Policy analysts and planners draw a line between Europe and the Middle East. Security dynamics, strategic planning, political arrangements – they neatly fall into regional boxes.
The reality is more complex. The Middle East, and its adjacent bodies of water – the Levantine Basin, Red Sea, and Arabian Gulf – is at the southern end of the fault-line between Europe and Asia. From the Zagros mountains extends a cone that covers the Central Asian steppe and Russian tundra to the East and the borderlands of Eastern Europe to the West. In terms of mineral and energy deposits, particularly oil and uranium, most of the world’s energy and mineral abundance lies here. Halford Mackinder was prescient when he termed this the “Eurasian Heartland.”
Not only is the Middle East the southernmost tip of the Eurasian heartland – it is also the most convenient transit link between Europe and Asia. Despite predictions of land transport superseding maritime shipping as the major mode of international movement, roughly nine-tenths of commercial goods today are still shipped by sea. Nearly 50 ships per day pass through the Suez Canal, the natural chokepoint for trans-Eurasian maritime movement.
Any power or coalition of powers that seeks to control Eurasia must control the heartland. But the heartland is geographically bound by frozen seas to the north, and land borders or maritime chokepoints to the south, east, and west. European, and Eurasian history is a series of struggles over control of the Heartland and its adjacent seas – specifically, the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, and Black Sea.
The Greek city-states remained free mostly because of the “wooden walls” of Athenian triremes. Alexander toppled the Achaemenid Empire despite its control of the Levantine Basin, by conquering what is modern Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. This denied Persians access to the sea. Ottoman power waxed as the Empire extended its reach over the Levantine Basin and Black Sea, and waned as it lost both. It is no coincidence that the Battles of Salamis, Actium, Lepanto, and the Nile occurred within a 400-mile diameter circle.
Politically, geographically, strategically – in all three categories, the Middle East, Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Arabian Gulf should be viewed as part of one continuous theater. The actions in one part of this broader theater modify the balance of power in all the others.
The connection between the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea on the one hand and Middle East on the other, illustrates the extent of Iran and Russia’s regional ambitions.
The spirit of Iran’s theocratic oligarchy is expansionist. The regime is deeply skeptical about Western modernity. But unlike its Sunni Wahhabi and Salafi rivals, whose adherents want a return to seventh-century barbarism, the Iranian regime does not reject modernity wholesale. Rather, it believes that modernity should be Islamic in character imbued with the revealed truths of Mohammed’s Quran. Politically, culturally, and spiritually, the regime’s leaders believe that Persia is best equipped to lead the Islamic world into the modern age, and that under Persian leadership, Islam can lead the world.
This objective requires, first, control over the Islamic world. With one exception, the entirety of the Middle East is part of the Dar al-Islam. The control of the Middle East is Iran’s first goal. The Islamic Republic has already consolidated the region’s Shia communities into a loose alliance, creating a corridor that runs from Tehran to Tripoli and Beirut. Iran’s support for terror, both globally and regionally, is not defensive notwithstanding that nearly 90 percent of the Islamic world is Sunni. This number is irrelevant. Nearly half the Islamic world lives in five countries – Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria – outside of the Middle East. All five of these countries’ Islamic populations are largely Sunni. Therefore, the politically-relevant sectarian balance of power is closer to five-to-one, not ten-to-one.
Second, none of the three Islamic countries that could oppose Iran’s drive for regional domination can do so now. Turkey shows little stomach for opposing Iranian expansion, and shares critical interests with Iran, particularly over Kurdish autonomy. Egypt, more stable than it was in 2013, still cannot be expected to meaningfully project power. Is Saudi Arabia the actual object of Iranian ambition?
Saudi Arabia’s population is less than half of Iran’s. Its political system rests upon a fragile alliance between the House of Saud and the conservative religious authorities, who both ensure the people’s docility through religious control and welfare benefits. Saudi Arabia’s defense spending dwarfs Iran’s. But the Saudi military, despite its advanced technology and Western support, has proven unable to win the low-level proxy conflicts that characterize its conflict with Iran. A massive Saudi conventional offensive against Iran is difficult to imagine and would face significant obstacles. Either Saudi forces would need to strike through Iraq, practically invading a legal U.S. partner, or mount a major amphibious operation in the Arabian Gulf. The Saudi Navy is entirely unequipped for the latter operation, while Saudi land forces would likely encounter similar difficulties fighting Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitaries as they have in Yemen. An air offensive would face similar issues. Saudi F-15’s and Eurofighter Typhoons would outclass Iran’s MiG-29’s and Chengdu F-7’s, not to mention Iran’s ancient F-14’s, F-4’s, and F-5’s.
