In the last installment of the report we took a brief look back at the history of Iran (Persia). Now that we have a better grasp of the tenor of the country we shall turn our attention to Iran geo-strategic aims, both past, present and what they project for the future. In the third installment we shall tackle America and its relationship to Iran.
Key notes concerning Iran
- Total Iranian Dominion: 1,648,195 sq km (19th largest country in the world by landmass); irrigated landmass, 95,530 sq km (approximately)
- Border countries: Afghanistan 921 km, Armenia 44 km, Azerbaijan 689 km, Iraq 1,599 km, Pakistan 959 km, Turkey 534 km, Turkmenistan 1,148 km
- Population dispensation: Iranian settlements are primarily concentrated in the north, northwestern and western areas surrounding the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges.
- Devoid of maritime power
- Natural land fortress (the walls of Iran)
- Semi-arid climate, rough terrain, mountainous, spotted with deserts
- High lands house majority population.
- Low lands are treacherous and difficult to traverse.
- Resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur
- Majority Shi’ite (member of the “Shia Crescent”)
- Strongly favors Shia regimes and minorities populaces across the middle east over Sunni conglomerations.
- Primary languages: Persian (official), Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects, Kurdish, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Luri, Balochi, Arabic
- Considered state-sponsor of terrorism by USA
Iranian Strategic Imperative
- Bolster military
- Maintain control of the Zagros & Elburz mountains and Mesopotamia.
- Maintain control of mountains east of Dasht-e Kavir & Dasht-e Lut to maintain frontiers against Pakistan & Afghanistan.
- Maintain security surrounding the Caucasus to defend land from Russo-Turkish threats.
- Secure Western Coast of Persian Gulf.
- Mitigate ethnic conflagration and work towards inter-ethnic and inter-religious cohesion.
- Bolster economy to mitigate population dissent
- Exploit Shia Crescent
- Win the proxy war with Israel.
- Extricate country from US, UN, EU control
Finding a clear starting point in the geo-strategic aims of Iran is a difficult task due to the chaotic nature of the country, its peculiar, still-congealing form of government (Republican Islamic Theocracy) and its complex, tapestried past. We must begin our exercise by looking to the foremost concentration of power, the religious clerisy of Iran. They are led by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, a poet and scholar who was a devout disciple of the late Supreme Leader, Imam Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini (these leaders are often confused for each other by Westerners due to the similarities of their names). Khamenei’s words will doubtless echo as much as his predecessors throughout future Iranian policies and trajectories and he, like Khomeini are already well enshrined in popular culture, thus, a summary of the man and his positions is well in order.
Supreme Leader Khamenei
No political action can be taken and sustained without the approval of the Supreme Leader. As Iranian National Library director and 5th president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami once said, “The Supreme Leader has the final say over everything, so before standing [for election], I had to see what he thought of my candidacy.”
Therefore we turn to the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is a peculiar man in that he is not very peculiar at all. He has been described by many of those who knew him as a extremely ordinary Iranian. Despite these descriptions he does have many notable attributes, the first and foremost is his caution. Khamenei is a extremely introspective individual, one who carefully considers, not just his words, but also his actions (his methodical method of speech and comprehensive assimilation of geopolitical events well attests to this characterization). This is to say, he is not a man who “shoots from the hip.” He is also a highly educated man and took for his mentors both Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hadi Milani (1892–1975) and the notorious Imam Ruhollah Khomenei (1902–1989). Ethnically, Khamenei is of Azerbaijanis (Iberian) extraction, the largest minority population in Iran. The Supreme Leader is reportedly in failing health and sometimes vanishes for long periods of time from the public eye; these reports are not conclusive but rather, largely speculative.
Khamenei’s political ideology is concurrent with his faith in that he champions a strong, independent Islamic Iran. Whilst Western media outlets (especially ostensibly “right-wing” ones) take to characterizing Khamenei as little more than a mad-dog dictator, this is far too reductionist; Khamenei is a very philosophically adept and reasonable individual (provided those whom he is engaging with are not considered existential threats to Iran or Islam). Khamenei and his followers believe that the Western powers are decadent but fully acknowledge that the Eastern hubs of power pale in comparison to those of the United States and Europe; one of the slogans of the Iranian Islamic Revolution is: Neither Easterners nor Westerners.
