Iran and its neighbours

Placed on East-West crossroad, Iran has for long, remained a melting pot of two great civilizations. The saying that Iranians are the “Frenchmen of the East” is not misplaced.

To her west are the lands of the Semitic people – Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan – and to her north and east lie the lands of Indo-Iranian branch of Aryans – Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus Iran is a buffer of sorts between two major races on the earth.

Not only that, Iran itself is a mosaic of ethnicities, a factor that adds colour and brightness to her rich heritage. She has ethnic Baluch and Arabs in the south, Azeris and Kurds in the north, Aryan-Semitic mixed race to the west bordering on Iraq, and Farsi-Turkmen speaking groups to her northwest. Nevertheless, these ethnic, racial or linguistic diversities are no hindrance to the national identity of her people as Iranians.

To her west, Iran has a long common border with Iraq, an Arab state with a majority of Shia Muslims. The populace on the border area is culturally, and to some extent linguistically, mixed so as to give the land the name of Iraq-e-Ajam meaning Iraq-Iran.

Despite commonality of religion, Iran’s relations with Iraq have seldom been cordial. However, Iranian Shia pilgrims (zavvar) to Kerbala in Iraq, have generally played a moderating role in their mutual relations.

The decade-long Iran-Iraq war of 1979 was essentially an expression of Iranian nation’s aspiration for self-assertion in the aftermath of the fall of US-patronized monarchy. It also reflected the likelihood of a protracted struggle between the radicals and the moderates among the Muslims. While the Bathists towed the communist line, the radical Khumeinites raised the slogan of back to the basics.

With regard to more recent developments, Iran neither explicitly protested against the US-led military intervention in the neighbouring country of Iraq nor did she express serious concern to her sovereignty and territorial integrity. She considered the dismissal of Baathist regime and Saddam Husain as reinforcing factors to her anti-Iraq policy.

Nevertheless, fast changing ground situation in Iraq has prompted Iran to play a role, albeit clandestinely, by using Iraqi Shia conduit to push her political interests in the region. While the US considers it an unfriendly act, Iran takes shelter behind deniability.

The role of Iran under clerical regime has been somewhat dubious. In her foreign policy, the theocratic regime made no secret of “exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution” to such Islamic countries as showed laxity in adhering to radical Islamic identity.

The regime has made no secret of its animus towards Israel. Overplaying its Islamic role, Iran tries to tell the Arab states that she would do more to oust the Israelis from Palestine and bring triumph to Islam than what they might be able or willing to do. Iran provides mercenaries and military assistance to radical groups fighting against Israelis in Lebanon. Observers think this is one of the obstructions in the Middle East peace process. The recent fighting in Lebanon lay bare the precise role Iran was playing in that region.

Saudi Arabia, with predominantly Sunni Population, is another important neighbour of Iran. Like Iraq, Iran’s relations with Saudi kingdom, too, have never been cordial. During the reign of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, there did appear a temporary thaw in their cold relationship, perhaps owing to some pressures from Washington, which has stakes in both countries.

But soon after the success of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khumeini openly denounced monarchy as incompatible with Islamic political philosophy. He went to the length of saying that all monarchs in Muslim countries were “usurpers”. Khumeini rejected the claim of the Saudi monarchs that they were the sole caretakers of the holy shrine of Ka’aba. More importantly, he maintained that in Islam, religion and politics were inseparable, and that it was a recognised tradition of the Muslims to discuss politics in all religious gatherings and at all religious places.

The rise of Khumeinism in Iran, and Iran’s not too friendly disposition towards the Saudis invited latter’s quick reaction. It projected Wahhabism throughout the Sunni-dominated Muslim world to counter Iran’s growing assertiveness. With the passage of time, Khumeini’s ideology received a set back. But in the process, the spectacular ascendancy of Wahhabism – also known as radical Islam -, with Saudi blessings, too, assumed threatening proportions.

In any case, the desire of Shia Iran to dominate or to wrest the leadership of the Muslim world from the Saudis could make little headway. It has to be understood that one of the factors of Iran’s patent hostility towards the US is rooted in latter’s patronizing gesture towards the Saudi monarchy.

Afghanistan, the eastern neighbour of Iran has closer historical, cultural, linguistic, social and spiritual affinity to Iran. Just three centuries ago, Afghanistan formed part of greater Khurasan, the eastern province of Iran. Iran’s relations with Afghanistan have remained cordial over the centuries and there has not been any major irritant between them. However, Iran became watchful and alarmed when Soviet influence began to penetrate Afghan society in the second half of the previous century. Pro-Soviet political parties – Khalq and Parcham – the handiwork of Soviet secret agents in Kabul in 19760s and 70s, forced the Iranian monarchy to come closer to the US on one hand and to seek more goodwill of the erstwhile Soviet Union on the other. Some political analysts believe that the late Shah had tried to do a fine act of balancing. Liquidation of monarchy in Kabul, though a clear signal to the Shah of Iran of coming events, did not impress him and he learnt no lesson from it.