But Iran has a full suite of Russian-built air-defense systems that it would operate alongside its fighters. In a functionally uncontested environment, the Saudi Air Force has lost one F-15 and one Eurofighter Typhoon in Yemen. At a minimum, despite their technological disadvantage, one can expect Iranian fighters and air defense forces to take a heavy toll on a Saudi/GCC strike mission.
Iran, in sum, has little to fear offensively from Saudi Arabia. Finally, few countries are blessed with such defensible geography as Iran. The Zagros mountains protect nearly all of Iran’s major population centers, allowing Iran’s ground forces and Navy to concentrate on defending Khuzestan and its oil-production facilities. Even the United States would find it difficult to invade and subjugate Iran. Either severe paranoia, or a genuine expansionist impulse, underlies Iran’s regional aggression.
The logical next steps of Iran’s strategy are maritime. By consolidating control over the Arabian Gulf, contesting control of the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Aden, and controlling, or abetting the friendly control of the Levantine Basin, Iran can bracket Saudi Arabia on all sides. Moreover, it can also directly confront its actual regional rival, Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces is the only Middle Eastern military force genuinely superior to Iran. Israeli intelligence has shown itself capable of jeopardizing Iranian nuclear developments, and the Israeli Air Force, with or without American help, could feasibly strike nearly all major Iranian nuclear facilities, along with military bases in the country’s west. And on the ground, only the IDF’s special forces pose a legitimate threat to the IRGC’s Quds force. Of course, Israel cannot be said to hold hegemonic aspirations – it could not control Gaza or South Lebanon, and barely holds the West Bank. But its robust military capabilities, combined with an undeniable will to fight, make Israel Iran’s most dangerous adversary.
Iran’s two areas of strategic interest, then, are the Eastern Mediterranean and Strait of Hormuz. Presence in, or friendly control of, the Eastern Mediterranean would allow Iran to pressure Israel directly, harassing its vulnerable coastline, potential offshore natural gas rigs, and submarine deterrent with naval combatants, long-range missiles and other irregular assets.
Iran’s objectives in the Strait of Hormuz are less direct. Sanctions on Iran throughout the 2000s and increases in American oil productivity have prevented Iran from reclaiming its previous share of the EU’s oil import market – in 2000, Iran provided 5 percent of the European Union’s crude oil, whereas today it provides around 3 percent. However, this percentage could increase to its previous level, and potentially exceed it if the EU’s member states become less willing to do business with Saudi Arabia. Without American forces able to take control of the Strait of Hormuz in a crisis, Iran could target certain states by reducing energy exports. A 3 percent or 5 percent cut in EU crude imports would not go unnoticed. Iran could similarly target India, its third-largest oil consumer, to ward off a partnership between New Delhi and Washington. Thus, although the Arabian Gulf has become less important to Iran, it retains significant strategic value.
Iran’s interests most clearly overlap with Russia’s in the Levantine Basin. Russian expansionism, even more so than its Iranian counterpart, is fueled by paranoia and distrust of the West. Russia’s reaction to NATO is the clearest indicator. As an insular power, American interest opposes any power or coalition of powers from gaining control of the Eurasian heartland. This helps explain American intervention in both world wars, and its persistent security presence in Europe after 1945 where the European continent, shattered by six years of conflict, was defenseless in the face of Soviet military power, despite Russia’s 20-million-plus war deaths.
A stable balance of power between Russia and the United States is easy to envision. Russia would need to respect the sovereignty of its Eastern European neighbors: namely, the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine, and the states of the Balkan peninsula and bordering the Black Sea. In return, these states would respect Russian interests, restrained from any revanchist ambitions. Russia’s inability to even attempt such a compromise speaks to either a deep paranoia or a fundamentally expansionist outlook. These need not be mutually exclusive.
Russia’s objective, therefore, is reasserting its security dominance up to at least central Germany. NATO stands in the way of this goal. Moreover, Russia can no longer rely on massed tank divisions to smash their way into Central Europe, followed by millions of occupying troops. Rather, Russia must “crack” NATO by stressing the natural fault-lines and divergences of interest within such a large international coalition. This strategy includes sustaining a frozen Ukraine conflict and supporting nationalist, pro-Slavic groups in whatever European country it can.
But its growing presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is more important. Since its initial intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has established a significant aviation and naval presence on the Eastern Mediterranean coastline. Russia is repairing the Tartus naval facility to allow it to host major warships. The Khmeimim Air Base can support nearly any aircraft in the Russian Air Force, including the Tu-22M Backfire Bomber, the mainstay of the Soviet Union’s maritime strike force. Russia has defended its installations with an overlapping air defense system, providing the S-300 missile platform to Syria’s armed forces.
By projecting its power throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, Russia can challenge NATO at one of its weakest points. Permanent American presence in the Eastern Mediterranean amounts to a command ship and a handful of guided-missile destroyers optimized for anti-ballistic missile missions and based at the inland sea’s western end. The Italian, Spanish, and French navies lack the numbers to keep up with a large-scale Russian sortie from the Black Sea, while Greece would likely be more preoccupied with Turkish actions than with Russia.
