By Ian Morris
Of all the upheavals in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran's growing regional power might turn out to be the one with the greatest geopolitical effects.
Some governments see Iranian preeminence as inevitable, leading them to react by leaning toward Tehran. Others are doing just the opposite, talking darkly of preemptive strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities or plunging into a Middle Eastern arms race. "Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too," former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal said just a few weeks ago. But in some ways the most radical move of all has been the willingness of the Great Satan to consider partially normalizing relations with a founder member of the Axis of Evil. "If it evolves into something solid," George Friedman observed of the diplomatic efforts in his Geopolitical Diary on April 2, "then we can look at this as the day the United States kicked over the table and started a new game."
Everything seems to be up in the air, but — as is so often the case — taking a long-term perspective can help us make sense of the shifting strategic landscape.
Iran's Historical Role
Those who see Iranian regional hegemony as inevitable often appeal to history. Iran, they argue, has always held such a position unless prevented by exceptional circumstances. Such circumstances prevailed in the 20th century, they suggest, but are now passing away, and so Iran is bound to regain its dominance the Middle East.
This argument, however, is not entirely correct. In the 5,500 years since cities and organized governments first appeared, Iran has been a major Middle Eastern power for less than one-third of that time. Although Susa, located in the modern Khuzestan province of southwestern Iran, arose as one of the first proper states in the region around 3500 B.C., Iran still remained peripheral for many centuries. That began to change in 2004 B.C., when Elamites, whose capital city was at Susa, raided Mesopotamia and sacked Ur, then the greatest city in the world. By the 12th century B.C., Elam had become a significant player in regional politics, but it was not until the 7th century B.C. that Iran really took center stage.
In 612 B.C., the Medes of northwestern Iran helped overthrow the Assyrian Empire; less than 70 years later, another group from the Khuzestan region, the Achaemenid Persians, overthrew the Medes in turn. The Persians went on to create an empire that stretched from India to Greece, the largest the world had yet seen. Iran remained a major power for the next 1,200 years, until the Arabs destroyed the Sassanid Persian Empire in A.D. 651. After that, a fragmented Iran was subordinate to Egyptian, Iraqi and Turkic powers for nearly a millennium, until the Shiite Safavid dynasty — which reigned from the 16th to the mid-18th century — challenged the Sunni Ottoman Turks for supremacy. By the end of the 18th century, however, Iran had once again been eclipsed. The 19th and 20th centuries were times of retreat and humiliation for Iran's rulers, with at best a partial revival under the Pahlavis in the 1960s and 70s.
There is nothing inevitable about Iranian dominance. Even if we look at Middle Eastern history in the most pro-Iranian manner, starting the story with the rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 550 B.C., Iran has only been one of the Middle East's dominant powers 60 percent of the time. The other 40 percent observed hegemons based farther West, or no regional hegemon at all. This calendrical arithmetic suggests that, while it is perfectly plausible that Iran might re-emerge as a regional power in the 21st century, Iranian dominance is by no means the default setting of the Middle East.
Long-term history, then, shows that there are no timeless geostrategic forces that locked Iranian power into place thousands of years ago. But it can do more: It can also explain what conditions brought the last great era of Iranian hegemony to an end in the 18th century and whether these conditions will continue to apply in the 21st century.
In 1904, when Iran was at its weakest, the geographer and explorer Halford Mackinder argued in an address to London's Royal Geographical Society that the key to global strategy lay in the interactions between three broad regions of Eurasia. Mackinder, I think, was largely right, and thanks to another century of archaeological and historical study, we can now expand his insights into a general theory of geopolitics that says much about Iran's situation.
Inner vs. Outer Rims
In the last 10,000 years, the world's most developed societies have almost always been in the band of latitudes that Mackinder called Eurasia's "inner rim," running from the Mediterranean to China. Farming was invented in this area, with the Middle East leading the way around 9500 B.C. and the rest of the inner rim following its example over the next several thousand years. Along with farming came cities and governments, which most parts of the inner rim had developed by 500 B.C. Two hundred and fifty years later, the world's first multiethnic empires comprising tens of millions of subjects controlled most of the inner rim.
