ALREADY INVOLVED in an ongoing entanglement with the United States, Western Europe, and the Russian Federation concerning its nuclear weapons programme, the Islamic Republic of Iran recently stepped up its political influence in neighbouring Iraq. The 17 October 2010 edition of The Guardian reported that ‘Iran has brokered a critical deal with its regional neighbours that could see a pro-Tehran government installed in Iraq, a move that would shift the fragile country sharply away from a sphere of western influence’. In negotiations denounced by opposition leader Ayad Allawi as an Iranian attempt at ‘interfering and trying to impose its will on Iraq’, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki requested that Iran as well as Iraq’s other neighbours more actively assist in the economic and cultural reconstruction of a country still struggling to rebuild after the 2003 American- and British-led invasion.
Iran’s desire to establish itself as the regional hegemonic power is deeply rooted in its geographical location. The country connects the great trading routes of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf; to the west lie Iraq and Turkey. The former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan hug Iran’s northern frontier and, along Iran’s eastern edge is Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran’s location is well-suited for geopolitics; for centuries the Persian Empire held enormous influence over the Middle East, Asia Minor, West Africa, and further east, in the tribal Himalaya, Koh-i-Bābā, and Hindu Kush ranges. The southern silk roads traversed Iran’s northern expanse, connecting culturally-rich Persia to the Mediterranean city-states, India and China.
In a 1987 paper marking the centennial of the establishment of the first chair in geography at the University of Oxford, then-Secretary of Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs Baroness J Young reminded her audience that, ‘Politics and geography are inevitably and irrevocably inter-twined’. Iran is an archetypal example. Between 1980 and 1988 Iran and Iraq fought a horrifically violent war, fueled by long-standing tension over bilateral borders, mineral and oil claims and ethnic rights. Although the conflict ultimately ended with the borders unchanged, The Iran-Iraq conflict highlighted Tehran’s geographical vulnerability – at the crossroads of so many civilisations, nation-states, and historical feuds. Indeed, Iran’s historical and contemporary trading links complicate its perceived global position vis-à-vis the international community; in a 2000 article published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Jessie P H Poon, Edmund R Thompson and Philip F Kelly suggested that, within a twenty-year period (1975-1995), Iran’s principal trading bloc shifted from Latin and South America to Europe.
Iran’s current dilemma, then, is to increase its soft-power impact across the Middle East and enhance its geographical fortifications. Through close cooperation with Syria, Lebanon, and political and ethnic factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran can achieve both aims. A political alliance with Baghdad, in particular, would increase Iran’s physical buffer with Israel (and by default, the United States and NATO), while also affirming Iran’s geopolitically-dominant position in the region.
Iran’s behaviour may have consequences far beyond the immediate threat of its nuclear technology ambitions. Hussein A Amery suggested in 2002 that tensions over the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the western Middle East could erupt into armed conflict. Iran, with its pervasive reach in Israel’s northern borders, as well as plentiful water access, could play a decisive role in determining the resolution of such a conflict, in turn strengthening Hizbullah and other extremist organizations (320).
Martin Chulov, ‘Iran brokers behind-the-scenes deal for pro-Tehran government in Iraq‘, The Guardian, 17 October 2010, accessed 18 October 2010.
‘Iraqi PM Maliki seeks Iran’s help in reconstruction‘, BBC News, 18 October 2010, accessed 18 October 2010.
Baroness J Young, ‘Geography and Politics‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 12 no. 4 (1987): pp. 391-397.
Jessie P H Poon, Edmund R Thompson and Philip F Kelly, ‘Myth of the Triad? The Geography of Trade and Investment “Blocs‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 25 no. 4 (2000): pp. 427-444.
Hussein A Amery, ‘Water Wars in the Middle East: A Looming Threat‘, The Geographical Journal 168 no. 4 Water Wars? Geographical Perspectives (Dec., 2002): pp. 313-323.