Persia is a land-based civilization. Due to the vulnerability of the Strait of Hormuz, it has never been a maritime power, its only memorable seaventure being the disastrous Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Hemmed in on its approaches by mountains, it is only natural that the peoples of this surprisingly forbidding terrain would find land-based warfare more advantageous. Indeed, they have only ever been fully conquered a handful of times in their history. Having within its borders the third largest oil reserves in the world, it should be a rich nation, but its defensive structures are its economic downfall. What plateaus exist are uninhabitable, and the infrastructure and transportation costs of the populated mountain regions exhaust what revenue is generated by its oil operations.
In terms of geostrategy, the goals of Persia have never deviated much. It must push its way westward. On its eastern front are more uninviting mountains, and to its north the notorious quagmire of the caucuses. Persian power has always been reliant upon dominating Mesopotamia. Emerging from the Zagros mountains, the Persians were originally a warrior people and only built an empire when they acquired firm control over the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates. The main threat to Persian security is not invasion, but subterfuge playing upon its internal ethnic and religious dynamics, usually conducted by a foreign power occupying Mesopotamia.
Such are the geopolitical realities of Persia, modern day Iran (the name Iran has a long history, possibly as old as 1000 BC, while Persia is more of an exonym). It would not matter who the inhabitants of this land were, these would be the geopolitical realities they would face.
However, this is only half of the larger picture. To understand things fully we must delve into the religious factors influencing geopolitics of the Middle East. In the 10th Century BC, Iranian polytheism was reformed by Zoroaster to form the Zoroastrian religion, which served as the state religion from 600 BC to 650 AD, throughout the time of the great Persian dynasties described so vividly in Greek history. By 674, the Sasanian Empire, the last expression of what we might call ‘Ancient Persia’ was ended by the Arab conquest of the region, and subsequently due to stringent economic and social pressures, the country was eventually converted to Islam.
By now everyone knows the story of the Islamic schism. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, he had not formally appointed a successor. Sunnis believed his most trusted adviser, Abu Bakr, was the rightful successor to the role of Caliph, while the Shia believed this right was related by blood, and so Muhammad’s cousin (as well as brother-in-law) Ali ibn Abi Talib ought to lead the Islamic world. Important to note, Ali was not just some other guy. He was supposedly the only person ever to be born in the holy sanctuary of the Kaaba in Mecca, and was the first young male to convert to Islam.
Since this divide, the history of the two sects has been one of bloodshed, and the Shi’ites have usually been on the receiving end of it, the first big event being the Battle of Karbala (680 AD) in which leader of the Shi’ites and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali, along with his family and close supporters were massacred by Sunnis. Ali’s older brother Hasan had struck an uneasy peace with Caliph Muawiyah I, ruler of the Sunnis, but the Caliph violated the treaty by appointing his own son as his successor, thus ironically acquiescing to the original Shia argument that succession was by blood. In any event, Ali refused to bend the knee to the new Caliph, Yazid I, and this led to his brutal death and decapitation. If you’ve ever wondered why you sometimes see images from Iran of crowds lashing themselves into a bloody mess, it is in commemoration of this martyrdom.
Ali is viewed as having been the third imam, his brother having been the second, his father the first. There followed from these three, a further eight imams, who in Shia belief are not simply religious teachers, but the rightful successors of Muhammad (their equivalent of Caliph). All of them, without exception, were assassinated on the orders of various Caliphs. The son of the last of these imams, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is said to have disappeared in 941 in an event known as the ‘Major Occultation’ while he was in fear of being murdered as his predecessors were, with one of his last messages being:
“From the day of your death [the last deputy] the period of my major occultation will begin. Henceforth, no one will see me, unless and until Allah makes me appear. My reappearance will take place after a very long time when people will have grown tired of waiting and those who are weak in their faith will say: What! Is he still alive?”
