The Evolution of Modern Iranian Geopolitics

Origins of a Great Power: Using historical precedents to inform modern Iranian geopolitical calculations

By Casey Brunelle (1 July 2020)

Since its 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has garnered a reputation among global powers as the model of a so-called “rogue nation” or a “pariah state.” Orchestrating a range of covert actions in the Middle East, from propping up Shia militia groups in Iraq and funding Hezbollah to allegedly bombing foreign oil assets in the Persian Gulf and clandestinely developing a nuclear capability, the ayatollahs have committed themselves to a campaign frequently labelled as bombastic and illogical, serving only to push Iran further away from international acceptance. This paper argues that such strategic and operational measures are driven neither by political shortsightedness nor revolutionary fanaticism, but rather are a calculated policy that seeks to reassert Iran as a regional powerbroker capable of unilaterally determining events in this volatile crossroads of the world, just like its Persian forebearers of classical antiquity. Through a historical evaluation of the foreign policy objectives of the three major pre-Islamic iterations of Iranian dominance – the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid empires – this essay concludes that many of the historical precedents of these ancient states mirror that of the modern Islamic Republic, and that the same lessons of their respective formations and demises can be accurately applied to the “Iran Question” today.

Now halfway into the year 2020, the priority for all levels of government continues to be geared, almost exclusively, on countering the viral foe of COVID-19 (the novel COrona VIrus Disease identified in 2019).

While almost certainly a product of self-serving and shortsighted political, legal, and cultural norms that allowed it to develop and thrive in a globalized world, the COVID-19 pandemic is ultimately a biological threat. At least until nation states can guarantee their own domestic security from within, and territorial integrity from without (the first priority of any state, in theory), most politicians and pundits have understandably shelved purportedly 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, the 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, nicknamed “The Shadow Commander” in the West, 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 and almost mythical figure in Iran’s sprawling paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Soleimani served as the commander of the Quds Force, its elite extraterritorial and clandestine branch, since the late 1990s. Even in Canada, his death sparked protests.

TORONTO, CANADA (4 Jan 2020) – Canadians protest against US President Donald Trump`s ordering the death of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at an anti-war rally outside the U.S. Consulate in Toronto.  Soleimani, who had projected Iranian power in the Arab world, was seen as a hero who devoted his life to defending Iran. His death raised fears of escalating conflict between the U.S. and Iran. (Photo: Vadim Rodnev)

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 power broker, 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 of suzerainty – the practical subjugation of polities into vassal states and proxies by a dominant authority – as a security guarantee for its own ethnic-Persian heartland, 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.

Evening panorama of modern Tehran, Iran. (Photo: Regimantas Danys)

This article will briefly examine the history, geography, and peoples of both the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), 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. In 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, one can better understand the deliberate and pragmatic security policy found in all successive Iranian political structures and which still manifests itself today. Further reflection on other integral events in Iranian history, including the 7th century Islamic conquest by the Rashidun Caliphate, the Mongol and Timurid conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries, respectively, and the rise of modern Iran as a Shia regional power under the Safavids (1501 – 1736) are regrettably beyond the scope of this article, simply due to their astounding complexity and scope, although significant insight into modern Iran’s geopolitical decision-making can nonetheless be extrapolated from these events as well.

A brief note must be made on the issue of names, both for Iran and its demographic makeup. The name Iran originates in the Middle Persian language of the 3rd century to 7th century Sassanian Empire, itself descended from the Old Persian used by the Achaemenid Empire five centuries earlier. Originally meaning “of the Iranians,” the term Ērān was a self-descriptor used by the Indo-Iranian people, commonly known as the Aryans, and its New Persian variant evolved to denote the “Land of the Aryans” as it has been employed since the time of the Sassanids.

The ancient ethno-linguistic Iranic peoples (including, among many others, the Alans, Bactrians, Medes, Scythians, and, of course, the Persians) settled a landmass far larger than that of modern Iran, much of which had been lost to regional contenders over the centuries. In the context of the citizens of Iran today – all of whom are identified as Iranians nationally – the majority ethnic group remains known as Persians, which compose over half of Iran’s multiethnic landscape. The name Persia itself relates to Pars, one of the administrative provinces of ancient Iran, and which was picked up by classical Greek sources as an exonym for the entirety of the Achaemenid Empire (akin to the Western naming convention of, for instance, Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire or Delos as the seat of the Delian League). As it was Greek scholarship that laid the foundations for Western understanding of Iran, the name stuck well into the twentieth century.

In 1935, the nationalist king of Iran at the time, Reza Shah Pahlavi, issued a decree at the League of Nations, requesting that the international community begin formally using its longstanding endonym. Later on, his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – the second and last monarch of the House of Pahlavi – stated that either Iran or Persia is acceptable in formal circles (just as Farsi is oftentimes still referred to as Persian). This article will employ the term Persian to denote the ethnic group and will strive to utilize the individual names of the successive dynasties in Iran for accuracy, beginning with the Achaemenid Empire and culminating in the modern Islamic Republic.

Modern Iran in profile: Its geography and peoples

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 (IRI). 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, and especially how they interact within and without, 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 is setting out to get it.

Iran is arguably the only modern power that can trace its lineage back through a distinct, independent, and uninterrupted cultural lineage to its formations in antiquity. While the Persian people have indeed been subjugated several times over the course of their long history, the unique traditions, customs, and essence of the “Persianized” Iranic people have always (often quite energetically) reasserted themselves to absorb the culture of the conquerors, allowing the Persian national identity to exist as a relative constant that remains a potent unifying force for even the ultraconservative Shia clerics that today dominate the IRI’s unusually complex political system.

