It’s hot, then it’s cold, it’s yes, then it’s no, it’s in, then it’s out, etc. Did you know Katy Perry was describing Iran? Well, she wasn’t. Nevertheless, Iran is a land of contrasts. Let’s hear it for opposites! And because there’s so much, this makes Iran more complicated.
Iran’s geography makes it a tough place to take over
Iran’s western borders are fortified by the Zagros Mountains, which are not so impassable to prevent conquest, but just enough to keep less-than-serious invaders out. In ancient times, civilizations formed behind these barriers and benefited from the trade routes between China and India and Europe.
To the east is a massive fucking desert and the perpetual geopolitical nightmare that is Afghanistan. Both of these are handy natural barriers against attack.
In the central highlands, the weather’s mild, the rain’s good, and it’s overall pretty pleasant. Naturally, this is where most of Iran’s population lives.
Failure of either of these barriers means Iran collapses
A place as old as Iran has its fair share of conquests. Anytime an invader bothered to put together a force tough enough to cross the eastern desert or the western mountains, Iran typically fell apart. Thus, any civilization or government based out of Iran desperately seeks buffer zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to build a firewall against enemy forces.
Iran is rightfully paranoid that the outside world is out to get them
Read a basic book on Iran and you’ll see a hundred wars and numerous famous people who have, at different times, destroyed Iranian cities. The last time this happened was in 1943, when, almost as an afterthought, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and established spheres of influence in the north and south of the country for the duration of World war II.
Iran’s got a sophisticated culture and people who remember these bad things
While Iran’s peoples are divided between different ethnic groups, the years since World War II have been pretty successful in nation-building. Unlike Syria, despotic and corrupt, Iranians have a pretty good sense of themselves. First the Shah started the process, then the Ayotollahs solidified it. Iranian nationalism is quite self-aware and thus the country’s far less likely to split up the way Syria has.
Iran’s government is more complicated than at first glance
Because it’s been a center of civilization for so long and because Iranian culture is deeply rooted, Iran is not a divided, unstable place like Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. To reflect these complications, the power structure of the ruling government is divided between different interests – the religious, the military, the urban elite, etc. While the ruling clergy technically has final say, they don’t want to push the issue too hard for fear of a counter-revolution toppling them. Iranian society is far too well-educated by now – and has been taught the virtue of revolution as well – for a despot to just run the show on a whim.
So Iran must balance a few things
1). Keep the borders secure. Friendly or at least neutral governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferably like-minded Shi’a, but, failing that, at least not assholes like Saudi Arabia.
2). Keep the rest of the world out. Don’t give anyone an excuse to invade. Iran’s government knows it will lose a one-to-one contest with a big power like the United States. This is why, despite Saddam being so badly weakened after 1991, Iran did not invade Iraq to finish the job. Had they done so, they’d have roused the U.S. to dispose of them. This is also why they’re balancing the speed of their nuclear program. To do it too fast could tip an intervention. To not do it at all gives them less security.
3). Keep the people under control. Iranian political culture is more than meets the eye. The Supreme Leader has to balance the various forces underneath him. 2009’s Green Uprising must have been horrifying for him, as he’d failed to read the tea leaves correctly. It may surprise some to hear Iran’s even got elections, assuming it’s another jack-booted dictatorship. But Iranians won’t put up that anymore. Even though the candidates are vetted, at least some of the people demand to be heard.
4). Push back against Saudi. Saudi Arabia also claims to have the Most Super True Version of Islam. They’re both oil giants, as well. But while Saudi is a new country, Iran remembers a day when its ships once dominated the Persian Gulf (and it’s very much the Persian Gulf to the Iranians; fuck the guys who say otherwise). The most immediate pressure points are in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi’s Eastern Provinces, all home to large Shi’a populations oppressed by Sunni governments. Syria and Lebanon are further afield, but are still important fronts against Saudi Arabia.
And so, in future, they’ll try to hold Syria
Doing so gives them strategic depth and allows them to supply their allies in Lebanon. But nothing about Syria is do-or-die. To lose Syria would be bad news, but not a total disaster.
But losing Iraq would be
Most invasions of Iran have come out of Iraq. Iran’s got a long memory. They’re far safer with a friendly government in Iraq. Any push against the government there will result in a far bigger Iranian intervention than the one currently underway in Syria.
And they don’t particularly want a hostile Afghanistan, either
Meaning they will attempt to push the Americans out as soon as they can. That doesn’t mean they’re pro-Taliban, who are more Saudi-aligned. Rather, they’ll prefer either some Shi’a group to take charge or would like to see perpetual chaos. Afghan stability is just not in their interests.
Meanwhile, the nuclear card will remain a bargaining chip
Iran will continue to draw this thing out as long as possible. Any permanent settlement must mean Iran’s security concerns are addressed, i.e., America cedes Iraq to them and backs off its support for Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Iran will be able to live with a lost Syria, even a failed Hezbollah, but it cannot allow Iraq to slip into enemy hands again.
But Iran won’t want to provoke a war. There are many cooler heads in the government who know they’ll lose that fight. Because of the multi-polar nature of their ruling system, those voices are being heard and, for now, being heeded.
The recent election gives them a way out
Iran can now negotiate with the West with a bit freer of a hand. Whether or not they’ll take it is up for grabs. Iran’s security needs aren’t being addressed by picking fights with the West, and their leaders are old enough not to be so emotional about the past. But they will continue to hold out until they get the best deal possible.
So the options are simple: accommodate Iran’s security needs or smash up their ambitions
The most likely path, eventually, is for America to destroy Iran’s government one way or another. Iran remains a threat to American interests and refuses to align itself with the new global order. It has few friends, let alone powerful ones, who might protect it (the depth of Russia’s friendship is untested). Iran as regional hegemon cannot be allowed. So it must be either convinced to join the global system, or it must be made to. The current trajectory implies the latter.
- Iran president-elect: Country needs unity and solidarity (en.trend.az)
- A less mischievous Iran under Hassad Rouhni? (stevenwilding.wordpress.com)
- Persian 101: Iranian Elections and the Art of Diplomacy (connect58.wordpress.com)