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Iraq and Iran: Destined by Geography for Conflict

By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security

The earliest recorded war in human history was between the Sumer and Elam civilizations located in modern Iraq and Iran near the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf. Though this was the first record of a war, it would not be too much of a reach to suspect that the region had seen earlier conflicts.

The millennia since then witnessed numerous conflicts in the area with notable figures such as Alexander the Great’s Battle of the Persian Gate in 330 BCE.

The Persian Gate is a pass in the Zagros Mountains that separated Sumer and Elam. By dictates of geography, the area must have been party to this earliest of recorded wars. Extrapolating from that war, conflict is likely to have been a characteristic of the region long before we humans began to write.

Iraq’s Notorious Dictator Saddam Hussein Also Played a Role in This Area

Iraq’s notorious dictator Saddam Hussein also played a role in this area during his ill-fated invasion of Iran. Hussein believed he could cross the Zagros and enter the Khuzestan region of southern Iran. The area is populated by Iranian Arabs who might have been amenable to Hussein’s rule and he perhaps might have used them to undermine the fledgling government in Tehran. However, the Iranian Arabs had no desire to join with the Iraqi leader, thus undermining a key part of Saddam’s invasion strategy. The Iran-Iraq war was a disastrous affair, but that conflict would not be the last between the neighboring states.

Nor is it the only dynamic Iraq faces. Just as it was with ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq has much larger neighbors to the east and north that can launch an invasion from their mountain redoubts. Iraq sits in a wide plain of arable land, which is among the most valuable real estate in the Middle East. This territory has always been ripe for conquest, but those forces attempting to seize Iraq faced an uncomfortable truth: An open plain is difficult to defend. Conquerors always have clamored for Mesopotamia, but they soon found themselves moving on in search of defensible boundaries. Iraq always seems to be a stop along the way to somewhere else.

Persia Would Lose This Fight over Time, Leaving the Ottomans in Control of Baghdad

The Ottomans would go there, too, fighting – who else? – the Persians for control of Mesopotamia. Persia would lose this fight over time, leaving the Ottomans with control of Baghdad. Persia would maintain borders similar to modern Iran, but the empire would face pressure from the Russians to the north, the Ottomans to the west, and the British to the east.

By 1722, Iran had been weakened to the point that foreign exploitation was occurring within its borders. Iran had a short resurgence of internal stability, but ultimately was no match for Russian pressure. It wasn’t until the 1979 Islamic Revolution that Iran would regain its independence from foreign influence. That independence came at the cost of becoming an international pariah.

British and U.S. Influence in Iraq and Iran

Following World War I, the British and the French took control of much of the Middle East now that the Ottoman Empire was no more. Both imperial powers were successful at creating governments, but they quickly lost the peace and allowed chaos to reign.

Iraq and Iran held together due to British interventions, which had turned from being an international mandate to protecting British oil interests in both nations. Initially, Great Britain spent far more time on Iraqi issues. However, a strange turn of events in Iran would capture London’s attention. A small British military contingent worked to remove the last vestiges of Russian influence, which led to the first British-backed coup in the country.

Regarding the 1920 coup, Commander of British Forces in Persia Major-General Edmund Ironside stated, “I fancy that all the people think that I engineered the coup d’état. I suppose I did, strictly speaking.” Reza Khan seized the Persian armed forces to become its commander in chief. Khan would take the throne in 1925 retaining British, and eventually U.S., backing.

Britain’s Interests in Iran Deepened as Oil Became More Important to Modern Economies

Great Britain’s interests in Persia (Iran) would deepen as oil became more important to modern economies. Post WWII, British interests occasionally conflicted with U.S. interests, although both nations cooperated to contain Soviet expansion. The infamous 1953 coup that ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to strengthen the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came as a result of a U.S.-led plan to prevent the Soviets from acquiring control of Middle Eastern oil. Washington’s strategy was to contain the Soviets.  Mosaddegh’s government in Iran threatened this strategy because the U.S. relied on a balance of power to manage the containment.

Post Revolution Iran Faced the Same Challenges as Its Predecessor Governments

Modern Iran after the 1979 revolution faced the same challenges as its predecessor governments faced: Subversion from foreign forces. Since the 9/11 attacks, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Tehran has faced overwhelming force on its borders from the world’s lone superpower. Tehran was not too worried about a U.S. invasion; rather it feared subversion and exploitation of Iran’s internal divisions. Eventually, U.S. interests changed and Washington looked to withdraw from the region, which led to negotiations with Tehran.

Iran attempted to turn the tables on the U.S. by using the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) — also known as the Iran nuclear deal — as cover to expand its influence in the region. The problem with this strategy historically is that it undermines Iran’s drive to maintain internal cohesion. Arab nations, naturally opposed to Iranian influence within their borders, began pushing back.

Iran tried to control Iraq politically through proxy militias and hand-picking politicians. The late General Qasem Soleimani was involved in these activities, but Tehran needed the U.S out of the way. Although Washington was looking to withdraw, it’s ironic that Iranian-backed attacks served to keep Washington in the region longer. In fact, the protests and attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in December was the final straw for Washington’s patience; the U.S. assassinated Soleimani as a result. The U.S. gets nervous when Iran attacks embassies and Tehran’s latest action in Iraq went too far.

Soon after, Iran allegedly shot down a Ukrainian civilian passenger airliner by accident in this escalation that killed all 176 people on board. Although Tehran later admitted the error, it was a mistake that will be costly in the short term. The airliner crisis, and the ensuing anti-government protests, eventually will be forgotten, but Iran will still face the challenge of a foreign power controlling Iraq.

In the years to come, Washington will play a minor role there because the real story, and what comes next, is the revival of the Ottoman-Safavid fight over Iraq under the guise of a newly assertive Turkey and a defensive Iran. Iraq appears to have been permanently weakened and will once again become a battlefield for foreign influence if not outright domination; in addition, the players since ancient time will return to the fray.

Geography is an important influence on human behavior and the wars in that region of the world are prime evidence of this. What we are now witnessing with regards to Iran and Iraq is simply a return to history.

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

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