In a showroom of oriental rugs on the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, a man weaves a Persian carpet. (Vladimir Grigorev)

Like any country, Iran is a political product of this interaction between its geography and its populace. Three times the size of France, its landmass is 68% larger than neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan combined, with 40% more population. Iran is defined, most of all, by its rugged mountains – it is a mountain fortress and its culture reflects this. Extending from the northwest to the south are the Zagros Mountains, the most important singular geographic feature of the country. For thousands of years, the Zagros Mountains have enfolded the ancient capitals of successive empires and served as a buffer against incursions and invasions from the west, as recently as the 1980s. To the north, along the inland Caspian Sea, stretch the Alborz Mountains, forming a crescent from the Caucuses in the west to the tip of Central Asia in the east. At the southern foot of the Alborz sits Tehran, the 7,000-year-old sprawling capital of Iran with over sixteen million inhabitants. To the east is landlocked Afghanistan along with the rest of Central Asia – equally rugged terrain of relatively little geostrategic value and few natural resources, although the Parthians and successive dynasties have typically striven to maintain proactive trade relations with China. Since the Achaemenids, the primary cardinal direction of Iranian political projection has always been, and remains today, towards the west in Mesopotamia (from the Ancient Greek “between the rivers,” meaning the Tigris and Euphrates in modern Iraq).

While its mountains define modern Iran geographically, this is not universal. To the southwest is the administrative region of Khuzestan, sitting at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf as a part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system. The province is the centre of Iran’s oil industry, which, at over 14%, is the second largest contributor of its GDP. Khuzestan sits outside of the Zagros Mountains, situated in low swamplands, and has a significant Shia Arab population. As a contrast, the relatively uninhabitable and scorching lowlands of the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut deserts in the central and southeast portions of Iran have always served as obstacles to be bypassed, by Iranian armies and foreign conquerors alike.

Prior to the 20th century and the advent of commercial oil shipping, the Strait of Hormuz that separates the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and, by extension, the global market, was never a critical transportation route like the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Aden, or the Strait of Malacca. Accordingly, Iran developed strictly as a land power, relying on the Silk Road and its geostrategic location as a land bridge between ancient East Asia and the Mediterranean trading empires as the prime driver of its national wealth, just like its archrivals, the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks. While its Revolutionary Guard conducts small-unit manoeuvers, and plans sea mines in the Strait of Hormuz to harass global shipping and maritime patrols of its opponents, such measures are tactically defensive and do not represent any capability to project effective naval power beyond the Gulf. These strategies, their rationale, and their implications will be discussed later in this article.

With a population of over 83 million, Iran is the 17th most populous country in the world, greater than either Turkey or Germany and more than twice Canada’s population. Ethnic Persians comprise the majority (60%), with some of its many minorities being the Kurds (10%) in the west and north; Azeri or ethnic Azerbaijanis (16%) primarily in the northwest; Lurs (6%) in the west and southwest, and Arabs (2%) situated in the south and southwest, along the coastline. According to a 2011 census, 99% of the country is Muslim (and 95% of those are Shia). While, for the most part, the various ethno-linguistic groups that exist in Iran have done so with relative ambivalence (with notable exceptions, like the Baháʼí Faith), its small Sunni minority has long suffered from poverty and institutional discrimination from the Shia power brokers, fermenting low-level terrorism over the last 40 years from a variety of predominantly Sunni violent extremist groups, including the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Jundallah in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan to the southeast.

Whereas Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf portrays itself as the spiritual and literal defender of Sunni Islam, Iran does so with the smaller Shia branch (which composes about 10-20% of Muslims globally), concentrated across the aforementioned Crescent from Lebanon to Yemen, with smaller Shia minorities elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This sectarian tension has set the stage for the 40-year proxy war between the two regional powers, fostering an ideal breeding ground for violent extremism and interference from competing global powers. The particular chaos and brinkmanship resultant from the War on Terror and Arab Spring have facilitated ripe opportunities for Iran to re-assert itself, projecting power westwards, often through the installation of proxies and ideological supporters along its periphery, just like its political predecessors have done for centuries.

Precedents and patterns in Iranian geopolitics of classical antiquity

Achaemenid Empire, 550 BC – 330 BC

As the political and cultural foundation upon which successive Persian realms were forged, particular attention must be paid to the First Persian Empire. The Achaemenid Empire was, by all measures, a trendsetter when it came to early empire-building. Built upon the ashes of the smaller Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations in Mesopotamia and containing almost half of the global population at the time, it was the first superpower of the world, with much of its political structure and significant aspects of its national identity being either exported or absorbed into successive empires and cultures. Established in the sixth century BC by Cyrus the Great, the Persians smashed its regional contenders in the Iranian plateau and the Fertile Crescent – the Medes, Lydia, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. By the reign of Darius I just decades later, the empire stretched from modern Libya and the Balkans in the west to India and Uzbekistan in the east.

A highly centralized and efficient government bureaucracy in the Persian heartland oversaw a complex postal and road system, the most prominent being the Royal Road running from Susa (modern Shush in western Iran) to Sardis (modern Sart in western Turkey). Royal couriers were capable of travelling the 2,700km distance in nine days on horseback (compared to over ninety days on foot), facilitating rapid transportation and communication from the Iranian heartland to its western frontier in Lydia, bordering the Achaemenids’ archrivals, the classical Greek city states and their Aegean colonies.

