Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

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Iran Map Overlays in Keynote and Powerpoint

Dear Readers,

You can now download the maps of Iran discussed in the post of September 11 here. They are available in both Keynote and Powerpoint formats.

Iran Map Overlays in Keynote (1664 downloads )

Iran Map Overlays in Powerpoint (1533 downloads )

Additional map overlays of other places will be periodically added in the coming weeks.


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Iran’s Territorial Disputes with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates

Map of the Strait of HormuzAs explained in last Friday’s post, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia run deep. Iran’s relations with several other Arab countries of the region are also strained, due in part to active and potential territorial disputes in the Gulf region. The small island country of Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim political establishment rules a Shiite majority population, is a recurrent flashpoint.

Bahrain, linked to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway, plays an important role in the Saudi political—and moral— economy. In essence, it functions as a playground for well-off residents of the kingdom, a place where people can engage in activities proscribed at home. An acquaintance of mine once described the “Saudi special” served at his favorite restaurant in Bahrain: campaign and spare ribs. Bahrain is also home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, seen as crucial for Saudi security. It is thus hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia supported Bahrain’s harsh crackdown on the massive demonstrations recently waged by the island’s Shiite majority, an uprising that it immediately blamed on Iranian agitation and financial support. More recently, a prominent Saudi writer has claimed that the Iranian agent charged with plotting to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Gholam Shakuri, was ultimately behind the disturbances in Bahrain.

Map of Bahrain Iran, for its part, has periodically made claims to Bahrain in its entirety, maintaining that the island was unfairly removed from Iranian sovereignty by Britain in the 19th century. Such claims were pushed hard in 1906 and again in 1927, and were temporarily reactivated after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran subsequently dropped its official claim to Bahrain, allowing the development of superficially friendly relations between the two countries. Yet as WikiLeaks cables reveal, “Bahrain’s leaders sometimes speak to U.S. officials of their genuine worries that Iranian missiles are sighted on targets such as the NAVCENT headquarters in downtown Manama and the royal palaces.”

Linked to the Bahrain-Iran question is a more active territorial dispute pitting Iran against the United Arab Emirates. This quarrel concerns three islands in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The latter two are essentially uninhabited and the former holds only around 2,000 inhabitants, but they lay astride the vital waterway that links the Gulf oilfields to the Indian Ocean, and are thus of some strategic significance. During the days of British naval hegemony, the islands were attached to the U.K.’s client state of Sharjah (and later Ras al-Khaimah) along the “Trucial Coast,” an area that later became the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As the British were withdrawing from the region in 1971, Iran forcibly took the islands; Britain’s objections were dropped when Iran relinquished its claims to Bahrain. The UAE, however, has continued to maintain its rightful ownership of the archipelago, although its position has been complicated by the fact that Iran gained control before the UAE became an internationally recognized sovereign state.

In September 2011, the UAE took its case to the United Nations. According to one news source, an Emirati official informed the General Assembly that, “The occupation by Iran of three small islands in the Persian Gulf is a violation of international law.”* Iran responded by blaming the whole imbroglio on “foreign powers who seek to destabilize the region”—in other words, the US and UK. Iran rejected the UAE’s case out of hand, arguing that Abu Musa and the Tunbs “will remain [ours] forever.” Considering the substantial military investments that it has made on Abu Musa, Iran is indeed unlikely to considered giving up control, much to the consternation of the UAE.

Map of Greater Iran from Iranian DefenseExtreme Iranian nationalists make further territorial claims in the region, well beyond what the Iranian government has been willing to consider. As revealed in commentary on articles pertaining to the Tunbs dispute, some claim that the United Arab Emirates itself lacks international legitimacy and ought to belong to Iran: “Go read history, UAE didn’t exist up to 40 years ago. The entire country was part of Iran.” Such considerations potentially extend to Oman’s exclave on the Musandam Peninsula, which guards the southern entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. A map of “Greater Iran” posted on the independent “Iran Defense” Website, for example, includes Musandam as well as Bahrain. The fact that an Iranian language, Kumzari, is spoken on part of the peninsula bolsters the connection. An area of great tourism potential, Musandam also benefits from smuggling goods into Iran, a trade estimated to be worth some $250,000 to $500,000 a day. But despite this illicit trade, Iran and Oman maintain cordial relations.

