Iran seems to be one of the top crazies in the world today, probably on equal footing with North Korea. Still, there are some important themes in Iranian political development that point to larger problems not specific to the Near East.
When I look at countries where I have limited experience or exposure, I try to think in terms of historical developments leading to current conditions and then compare those developments against other countries. Let’s call it “Comparative Historical Swathing” or CHS, just to be fun. (God, please do not let my ridiculous terminology creations halt my career before it has begun). Iran is a useful example:
1) Iran is the heir to one of history’s great empires/civilizations. Probably no one ever really forgot that the Persian Empire was kind of a big deal, but it is often forgotten that Iran is the modern incarnation of a fascinating political-cultural civilization. It’s hard to give an exact number of how long the territory of Iran has been governed as a single political unit, but suffice to say that it is in the 1000s of years. The fall of imperial and royal rule in Persia was encouraged by European meddling in the country’s internal and external affairs. To see the extent of this manipulation, I suggest reading Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. Sure, it falls short of academically rigorous, but the history is solid, and it is a wonderfully engaging read.
2) From great power to European pawn is a not a safe combination. Looking just a little east of Iran, China has had a similar historical trajectory. From 1949-1990, China had a special place in the crazy list with all its leaping forward and cultural renovations. The PRC under Mao was a basket case in the same boat as North Korea and Iran today. After at least a 100 years of “humiliation” at the hands of colonial European powers, the Qing Dynasty collapsed in on itself, paving the way for an oppressive Nationalist regime, followed by communist control by 1949. In response to U.S. support for the Nationalist government’s oppressive policies, the CCP displayed anti-Western behavior, attempting to destabilize the current order by encouraging revolution abroad. Iran experienced the turmoil of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 as a national response to the abuse of the Western-supported Pahlavi regime. Their response mirrored that of Maoist China.
3) National Pride doesn’t go away; the need to reclaim greatness appears. A long instilled sense of national pride is confused by humiliation by the hands of an outside force, leading to the need to regain that cultural heritage of greatness. The U.S. has only been the world’s sole superpower for 23 years, and yet any talk of relative or absolute decline sends a chill down the average American’s political spine. Iran, as China before it, is seeking to reestablish its national greatness at any cost.
With those basics points in mind, Iran doesn’t really look any crazier than any other state (which is not to say sane…).That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think Iran is dangerous, if anything history would suggest that such a country is prone to violence and hyper-nationalism. What it does mean, is that in order to integrate Iran into the modern international system, the U.S. will have to treat Iran like the great power, that it inherently sees itself as. Iran will not react positively to bullying on the part of the U.S. or anyone else, and telling it that it cannot have nuclear capabilities almost forces it to adopt those technologies, least its position in the world be thought of anything less than equal with other great powers.
On January 15, Foreign Affairs released an intriguing essay on Azerbaijan's relations with Iran and Israel (here). Not only did I learn a lot about Azerbaijani foreign policy, but it also got me thinking that Azerbaijan might be another example of a small state implementing what I called "small power" in a previous post, albeit in a way very different from Mongolia.
Alex Vatanta presents compelling evidence that tensions between the U.S./Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran are evidenced in the newly developing ties that Azerbaijan enjoys with Israel and its tense relationship with Iran. Azerbaijan has had a remarkably fraught relationship with its southern neighbor. These tensions are the result of several historical and contemporary issues. The most important for our purposes being the following:
1) More ethnic Azeris live in the Northern Iran than in Azerbaijan, the declared homeland of the Azeri people.
2) Occasional remarks from Iranian politicians suggest that they still see the South Caucasus as part of their historical domain/rightful sphere of influence.
3) Iran supported Armenia over Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, fearing that Azerbaijan might be trying to unite the "greater Azeri nation".
In response, Azerbaijan as sought closer ties not only with the Russian Federation, but also with the United States. More surprising to me, however, was that Azerbaijan and Israel are showing ties of increased cooperation. Both countries have an expressed interest in seeing Iran contained, monitored, and ultimately subdued as a regional threat. In response, Iran has attempted to improve relations with Azerbaijan, with overtures including the release of Azerbaijan citizens accused of spying in Iran and other diplomatic motions.
I suggest that Azerbaijan has taken steps that look an awful lot like "small power". It seems to me that Azerbaijan is developing a policy of subtle balancing behavior, whereby it can best achieve its foreign policy and security goals. By maintaining ties with Russia, but also bringing the "West" and Israel into the mix, Azerbaijan can ensure two things: one, it is not dependent on any one larger country; two, Iran is now in a position to take Azerbaijan seriously. Iran's previous heavy-handedness pushed Azerbaijan to take measures to ensure that Iran did not become a threat. Now, Iran will have to court this small Caucasian nation, to ensure that Azerbaijan does not become a larger concern than its small size and population might have suggested in the early 90s. The alternative, that Iran take actions against Azerbaijan, seems unlikely since Azerbaijan has not taken any definitive action against Iran and a pre-emptive strike would only worsen Iran's geo-political climate. Azerbaijan has played its hand well, and it seems to be working.