“The part of the slogan, ‘…nor westerners’ means that we should not be mesmerized, submerged, enslaved or influenced by the west; we should not move in the direction of their demands; we should cleanse the country of a process of assimilation into the decadent western culture. The Assembly of Experts should examine this issue and it should put forward its demands.” – Khamenei, 2017
Elsewhere Khamenei has reiterated his point through colorful aphorisms, such as,
“-we should not exchange our powerful legs for the foreigners’ cane.” – Khamenei, 2017
This is to say that, though he is open to the idea of dialogue with the rest of the world, the Iranian’s should always move forwards under their own power and towards their own ends (the Islamic Revolution) and not be tempted into assimilation with the comfortable (or “decadent” to use his own phraseology), western way of life.
His opinion of the current president as of this writing, Donald J. Trump, is as low as his opinion on the general character of Western Civilization. He stated in a speech given to the Assembly of Experts (The Revolutionary Islamic Intellectual Clerisy) that:
“The reason behind the ignorant, derogatory, and thoughtless speech delivered by the US President – rife with gang-like rhetoric and cowboy fantasies, and filled with much falsehood and confusion – is due to his anger, desperation, and witlessness,” he went on to say, “The statements of the US President were not a source of pride for the American nation; personalities representing USA should feel embarrassed by these statements and their President. Of course, they have expressed this embarrassment before.” He later elaborated, “Beginning decades ago, the Americans (USA) had a plan for West Asia, they called this plan, ‘The New Middle East’ or ‘The Greater Middle East.’ The three main axes of this plan were Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but they faced defeat in all of these three countries.” He continued, “On the basis of this plan, Iraq – with its ancient history and civilization – Syria, as the Center of Resistance, and Lebanon with its special position, were supposed to fall under the influence and domination of the US and the Zionist regime. Today, however, the realities of the region are so different, because they (US and Zionists) have not managed to accomplish anything in Lebanon; and, in Iraq, what has happened is the exact opposite of what they set out to do; in Syria, too, despite the countless crimes of the US and its allies, the massacre of the people in that country, and the USA’s overwhelming support of terrorist and takfiri [those who excommunicate others in religion] groups, DAESH has now reached its end game, and takfiri groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, have become isolated,” later still he added, “The presence and influence of the Islamic Republic have caused plans and desires of the US and the Zionist regime to fail in the region, and that is why they are angry.”
In a more recent speech which clearly defines the national project of Iran, Khamenei stated,
“It’s not simply a question of a number of years. It is a fight of a nation against an anti-nation; a fight of Iran against anti-Iran; a fight of Islam against anti-Islam: this has always existed and will persists.” -Khamenei (January 9, 2018)
Moving from the micro to the macro, Iranian foreign and defensive policy has, in recent years, moved much in line (and away from and then back in line) with Khamenei’s afore-sketched-out philosophy.
Despite critics of Iran stating that the country is highly sectarian in favor of Shia Muslims, this isn’t entirely true. Whilst it is true that Iran is primarily Shi’ite in terms of religious composition and thus favors the Shia overall, Iran has shown support for various Sunni groups such as Hamas and also works in tandem with non-Muslim groups who support the Palestinians.
Support for the Palestinian People; Opposition to Israel
To frame the issue with the most brevity: Israel hates Iran, Iran hates Israel. Due the Iranians sympathy for the Palestinian people – who they view as being oppressed – they look upon Israel as a tyrannical force which must be destroyed. The total eradication of Israel and the Zionist program is the publicly stated end goal of Iranian foreign policy as pertains to the region.