Because ancient empires could not project their power very far, at any one time the inner rim tended to have four or five regional hegemons, jostling with each other but rarely extending their power into what Mackinder called Eurasia's "outer rim," facing toward the oceans, or its "heartland," far from the seas. However, because Eurasia's inner rim held 75 percent of the world's population and 90 percent of its wealth, its imperial rivalries became the most significant issues in global geopolitics.
The planet's balance of power began to change around 1000 B.C., when pastoral nomads on the steppes — the arid, treeless grasslands running from Manchuria to Hungary — first bred horses able to carry riders for long distances. These horsemen in the Eurasian heartland, far more mobile than the armies of the inner rim empires, were able to plunder almost at will and then gallop away before the imperial infantry could respond.
For the next 2,500 years, Eurasian history was dominated by a struggle between predators from the heartland — Scythians, Huns, Turks and Mongols, to name just a few — and the empires of the inner rim. China and Iran, which had relatively open frontiers along the steppes, were the regions most exposed to devastation, and their ruling dynasties were regularly overthrown by invaders. India and Europe, shielded by mountains and forests, generally suffered less.
The contest between the inner rim and the heartland was eventually overtaken by a new strategic struggle, which pitted the inner rim against the outer, after A.D. 1500. Mackinder labeled this new situation, which still prevailed in his own day, "the Columbian epoch." The great shift was driven by two inventions, both of them pioneered in China but quickly adopted and adapted all along the inner rim. When the new inventions reached Europe, they merged to form a world-conquering package.
The first invention was the gun, which military men gradually improved upon until muskets could be fired fast enough to counter nomadic archers on horseback. In 1500, steppe cavalry could still normally defeat volleying infantry; in 1600, they could sometimes win the same victories. But by 1700, they hardly ever could. After that, riders from the heartland no longer seriously threatened the inner rim.
The second invention was the oceangoing ship, which could fairly reliably sail for thousands of miles. These ships transformed the balance between the inner and outer rims just as decisively as the gun had altered the dynamic between the inner rim and the heartland. Armed with the new ships and guns, outer rim states could now project power farther and strike harder than any civilization before. The Columbian epoch had arrived.
Thanks to their long coastlines, India and the western parts of the Ottoman Empire were the most exposed to outer rim sailors and their guns, while distance and difficulty of access made China and Iran less vulnerable. By 1600, Western Europeans had overrun much of the Americas, built dozens of fortresses around the shores of the Indian Ocean and penetrated the Pacific. This, however, was just the beginning. In the 1750s, they began conquering India, and by the 1850s, Western Europeans and their former colonists in North America directly or indirectly controlled almost all territory from Turkey to Japan. The outer rim had overwhelmed the inner rim, turning the 19th century into an age of catastrophe for these ancient lands. By 1900 British troops had even pushed right through the inner rim and were playing a "Great Game" against Russia for control of the heartland.
But during these very years, right around the time Mackinder was lecturing in London, the pendulum began swinging back. The outer rim's financial, military and technological advantages over the inner rim remained enormous, but not enormous enough to sustain 19th-century levels of inequality. As the 20th century went on, inner rim nations slowly caught up with the outer rim as they underwent their own industrial revolutions. In 1916, when he was leading Turkish troops to defend Iraq against a largely Indian army fighting for Britain, the German general Wilhelm Leopold Colmar von der Goltz (known to the Turks as Goltz Pasha) could already prophesy that "the hallmark of the 20th century must be the revolution of the colored races against the colonial imperialism of Europe."
Iran in a Post-Columbian World
By 1950, outer rim power, now wielded more by Americans than by Europeans, was already being challenged in much of the inner rim, and since the beginning of the new millennium, this trend has only become clearer. Many forecasters suspect that by 2050 the Columbian epoch will be over: China and India will be the world's greatest powers, and the global strategic balance will once again look like it did before Columbus.
This story seems to point toward two conclusions. First, the Columbian epoch will prove to have been a brief phase that is already drawing to a close. Outer rim societies already relate to China, India, and Japan as peers, and they will very probably have to cultivate a similar relationship with Iran within the next few decades.