One of the most notable features of the empire was its formalized religious tolerance and the relative autonomy it permitted to its powerful tributary provinces (or satrapies, governed by appointed satraps). Famously freeing the Jews from captivity in Babylon, Cyrus restored sacred places and temples for all the religions of the empire and instituted a formal policy of religious and cultural freedom. This stance was not carried out universally by his successors, such as when Artaxerxes III and his Greek mercenaries crushed an uprising in Egypt in 343 BC, upon which he instituted a reign of terror and sufficiently weakened Egypt enough that it could never threaten the empire again. This institutionalized religious tolerance, while undoubtedly responsible for the hegemony of the Achaemenid Empire as a multicultural behemoth for over two centuries, ultimately served as a political detriment when faced with the existential threat of Alexander the Great and his disciplined Macedonian-led combined arms.

The last undisputed Achaemenid emperor, Darius III, personally tried and failed to beat Alexander in battle at Issus in 333 BC and again at Gaugamela in 331 BC. These clashes were waged not in the mountainous Iranian heartland in the Zagros Mountains and beyond, but rather in modern southern Turkey and near Erbil in modern Iraq. When Darius retreated to Bactria in the Hindu Kush, his cousin, a prominent satrap named Bessus, murdered him and he was found fatally wounded by the advancing Macedonians. By this time, the Achaemenid Empire had effectively collapsed and was now occupied. While Bactria in the west continued resisting Macedonian conquest for another two years, the Bactrians themselves deserted the usurper Bessus en masse, their chieftains handing him over to Alexander to be executed following grisly torture, according to Persian custom.

When the Macedonian campaign commenced, the defeat of the Achaemenid Persians by Alexander was not a foregone conclusion, and his swift victory shook the long-standing status quo of the ancient political world. While an exceptionally wealthy, populous, and sprawling imperial state, the inability of the Achaemenids to forge a unified national identity beyond the elite of the Persian court enabled the Macedonians to win popular support on the empire’s periphery, especially in the critical breadbasket of Egypt. The only major engagement of the war in the Iranian heartland was the Battle of the Persian Gate, in which the Persians failed to block Alexander’s access to the Persepolis through the narrow path in the Zagros Mountains. Following a manoeuver to outflank the Persian guard, thanks to the help of either captured prisoners or a local shepherd (akin to the Persian defeat of the Spartan King Leonidas I at Thermopylae a century-and-a-half earlier), Alexander decisively beat the Persian contingent and removed the last obstacle to taking the dynastic capital of the empire, while Darius himself would be murdered five months later.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus, during the battle of Issus.

Alexander’s personal charisma and tactical brilliance in defeating far more numerous but less organized Persian armies, personally commanded by Darius, allowed him to cross into Mesopotamia from the Levant virtually unopposed. Alexander then took Babylon and Susa – both of them west of the Zagros – little concerted resistance, draining Darius of the prestige and, most importantly, the wealth he needed to retain the loyalty of the semi-independent satraps and the Persian core. The young Macedonian king sought to legitimize his rule of the Achaemenid subjects, and he gave Darius a magnificent state funeral in Persepolis and eventually married Darius’ daughter, Stateira II, in 324BC.

But the national identity and culture of the Persians was not extinguished abruptly, nor did it wane over time. Rather, Alexander maintained the Achaemenid administrative structure and instituted prominent ceremonies of reconciliation between the Persians and Macedonians, even going so far as to absorb Persian dress and customs in court and offering high-ranking Macedonian military titles to Persian officers, rather than his own. The alienation these actions brought about in his own generals, his growing megalomania, and the time and distance that his troops had exerted during his wars ultimately brought about mutiny for Alexander and his eventual death in Babylon in 323 BC, likely of malaria. Upon hearing that the young king who had conquered the empire only seven years earlier had died, many Achaemenid subjects shaved their heads in mourning, while even the mother of the late Darius III, Sisygambis, starved herself to death in grief.

Following Alexander’s death, his inner circle divided up the Macedonian Empire, and much of the former Achaemenid territory became known as the Seleucid Empire, under the rule of Macedonian General Seleucus I Nicator. Although the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire formally lasted until 63BC, its waning years saw it become little more than a convenient buffer state along the Syrian coast, long since reduced in power and prestige from frequent dynastic civil wars. By that time, the Iranian Parthian Empire had long since taken its place as the preeminent power in the Iranian plateau, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf.

The lessons of the Macedonian conquest of the Achaemenids are revealing, in that they have been mirrored on several occasions later in history and manifest themselves now in the strategic imperative Tehran sees as building up its soft power across the Shia Crescent from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula. Following the terror wrought by the second conquest of Egypt by the Achaemenid King Artaxerxes III twenty years earlier, Alexander was heartily welcomed as a savior by the Egyptians, thereby depriving the Persians of a crucial agricultural and financial asset. Critically, Alexander did not defeat the Persians in their heartland, but, simply due to the sprawling size of the empire, the decisive and pitched confrontations were instead waged in the Levant and Mesopotamia, terrain that allowed for much greater flexibility and creativity in the combined arms approach of Alexander and his capable generals. By the time that Alexander’s forces had finally entered the Zagros Mountains, the Persians had lost both the ability to determine the time and place of confrontations as well as the means to levy their unique geography to their advantage against a better trained and disciplined force. The fact that Darius took personal control of two armies, retreating from both engagements at the height of battle and leaving behind his baggage cart, family, and royal treasuries, spurred the enthusiasm of the Macedonians to push further into the core of the empire, seizing its financial centre in Babylon and depriving Darius yet further of the means required to either raise a third army in Bactria or to maintain the loyalty of the eastern satraps.

