In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney said this:
“Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.”
This is not the first time Romney has said this. In March, he said, “Maybe one of the few bright spots in the Middle East developments in the last year has been the rising of the people in Syria against Assad. Obviously, as you know, Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally in the region. Syria is the route that allows Iran to supply Hezbollah with weapons in Lebanon. Syria is Iran’s route to the sea …” When he said that in March, the Washington Post called him on it, but apparently his campaign ignored the correction.
Romney’s assertion that Iran is landlocked is wrong at several levels, but even the fact checkers and press are ignoring the truly alarming reason why this wrongness must be taken into account when considering Mitt Romney’s ability to manage US foreign policy. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a bit of factual context.
Here is a map of Iran, courtesy of the CIA:
You can’t see it on the map, but that unnamed country in the upper left near Tabriz is Turkey. So, Iran is bordered to the west by Turkey and Iraq. Syria is elsewhere. If Syria is a “route to the sea” for Iran in the usual sense, then it is really Iraq + Syria, or Turkey + Syria that is the route to the sea. And, in fact, Iran does communicate with the Mediterranean sea to the west via various routes. Romney appears to have been correct that Iran sends arms to Lebanon via overland routes, and Lebanon is indeed on the Mediterranean Sea. Anyway, back to the map, that big blue blob to the north is the Caspian Sea, which is not connected to the ocean, so that is not “the sea” in the sense people usually mean it. But, the two conjoined big blue blobs to the south, bottom, of the map are the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman which is contiguous, really part of, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
Iran has 2440 kilometers of coastal border in the south. An additional 740 kilometers is Caspian sea. These coastal regions are major areas of settlement, history, trade and transport. In some ways, Iran is all about the sea.
OK, look at the map again. To the east (right) of Iran are Afghanistan and Pakistan. See how Pakistan is also on the sea? Afghanistan, in contrast, is landlocked. and, just so you know, the former USSR bordered Afghanistan to the north. This will all become important in a moment.
Iran is the modern country that represents the core of what was once “Persia.” Iran is, essentially, Persia, although there were times past when the Persian Empire was much bigger than present day Iran. This is important to Romney’s ignorance of the local geography because even a rudimentary understanding of place and history should serve to remind us that Persia = Iran and Persia is the place with the Persian Gulf, and there was this war called the Gulf War, and that Gulf was the Persian Gulf. So, in this sense, Romney’s gaffe was roughly analogous to, say, a presidential candidate back during the Viet Nam war thinking that Laos was North Viet Nam’s route to the sea, and not knowing what the Gulf of Tonkin was.
But that’s not the main reason to be concerned.
Persia, by the way, is not Arabia. Arabs are people who live in or near Arabia (the Arabian Peninsula) or who have spread from that region across North Africa or various places in West Asia, or who adopted Arab culture during historical periods. Persians never really got into that. Iranians are ethnically and historically distinct from Iraqis or people in or near Saudia Arabia. The primary language in the traditional Arab lands is, wait for it, Arabic. In Iraq, which is arguably Arab, the primary language is Arabic. (The second most common language there is the language of the Kurds, who live in a region that was divided among various modern countries, so they are ethnically distinct). But in Iran, former Persia, the primary language is … Persian! Arabic is in the top ten of the many languages used in this historically rich crossroads region, but probably not in the top five. Arab people in Iran are a minority, and for the most part are a repressed minority living in a few enclaves. The point is this: Iran is ethnically, historically, and culturally distinct from the rest of the “Middle East” and this distinction is earmarked, underscored, related to, and largely caused by this whole “Persian” thing … Persian culture, Persian Empire, Persian language, Persian Gulf. Which is an arm of the sea.
It concerns me that Romney conflates the diversity of this important region. Does that matter? Does getting people’s ethnicity, culture, language, and history wrong matter? I think that if you ask the diplomats on the ground they would slap you upside the head for even asking such a dumb question.
But that’s not the main reason to be concerned!
Remember how Afghanistan and Pakistan are next to Iran, to the right? Afghanistan is where Osama bin Laden (no relation) originally hid out, US forces cornering him in the early days of the war, neighboring Pakistan is where he was killed by special forces units sent in by President Obama (no relation). Why was Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to begin with? He’s from Saudi Arabia, why was he not there? The US has very little military and intelligence presence in the most populous Islamic nation in the world, which is all covered with Jungle, why not hide out there? He was in Afghanistan because Afghanistan was his second, adopted home, because Osama bin Laden was a freedom fighter there, working with the Mujahideen there, which in turn was a resistant movement fighting against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.
Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan and fight a ten year long war there, which happened to spawn a resistance movement supported by the United States under the Reagan Administration, which ultimately led to the rise of the radical Al-Qaeda led by resistance fighter Osama bin Laden? It is extremely complicated and there are many levels at which to consider this, but one overarching theme that has influenced Russia and Soviet policy in the region is this: Pre-Soviet Russia and the USSR lacked sufficient routes to the sea that were winter-free and with good access to the Indian and Pacific oceans. The history of Russia and the USSR can be partly written in reference to this one thing. Having said that, it isn’t just the route to the sea thing, but also influence and control in the whole South Asia region. The point is, that for hundreds of years, Russian and Soviet diplomatic and military activities have involved poking around in, occasionally invading bits of, and working out deals with all of the nations to the south and along or near either the Indian Ocean or a sea that leads to the Indian Ocean. This is still going on (remember the invasion of Georgia a few years ago?).
So here’s the thing. Long term, over centuries. Russian and Soviet mucking around along this southern frontier has been a key factor in all military, economic, and political considerations of the region. Most countries bordering the Indian Ocean directly or indirectly have received some kind of attention from the Russians or Soviets, and this has been of great concern to the rest of the world. One of the most significant events of the last half of the last century was the ten year long war in Afghanistan. Had that war ended in Afghanistan becoming part of the USSR, or a good ally, then guess what would have happened next.
Iran would today be Russia’s “Route to the Sea” in the south.
And the struggle to determine that outcome gave birth to modern geopolitics in the region, to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, to the dicy situation in Pakistan, and to the radical faction of the global Islamic movement that people like Mitt Romney like to scare us all with.
Yet, he seems to know nothing about it, because if he had even a middle schooler’s level knowledge of history and geography of the region it would be utterly impossible to not know that Iran is a key coastal country of southern Asia, and that this geographical position is key in Iran’s role in geopolitics of the present and last centuries.
And this guy wants to be president.