By William Tucker
Presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has stated on several occasions that, “Syria is the route that allows Iran to supply Hezbollah with weapons in Lebanon. Syria is Iran’s route to the sea.” This statement has been met with confusion among many political watchers. On their website the Washington Post even responded by calling it “weird.” In response to the media coverage the Romney campaign responded, “It is generally recognized that Syria offers Iran strategic basing/staging access to the Mediterranean as well as to terrorist proxies in the Levant. This is a large reason why Iran invests so much in Syria.” As I’ve stated here on IHS before, political discourse can have different meanings to different audiences. Also, the language used should never be considered actual policy. Sometimes the speaker will use provocative language to initiate a response.
Now, to be clear, this piece isn’t meant to defend nor criticize Mr. Romney. Presidential candidates, or candidates for any office, will be faced with criticism and outright scorn. Once someone chooses to seek office they should expect such things. It should be noted that I can’t defend Mr. Romney and say he is correct because, to be quite frank, I don’t know where he was going with that statement. I can say, however, that he is not wrong. This may sound contradictory, but the statement offers us an opportunity to explore Iran’s trappings and why the nation has historically sought to expand westward. Although I did touch on this subject two years ago, it may be time to revisit the topic.
Although Iran is a large nation with highly desired natural resources, it suffers from rough, mountainous terrain interspersed with deserts and swamps. This terrain not only makes accessing the resources difficult, but it also complicates moving the extracted materials to market. Another problematic aspect revolves around agricultural management. Roughly one-third of Iran consists of arable land, however only a small portion – around 13% – is cultivated. The lack of natural river systems and expensive irrigation works to keep this number low. Iran is working to meet agricultural self sufficiency and lower the dependence on importing food stuffs, but there are multiple factors that have slowed progress towards this goal. On the one hand, Iran’s mountains do much to slow development, while on the other hand the mountains help to provide security to the nation’s 80 million inhabitants.
If Iran’s topography stands negatively, then the Persian nation’s location is its most beneficial asset. Iran connects the Asian subcontinent and Central Asia to Asia Minor, which abuts the European continent. To the west, Iran borders Mesopotamia which provides a large amount of arable land thanks to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Historically, Persia spread its empire to portions of the Asian subcontinent and Central Asia, but its largest prize was occupying, or at least controlling, the flat, arable lands to the west. Because the heart of the Middle East lacks any true geographical boundaries, Persia pushed all the way to the east coast of the Mediterranean basin. The empire then pushed north into Asia Minor and seized the coastal regions of Egypt. This served another purpose, however. By holding these areas, Persia managed to control much of the global trade that transited both the land along the Silk Road and on the Mediterranean.
Controlling Land Versus Water
A major problem that Persia faced was in occupying these areas they were then forced to govern the people. Persia managed this problem by using satraps, or local governments that were familiar to the people, but were somewhat loyal to the empire. This loyalty was maintained by collecting lower taxes as opposed to the higher taxes required by the former ruling monarchs. Obviously, this was a temporary solution to a complex problem. Because Persia’s coastline is so mountainous and bottled up by various choke points, it stymies the creation of a maritime culture, not to mention a capable navy. The coastline along the Caspian sea is otherwise landlocked, while the Persian Gulf narrows significantly at the Straits of Hormuz. The mouth of the Gulf of Oman is much wider than Hormuz, but it is still vulnerable to blockade. It is no accident that the Persian navy was most active in the more welcoming Mediterranean fighting the Greeks as opposed to dominating the maritime environment around the Arabian peninsula. It is also worth mentioning that the Suez Canal didn’t exist at this time, thus forcing Persia to build the ships of its Mediterranean fleet around the area of contemporary Lebanon and Israel. This maritime environment was far removed from Persia, but it was the most amenable to the empire’s needs.
Persia was only able to control these coastal areas by first dominating the massive stretches of land between the northern reaches of the Zagros mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. That required a substantial amount of time and capital to accomplish. Nations that have a rich maritime tradition have the luxury of immediate access to the water, the ability to build and maintain multiple ports, and the ability to establish overseas ports without first securing large swaths of land. Furthermore, global trade is largely conducted on the ocean because moving products and resources over water is less expensive by a significant factor. Even today with the advances in rail and air based transportation it is still more conducive to ship by water. To further drive this point home consider that 90% of all global trade travels via the earth’s waterways. There is, of course, one more advantage to controlling water as opposed to occupying land – there is a much smaller indigenous human population to deal with. For the maritime power this is a significant advantage. Iran, like it’s predecessors in the Persian empire, will never have this luxury. Knowing this, we can expect that Tehran will continue to look westward for better fortunes.
Today’s Iran is once again looking towards the Mediterranean, but not by invading and occupying the Levant. Instead, Iran has used a variety of methods to spread its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Tehran has even leveraged relationships in Africa to facilitate its support of non-state militant groups that help in Iran’s foreign policy pursuits. This approach has suffered many set backs in the last year as Syria has slipped into a civil war. Regional challengers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have seized the initiative to squeeze Tehran and roll back Iranian gains. Even Iraq, where Iran holds considerable influence among several different ethnic and political groups, is not as securely in Tehran’s orbit as they would like. The difficulties in Syria and Iraq will also complicate matters with Hezbollah – Iran’s prized militant group. Over the last thirty years the geographic separation of Iran and Lebanon has been manageable because of Syrian complicity, but with increasing tensions in the region resulting from the Arab spring and Iran’s nuclear program the relationship with Hezbollah will be forced to adapt. All these changes have undermined Iran’s carefully orchestrated plans to spread its influence in the wider Middle East, and disrupt any coalition that may rise to threaten the Persian state.
For Iran, the nuclear program was meant to augment the political maneuvers and solidify its standing as a regional power. That view will likely change. A nuclear weapons arsenal, even a small one, will likely be positioned as a hedge against regional challenges now that Iran has been forced to recalibrate its approach to foreign affairs. Although Iran’s regional position has been weakened the integrity of the state has not. Essentially, this means that Iran will continue to look westward and attempt to rebuild its influence in the wider Middle East by exploiting other openings. The shifts that have occurred in the region have not dealt Iran a permanent defeat, nor will they lead to a change in Tehran’s regime in the immediate future. Rather, it means that Iran will simply restart the cycle it has followed since the time of its ancestors by leveraging the resources at its disposal. This has been occurring since the Medes first established the Persian empire in 625 BC, and truth be told, it is difficult to reverse 2500 years of history.
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