Alexander’s practical and politically savvy disposition towards conquered peoples (with notable exceptions, such as in the aftermath of the sieges of Tyre and Gaza) facilitated the compliance of the Achaemenid heartland over a short period of time. Not only did he maintain effective Persian control over their administrative and political institutions, but he also exported Persian customs, clothing, and traditions among his own troops and court. By the time that their periphery in the Levant, Egypt, and Mesopotamia had been stripped away from the Achaemenids, the empire had arguably already fallen, permitting a relatively bloodless conquest of the heartland and the two eastern capitals of the empire in Persepolis and Pasargadae. Ultimately, however, it was Alexander’s decision to retain eastern political and cultural norms that served to bring about the eventual mutiny of his Greco-Macedonian troops and the dissolution of his young empire into numerous less potent and more unwieldy splinter kingdoms ruled by his inner circle.

The Parthian Empire, 247 BC – 224 AD

While the Parthian Empire did not amount to the hegemony or legacy of its cultural and political predecessor, partly due to a much more competitive geopolitical and economic environment than that of the earlier Achaemenids, the Parthians nonetheless became a vibrant commercial centre and the bearer of the Iranian culture for over four centuries. Just like the Persian Achaemenids before them, the Parthians focused their efforts on projecting power beyond the Iranian heartland towards the west, frequently warring with the Seleucids and then the Romans, and installing or manipulating subordinate states as buffers in the Caucuses and Mesopotamia, particularly Armenia.

The Parthians were an Iranic people based in northeastern Iran – at the time, a satrapy of the Seleucid Empire. In 247 BC, the provincial satrap, Andagoras, revolted against his Seleucid overlords and proclaimed independence for the Kingdom of Parthia two years later. Now deprived of military assistance from the empire, Andagoras was, in turn, unable to resist the mass influx of the Parni – led by Arsaces I – who are believed to have emigrated to the area from Central Asia along with other Scythian tribes. In 238 BC, the Parni seized Astabene, the northern part of the kingdom. While Seleucid missions to reclaim the lost territory yielded some success over the next decades, it was under the reign of Mithridates I from 171 BC – 132 BC, who was the first Parthian ruler to overtly (albeit fictitiously) trace his lineage to the Achaemenids, that the minor kingdom was transformed into a regional power. Taking on the traditional Persian title of shahanshah or the “king of kings,” Mithridates implemented massive building programs in Nisa (modern Turkmenistan), which served as the first Parthian seat of power. In time, the capital and economic core was relocated to Ctesiphon on the eastern bank of the Tigris, 35 kilometers southeast of modern Baghdad. Although the Parni people and the Arsacid dynasty were Iranic, they were distinct from the ethnic Persians, who maintained nonetheless significant prestige and influence in the province of Pars, near the ruins of Persepolis in the Zagros Mountains.

The Parthians constructed their feudal monarchy on the foundations of several great civilizations, including the previous Persian rulers, the Hellenistic culture of the Seleucids, and a variety of smaller regional cultures. While the Arsacid line of kings initially took on key elements of Greek court practices and customs – like the Macedonians did from the Achaemenids before them – the eventual national identity of the Parthian Empire became steeped in a direct continuation and revival of the older Persian traditions mixed with the Bactrian and Scythian origins of the northeastern, semi-nomadic Parni. Satraps were installed as administrative governors across the provinces, but they never gained the power or size that they had under the Achaemenids. And, although a majority within the Parthian populace practiced Zoroastrianism, it did not reach the level of prominence enjoyed previously, and it was not until the Sassanids that it would be elevated to the state religion once more. Just like previous iterations of Iranian political power, the empire remained religiously and culturally diverse, and included significant minorities of Jews and early Christians. Greek and Parthian served as official languages, while Aramaic continued to be the lingua franca across the empire.

For much of its lifespan, the Parthian Empire benefitted greatly from its position between the Han Chinese and the Roman Empire, situated on the critical Silk Road, itself descended from the Royal Road built by Achaemenids. Leveraging the taxation of critical trade between the Chinese and the Romans, most notably silk, spices, glass, perfume, fruits, and iron, the Parthians were able to maintain the loyalty of its satraps, independent semi-kings and nobles, and the mercenaries and conscript farmers it used for its infantry. From their heartland in northeastern Iran, the Parthians moved to subjugate neighbouring kingdoms and formed vassal states out of Armenia, as well as Caucasian Iberia and Albania (not to be confused with the Iberian peninsula or modern Albania in the Balkans, respectively). The Parthian noble families, however, consistently hampered efforts to centralize the state or forge a unified national identity, frequently competing for their own selection of king and pursuing their own provincial goals for individual wealth and prestige against the long-term interests of the empire.

