The notoriously opaque political structure of Iran makes understanding their intentions and worldview difficult. While pondering Iran the other day I remembered something that I often forget: in the last five years the United States as invaded the countries on either side of Iran. Its fairly well recognized by Americans, I think, that Iraq is Iran’s immediate left-door neighbor. But do you also realize that Afghanistan is Iran’s immediate right-door neighbor?
I know many of you do. One common internet joke is that the United States’ strategy for re-enforcing the troops in Afghanistan is to exit Iraq through Iran. But still, it got me thinking about how the Iranian power structure sees the world. They have American troops on either flank. But what about the rest of the Middle East?
Pulling out a map of the Middle East, this is what we find. This is how you or I see the world. In order to understand how Iran sees the world however, we need to adjust the map a little bit.
|Our third map factors in countries which the United States has invaded since 2001 and is currently occupying and fighting Iranian trained and supplied insurgents: Iraq and Afghanistan.|
|Our fourth map factors in nearby countries in which the United States currently has major military installations: Italy, Turkey and Kyrgystan.|
|Our sixth map factors in countries where the United States presently has more than 1000 troops stationed: Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Djibuti, Jordan.|
|Our seventh map factors in countries that are long-time U.S. allies and where the United States presently has more than 100 troops stationed: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Georgia and Thailand.|
|Our eighth map factors in countries where the United States has the use of military facilities and/or has been performing Special Forces operations over the past decade: Pakistan, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Somalia and Azerbaijan.|
Our last map removes the world’s largest democracy which today has better relations with the United States than probably any time in its history: India. And, I suppose we better remove Israel too.
Serbia, a country which spent part of the 1990’s slaughtering its Muslim neighbors.
Libya, a country which for the last twenty years played the same game that Iran is playing, but which saw the light after the removal of Saddam.
The failed or failing states of Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eretria and Yemen.
Armenia and Uzbekistan.
And of course, Syria and Lebanon.
I think this exercise demonstrates a few things. First of course is that Iran is almost completely isolated in the world. One of Obama’s favorite lines is that Iran is stronger now than they were before we went into Iraq. If that is so, then how weak were they at that time? They look pretty isolated right now and this is an improvement?. They have precisely one state ally, Syria. They support insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan but we are in the process of defeating them there. Their puppets in Lebanon have turned their guns on the Lebanese people, causing the other Lebanese sects to question Hezbollah’s right to maintain a state within a state. Hamas may be on the verge of a peace treaty with Israel.
From my perspective Iran seems contained. But the point of this exercise was to look at this from Iran’s perspective, not ours. If we look at it that way, contained quickly turns to cornered and surrounded. They say an animal is most dangerous when cornered. But we’re not talking about an animal. We’re talking about a nation-state populated by a proud people. A proud people who feel as if they have not been given the respect they are entitled to. A proud people who do not understand modern international relations and power politics. A proud people who misread our intentions.
One of the things that I could never understand about Saddam was why he would lie and obfuscate about his WMD program. Why, if he didn’t have a program, would he risk invasion by the United States? What we learned of course is that he viewed the deception as his only way of maintaining power and of preventing an Iranian invasion of Iraq. Saddam was more afraid of an Iranian invasion than an American invasion.
And, if we didn’t understand that about Iraq and Saddam, then what is it that we don’t understand about the Iranians? I don’t have the answer. I do think that the maps above shed some light on their view of the world however and we would be wise to remember that as we attempt to get them to become productive members of the international community.