If Russia can establish control of the Eastern Mediterranean, it can pressure NATO’s vulnerable southern European flank. How would Italy react to Russian warships patrolling off the Sicilian coast days before a critical vote on invoking Article 5 over defending Montenegro? Would Spain support a NATO response to Russian aggression in the Baltics if it detected Russian submarines near Barcelona? How would French warships patrolling to find migrant transports respond to a Russian operational squadron just east of Corsica and Sardinia?
Despite friction between Russia and Iran, ultimately, each is the other’s most logical partner. Russia seeks to keep U.S. and allied interests in the Middle East under constant pressure to prevent a threat to its Mediterranean operations. Iran wants a great power guarantor that can give it freedom of action in the Middle East and prevent an American counterattack from the Mediterranean. Israel cannot provide the guarantees that Iran offers Russia. Absent a substantial diplomatic realignment involving Israel, the Gulf States, and Egypt, Russia cannot find a regional partner as reliably activist as Iran.
Rules of Engagement
This points to the most visible area of confrontation between Iran and the United States – the Arabian Gulf. President Trump’s more aggressive stance against Iran, best expressed through his less restrictive rules of engagement in the Arabian Gulf, should be commended. But the underlying strategic factors remain the same.
Iranian ships persistently harassed American assets in the Arabian Gulf throughout the Obama administration, most visibly capturing an American patrol craft in early 2016. The previous administration chose to focus on the crisis’ “resolution,” hailing it as a benefit of the post-JCPOA U.S.-Iranian relationship. Meanwhile, images of American sailors, with sacks over their heads, were circulated by Iranian social media outlets.
Although this incident was the most prominent case of Iranian harassment, there are others. Iranian fast-boats – small, cheap, lightweight boats armed with machine guns and rudimentary missiles and rockets – consistently harassed American surface combatants throughout 2016 and 2017. Seven Iranian fast-boats harassed the USS Firebolt, a naval patrol ship, in September 2016, making repeated passes at the ship and provoking several warning shots. Iranian drones flew dangerously near U.S. fighter jets, and Iranian sailors even shined laser-pointers at U.S. helicopter pilots. According to the U.S. Navy, 30 unsafe or unprofessional incidents occurred between American and Iranian ships in 2016. Such harassment continued – until August 2017, when it abruptly ceased. For nearly a year, Iranian ships have been significantly less aggressive towards American forces in the Arabian Gulf.
This change in Iranian behavior is most likely a consequence of the Trump administration’s resolve, expressed through the president’s willingness to expand the U.S. military’s Rules of Engagement (ROE). Under the Obama administration, American ROE were extremely restrictive, with a variety of vital tactical and operational decisions requiring centralized approval from Washington. By contrast, the current administration has been more willing to authorize commanders’ use of force.
The new approach was set with the January 2017 U.S. Special Operation raid against a terrorist target in southern Yemen. Although unsuccessful in its intelligence-gathering mission, and despite the casualties U.S. forces incurred, the mission demonstrated a willingness to use force that had been lacking during the last two years of Obama’s presidency. President Trump reinforced this perception with the April 2017 Shayrat missile strike, authorizing a 58-cruise missile barrage against Syrian targets. In February 2018, American forces in Tanf, Syria directly engaged Russian private security forces fighting alongside the Syrian government and its paramilitary partners – unthinkable during the Obama era.
Because of this increased resolve, Iran has been less willing to test American limits since late 2017. No longer restrained by a passive president, U.S. commanders on the ground now have the full backing of the executive to engage hostile forces if necessary.
But this does not change the underlying strategic situation. As noted, the U.S. Sixth Fleet, responsible for protecting American interests in the Mediterranean Sea, only has five permanent ships assigned to it – four guided-missile destroyers and one command ship. Russia, by contrast, could sortie seven surface combatants and seven submarines from its bases in the Black Sea, supported by Khmeimim-based aviation and Syria air defenses. Iran’s ability to turn up the heat in the Arabian Gulf, it seems, belies a more troubling situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Control of one is meaningless without control of the other, particularly when the Eastern Mediterranean, not the Arabian Gulf, is the greater strategic prize.
Certain U.S. Interests, Uncertain Response
Just as the Iranian and Russian regimes are clear expressions of those nations’ political cultures, so is the American regime a reflection of the American people. Slow to act, but decisive in its anger and convinced of its justice, the United States has been an international force for good in no small part because of its citizens’ moral character. But in an age of growing partisanship and political strife, the possibility exists that the American people may lose sight of their strategic interests and the defenses needed to protect those interests.
Seth Cropsey is the Director of The Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute.