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Fri. February 03, 2023
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Could Iran Become a Great Power Once Again?

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I [Yahweh] stirred up one from the north [the Persian King Cyrus], and he has come, from the rising sun, and he shall call on my name; he shall trample on rulers.

Isaiah 41:25

It was the first and far from last time that a power from the Iranian Plateau would conquer the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. The exiled Jews in Babylon welcomed the invading Persian King as a liberator sent by God, while Cyrus himself took great care in presenting his conquest to the Babylonians as an act done in the name of their supreme god, Marduk, whom the last King of Babylon had neglected. Thus, it was by the incorporation of Mesopotamia and the exploitation of religious sentiment that the ancient Persian Empire began its ascendancy to power over most of the known world in the sixth century BC.

Is it merely a curious twist of fate that today, over two and a half millennia later, the Persian Empire is once again using religious sentiment in its attempts to control the plains west of the Plateau? And that the Jews, having their own powerful state, are far from welcoming of this dangerous rival? Maybe, but it is also a testament to the long-term factors that shape Iran to this day. The Islamic Republic is in the news every day, whether the topic is the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and the Levant, the Iranian drones delivered to Russia for its war in Ukraine, or the not-so-covert Israeli operations that seek to deny Tehran the nuclear bomb. More recently, it is Iran’s internal situation that is making the headlines as the country is going through its biggest protest movement since the Revolution of 1979. At the origin lies the strangulation of Iran’s economy with international sanctions and falling living standards that have fueled anger against the regime. Almost all of these issues carry heavy historical baggage – Iran’s having sought since the time of Cyrus to extend toward the Mediterranean, its common Shia ties to Iraq dating back to the sixteenth century, its turbulent relations with Russia rooted in Peter the Great’s eighteenth-century Persian campaign, even the structural deficiencies of its economy and its nuclear ambitions have remained since the time of the last Shah.

Another important implication of Iran’s historical legacy is its former greatness. For the better part of the past 2500 years, Iran has been at the heart of empires that dominated vast spaces of the Middle East, and Central and South Asia, often aspiring to nothing short of world domination. When weighed against this history, Iranians can – and do – view their current state as an aberration. Reclaiming Iran’s lost status as a great power has long been the ultimate goal of Iranian rulers, regardless of the ideologies underpinning their regimes. History is far from the only basis for their pretensions – Iran’s geographical position, its natural and human resources, and its long and widely experienced capacity for social and political organization all give further ground to Tehran’s aspirations. An analysis of the more permanent features of Iran – its history, geography, population, the structure of its economy, military power, and its international environment – is necessary to determine whether Iran could one day achieve its dream of greatness.

History

The Persian conquest of Babylon laid the foundation for an entity that would eventually become a constant of world history, second only to China in longevity. This entity would acquire its current name in the third century AD, as its rulers referred to their Empire as Eranshahr, “Land of the Aryans”. The shortened form, Eran, would become popular and its opposite an-Eran, “non-Aryan”, began to be used to indicate the rest of the world. The rulers of Eran claimed supremacy over an-Eran as well and placed three smaller thrones, one each for the rulers of Byzantium, China, and the Central Asian nomads, next to their significantly larger throne in the palace. Iran took on multiple forms over the centuries as changing dynasties, foreign invasions, periods of internal chaos and imperial expansion all shaped the empire. Although it went through important changes in the process, it never lost its unique identity and sense of superiority. Iran gradually subdued the foreign conquerors with the power of its statehood traditions. Even the Arab conquest, which led to the Islamization of Iran, eventually resulted in the Arabs adopting many elements of Persian culture and governance. This arrangement was accepted as the Abbasid Caliphs found it convenient to leave the administration of their Empire to the capable Persian bureaucracy. The Persian language, profoundly influenced by Arabic, even outgrew the borders of the Persian state. In the sixteenth century, the three great Empires of the Islamic world all used Persian as their official language – the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Turkic Safavid Empire of Iran, and the Mughal Empire in India, the latter continuing to do so until the nineteenth century, which resulted in a significant Persian influence on Pakistani Urdu.

