Iran between east and west.

Author:Bulliet, Richard W.

The clank of sabers rattling has been in Iranian ears ever since President Bush nominated Iran for charter membership in the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union Address. Barely five months had elapsed since 9/11, but already his administration had identified a series of enemies for its War on Terror. That there may have been no tangible links between Iraq, Iran or North Korea and al-Qaeda, the actual perpetrator of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, did not prevent the Axis of Evil rhetoric, with its echo of the real Axis of the Second World War, from making the newly erupted worldwide struggle sound like real war.

Since that time, every January has produced rumors, leaks and veiled threats-that have led tealeaf readers to predict an attack on Iran by June. And every June has come and gone without a shot being fired. This does not mean, of course, that the United States, or Israel, will never attack. However, it does suggest that there are obstacles in the way. Though many of these obstacles have been well described by expert observers, there is one that normally escapes notice. It is the historical pattern of Iran's relationship to its eastern, as opposed to its western, neighbors.

Israelis are understandably appalled by President Ahmadinejad's belittling of the Holocaust and denial of their right to a Jewish state in the Middle East. Neighboring Sunni Arab governments, all former enemies of Israel, express horror at the thought of Shia political and military might stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. Hawkish Americans, alarmed by the prospect of nuclear weapons ending up in Iranian hands, have resurrected the idea, out of favor ever since the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, of attacking first and asking questions about whether the threat really existed later.

The historical pattern that is reasserting itself here is a western propensity, going back to Herodotus and Aeschylus, to fantasize Iran as a threatening force of cosmic dimension. At the same time, there seems to be virtually no interest among the Israeli, Sunni and American hand-wringers in looking at Iran's geostrategic situation the way repeated historical crises have forced Iranian political thinkers to do.

Iran's destiny always lies to the east, not the west. Lowland Iraq may be a tempting morsel for Iranian strongmen, but Central Asia, Afghanistan and the lands beyond embody promises and perils--both yesterday and tomorrow--that exceed in importance anything to be found on Iran's western front.


In 1996, the first railroad train ever to cross the frontier between Iran and Turkmenistan crawled to the center of the border-marking bridge over the meager Tedzhen River and stopped to give children in ornate costumes an opportunity to present flowers to the government leaders in the first car. The mid-May mood of the international visitors and news reporters inside the commoners' cars was buoyant and festive. Unarmed Iranian soldiers stationed every few feet along the bridge saluted the train's passing, though the double row of razor-wire topped fences separated by footprint-revealing plowed land lent the actual entry into Turkmenistan an ominous, Mission Impossible air.

Lunch at the terminus on the Turkmen side had been sitting out for too long in hot tents to be greeted by the train's passengers with anything but concealed alarm. Fortunately for the still hungry audience, the Turkmen speeches took but a small fraction of the time that had been devoted to oratory during the morning under a vast tent pavilion outside the Iranian town of Sarakhs. This was as it should have been, since the $171 million spent on completing the Iran-Turkmenistan rail link had been entirely put up by the shrine of Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad. And it was the Iranians who had come up with the idea of grandly celebrating the "Reopening of the Silk Road."

The 128-word Reuters dispatch that chronicled the event stated that officials from fifty nations were present. But there were none from the United States. Other than Harvard Central Asian specialist John Schoeberlein-Engel and me, both invitees of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no Americans were present. On the official program, the two of us were listed as "representatives of international organizations," to wit, our respective universities.

This grandiose celebratory event went almost entirely unnoticed in the United States. A handful of American world travelers might have envisioned booking a railway excursion from Xian, China, through Turkmenistan and Iran, to Istanbul, Turkey, as can be done today for less than $4,000. But American governmental concerns with Iran in 1996 focused on passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, a draconian Congressional declaration of American enmity toward Iran that preceded by six years President Bush's "axis of evil" pronouncement.

When the Central Command of the U.S. Army was formed in 1983, Iran's potential connections with China were not even on the horizon. The prime worry was about the threat of a Soviet move on the Persian Gulf oil fields across a revolutionary and unstable Iran. I recall receiving a telephone call from the Central Command's chief historian asking whether I could supply an analysis of all invasions of Iran from the north throughout history: routes taken, force levels, logistics problems, major battles, strategic outcomes, the whole works. He wanted it all--and was willing to wait for maybe a day to get it.

Once the Soviet Union fell, Iran's northern borders became peaceful, as they remain to this day. Accordingly, the American fear of Soviet tanks crossing Iran to get to the Arabian oilfields shifted rapidly to a concern about Iran itself threatening to export its revolution to the Persian Gulf oil states and to the Arab world at large. Possible Iranian threats to the new post-Soviet states to the east and west of the Caspian Sea were seldom mentioned, even though this region too contained vast reserves of oil and natural gas. With the United States having but one major study center dedicated to Central Asia (Indiana University), few Americans were equipped to appraise Iran's possible relations with its new northern neighbors. Indeed, what exactly was Central Asia? Should Afghanistan be lumped with the former Soviet republics in the vaguely defined region? Should Pakistan? Was Central Asia the responsibility of Middle East scholars? South Asian scholars? Soviet scholars? Confusion was rife.

These questions took on urgency as Caspian oil reserves grew in importance. Pipelines would be needed to exploit these resources as they came on line. The United States strongly opposed the easiest pipeline routes because they passed through Iran. In Afghanistan, however, the Taliban government, which by 1996 had taken control of much of the country, had not yet acquired its reputation as the worst conceivable Islamic regime. Might it not somehow, even at this late date, be turned into an asset for the United States? Unocal, an American pipeline company, thought it might and began negotiating with the Taliban for transit rights from Central Asian oil and gas fields to Pakistan. Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, who became the American ambassador to Afghanistan after the post-9/11 overthrow of the Taliban regime, contributed risk analyses to the Unocal effort. During the Muiahedeen struggle against the Soviets, he had advocated giving American money and weapons to Muslim militant groups professing ideologies that were in some cases much more rigid and intolerant than that of the government of Iran's Islamic Republic. To be sure, the Taliban seemed to be...

To continue reading