Origins of Iran’s Modern Power

2 July 2020

Editor's note: This article is the edited version of a longer historical analysis on past and present Iranian geopolitical decision-making. The entire report can be accessed here: https://defence.frontline.online/article/2020/000/14332-The-Evolution-of-Modern-Iranian-Geopolitics.

Historical precedent informs modern Iranian geopolitical calculations

Now halfway into the year 2020, the priority for all levels of government continues to focus, almost exclusively, on countering the viral foe of COVID-19 (the novel COrona VIrus Disease identified in 2019). As such, most politicians and pundits have understandably shelved less-immediate issues of geopolitics, trade, and security, for the time being. 

However, as Trotsky mused, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Whether we like it or not, systemic relations, transactions, and clashes between people and polities across the globe rarely have the consideration to pause for our convenience. One’s understanding of conflict must continually be challenged in order to be relevant when it is needed most.

In the opening days of 2020, the world was seemingly brought to the brink of open conflict between a resurgent regional power and a reigning superpower, each reinforced with a myriad of state and non-state proxies and vassals. The proximate origins of this flashpoint are relatively simple to digest at face value, and have since become almost common knowledge for even casual observers, while the ultimate cause, which set these actions into motion long ago, tends to be more elusive.

Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by a targeted U.S. drone strike on 3 January 2020 while driving in a convoy on the service road just outside of Baghdad International Airport. A leading, almost mythical figure in Iran’s sprawling paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Soleimani served as the commander of the elite Quds Force since the late 1990s. 

For more than 20 years, the charismatic Soleimani developed, implemented, and personally oversaw a myriad of complex and highly successful covert operations to assert Iranian regional influence across the so-called “Shia Crescent.” The term, coined in 2004 by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, encompasses the Middle East region with significant Shia populations, that stretches from Lebanon through Syria, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Bahrain, towards western Afghanistan and Yemen across the Persian Gulf. It is this area that, in the view of Iran’s various regional and global opponents, Tehran seeks to extend its sphere of influence and elevate itself to a first-rate powerbroker capable of independently determining events in the Middle East. And, since the onset of the War on Terror, and Arab Spring a decade later, Iran has been granted many opportunities to do so.

The work of the Quds Force in leveraging suzerainty over its regional neighbours is not a novel development in Iran’s foreign policy considerations. Nor is it an ad hoc strategy borne of the revolutionary and ideological fanaticism of 1979, although sectarianism is certainly a useful catalyst in enacting it in practice. Rather, it is a calculated and far-sighted geopolitical great game that, while remodeled for the modern world, is one that generations of the Iranian political elite have vigorously pursued since the foundations of the modern Islamic Republic were first laid over 2,500 years ago. 

Extrapolating historical precedents to understand today’s decision-making
To understand any country as an outsider, one must strive to see it as the product of its shared histories, shaped over the course of centuries by its unique geography and peoples. This is doubly true for the Islamic Republic of Iran. While its current political iteration was only proclaimed via referendum on 1 April 1979, it is the culmination of complex and multidimensional sociocultural developments that make it a fundamentally distinct entity when compared to its regional neighbours through the lens of religion, society, domestic political structure, and foreign policy goals. Consideration of a country’s geography and peoples are just as critical in the 21st century as they were in past epochs. Likewise, they are just as useful in discerning, in this case, what Tehran wants, why it wants it, and how it intends to get it.

Iran knows that it will never match the conventional hard power or global influence of its archrivals, the U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies. Tehran recognizes that its revolutionary ideology and strategic goals isolate it in an already volatile and highly competitive environment subject to dramatic change overnight. 

The complex political structure of Iran is made all the more convoluted thanks to significant economic pressure applied from outside its borders and the influence that state institutions like the IRGC or prominent clerics hold as unconventional and often competing actors. 

Tehran is nothing if not pragmatic, however – they fund and arm Hamas, a Sunni group in Palestine, and support Christian-majority Armenia, rather than Shia-dominated Azerbaijan, in order to inhibit interstate nationalism from its own significant Azeri minority. 

Iran has been granted the opportunity time and time again by external actors to fill the gaps left by regional chaos in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. And while many of these actions are reactive, they are all taken in careful consideration of the national interest. 

Tactical blunders, including the downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 on 8 January 2020, or the friendly fire incident against a Hendijan-class auxiliary support vessel in the Strait of Hormuz on 11 May 2020, betray the much broader modernization and professionalization programs being taken inside the Iranian defence establishment and especially within the IRGC.

A position often iterated by detracting or sensationalistic observers is the dismissal of the IRI’s foreign policy as routinely “irrational” or driven primarily by an ideological fanaticism, akin to North Korea in the case of the former and Al-Qaeda or ISIS in that of the latter. Both characterizations are simply not consistent with the evidence at hand that reveals a long-term and pragmatic grand strategy calculated to enhance Iranian prestige regionally as well as guarantee its stability and security within. 