And yet, modern Iran doesn’t live up to its glorious past. The result from its wars with the Ottoman Empire was the definitive loss of Mesopotamia. Restrained by its western border and isolated from the technological advances of European powers, Iran was to go through centuries of decline. Its borders would shrink considerably, first by losing its territories in Central Asia, through which the Iranians controlled the lucrative Silk Road trade with China and India; then, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, by having its dominions in the Caucasus (including the Azerbaijani cradle of the Safavid dynasty) conquered by the Russians. The once great power would soon itself become a pawn in the “Great Game” between the competing Russian and British Empires, and eventually be treated as a semi-colony divided into Russian and British spheres of influence in 1907. Occupied by the same two powers during both World Wars, Iran managed to escape from its semi-colonial status through its relationship with the United States, becoming its staunchest regional ally during the Cold War. However, the alliance with Washington also meant a new form of dependency, notably with the CIA-sponsored coup against the Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. This period of foreign domination and tutelage has had a significant impact on Iranian national consciousness and explains in part the Islamic Republic’s reticence towards dealing with outside powers.

Geography

Being located in the very center of Eurasia, Iran possesses an advantageous geographical position. In the past, the Silk Road passed through the Fergana Valley (today in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and Afghanistan, all part of the Persian Empire, before entering Iran proper, thereby bringing commodities from China and India to the Mediterranean. Even today, by virtue of sharing land or sea borders with fifteen countries and connecting various regions, Iran can trade and communicate as few other nations can.

With its clear natural borders, Iran appears as a mountainous island in the “ocean” of plains that forms the Middle East and Central Asia. Situated in the western part of the Iranian Plateau (the eastern part being shared between Afghanistan and Pakistan), Iran is surrounded by mountains on all four sides – the Zagros Mountains straddle its western border, the Alborz Mountain stands in the northwest and the northeast, and finally the Lut Desert, buttressed by the mountains of Khorasan and Baluchistan, presents a formidable barrier in the east. The few plains, most importantly the territory bordering the Caspian Sea and the Iraq-bordering province of Khuzestan, play a very important role in the Iranian economy. The narrow Caspian plain produces a quarter of the entire agricultural production of Iran and most of Iran’s oil is located in Khuzestan.

Despite bordering the Caspian in the north and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south, Iran is essentially a landlocked country. This is because the Caspian functions as a big lake, while the Strait of Hormuz forms a bottleneck in the Persian Gulf. It is on the Persian Gulf that most of Iran’s few ports are located. The only port of significance Iran has that could give it direct access to the Indian Ocean is Chabahar, located in mountainous and unstable  Baluchistan (this port is also a main feature of Indian policy vis-à-vis Iran). Thus, in order for Iran to project power safely into the open sea, it needs to control the other side of the Persian Gulf, or at least that of the Strait of Hormuz – something Iran has managed many times in the past. These geographic realities makes the Arab states of the Gulf understandably uneasy.

Population

With a population nearing 83 million, Iran is significantly more populous than any of its neighbors, save for Turkey. Nearly half of the population of Iran belongs to a different ethnic group from that of the Persian majority. There are other Iranian (Kurds, Baluchis) and Turkic ethnicities (Azeris, Turkmens), Arabs, and others still. The minorities are all located in the border regions and with their compatriots living just on the other side, whether it’s former Soviet Azerbaijan, Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, or Afghan and Pakistani Baluchistan. Iran has two unifying pillars: the fact that the geographical core of the country is ethnically Persian, and the fact that 85 percent of the population – that is, including many minorities – are Twelver Shia Muslims, this religion being viewed today as an integral part of the Iranian identity. The rest of the population is almost entirely made up of Sunni Muslims, most of them Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmens, which presents a potential weakness for the Iranian state.

The most significant minority is that of the Azeri Turks, numbering at least a quarter of the total population and, like the Kurds, inhabiting the most densely populated western regions of Iran. The Twelver Shia Azeris are also the founders of the modern Iranian state, beginning with the Safavid Empire, and were the ruling ethnic group of Iran for centuries. It is this common history and religious and cultural closeness that binds the Azeris and the Persians together, but there have nevertheless been attempts by foreign powers to use the Azeris against Tehran. The most notable episode was the creation in 1945-1946 of a short-lived republic of South Azerbaijan by the occupying Soviet forces, along with a similar state for the Iranian Kurds. Today, the existence of a neighboring independent Azerbaijan is a potential headache for Iran. The existence of Iraqi Kurdistan is, on the other hand, already a headache, with Kurdish separatist groups from Iran using this autonomous region as a base in their struggle against the Iranian government.

