Throughout history, Iran has been one of the most influential and powerful countries in the Middle East. Today still, it is a regional power that must be taken into account. It would be foolish to underestimate the country’s role. The presence of modern Iran’s influence cannot be disregarded in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern(1) countries. With this in mind, there is a growing danger that Iran may obtain nuclear weapons, if it has not already done so.

Iran’s ideology

In order to better understand Iran’s politics, ideology and Iranians themselves, one must be familiar with the country’s and people’s past, one that is heterogeneous, rich and complicated. I have written more extensively on Iran’s history in the 16th issue of this periodical. One can by no means forget that Iran’s society, culture, politics and ideology have enriched many nations and immensely influenced the whole Near Eastern and Middle Eastern region, and even beyond.(2) During certain historical periods, Iran was the dominant power not only in the Middle East, but in the entire world(3).

So what is the essence of Iran’s sustainability and stability? I don’t think I am wrong to say that Iranians are a very tenacious people and persistent in their ambition of creating an empire. Iran has remained intact for more than 2,000 years and the nation has survived despite several foreign conquerors. During that long period, hundreds of peoples and countries have disappeared, tens of empires, but Iran remains. Its geographical location is not the best and Iran has always had many enemies. Following the example of the Achaemenids, Iranians have repeatedly been successful in building empires - the Parthian Empire, Sassanid Empire, Safavid Empire, Qajar Empire(4), Pahlavi Dynasty, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and others. They all aspired, to a lesser or greater extent, to become as great and as powerful as the Achaemenids.

The glory and power of the Iranian empires have been preserved in the historical memory of Persians for a long time.

Iran’s last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), sought a prototype from ancient Iranian history. “An historical paradox: the shah of shahs(5) Mohammad Reza Pahlavī, who chose the course of modernizing and consistently secularizing the county /---/, simultaneously adopted the role model of “classical despot” Cyrus the Great. It got to the point that, on the eve of 1977, he decided to abandon the traditional Muslim calendar (Hijri) and to adopt a new calendar that was pegged to the rise of Cyrus the Great. Thus, 1977 became the year 2535 for the Iranians.(6)

The strangest aspect of all this is the fact that the past seems to haunt the leadership, at least part of it, of modern Iran. Even President Ahmadinejad talks of ancient Iranian kings, such as Cyrus the Great and Darius I.

Iran and Iraq, Persians and Arabs - old rivals

Although Iran has a long list of historical enemies - ranging from Babylon, Rome, Byzantine, the Ottoman Empire, and finally Russia and European powers, in the 18th and 19th centuries - their main rivals are the Arabs.

In some sense, the 1980 Iran-Iraq War was a continuation of the conflict between Persians and Iranians. Professor Efraim Karsh writes in his book “The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988”: “Most works on the Iran-Iraq War view this conflict as the final collision in the thousand-year Persian-Arab battle for hegemony in the Persial Gulf and Fertile Crescent areas. Some historians believe it started from a pre-Islamic rivalry between the Achaemenid and Babylonian empires; others believe it was the destruction of the Sassanid Empire by Arab Muslims in the 7th century, after which most Persians converted to Islam.(7) These important events of Iranian history were the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in the year 636 and the Arabs’ final conquest of Iran in 651.(8)

After World War I, in the first half of the 20th century, when Iraq became independent, relations between Iraq and Iran were peaceful. At the end of the 1920s and during the 1930s, Iraq and Iran enjoyed a period of cooperation. In 1937, the two countries solved a dispute over control of the lower part of Shatt al-Arab, a strategically important waterway in the Persian Gulf. Peaceful relations continued after World War II.(9)

On July 14, 1958, Iraq’s monarch was overthrown and the country became a republic. For a brief period, this caused relations between the two countries to worsen. Then, in July 1960, the Iranian foreign minister and Iraqi ambassador held negotiations in Teheran, aiming to improve relations between their countries.(10)

The countries began to cooperate economically as well. In 1967, they signed a trade agreement that benefited both countries. In the 1970s, however, Iranian-Iraqi relations became tense. It began on April 19, 1969, when Iran declared it would abandon the 1937 agreement. Iraq’s government was accused of expansionism. In 1970, Iraq’s government survived an attempted coup d’état, and it accused Iran. In November 1971, Iranian forces occupied several islands in the Persian Gulf. Iran disapproved of growing ties between Iraq and the Soviet Union. Moscow gave a friend’s welcome to an Iraqi government delegation in 1972. Iraq and the Soviet Union were clearly on the road to friendship.(11)