It is believed among most Shi’ites that this ‘hidden’ Imam will re-appear at the apocalypse and together with Isa (Jesus) will bless a new world with justice and peace. It is important to note here that there are two dissenting Shi’ite groups, the Zaydis (fivers) and the Ismailis (Seveners), both of whom exist due to disagreements over succession at certain points, but as previously stated, the theological viewpoint of the ‘twelvers’ or Imamis is dominant among the Shia. Iranians believe today that the twelfth imam watches over their nation and will preserve the Shi’ites until his return.
The assassination of Shia spiritual leaders is not the only reason why the sect has been in a defensive posture for most of its existence. It has founded its own states, but before the 1500s these were based on the Shi’ite theology of the aforementioned breakaway sub-sects (namely the Zaydi Idrisid Dynasty in Morocco from 788 to 974, and the immensely powerful Islmaili Fatimid Caliphate headquartered in Egypt which existed from 909 to 1171). As a result of the Mongol invasion of Persia, Arab religious dominion over the Persians was gradually nullified, and in 1501 the religious landscape changed when the Safavid Dynasty converted the population to Shia Islam. Unlike its neighbors who remained Sunni, Iran began to resemble European countries in some ways, becoming a feudal state with the Shah (king) believed to be the divinely-ordained ruler, the unifying pillar of state and faith. These trappings have since been shed, but the underlying religious motivators of Iranian society have not been changed since this time.
No other nation in the region has been a safe haven for Shi’ites, and this has fed into the fortress mentality. Just to give some examples, Umayyad governor Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf killed 120,000 Shi’ites in two cities alone during his tenure from 694 to 714. Under Abbasid rule, Shi’ites were branded with the derogetory name ‘Rafidha’ (rejectors), and burned alive in Baghdad. The Ottomons conducted a policy of cleansing against ‘Safavid spies’ in the 1500s, erasing 40,000 Shia from Eastern Anatolia. The Mughal rulers of India sanctioned pogroms known as Taarajs against Shi’ites from 1548 well into the 1800s. This is of course not to mention the atrocities of the modern era, from Saudi execution of Shia clerics to the brutal Iran-Iraq War
The Shia see themselves as being perpetually under assault, which has led to a cult of martyrdom among the sect’s practitioners, but has also influenced the geopolitics of the Shia core in Iran. If indeed the sect is under sustained threat from the majority of Muslims (Shi’ites only make up 10% of Muslims with the lion’s share of the other 90% being Sunni) then it necessarily follows that their strategy in the Middle East must be one that is based on tactical, constructive, and defensive maneuvers rather than the use of brute force. The survival of the sect is dependent on the success of Iran’s geopolitics. Where Iran fails, Shi’ites will be killed, their mosques destroyed, and the practice of their faith criminalized. Christians can certainly relate to this reality, as the failure of the Byzantine Empire and the crusaders of Western Europe was the death warrant for Middle Eastern Christianity, a small remnant of which only survives today at the behest of makeshift alliances with minorities and opportunistic dictators.
Since the end of effective colonial control over Iran by Western powers in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the nation has had to hold its own, first against honorary citizen of Detroit Saddam Hussein, and then subsequently against the petro-state of Saudi Arabia, another of the USG’s badly behaved lapdogs. In spite of this, the current state of affairs is very positive for the Shi’ites. While Saudi Arabia and its satellites are far richer than Iran, their populations are statistically insignificant. They cannot rely on the kind of military might once wielded by the Turks over the Arab world, nor even what Egypt threatened at the height of Nasser-mania. The House of Saud relies primarily on its lucrative ties to the United States and Western Europe to bring in outside military actors to do its bidding and keep Iran in a box.