As a result of the “White Revolution” of the Shah (1963-1979), population movements provoked by the war with Iraq, as well as general popular strive to leave the countryside, contemporary Iran is a highly urbanized country, with the population of Tehran being close to 14 million. The country has relatively a high literacy rate and low fertility rate for the Middle East region, with roughly 60 percent of Iranians having a university degree. Iran has long been known for the quality of its human capital, with a traditionally capable body of scientists (notably engineers). Iranian students are among the best-performing in the international science Olympiads and regularly score ahead of students from countries like France and Britain. Economic difficulties and internal political struggles have led to a significant amount of brain drain, with around 180,000 university graduates leaving Iran every year, many of them scientists.

Economy

Ever since the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908, “black gold” has been its primary export product. It was the oil industry that caused Iran’s economic growth under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979) and allowed the state to survive during the war with Iraq (1980-1988). The Shah would attempt to diversify the economy, investing in big projects for chemical, steel, copper, and even nuclear plants in partnership with European and Japanese companies. This industrialization, along with other modernizing elements of the “White Revolution”, undermined the positions of the traditional classes of artisans and bazari (merchants), who joined the clergy and the former peasant class (now proletarized with lumpenproletariat city masses standing in opposition to the regime). The Revolution of 1979, a petite bourgeois counter-revolution, led to the re-establishment of the traditional order and, thus, to a stagnation in economic development. In a state of heavy isolation and limited access to Western technologies, Islamist Iran nevertheless manages to provide its market with some domestically-manufactured goods, such as automobiles, produced by the automobile industry it inherited from the Shah, in cooperation with French, South Korean and Chinese companies.

Iran is also in possession of great quantities of natural gas, although it doesn’t export it, but uses it instead for its own domestic market. Tehran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons often conceals another reason for Iran’s interest in nuclear capabilities – energy: were it to satisfy its domestic needs for energy through nuclear powerplants, Iran could free its gas for export.

A specific characteristic of the contemporary Iranian economy is the strong role of the state - which owns many enterprises – as well as the existence of so-called “revolutionary foundations” that control up to 20 percent of total economic activity in the country. With their activities supposedly constituting Islamic charity, the foundations enjoy total autonomy from the state: they are exempt from taxes and are additionally subsidized by easier access to credit or direct budgetary allocations. Many of the foundations are controlled by the Corps of the Guardians of the Revolution, Sepah-e Pasdaran, giving this already formidable second army of Iran additional economic leverage.

Military power

The military is a key priority for Iran as the country and its regime’s survival depend on its military capacity. Desiring a permanent guarantee of security, Iran has been dreaming of nuclear weapons ever since the 1970s. Despite the secret services constantly undermining the Iranian nuclear program, Iran currently appears to be steadily progressing toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. The actual possession of this weapon would, however, have many adverse effects on Iran, most notably removing any hope for a renewal of the Nuclear Deal of 2015 and the removal of US sanctions, which would give fresh air to its embattled economy.

The Iranian Army is in fact comprised of two armies, the regular Army, Artesh, which oversees the general defense of the country, and the Pasdaran which is in charge of the territorial defense strategy chosen by the regime, as well as the offensive and covert actions of Iran abroad. A wide web of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen are also led by the Pasdaran. The Corps was created as a guarantee for the Islamist regime against the Army amid suspicions of disloyalty. The Pasdaran are given the lion’s share of equipment and funding, with their members occupying most senior positions in the Iranian General Staff, while the generals of the regular Army are given secondary logistical responsibilities. The Artesh naturally despises the privileged status of the Pasdaran and fierce competition for positions and funding between the two armies persists. This is another weak point of the Iranian state that could be used not only by its rivals, but also by anti-government protesters, in case a protest movement in Iran escalates to an actual revolution.

Today, the Iranian Armed Forces are a formidable, but not overwhelmingly powerful actor in the Middle East. Most of Iran’s traditional weaponry (warplanes, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, warships) is aging, as it dates either from the period under the Shah or the war with Iraq. Realizing that its arsenal is far inferior in quality not only to that of Israel, but also to that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Iran has no other choice but to respond asymmetrically. With no possibility of defending its sky against modern aviation or ballistic strikes, and with vulnerable decision centers as a result, Iran is counting on a decentralized territorial defense strategy in case of an attack. The leading role is to be taken by the Pasdaran who, having territorial subdivisions over the entire country, would have to lure the enemy into a land war in mountainous areas. At the same time, Iran has been able to develop impressive technological capabilities with ballistic missiles and drones of its own. The latter have now proven their effectiveness not only in separate attacks in the Middle East, but also in Ukraine, with their regular use by the Russians straining the Ukrainian air defense. The possibility of Iran using these weapons in a similarly scaled attack against its regional rivals must be cause for concern.