Trajectory Towards National Interest (Territorial Power) Over Religion
Despite Iran’s intensive support for the Shia tradition and its practitioners, wherever on the globe they might happen to be, numerous instances have shown that they are not nearly so “radical” or “fanatical” as they are often made to outwardly appear. For instance, Iran has sided with the Christian dominated Armenia over the Muslim (Shi’ite) dominated Azerbaijan in a attempt to prevent their own Azeri population from forming nationalistic sentiment towards the region (which would thus destabilize Iran from within and strengthen Azerbaijan). Iran, additionally, has refrained from showing any support for Sunni exigencies within Central Asia, a policy trajectory that mirrors that of Russia.
Opposition to EU, US economic and military power
Iran has a history of engagement with Turkey (a US ally) in order to fight against US/EU sanctions. Iran also believes that the US and Israel wish to restructure the Middle East to their benefit (which some portion of each state clearly does, as modern history well attests) and view this as antithetical to Iranian interests.
In Khamenei’s own words,
1. “The plot was made by Americans (US) and Zionists. They have been plotting for many months to initiate riots in small cities and eventually move towards the center.”
2. “Money was provided by a wealthy government near the Persian Gulf. Well, these plots are costly. The Americans are not willing to spend money while such accomplices are already there.”
3. “The third side of the triangle consists of the US submissive henchmen: Mohajhedeen-E-Khalq Organization, the murderous MEK.”
“The plot” being the covert take-over of the middle east.
Much like the USA, Iran has a self-conception of its own exceptional nature which is granted it by God (Allah). Iranians often demonstrate this perceived uniqueness by comparing and contrasting their history and form of governance with that of the six surrounding Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman).
Iran is highly factionalized with many different interests groups vying for different approaches concerning external and internal policies. The two main poles of power are Khamenei and the clerisy and the moderate and far more diplomatic president, Hassan Rouhani who has asserted that it is disadvantageous for Iran to have any “permanent enemies.” Rouhani also believes that the controversial JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/Iran Deal) is a circumstance which can be turned to Iran’s advantage as he believes that is is important for Iran to renew old friendships and affirm new ones with other world powers as this would greatly bolster both Iranian security and influence; the JCPOA, Rouhani asserts, is the path towards this new era of cooperation and influence.
Rouhani’s pragmatic “real-politik” is in stark opposition to the Khamenei faction who look upon the JCPOA as something which must be begrudgingly accepted.
After President Trump stated that Iran had not lived up to the spirit of the JCPOA, Khamenei responded by saying, “Trump’s stupidity should not distract us from America’s deceitfulness … If the U.S. tears up the deal, we will shred it … Everyone should know that once again America will receive a slap in its mouth and will be defeated by Iranians.”
This stark contrast in diplomatic tact and lack of coherent messaging could prove increasingly problematic for the Supreme Leader and may open up paths of ascent for Rouhani and/or the office of the presidency as a whole given the fact that the moderate president of Iran has the backing of the youth (largely more liberal than the previous generation) and the intellectual elite (who largely desire moderate reform and world participation).
We thus conclude our overview for the moment and will be looking into US policy to Iran and some policy suggestions in the third installment of our paper.
- Supreme Leader: The highest religious authority in the country of Iran who governs the clerical body; the true source of governing power.
- Imam: Most venerable designation in Shi’ite tradition. Superior to a Ayatollah.
- Quoted from, Iran and the West, Part 2: The Pariah State (documentary).
- Situation report on the Iran-Iraq war, noting that each side is preparing for chemical weapons attacks (July 29, 1982)
- Top secret memo documenting chemical weapons use by Iraq, and discussing Iran’s likely reactions (Nov. 4, 1983)
- Memo to the director of Central Intelligence predicting that Iraq will use nerve agents against Iran (Feb. 24, 1984)
- Intelligence assessment of Iraq’s chemical weapons program (January 1985)
- CIA predicts widespread use of mustard agents and use of nerve agents by late summer (March 13, 1984)
- CIA confirms Iraq used nerve agent (March 23, 1984)
- CIA considers the consequences for chemical weapons proliferation now that Iraq has used mustard and nerve agent (Sept. 6, 1984)