Smoke billows in Tripoli s Bab al Tabanneh neighbourhood during clashes with Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in Jabal Mohsen area in northern Lebanon, on October 22, 2012. Deadly violence hit the Lebanese city of Tripoli overnight and several people were wounded in Beirut, security officials as tensions spiked following the murder of a top police official blamed on Syria. Photo: Scanpix

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi believed the courting between Iraq and the Soviet Union was a clear threat to Iranian interests and power in the Near East and Middle East. For that reason, the Shah sharply criticized the Iraqi government’s political course. The Ba’ath Party’s leadership retaliated in Iraqi newspapers, radio and television programming with equally sharp rebuke of Iran’s activities. Various propaganda tactics were undertaken in the propaganda war that ensued, as each country attempted to undermine the other both internationally and domestically. Iraq’s government knew, though, that their country was still too weak to take military action against Iran, and initially the leaders of the Ba’ath Party did not seek a war, favouring peaceful solutions for disputes over borders, ethnic minorities, etc.(12) But the serious tensions led to a short war between the two countries from 1973-1974.

The Iran-Iraq conflict intensified at the end of the 1970s, leading to a new war in 1980. This time Iraq was more prepared for a war and Iran was initially weaker due to a recent transition of power. It deteriorated into one of the most destructive wars after World War II. Many cities in both Iraq and Iran were destroyed and left empty. More than a million people were killed, with millions more wounded, widowed and orphaned.(13)

Neither side had a clear advantage over the other at any point in the war. Lasting eight years, the war was tiring and devastating for both countries’ economies.(14) Eventually, Iraq suffered the most, being significantly smaller and economically less powerful than Iran. Iraq and Iran continued to be enemies when the war ended in 1988.(15)

Iran after 1979

In some sense, modern Iran’s course and official ideology differs drastically from the monarchy of the Shahs. The official ideology of the modern republic contains elements that go beyond Islam and the new wave of Islamization that took place after the Iranian Revolution in 1979(16).

Has the country changed much in the 33 years that the Islamic Republic of Iran has existed? Yes, is one answer; there has been change. Iran has become more conservative, turning back from the secular to Islam, even to the road of religious fanaticism, and becoming much more critical of Western countries, especially of Israel.

The Islamic rulers that came into power in 1979 turned the Western-minded monarchy into an anti-Western theocracy, and although Iran is de jure a republic, the government is far from democratic. The religious leaders of modern Iran, the Ayatollahs, calls to mind the medieval caliphs, or the archbishops who ruled the principalities of Europe. At the same time, Iran is open to technological modernization. Ayatollah A. H. Khamenei has secular power; he is both a religious leader and chief military commander, and it is he who determines Iran’s political course. Since the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, power in Iran has been in the hands of Muslim lawyers, and this must follow sharia law.

Russian Ambassador to Syria Azmat Allah Kolmahmedov (L) listens to the Feng Biao, deputy head of the Chinese Embassy in Syria, as they attend a National Conference for Rescuing Syria, in Damascus on September 23, 2012. The conferees will discuss ways to get Syria out of the crisis it faces. Photo: Scanpix

What are Iran’s geopolitical interests today?

Iran has a powerful influence in the politics of the whole Middle East region, with Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq in the forefront. In the events of the “Arab Spring,” Iran is perhaps not the lead player, but it undoubtedly plays a major role. The country has close ties with Shiite parties and movements in Iraq, as well as with other Arab nations - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, the Caucasus, North Africa, the Middle East, and potentially other Islamic nations.

After the overthrow of Iran’s long-time enemy Saddam Hussein, in 2003, Iran’s influence in Iraq has grown noticeably and will apparently continue to do so in the years ahead. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, also permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview: “In spite of the fact that the intervention of occupants in all walks of life in Iraq led to the fact that much was still not organized in the country, they will be able to overcome all obstacles. This of course if they remain united. The withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq will not just promote the development and flowering of the state in other fields. The current terrorist activities are the result of the occupation. We are convinced that Iraq has the possibilities and power to protect nad safeguard its security. As a neighbour with the longest border with this country, with which we have religious, cultural and other ties and common features, the Islamic Republic of Iran understands ths situation of this country, the possibilities of state governance and the extent of national unity, does not feel particular concern for the future of Iraq and the process of reforms, nor as a friendly and fraternal neighbour will it deny any aid aimed at recovery and economic prosperity.”(17)

The idea that an exit by US armed forces from Iraq would make that country more stable and that there would be potential to steer clear of chaos, elicits suspicion. What friendly support does Iran provide for Iraq? Iraq, where nearly two-thirds of the population is Shia Muslim, is very much tied to Iran’s Shiites. What will happen when the allies leave Iraq? It seems the country could fall into the hands of religious fanatics, the puppets of Iran. Iran would thus achieve one of its dreams - to essentially seize control of Iraq. And so the aforementioned opinion of the Iranian foreign minister illustrates the country’s great geopolitical interest toward Iraq.

