellent series of short (~2-4 minute) videos which provide the viewer with a specific nation, along with its basic history, geography, culture, and geopolitical allies and adversaries. In the following video, they present the geographic challenges facing Iran.
For more information on Iran, visit its page on the CIA World Factbook.
This post originally appeared on Anthropology of Accord on February 16, 2015.