The rise of Taliban in its early days in Kandahar did not have any immediate impact on Iran-Afghan relations. But when the Taliban and the Northern Alliance forces under Ahmad Shah Masud came to actual fighting for supremacy over Afghanistan, a change in political alignments became visible. General Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek Afghan warlord of Mazar-e Sharif in Northern Afghanistan looked towards his ethnic fraternity in Uzbekistan and Turkey. In comparison, Ahmad Shah Masud, the Tajik Afghan warlord of Panjsheer Valley in Northern Afghanistan befriended Iran, Tajikistan and to a small extent India. Of course, material support to Masu’d by the allies had Moscow’s green signal.

Iran looked at Taliban with much suspicion. The cold blooded murder of Iranian diplomatic mission personnel in Mazara-e-Sharif and the massacre of innocent Dari speaking people in occupied parts of Herat and Balkh by the Taliban evoked Teheran’s resentment. Teheran ordered securing of her eastern border with Afghanistan and even deployed a strong defence force along the sensitive border. However, sagacity prevailed and no serious skirmishes took places.

Teheran received international appreciation for extending full facilities to the Afghan refugees seeking shelter on Iranian soil to escape the wrath of the Taliban. More than a million Afghan refugees were provided shelter, food and clothing by the Iranian government in camps in different towns of Khurasan including Mashed. This humanitarian act could not escape the eyes of political commentators. However, Iran did maintain a strict vigil over the activities of the refugees lest they indulge in drug trafficking and other crimes normally committed by their rogue elements in Afghanistan.

In present Afghan crisis, Teheran has been criticising the American and the NATO forces for indiscriminate bombing and destruction of innocent lives in Afghan operations. However, she has not made an issue out of it because curbing Taliban and uprooting terrorism are in the larger interest of Iran. Obviously, Teheran is not favourably disposed to the process through which Hamid Karzai came to power. In the same way she is not evincing any keen interest in the elections in Iraq.

With Turkmenistan, the northern neighbour of Iran, Teheran has a 500 kilometres long border. A large number of ethnic Turkmen families are living close to the border on Iranian side. Tehran cannot ignore the presence of a fairly large ethnic Turkmen population on its soil. Moreover, Iran has stakes in Turkmen (Daulatabad) gas deposits. Iranian National Oil Company has made huge investments in the exploration, exploitation and transportation of Turkmen gas to Kabul and perhaps onwards to Pakistan. Sarakhs on Iran-Turkmenistan border is a vital entrepot regulating South Asia’s trade route to Central Asia via Iranian port of Bandar Abbas – Sarakhs rail link.

The Azeri question relates to Azerbaijan, once a north–western province of Iran, which was divided between Iran and the erstwhile Soviet Union after World War II. Azerbaijan and Armenia, both are now independent States of Trans-Caspian Central Asia. Azerbaijan has laid claim to the western off- shore oil reserves of the Caspian Sea. Teheran has contested the claim. Iran even moved one of her battle ships in the region to make a show of power in the western part of the Caspian Sea. A stalemate has ensued though intermittent formal talks have not been totally suspended.

Iran considers Azerbaijan’s offer of Ceyhan oil pipeline through Azerbaijan territory to the Bosphorus and onwards to Europe as an unfriendly act. It will be noted that Anglo-American oil cartels engaged in export of oil from Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) don’t want the oil pipeline to pass through the territories of either Iran or Russia.

Iran is maintaining a big-brother stance in her relations with the littoral states of the Gulf. Knowing that the Gulf has immense strategic importance – being the lifeline for the huge oil tankers – Iran has been strengthening her navy with regularity and seriousness. The presence of American nuclear base in Diego Garcia close to the Persian Gulf and stationing of very strong American warships somewhere near the mouth of the Gulf are major irritants for Iran.

Iran ’has been very active in Bahrain, a small Sheikhdom in the Gulf. The reason is that Bahrain has a sizeable Shia population whereas in other Sheikhdoms of the Gulf, Sunni Hanafi Islam prevails widely. The Bahrain Shias, covertly supported by Iran, tried to depose the Sunni ruler more than once but without success.

From this brief and rather cursory introduction, it will be deduced that Iran has not been having smooth relations with most of its close neighbours in the region. Ethnic and linguistic diversity, national interests, political rivalry and economic mad race have combined to put a question mark on Iran’s commitment to peace in the Middle East. Iran’s impatience in acquiring nuclear capability is a source of threat to her neighbours with whom Iran is at loggerheads for one reason or the other.

Comments are closed.