Anyone familiar with Mongolia, has likely noted important parallels between the three points of contention in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, laid out by Alex Vatanta, and the historically complex relationship between Mongolia and China. More ethnic Mongolians live in Inner Mongolia than the Mongolian state; there are occasional statements of Mongolia's natural place within the Chinese nation (like Tibet and Xinjiang/East Turkestan), and China has expressed concerns about pan-Mongolianism affecting the security and stability of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Mongolia's response has been remarkably similar to Azerbaijan's, in that the country has sought to deepen relations with countries besides its two neighbors - the "third neighbor policy". The differences are numerous (ex. Mongolian-Chinese official relations are quite good at this time and the U.S.-Chinese relationship is hugely better than U.S.-Iranian relations), but the similarities are also important and point to my larger argument that internationally engaged small states will take similar foreign policy directions with regard to their strategic environment. Azerbaijan, like Mongolia, can leverage certain things (location, ties with the West, love-less relationship with Iran) to increase its "small power" and ultimately further its foreign policy and security objectives.
In a turn to the more controversial and distinctly not Mongolian, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the Russian Federation’s issues with Islamic militarism and a general growth in domestic support for Sharia Law and Wahhibism. In 2011, I spent 8 weeks in Kazan, Tatarstan as a student in Arizona State University’s Intensive Advanced Russian program. Recent news out of Tatarstan, as reported on BBC and Radio Free Europe, suggests a rise in a more conservative, perhaps even radical form of Islam in a republic generally cited as Russia’s success story in terms of the peaceful coexistence of Orthodox Christian Russians and Muslim Tatars. I will never forget a news-broadcast that criticized the US for not seeking Russia’s advice for dealing with sectarian issues in Iraq and Afghanistan. Laughing, I immediately turned to my friends after class and cited Russia’s suppression of all religion under the Soviet regime as well as the continuing troubles in Chechnya as good reasons to not listen to any advice Russia might have. Not only does Russia not have a foot to stand on, but it also has, in my opinion, missed the ball completely when analyzing its own domestic troubles as related to Islamic insurgencies. It’s not about Islam- It’s about reacting to centuries of cultural oppression.
The Russian Federal Government and many Russians in general seem to have missed the ball completely on understanding movements for autonomy, Islamic statehood, or general anti-Russian attitudes in the 12 republics of the Federation. Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is certainly something that needs to be worried about, as a particularly repressive form of religion that results in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran. That said, I just don’t buy that the problem in Tatarstan, Chechnya, or any other traditionally Islamic part of the Russian Federation is solely about Islam. Rather, it looks to me like a part of cultural revival and the potential of Islamic revival, in particular, to protest against Moscow and Russia’s continuing death grip on its indigenous peoples. It doesn’t look like those attracted to radical Islam are converts, but mostly youth from one of the federation’s titular groups that have been traditionally tied to the Islamic faith. In other words, ethnic Russians don’t seem to be joining these groups in any real numbers and Tuvans (traditionally Buddhists) are certainly not contending with any Islamic pressures in their republic. In a country where Russians clearly rein supreme, where Russian is the language par excellence, where almost all political control is centered in the Russian city of Moscow, and where even in the ethnic republics Russian’s often make up the majority and you are more likely to hear Russian rather than a titular language on the streets, I have to propose that the growth in popularity of more fundamental forms of Islam is one step in the protest against business as usual in the Russian Federation. A new way to reclaim one’s cultural heritage that exists in conjunction with re-learning local languages, dress, and music.
It’s all about sovereignty and survival. In the Russian Federation, linguistic, cultural, and political survival are never guaranteed. The Chechen war was never about Islam. Yes, Chechen fighters might be Muslims and find “holy war”, “jihad”, and “martyrdom” to be attractive principles, but lets not forget that the Russian government entered into its prolonged conflict in Chechnya in reaction to the republic’s announcement that it would be seeking independence from the Russian Federation. The Chechen War was Russia’s example to the other republics of the newly formed Federation, that unilateral independence would not be tolerated. Russian control was here to stay.
Let me point out here, that I do not support the murders, attacks on innocent by-standers, suicide bombings, and any other acts that result in any lose of life. Chechen “rebels” have certainly committed acts of atrocity, and the Russian Federation’s forces have committed similar acts in response. The news coming out of Tatarstan at the moment is no less disturbing. Yet, I cannot ignore that acts, such as the school shooting in North Ossetia in 2004 (when I was studying in Sestroretsk, Russia), are not indicative of the larger goals, and it is the goals/root causes that we must address in order to arrive at a potential solution. The word “terrorism” gets thrown around a lot regarding different groups, but a clear definition seems to have evaded even the most seasoned analysts. While some groups clearly have no other objective than to terrorize civilians, we seem to get confused when confronted with independence movements. Russia will have to learn to effectively and fairly respond to demands for real autonomy if it expects to really tackle this problem.
This is an important topic for future thought, since a similar argument can be made for approaching a deeper understanding of China’s Uighur population. In fact, for a great book on the topic of cultural resistance in Xinjiang, please check out Dr. Gardner Bovingdon’s book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.