The relative stability on the eastern border – where the Kushan Empire acted as a buffer state against Central Asian nomads – allowed the Parthians to focus their power projections to the west, specifically Mesopotamia and the Caucuses, with the ultimate strategic objective of securing coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, which the Arsacids ultimately failed to do. By the time of their political zenith, however, the Parthians were being challenged by a variety of competing polities from beyond and interests from within, but the most consistent overt threat undoubtedly came from the Roman Republic and, later, the Roman Empire. For centuries, the heavy cavalry and horse archers of the Parthian Empire was more than a match for the massed infantry of the Roman Empire, whereas the Parthians lacked the knowledge of siege tactics or the strategic initiative to dislodge the Romans from their frontier fortifications in the Levant. Over two hundred years of warfare and assorted truces ultimately proved inconclusive, serving only to severely weaken the Parthians’ already tenuous grip on its semi-independent, and oftentimes rebellious, satraps and the numerous clans vying for power within the imperial courts.

One of the leading external catalysts that severely weakened the Parthians was the decreased capital they earned from a reduction in trade along the Silk Road after 100 AD. The first of the two primary reasons why this occurred relates to the chronic hostility between the Romans and Parthians in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, which significantly increased the danger faced by traders and potential damage to luxury products from the east. Secondly, and as a result, the Kushan Empire in northwest India began to funnel goods from the Han Chinese directly to merchant boats then dispatched to Roman traders in Egypt. This reduced the strategic importance of Parthia as a trading middleman between east and west, and significantly stripped it of riches earned in taxation to pay for dismounted troops and to maintain the loyalty of its client states. The gradual disuse of the Iranian plateau as a land bridge between East Asia and the Mediterranean severely reduced the political agency and authority of the decentralized empire, and it was at this time that its previously responsive and effective defences in the west began to crumble to increasingly aggressive Roman incursions.

By the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan in 98 AD, Roman-Parthian machinations in the subject kingdoms of the Caucuses had reached their zenith, when the Parthians installed Axidares on the Armenian throne without first consulting Rome, as was established custom. In response, the Romans captured and killed the following Arsacid successor, Parthamasiris, and then annexed Armenia as an imperial province. At this point, the Roman legions had adopted the use of specialized local auxiliaries, familiar with the unique tactics and weaponry of the Parthians, whereas the Parthians’ lack of funds and reduced appeal among its elite classes meant that they could neither pay for mercenaries or conscripts and that fewer nobles were able or willing to serve in the once-feared cavalry of the Parthian military. While the Romans were finally able to expel the Parthians from Mesopotamia, the political and financial heart of the empire, and captured both Ctesiphon and Susa, Trajan opted to not attack the Iranian heartland, as the geography would put the infantry of the legions at a tactical disadvantage. Furthermore, the economic appeal of capturing the Zagros Mountains and beyond had been greatly reduced with the prominence of the maritime Indian Ocean trade rather than the land-based Silk Road. Trajan’s decision to not push further into the Parthian Empire was an economic calculation, not one resultant from any resurgent Parthian threat at the time. His successor, Hadrian, recognized the high economic cost of maintaining these eastern-most outposts and personally negotiated a settlement with Parthian King Osroes I, establishing permanent defensive fortifications at the Euphrates River, formalized as the Roman-Parthian border. Over the next century, the Romans would again conquer Seleucia and Ctesiphon, although they were never able to hold them for long. Armenia, sitting geographically at the end of the Steppe Road (a northern alternative route to the Silk Road that circumvented Iran), continued for decades to be the catalyst for further military confrontations between the Romans and Parthians.

It was ultimately not foreign invasion from western powers that would bring about the final coup de grace for the Parthians, but internal discord and treachery among the elite. By the second century AD, the already-decentralized administrative structure of the empire, especially the several semi-autonomous kingdoms in Mesopotamia and the Caucuses, fermented a near-constant state of uprisings against the Parthian government as well as civil wars between the suitors of the noble Parthian and Persian families. The ruler of Istakhar in Persis, Ardashir I, revolted against the Parthians and killed the last emperor, Artabanus IV. The heavily centralized and expansionary realm established under the Sassanids cast aside Hellenistic influences and brought about an undisputed resurgence of traditional Persian national identity, customs, and political structure, although the Parthian nobility nonetheless continued to play a key role in the administration of the Sassanian Empire.

In the broader political development of Iran as a regional power, the legacy of the Parthians is complicated and, at times, seemingly paradoxical. The unique mix of the traditionally settled Persian sociopolitical model with the nomadic Central Asian origins of the Parni people serve as both a continuation of Achaemenid culture and yet, at the same time, a distinct pause in the strictly Persian-dominated national identity. With its effective fusion of these ways of life, the Parthians lasted much longer than its neighbours at the time and served as the only real threat that could challenge Rome in the Near East, a tradition carried over by its Sassanid successors, just as the Byzantines did on behalf of the Roman Empire.

The weakness of the late Parthians lies as much in their internal political structure as it does in external events taking place at their borders during a time of highly competitive east-west trade. The Roman annexation of Egypt as an imperial province created a challenge to the land-based Silk Road, opening up maritime trade opportunities between China and Rome – with India now as the middleman, not Iran. For as long as the Silk Road ran exclusively through the Iranian heartland, Rome’s hands were tied insofar as attempting to subjugate the Parthians through military or economic means, especially while the Parthians could afford to hire and retain infantry and entice their competing nobility to fight on horseback. While the rise of the Kushan Empire did initially provide the Parthians with a convenient buffer state to ward off attacks from the nomadic Central Asian realms, the Indian monopoly on the primary source of revenue for the decentralized Parthian ruling families forced heavy taxation on the empire’s subject populations, the inability to maintain its infrastructure, and the difficulty of retaining the loyalty of its near-independent fiefdoms, chief among which were the Sassanid Persians.