Beyond a conventional military deterrent or extraterritorial covert action, the usefulness of a nuclear capability cannot be overstated. Diplomatically isolated and economically pressured, along with the resultant civil discord at home, Tehran views the development of a nuclear program as an imperative in deterring external threats like those that brought about regime change in Ba’athist Iraq or Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. And, as seen in the case of Israel, the deliberate ambiguity regarding whether a state actually possesses nuclear weapons oftentimes bears the same threat utility as one that makes its capability well-known, all while avoiding the legal, economic, and military consequences that comes with a confirmed arsenal. If Iran is able to achieve this ambition, whether it is able to effectively combine even a primitive form of this technology with its formidable ballistic missile weaponry, heightens the caution that external actors must demonstrate in dealing with its political leadership, especially as such weapons would be in the hands of the devoted IRGC aerospace forces, rather than its conventional, largely conscript armed forces. In tandem with the leveraging of the Quds Force across the Shia Crescent, Iran has proven itself to be an influential powerbroker in the region, capable of “punching above its weight,” despite the pressure of economic sanctions or the domestic costs of its foreign military adventures.

The same can be said for the recent asymmetric attacks in the Persian Gulf that Iran has either carried out itself or indirectly orchestrated – the alleged bombing of foreign oil tankers in spring 2019 or the unmanned drone strike on two Saudi Aramco oil facilities on 14 September 2019, the latter of which caused significant embarrassment for the US-funded Saudi aerospace defence network. All of these operations resulted in spikes in the price of oil and further destabilized the critical strait through which a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost a quarter of the world’s oil pass. These deniable attacks, along with the IRGC shoot-down of a US RQ-4A Global Hawk drone on 20 June 2019, help enhance this looming prospect of uncertainty regarding the world’s oil supply and raises doubts as to whether foreign powers could mount either an amphibious attack from the Gulf or maintain unhindered access for civilian oil tankers sailing abroad. 

The more Tehran can highlight the potential disruption to global economic stability that might come with attacking it from the Persian Gulf – even if that means attacking the sources of its own oil exports like Japan – the less likely foreign powers will take that risk at all. While these actions, when considered individually on an operational level, might foster the illusion of illogical or absurd blunders that simply paint Tehran yet further into the corner, if they are seen as the sum of their parts, they allow an outgunned and outmanned international pariah into a position in which it, not the global powerbrokers, can dictate the terms to realize its long-term revolutionary survival.

The purpose of this article is not to suggest that the specific circumstances that led to the establishment of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanian empires, and their subsequent demises, can be applied with perfect accuracy to that of the geopolitical issues facing the modern IRI. To do such would be tantamount to a form of confirmation bias that places correlation above causation. The struggle of studying classical antiquity further compounds this constraint by both limiting the availability of primary sources and most likely tainting the accuracy of secondary sources, like those of the Greeks and Romans. The importance of agency in contemporary internal and external individual actors – be they members of the lay populace or the decision-makers of the political elite – cannot be overstated in an evaluation of historical precedents manifesting in modernity.

Individuals and their cultures are not determined strictly by their respective geographies, but human agency does intrinsically adapt to its physical surroundings. While there exist notable exceptions in Iran’s modern geostrategic calculations – the critical importance of the Strait of Hormuz or the potency of cyber-operations – the interaction between people and geography is no less critical today than it was for pre-Islamic Iran. Make no mistake; the political leaders in Tehran have a deep and practical understanding for the ancient foundations upon which their society is built. One could not have happened without the other. At the very least, it is an exceptionally useful tool in cementing the nationalistic zeal that the state apparatus relies on to maintain its dominance. They have in the past and will continue in the future to effectively leverage the strategic successes and mistakes of the Persians and Parthians in order to propagate the IRI’s unique revolutionary zeal as the primary means of securing domestic power. To understand the weaknesses of these past empires, whose cultures compound into the unique worldview and national identity of Iran today, is critical in discerning the ayatollahs’ vision for Iranian grand strategy in the 21st century. 

The dominance of Iran by the Persian people and their talent for empire-building and resilience in the face of concerted global efforts poised against them has been proven time and time again since antiquity. No matter how much contemporary policymakers in Washington, Brussels, or Riyadh might be inclined to hope otherwise, this is a tradition that will not be stopping anytime soon. 

Casey Brunelle is an intelligence and strategic studies consultant with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors, specializing in counterterrorism, public safety, and geopolitics. A regular contributor to FrontLine Magazine, he holds an MPhil in international relations from the University of Cambridge and an honours BSocSc in international development from the University of Ottawa.

The full article (available at this link) examines the history, geography, and peoples of both the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the three great Iranian empires of classical antiquity – the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids – up to when the process of Islamization began in 633 AD. This article attempts to better understand the deliberate and pragmatic security policies found in all successive Iranian political structures and which still manifest themselves today through extrapolating for common themes and recurring patterns in Iranian centralized political authority within its plateau heartland, religious tolerance for the disparate ethnic groups, the installation of buffer zones through proxies and vassals to project its influence westwards. It can be accessed for free at: https://defence.frontline.online/article/2020/000/14332-The-Evolution-of-Modern-Iranian-Geopolitics