Syria also has a very important geopolitical position for Iran, because through Syria, Iran can influence Lebanon’s Hezbollah and, in turn, other countries(18). For that reason, Teheran, and so too Moscow, has supported President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s on-going civil war. Syria has always been an important territory for Iran, as for Russia. Syria was at the centre of a centuries-long battle between the Roman Empire - later its successor the Byzantine Empire - and Sassanid Iran. The territory was strategically important for both empires and continues to be important to Teheran today. In turn, Lebanon is greatly influenced by Iran and Syria.(19)

Of course, Iran’s geopolitical interest in the region is not limited to Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is much more broad and complex. From Turkey’s perspective, the economic and militaristic strengthening of Iran is dangerous; although it is Iran’s partner, Russia is probably not thrilled with the idea either. Having fought wars with Russia in the 19th century, Iran lost several territories in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Iran has not lost interest for these territories. Middle East expert Yevgeni Satanovsky notes: “The military-political and economic rise of Iran and Turkey augurs problems just as great for Russia as being neighbours with China.”(20)

Iran’s nuclear dilemma

Iran’s nuclear issue continues to be a serious problem. It will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to solve the dispute. The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, dreamed of transforming Iran into a superpower, changing it from a medieval state to a nuclear superpower.

Russian ex-prime minister Yevgeni Primakov, an academic and Middle Eastern expert, writes in his book: “A connection may become more evident between Iran’s influence in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear problem, which undoubtedly has an independent nature. We can conclude that no country on earth is interested in seeing Iran with a nuclear weapon. The combination of Iranian nuclear weapons and the desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth – expressed by a senior leader – is especially explosive. If this call goes beyond propaganda, the consequences will be difficult to predict.”(21)

Such a situation with Iran does not evoke optimism, as has been rightly noted by Yevgeni Satanovsky, president of Russia’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies.(22) For Iran, a nuclear weapon is like a ticket to the superpowers’ club of the US, Russia, China, France and others; from the standpoint of Iran’s rulers, it would confer upon Iran special status as a superpower and its dominant position in the Middle East. A nuclear bomb is for them also, to some extent, a guarantee that no one will attack Iran from abroad.(23)

Iran’s late Shah would have reason to be happy - the country has become a powerful industrial state with a good economic base, strong military and nuclear energy. Where is modern Iran headed? Will Iran become more liberal, or are changes not in store for the near future? Speculation is as good as reading tea leaves.

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(1)   See Spencer 2007.
(2)   See Sazonov 2010; Sazonov 2011a; Sazonov 2012b.
(3)   See Dashkov 2008; Wiesehöfer 2005.
(4)   See Goldschmidt, Davidson 2006, page 180–182.
(5)   Much like his successors, Ardashir I (224–241), the founder of the Sassand empire, loved to use the following title: šāhān šāh Ērān ud-Anēran – “King of all kings of Iran and not Iran”, Huyse 2006, 182, 183, 184Б Wiesehöfer 2005, 220–228.
(6)   Kagraimanov 2009 -
(7)   Karsch 2010, 7.
(8)   See Aliyev 2002, 125-131.
(9)   Karsh 2010, 7; Klaassen, Hallik 2004, 155–156, 248.
(10)  Aliyev 2002, 577.
(11)  Karsh 2010, 7–9; For Iran-Iraq War see: Klaassen, Hallik 2004, 247–254.
(12)  Klaassen, Hallik 2004, 155–156.
(13)  Zeynalov 2001, 13.
(14)  See Aliyev 2002, 643-672.
(15)  Hallik, Klaassen 2004, 162-166
(16)  See Agayev 1987.
(17)  Современный Иран, No3 2012, 78.
(18)  For Hezbollah see Rabil 2010, 328–333. 19 For Syria’s role in Lebanon see Spencer 2007, 165
(20)  Satanovski 2012, 12.
(21)  Primakov 2006, 360.
(22)  Satanovsky 2012, 310.
(23)  Satanovsky 2012, 306. 

Vladimir Sazonov is an orientalist