Sassanian Empire, 224 – 651

The Sassanian Empire represents a particularly significant place in Iranian sociocultural development as the last such polity before the Islamization of Iran following its subjugation by the Rashidun Caliphate, the first the four major caliphates established after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Named after Sasan, a renowned warrior and Zoroastrian high priest in Pars, the Sassanids were ethnic Persians who took advantage of the civil strife and relative weakness of the late Parthian political structure. The son of Sasan, Papak, along with his own sons, Shapur and Ardashir, dislodged the Arsacid line of kings and brought about a revival of traditional Persian culture and national identity, elevating the Sassanian Empire into a leading global power pitted against their longstanding foes, the Romans and their successors in Constantinople, the Byzantines.

Just like the Parthians before them, the Sassanids strove to establish, and long enjoyed, effective suzerainty over its western puppet states in the Caucuses, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. Unlike the Parthians, however, the Sassanids were able to effectively pacify many of these smaller kingdoms and annex them into the empire proper (with mixed results, as discussed below). The maritime spice route that had so damaged the Parthians’ late-period economy had virtually grounded to a halt, partly because the Antonine Plague (possibly smallpox) was contracted by Roman soldiers in the Near East and killed over 10% of the Roman population. With the near-cessation of maritime spice and silk trade from India, the Kushan Empire possessed a surplus of luxury goods and soon took again to the land-based route of the Silk Road, providing the Sassanids with considerable tax revenue, with which they could finance expansionary conquests. The simultaneous weakening of the Kushans and their resultant split into east and west rump states allowed the Sassanids to conquer the latter, which, along with nominal Sassanid control over the Arabian coastline and Egypt, enabled a renewed Persian dominance over Eurasian trade routes.

Rejecting many of the semi-nomadic tenets of the Parthians in both the military and civil society, the Sassanids took to constructing formidable fortresses along the western border with Rome and creating a much more centralized and urbanized state than either the Achaemenids or the Parthians. A strong and charismatic government, based in Ctesiphon, was led by the shahanshah and oversaw an immensely complex and rigid stratification of social classes across Sassanid society. Numerous ancient Persian cities were restored and entirely new ones were established across both Mesopotamia and the Iranian heartland, many of which were constructed not only by Iranic peoples, but also deported western prisoners, including Christian Romans, Goths, and Slavs. It was under the Sassanids that the name Eranshahr (“the realm of Iran”) was first instituted, and Sassanid society proudly traced its lineage to that of the conquering Aryans centuries ago.

Continuing the long-standing Roman-Persian wars, the Sassanids promptly adopted the role of aggressor and systemically took to taking Roman territory in the Levant, which they characterized as being rightfully theirs, as the successors to the Achaemenid throne. Creating an effective hybrid military force, the Sassanids persisted in the use of horse archers, heavy cavalry, and even war elephants from India; they also employed siege warfare, as learned from their Roman opponents. While the Parthians excelled at rapid and agile cavalry to overwhelm Roman infantry, the Sassanids took the best features of their Iranic forerunners and combined them with a disciplined military organization, engineering specialists, as well as, especially in its later years, Arab and other foreign mercenaries bolstering in its ranks.

At its zenith in 620 AD, the Sassanids held sway over 3,500,000km2 – from Egypt and Yemen in the southwest to Tajikistan and Pakistan in the east. In its early period, a number of primarily Arab buffer states lay between the Sassanian Empire and Rome, although all of these were eventually annexed by one or the other, and were replaced by complex and purportedly impregnable defensive lines and fortifications. These decisions were largely either tactical or political, with the Sassanid annexation of the Lakhmid Arab client kingdom on the western coast of the Persian Gulf representing one of the critical strategic blunders that facilitated the sudden collapse of the Sassanian Empire. Upon being forcibly integrated by the Sassanids, the Lakhmids, experienced soldiers and scouts who once served the Persian cause loyally, soon turned their allegiance to the Rashidun Caliphate by necessity, in order to guarantee their own survival.

In its later years, the Sassanian Empire was being increasingly pressured on both the northern and southern fronts of its Near East holdings. The Byzantines and their allies in the Western Turkic Khaganate struck Transcaucasia, while agile and unified Muslim forces began raiding from Arabia. Decades of renewed warfare with Constantinople (including a failed Sassanid siege of the city in 626) severely weakened the army and had again disrupted the critical land-based trade from East Asia that once filled the Persian coffers. Like the Parthians, heavy taxation to make up for the lost revenue and the resultant economic decline fostered a cycle of rapid turnover in leadership, and the Sassanids ultimately proved incapable of mounting a cohesive and sustained strategic effort to repulse Arab invaders. While the Persians did experience some initial successes – particularly from the coordinated actions of governors along the frontier, the employment of outdated tactics against Arab cavalry – the long-term lack of centralized leadership, unified military command structure, economic resources, as well as the inability to secure levies for conscription, all proved too much for the Sassanids in the long-term. Not long after they reached their territorial zenith, the Sassanian Empire ultimately fell in the space of just a few years.