International environment

The international environment of Iran can be described as “complicated”. In its immediate neighborhood, the country is surrounded by three types of states: historic rivals (Turkey and Russia), newer rivals (Israel and Saudi Arabia) and former provinces. Outside of its region, Iran is isolated by its ideological agenda and nuclear program. Among the major powers, only China and, to some extent, India entertain good relations with Tehran. Still, Iran has managed to carve out a sphere of influence for itself in the Middle East, which makes it a natural rival for any other regional power. The 2003 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq gave Tehran the opportunity to spread its influence westwards, which it did until then the regime of Saddam Hussein separated Iran from its allies in Syria (the Assad regime, with its social base in the Shia-affiliated Alawite sect) and Lebanon (the Iran-sponsored Shia militia Hezbollah). Through its militias and communal allies, Iran is now reaching the Mediterranean, which is as worrisome for Saudi Arabia (severely lacking in both population and political tradition vis-à-vis Iran) as it is for Israel and Turkey. The latter is a historical rival of Iran and has its own, neo-Ottoman designs for Iraq and the Levant. Turkey’s situational cooperation with Iran in Syria, or the economic partnership between the two countries, co-exists well with their implicit, and often explicit, rivalry in the Middle East.

Iran’s relationship with Russia is very similar to that with Turkey, if only more pronounced. The northern neighbor, geographically more distant since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is currently engaged in a cooperation with Iran in the nuclear energy and military spheres, but is constantly alert to any Iranian ambitions regarding the Russian “near-abroad” in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Those land-locked countries have many reasons to engage in profitable relations with Iran  (for the benefit of gaining access to the open sea) as well as to fear becoming too dependent on their ancient Persian overlord.

East of Iran is the other half of the Iranian Plateau, where most of the Iranic ethnic groups are located. Persian (by the name of Dari) is the native language of the Tajiks and Hazaras in Afghanistan and is spoken by most of the Afghan population, functioning as the local lingua franca. Besides these cultural links and previous centuries of inclusion in the Persian state, Afghanistan also presents a persistent security issue for Iran – in the past because of nomadic invasions and now due to drug traffic and terrorism. Pakistan, with its large Iranic population (Pashto and Baluchis) and Mughal legacy, also possesses cultural links with Iran. This is precisely why it has had an often-difficult relationship with Tehran – Islamabad probably remembers that the traditional eastern border of the Persian Empire was at the Indus River.

Despite the two countries having been locked in an adversarial relationship for over forty years, Iran and the United States have few reasons to quarrel. The US being an a priori outside actor, able to pick its regional partners with more freedom than other powers, it makes more sense for Washington to seek an alliance with Iran than with the Gulf states given Tehran’s much more valuable strategic position and capabilities. As stated by none other than Henry Kissinger, Iran could be the regional ally the US dreams of having, and yet, due to a number of political – and ideological – factors, this has not come about. Iran could be of similar value to the European Union, especially with its untapped natural gas reserves.

In the absence of a new Nuclear Deal and with renewed US sanctions on Iran (which prompted Europeans to follow suit), it is China and India who are the most willing to engage with Tehran. China and Iran are becoming closer and closer: the Iranian economy is still surviving in large part due to China purchasing Iranian oil. In 2021 the two countries signed an agreement for twenty-five-years’ of strategic cooperation of an undisclosed nature, which allegedly includes massive Chinese investments in Iranian infrastructure projects in return for long-term Iranian oil supplies. India is trying to compete with this growing Chinese influence by investing in the port of Chabahar, hoping it could match the Chinese-sponsored port Gwadar in Pakistan.

It would be very advantageous for Iran to be able to entertain close relations with all these powers, in order to not have to depend on any of them. This would, however, require it to give up on nuclear weapons at least for the near future, as well as to hand out political concessions that could potentially endanger the power of the regime.

Although it possesses many advantages – an abundance of resources, placement at a strategic crossroad in Eurasia, and one of the oldest cultural and political traditions in the world - Iran has no shortage of impediments to becoming a great power. Its oil-dependent economy,  divided, and underequipped military, and the hostile international environment limit Iranian ambitions to a position as a regional power. Tehran will first need to overcome the structural weaknesses in its economy and military, as well as escape from its international isolation,  in order to ever hope of replicating the legacy of Cyrus.

Giordani Dimitrov is pursuing a Master's degree at Sciences Po Paris, Giordani is originally from Bulgaria. Main areas of interest include France, the Balkans, and Central Asia. He is currently an analyst at the Nicholas Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis.

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