Second, despite all the local variations, the Columbian epoch unfolded in broadly similar ways all along the inner rim. Everywhere, the core problem in the 18th and 19th centuries was the inability of the inner rim's pre-modern imperial structures to respond to the energies of the modern societies that had taken shape in Europe and America. Only after going through a painful transition to modernity, liberalizing their economies and engaging with the outer rim's markets could inner rim societies re-establish themselves as regional powers.
India represents one extreme on the spectrum of experiences. Europeans exploited India's open coasts to establish numerous beachheads in the 16th and 17th centuries, and when dynastic chaos weakened the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, Britain's East India Company established financial dominance and, later, military control. In 1951, four years after winning independence, India's literacy rate was still just 16 percent, and the average person's life expectancy at birth was just 32 years. Only in the 1990s did India begin liberalizing its economy, integrating its markets with those of the outer rim and emerging as a true regional power.
Japan falls at the other end of the spectrum. Although distance made it one of the last Asian states to crumble under the outer rim's power, in the first few years after the arrival of U.S. Naval Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and the opening of Japan to the West, the country seemed to be following the Indian path. Tokugawa rule collapsed into civil war, and European and American financiers and military advisers began moving in. However, as early as the 1870s, a new Japanese elite had seized control of its own affairs, using indigenous rather than outer rim capital to finance industrialization, strongly resisting territorial partition and liberalizing its economy. It emerged as a regional power in the 1890s.
Iran does not fall at either of these extremes, and in fact, its experience of the Columbian epoch more closely resembles that of China. Less exposed to the outer rim than India, but more exposed than Japan, China suffered devastating defeats at British hands in the 1840s. Qing dynasty governance disintegrated amid civil wars, and corrupt rulers squandered huge Western loans. Westerners reacted by partitioning the country and taking over parts of its government's functions. Mao's victory in 1949 ushered in a revolutionary era in which China pulled sharply away from the outer rim, only to begin leaning back toward the United States in 1972. Economic liberalization took off in the 1980s, and by 2000 China was once again a regional power.
Iran's sheltered coastline meant that it, too, enjoyed more protection from the outer rim than India, but less than Japan. It had its own military disaster at British hands in 1857, and, following the Chinese path, its Qajar dynasty dissolved into weak and ineffective rule, squandering its own huge European loans and granting monopolistic concessions over much of its economy. In 1901, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah signed away most of the country's oil for 20,000 pounds in cash and one-sixth of the country's future oil revenues. Britain occupied parts of Iran from 1915 to 1921, returned again in 1941 for five more years and then helped the United States overthrow an elected government in 1953. The strongly pro-Western Pahlavi regime subsequently began limited economic liberalization, only to fall in the Islamist revolution of 1979. As in China, the revolutionary government then pulled sharply away from the outer rim; but unlike China, it has not yet reversed course to liberalize its economy.
The recipe for success in the inner rim has been to replace premodern dynastic rulers with economic liberalizers who lean toward the outer rim, not with revolutionaries who turn inward, blame the outer rim for their problems and seek solutions in extreme ideologies. Iran's revival as a regional power, we should conclude, is likely but not inevitable. It will depend on the choices its leaders and people make and on the willingness of the outer rim to trust them.
This analysis has optimistic short-term implications. The more that Iran remains a revisionist power, challenging the status quo, the less likely it is to revive as a regional power. And the more it wants to revive as a regional power, the less likely Iran is to pose a continuing threat to the stability of the region.
In the longer run, however, the picture may darken. During the 20th century, the outer rim worked out an implicit deal with the inner rim's reviving regional powers, effectively exchanging direct or indirect rule for cooperation and commitment to peaceful engagement with the outer rim's markets. However, as regional powers waxed stronger, they regularly found themselves chafing under these terms. In the 1930s, Japanese leaders decided war was the only solution; in the 2010s, many analysts worry that Chinese leaders may come to a similar conclusion. If Iran does liberalize and take its place as a regional power in the 2020s, after a decade or so it too might strain against the limits of the new dynamic between inner and outer rim. And, Iran's rivalries with Turkey or Saudi Arabia over influence in the Arab world — or with India over control of the Arabian Sea — might well be making strategic forecasters long for the simpler days of the ayatollahs.
That, however, will be a problem for a new generation of statesmen to resolve.