The mutual exhaustion of the Sassanids and Byzantines, the subjugation of the former and severe weakening of the latter, facilitated the rise of the first Islamic Caliphate in their place in the Levant and Mesopotamia, and served to usher in the end of classical antiquity. However, Persian culture and traditions, just as the case following conquest by the Macedonians and the Parthians, was not usurped by that of the conqueror. While Zoroastrianism saw a gradual but significant decline as it came to be replaced with Islam, the Islamic Golden Age brought with it a revival of Persian language, culture, and a resurgence of their national identity that allowed them to exist as a distinct and nonetheless still thriving entity from the Arab states that had conquered it.

As the medieval period unfolded, the Iranian heartland was conquered by Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and the Turco-Mongol Timurids, the latter two of which proved devastating to Iranian infrastructure and especially its populace. All of these polities, however, underwent Persianization, themselves, and, in turn, exported elements of Persian culture throughout the region. It was arguably under the Safavid Empire of 1501 – 1736 that the modern nation-state of Iran came to be established, with an efficient and centralized government bureaucracy, the adoption of Shia Islam as the official religion, and the revival of the Greater Iran region as critical economic bridge between the east and west land-based trade routes.

Implications for contemporary Iranian geopolitical decision-making

Modernity is both the product of, and exception to, historical circumstance. The oft-stated truism by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” rings hollow on both extremes when applied to the context of ancient and modern Iranian geopolitical strategy. On the one hand, knowing the past does not necessarily mean that one is sure to avoid repeating a previous wrong today, and, on the other, having an understanding of the past is not sufficient to recreate past glories.

The IRI, like its Persian and Parthian forerunners, has sought to emulate the exceptional and avoid repeating the catastrophic. Through the successive dynasties of the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanids, a unique national identity was already long established, thriving, and notably durable prior to the gradual – and often forced – Islamization of the Iranians by the Arab caliphs. While the heartland of the Persians has been subjugated by foreign conquerors before – Macedonians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, and Timurids – and was steadily chipped away and reduced to a near vassal by the early modern Ottoman Empire, the Russians, and Anglo-American subversion, the underlying Iranic-Persian culture adapted to each of these circumstances and manifests itself today as a potent unifying force for the Islamic Republic. By all definitions, Iran, while sitting at the global crossroads in terms of geography and culture, remains nonetheless fundamentally distinct as both a civilization and a modern state, alike. An appreciation for this fact is vital in order to understand contemporary Iranian geopolitical ambitions and to realize why Tehran believes such considerations are imperative if the revolutionary regime is to survive.

These three empires provide us with a variety of critical lessons in understanding how the Iranian political elite conducted themselves within the heartland, while also recognizing the existential need to project their power along the peripheries to the east and, especially, the west. One of the most important exceptions to the modern IRI, relative to the three pre-Islamic Iranian states, is the fact that the latter realms had all based their economic and demographic cores in Mesopotamia, not the mountainous plateau beyond the Zagros Mountains in which the modern IRI is almost exclusively situated. While the ancient dynastic capitals of Ecbatana, Pasargadae, and Persepolis lie either within the mountains or to the east of them, it was the capture of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid core in Mesopotamia by foreign (or internal) aggressors that ultimately dealt the death blow to their political leadership, prestige, and wealth. Both Achaemenid Darius III and Sassanid Yazdegird III, the last leaders of their respective empires, were murdered by their own countrymen as they retreated into the far-eastern depth of their countries following decisive losses on the fertile lowlands to the west of the plateau. The possibility of such a conventional defeat for the IRI today is not likely, as their political core is located within the geographically advantageous heartland, although the strategic and economic value of Khuzestan remains critical for the regime, as Saddam Hussein tried to exploit in his 1980 invasion. Nonetheless, there exists a potent reminder for contemporary Iranian leaders in the cost of losing the trust and support of the ruling political class, the military leadership, the populace at large, or all three simultaneously.

The three most notable geographic regions of the Middle East – the Anatolian headland, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Iranian plateau – converge on the historical territory of Mesopotamia, now composed of Iraq and Kuwait along with parts of southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria. Although land-based geographic concerns have lost their primacy in military strategy, now being paralleled by cyber ops, info ops, and aerospace, the importance of installing buffer states within this region are no less critical today than they were for the Persian and Parthian empires of old. While Iran focuses on building up its trade ties with the east, its power projection remains focused primarily to the western remnants of Greater Iran, as it always has. Regardless of its reigning dynasty or the underlying ideology thereof, the Iranian elite tend to view themselves in exceptionalist terms, whose proud tradition of civilization, a purportedly “purer” rendition of Islam, and independence from colonialism contrast to the six Arab member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), most of which only gained their statehood in the 1960s and 1970s, often as clients to controlling powers in the West – a yoke that Iran was definitively able to cast aside in the 1979 revolution.

For a conventional military force to attempt an assault on the mountain fortress of the Iranian heartland would represent a futile and extremely costly challenge. Such losses would be prohibitively staggering relative to even those suffered in 2001 invasion of Afghanistan or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, along with their resultant insurgencies. These geographic buffers represent a two-sided coin, however, and power projection beyond the mountains for an expeditionary Iranian force can often be just as trying as for an invader seeking to penetrate them. The employment of soft power alternatives, influence activities, and covert support for the regimes that now dot the historic Fertile Crescent remain the most effective way for Iran to extend its sway across the region and towards the Mediterranean access it has long sought.

