The Geo-Strategic Position of Iran

James E. Jennings



ccording to a famous dictum of Realpolitik, two things cannot be changed: one is geography and the other is history.  As the Bush Administration faces the prospect of choosing continued hostility or fresh engagement with Iran’s newly-elected hard line regime over the country’s supposed nuclear proliferation efforts, both of these non-variables should be considered carefully.


Iran’s Geography

As a large landmass of 1.6 million sq. km. (slightly larger than Alaska), with two formidable mountain ranges—Alborz and Zagros— that provide strategic defensive terrain, Iran has much in its favor.  It also holds a strong intermediate geographical position vis a vis Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which are presently occupied by what is admittedly a relatively thin deployment of US troops.  Militarily, Iran would be much more difficult to invade and occupy than Iraq.  Even if such a feat could be accomplished, the long-term prospects for US success in changing the regime in Tehran and establishing a sustainable pro-western government would be highly doubtful.

Equally important as its size, is Iran’s key location at the junction of the Asian continent and the low, mostly desert areas of the Arab Middle East.  Stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, and from the rivers of Mesopotamia to the fringes of the Hindu Kush, Iran is in one sense truly a colossus.  Unlike Iraq, almost totally landlocked and surrounded by hostile borders, Iran is incapable of being completely isolated and blockaded as Iraq was during nearly fifteen years of cruelly punishing US-led sanctions.  Consequently, Iran is not susceptible to the same kinds of economic pressures or the same measure of pain as was Iraq. Yet even there, sanctions failed.  They cannot therefore be considered a serious policy implement in the case of Iran.

It is true that large portions of Iran consist of deserts and salt marshes, but these may function as barriers to mechanized assault, just as they did when the Carter Administration attempted to free Tehran’s US hostages in a daring raid.  That ill-fated “Desert One” debacle left US helicopters wrecked in the sand and US prestige in the region at a new low.  Nothing in Iran’s geography except possibly its sheer magnitude prevents the use of aerial attacks against selected targets, especially when the use of cruise missiles or stealth bombers is contemplated.  President Bush has said, however, that he disdains Clintonesque “pinprick strikes.”  No good options seem to be available to the Pentagon at the moment. 

When one considers the available US arsenal for use against Iran, and the probable targets involved in dealing with Iran’s supposed (or imaginary) development of WMD, the outcome of this latest “Clash of Civilizations” can only be guessed.  True, the US has developed bunker-busting bombs, but the key Iranian facilities are reportedly hidden deep underground.  First in the bull’s eye would likely be the uranium processing plant north of Isfahan.  The plant consists of a collection of boxy concrete factory buildings set at the foot of steep, rocky mountains.  IAEA inspectors have repeatedly declared that the plant is capable of producing only low-grade enriched nuclear fuel for domestic power generation.  The question is what lies beneath the ground and whether or not US air power can possibly penetrate the mountain to sufficient depth to obliterate whatever more sophisticated capabilities may exist there. 

The number of “ifs” implicit in such a scenario boggles the mind.  They could not be taken at all seriously were it not for the fact that the Bush-Cheney White House and Rumsfeld’s Pentagon have been there before, unfortunately seeing not “ifs” but certainties.  The nuclear processing plant now being developed by Russia cannot very well be construed as a high-value target, since it is definitely designed for peaceful uses, but it may serve as one, given Rumsfeld’s worldview.  The man who complained that there were few high-value targets in Afghanistan might be persuaded to launch against the obviously high-tech facility at Bushehr.

All this is speculation.  What is certain is that Iran is capable of resisting Western encroachment because of several often overlooked factors, including its challenging geography, its position as the veritable nexus of Southwest Asia, its history of regional domination, and its strong cultural identity.  Iran’s population of over 70 million today is expected to reach 100 million by 2050.


History and Culture

Iranian history reveals that the nation, however its government may have been organized, has consistently exerted a powerful influence over neighboring countries.  Iranians are immensely proud of their culture and heritage, and rightfully so.  The Achaemenian Empire was the largest ever to rule the ancient world, exceeded in Medieval times only by Genghis Khan and the Mongols.  In the first millennium BC Persia exerted direct rule all the way to Egypt and the upper Nile.  Greece and Persia clashed in the Persian Wars, leading to Alexander’s conquests. The bloody, centuries long, struggles between Rome and the Parthian and Sassasian Empires, and much later, between Savafid Persia and the Ottoman Empire, proved how difficult it can be for external attacks to subdue a resolute people.

Historically, Persian rule extended all the way into Central Asia, with a powerful cultural influence still there today.  Tajikistan and parts of Afghanistan today speak Tajik and Dari, dialectical variants of Farsi, and identify with the Persian cultural sphere.  Iranian religious influence is also spread throughout southern Iraq and the Gulf, and Iranian religious leaders dominate the Shi’a areas of Iraq even more now than before the fall of Saddam.  Throughout history, successive dynasties in the Tigris-Euphrates valley have been greatly impacted by influences from the Iranian highlands.  This cultural element cannot be ignored in any balance of power calculation, for winning hearts and minds must be the ultimate aim of all political discourse.  Iran, whatever its government and whatever attacks it may suffer in the future, remains in a strong position throughout Western Asia.


Political Considerations

The compact resolve of Iran’s population of seventy million when faced with an external threat should also not be underestimated.  It is true that the Iranian people, by and large, are fond of Americans.  The youthful median age of the population and the desire of many urban young people for modernity have been seen by some commentators as a secular and democratic revolution waiting to happen.  That outcome depends on how events unfold and how Western intervention is perceived on the streets of Tehran and other cities.  The grip the mullahs have on the public mind, as well as the degree of popular legitimacy the viyalet-e-faqih constitution holds in the body politic at large, is difficult to judge.  The 2005 elections were one indicator of public support for the theocracy, albeit a flawed measurement because so many candidates were ruled out from the beginning.  Still, hard-line candidate Ahmadi-Nejad amassed impressive vote totals and it would be a mistake to misread these results.  At the moment, those determined to press forward to complete the Khoemeini revolution are in charge in Tehran.

What can be deduced from all of this is that hardheaded ideological regimes are in charge in both Washington and Tehran, which surely spells trouble.  What is most disturbing is that the calls of seasoned observers for engagement with Iran as a way out of the impasse have not been heeded or even listened to.  Even though IAEA inspectors have spent more than two years in Iran, they have not found proof of nuclear weapons there.  The “international community,” meaning the US, some European countries, and Israel, maintain deep suspicions about Iran’s intentions.  We have been down this road before.  Those who have a stake in the outcome, which includes everybody in both countries, should continue to press for the opening of a serious dialogue.  If the meeting of our “US Academics” delegation with the Foreign Ministry’s key think tank in Tehran during September is any indication, the Iranians are certainly open to it. The ball is now in Washington’s court.