One term that is used often in substantive geopolitical analyses of the Iranian mission is the so-called ‘Shi’ite Crescent’, that is, the bloc that could be formed out of nations with significant Shi’ite populations, effectively encircling Saudi Arabia. It starts in Lebanon where Iran’s well-armed militia Hezbollah effectively controls the fractured state, runs through Alawite dominated Syria, Shi’ite majority Iraq, Iran, and the island of Bahrain (currently under Saudi occupation), and potentially terminates in Yemen where a group of Zaydi Shia, the Houthis, are a significant force. This strategy has not been without its hiccups. Just as Iran was pulling Iraq into its orbit following the US ouster of the country’s Ba’athist regime, Qatar and others helped spark revolution in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. Even so, the winds of change are upon the Middle East, and Iran’s power continues to grow notwithstanding the economic pressure the country is under, showing that smart geopolitics can transcend the threat and even enforcement of sanctions. In fact, sanctions and constant Western interference only deepens Iranian commitment to establishing their strategic priorities, because such attacks are seen in theological as well as political terms, part of the ongoing religious war against the Shia.
Furthermore on the intersection of faith and state policy, Shi’ite Islam has fostered an Iranian outlook on the world that is far less dogmatically puritanical, and far less aggressive than its Sunni counterpart. The compact authority structure of the Shia led by the Imams and subsequently their trustees (think the modern day Ayatollahs) has led to a characteristically aristocratic religion, helped in part by the innate ingenuity of the Iranian people. The sect is stable, not subject to erroneous radicalism of the ISIS variety, though it has declined in its virility over the last couple of decades (something the leadership ought to address). Because of its structure and history, as well as the realities of its regional dispersion, Shi’ite Islam has been willing to cultivate allies among minority groups. The mystical Alawite sect was not even considered an offshoot of the Shia until relatively recently when the imperative to have influence in Syria became obvious. Similarly, the Shia have generally been accommodating to Christians in the region, hence why many Orthodox, Maronites, and Armenians have supported their recent power plays in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. This has also been very helpful in bringing now post-Soviet Russia into tight alliance with the regime in Tehran, since Russia has the added incentive of protecting the region’s Christian minority from Qatar-funded, US-armed zealots.
As outlined in this article, the Shi’ites have an advantage in not being as internally divided as the Sunnis, and thus they can coordinate more effectively to achieve their short-term and long-term goals:
“Islam is presented now by two poles of confrontation, but the Sunni pole is much more differentiated, divided inside. Shias are a minority and Sunnis are a majority. But Shias are homogeneous more or less – in Iraq, in Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in Syria, including in Bahrain and Houthis in Yemen. That is a kind of zone, uninfected culturally, by a level of consciousness. And the Sunni world is completely torn apart by the inner contradictions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, between different fractions inside of Sunni states. And as well differences between the Maghreb states and Middle East states.”
In order to preserve its security, which is the security of the Shia sect, Iran must consolidate the Shi’ite crescent using any means at its disposal. It must hope that Egypt, and to a greater extent Turkey remain as they are currently, regimes that seem to float detached from the orbit of either the Gulf states or the Western powers, so that they will not interfere too much in Iranian affairs. The monarchy in Bahrain must be removed, and the independence of Yemen’s Houthi rebels secured, along with a future for the Assad government in Syria. If this can be achieved, the heartland of mountainous Persia will be safe for the foreseeable future, and Iran will be established as the Middle East’s most significant actor in a future multipolar world. Its dominion over Iraq will eventually compensate for its economic deficiencies as such dominion did in the past, and foreign powers will have great difficulty in undermining the Iranian state. This is the size of the Shia strategy, a band of protective western buffers as a moat behind which the fortress is safe. There is no plot to take over the entire Middle East and march on Cairo, nor is there credibility in the apocalyptic warnings of philosemitic neoconservatives who are only trying to justify more military and economic support to Israel, a country that has no right to it, nor need of it.
Clearly, the Shia have a role to play in the next setup of the geopolitical chessboard, that which will follow the inevitable decline of unipolarity and the uncontested rule of Modern democratic nations. Understanding the central role of Iran as the fortress state, its strategic interests, and the theological/theohistorical underpinnings of its beliefs about external relations will help us to better understand how the Shia can potentially be useful allies in the drive to rid the world of Liberal hegemony and allow Tradition below the surface to breathe once more in every corner of the world.