The usage of buffer, client, and vassal states has always been a critical practice in the effort to secure Iranian hegemony over the Middle East. Each of the pre-Islamic empires discussed in this article successfully installed and reaped the benefits of semi-independent frontier kingdoms and the Islamic Republic has taken the successes and failures of these ancient campaigns to heart in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Just as the Parthians levied Armenia as a powder keg of palace intrigue to confound Rome or the Sassanids recruited the Lakhmid Arabs against the Byzantines and the Islamic armies, the Quds Force under Major General Soleimani effectively took advantage of the chaos brought about by almost two decades of chronic regime change, warfare, civil strife, and sectarianism in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula – all of which compose the former proving ground of the ancient Persians and Parthians. Surrounded by both Sunni Arab and Western geopolitical foes, and with a NATO military presence immediately to both the east and west, Iran has successfully capitalized on a grand strategy realized through alliances, militant proxies, and sociocultural encroachment in order to extend its reach and prestige as a regional powerbroker. In the view of Tehran, the best domestic defence is a good regional offence.

With Iranian financial and material support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, the Assad government in Syria, the Shia-dominated government in post-Ba’athist Iraq as well as numerous Shia militia groups, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran’s covert activities over the last twenty years in particular have carved out a significant territorial and ideological buffer to the Western-supported Sunni Arab states lining the Gulf. While revolutionary Khomeinism – the political and spiritual framework of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, which set the foundation for the Islamic Republic – certainly plays a part in the underlying ideology of the Shia Crescent, it is a geopolitical experiment borne first and foremost out of strategic considerations that appreciate the histories of the many empires that have come and gone in the region for millennia. The durability of the Iranic-Persian culture through successive empires, always adapting in the face of subjugation from abroad or treachery within, makes the heterogeneous and, at times, seemingly paradoxical political tradition of modern Iran one of the few constants in a region of the world characterized by its rapid and volatile tectonic shifts.

Centralized political leadership for the IRI is vital in order to ensure survival of the revolutionary regime, as well as for any Iranian government in general. To differing degrees, all three pre-Islamic Iranian empires boasted a tradition of religious and cultural tolerance within their borders, although this was not universal and could easily be undone in order to punish attempted uprisings or when a religious sect challenged internal cohesion. This was not a decision taken for empathic or altruistic reasons, but one of political necessity that understood the sociocultural development of numerous peoples developing independently across virtually impregnable mountain ranges. Whereas the Achaemenids and Parthians instituted semi-independent satraps that often acted in direct contradiction to imperial interests, the Sassanids relied on a rigid, hierarchical, and centralized government. Both structures had their own pros and cons for their respective states, and the Macedonians, Parthians, Sassanids, and Arabs each exploited the weakness of the preceding empire for their own strategic gains.

The adoption of Shia Islam did not erase the prevalence of the many different national and ethnic identities within the heartland and the persistent tensions between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority continue to hinder the country’s internal cohesion. As an effective countermeasure to reign in these disparate cultural and ethnic identities, the IRI relies on a sprawling and intrusive security apparatus that guard against domestic threats to the revolutionary Islamic Republic structure. While a physical push into Iran by the Zagros Mountains is not feasible for a modern military, manipulating internal ethnic and political divisions – as done successfully by the British and the Russians – represents the most likely way to chip away at the central political authority of Tehran and target the leadership from the bottom-up. First and foremost, however, the individuals that compose these nationalities are identified as modern Iranians before anything else. To overtly push against any of them from the outside would be to push against all of them, likely catalyzing a zealous nationalistic response to foreign or colonial aggression – similar to that witnessed in the wake of the assassination of Major General Soleimani. Such reactions can either work in favour of Tehran’s strategic goals or, if they are not effectively harnessed or placated, have just as much potential to apply yet further revolutionary pressure on the state security apparatus. Recent history has proven that the overt presence of a foreign aggressor seeking to either meddle in Iranian affairs or subjugate it as a vassal state can serve as a convenient distraction from the protests brought about by increases in oil prices, reduction in the quality of life, or outright opposition to the revolutionary regime. As much as the loss of Soleimani might bring about a reduction of operational prowess for the IRGC or Tehran’s foreign policy vision as a whole, his assassination might prove even more useful to the ayatollahs in the long run.

The foreign relations of Iran today harbour many parallels to that of its forerunners in classical antiquity. The relative strength and weakness of the Parthians and Sassanids almost perfectly corresponded with the rising and waning prominence of the land-based Silk Road through their territory. When the chronic hostility each of the two empires faced with their Roman opponents in the west flared up, fewer luxury goods from East Asia would attempt the land-bridge passage, thus depriving Iran of the crucial tax revenue it needed to maintain transportation infrastructure, retain the loyalty of its provincial governors, pay for its conscript infantry and noble cavalry, or force Rome to the negotiating table thanks to its dominance over the primary trade routes to the Mediterranean. As the West today continues to apply external pressure on Iran’s economy through sanctions – especially its crucial petroleum and crude revenues that account for almost 80% of exports – Tehran will consistently look to renew its longstanding economic ties with East Asia, particularly Beijing and its new Belt and Road Initiative, a land and maritime-based trade and investment network in Eurasia, with China at its centre. The black market and underground economy of Iran, believed to consist of one third of its imported goods and exports, however, continues to jeopardize sustained economic growth and tax revenue for the central government. As a counterweight, the business arm of the exceedingly powerful IRGC provides a potent economic instrument that reinforces the revolutionary system for its elites.

Iran knows that it will never match the conventional hard power or global influence of its arch rivals, the US 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. 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 power brokers, 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 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.