Map_of_Musandam_Peninsula If Iranian nationalists sometimes employ extreme rhetoric in advancing cultural and territorial claims to lands in and on the far side of the Gulf, anti-Iranian Arab partisans often respond in kind. As one commentator on an article about the Tunbs dispute put it,

 “Iran’s occupation of territories vacated by Britain, with the blessings of the West, has been compared with Israeli occupation of disputed territory in the Palestine Mandate. UAE Sheikh al-Nahayan noted that, “The occupation of any Arab land is an occupation Iran certainly has no better claim than Israel. Iran has a “Got it, Keep it, No negotiations” policy with their occupied territories. They should shut the **** up about the Palestinian dispute.”

* It is highly unlikely that the quotation is verbatim, as the Emirati official would not have used the term “Persian Gulf,” which is generally rejected with some vehemence in the Arab world.

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Saudi-Iranian Tensions and Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia

Map of Shia Islam and Oil in Saudi ArabiaAfter the United States accused Iran of hatching an elaborate and ill-conceived plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, a number of commentators expressed incredulity, some wondering why the Saudi diplomat would be so targeted. The most common response to such questioning was to outline the history of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and to stress the mutual antipathy between the Shia (Shiite) Islam dominant in Iran and the harsh Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Deeper analyses delve into Saudi Arabia’s recent support for the brutal crackdown on Shia protestors in nearby Bahrain, a small Shia-majority country ruled by a Saudi-aligned Sunni establishment. More comprehensive inquiry also highlights the unofficial Saudi response to Iran’s nuclear program, as revealed in diplomatic cables posted by WikiLeaks: “cut off the head of the snake!” King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States, hoping for US military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Less often mentioned is the Saudi fear of Shia insurrection in its own territory, which the Riyadh government links to potential Iranian subversion. Although Saudi Arabia officially estimates its Shiite population at around five percent, informed sources peg it closer to twelve percent. Most Saudi Arabian Shiites, moreover, live in the eastern region of the country near the Gulf—a relatively poor part of the country that contains the major share of its oil resources. Inexplicably, unrest in this area tends to be overlooked by the US media. Rioting in the town of Awwamiya in early October, 2011, for example, was almost entirely ignored—as was the Saudi government’s reprisal. The fact that the Shia-inspired Houthi rebellion of northern Yemen, reportedly aided by Iran, also sets its sights on Shia communities across the border in southwestern Saudi Arabia is also routinely disregarded by the media. It is thus hardly surprising that the depth of Saudi-Iranian animosity continues to surprise many American observers.

The early October disturbances in Awwamiya arose after Saudi authorities arrested two elderly men in a bid to find and detain their sons, who were both wanted for organizing demonstrations in solidarity with the recent Shia protests in Bahrain. (More than twenty Saudi Shiite protestors had already been arrested, including two bloggers.) According to the Saudi news agency, the subsequent incident involved “assailants, some on motorcycles, us[ing] machine guns and Molotov cocktails” to attack authority figures. Fourteen persons were injured in the resulting melee, including eleven policemen. Saudi official immediately blamed the disturbance on “a foreign country.” An amusing understatement in one news report tells us that, “Stratfor, a private intelligence company in Texas, suggested the statement regarding foreign interference could be a reference to Iran.” Not surprisingly, the Saudi Arabian government vowed to suppress any further unrest in the region with “an iron first.”

An excellent assessment of the Shia situation in eastern Saudi Arabia, circa 2005, is found in the International Crisis Group’s Middle East Report N°45, “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” The report emphasizes the efforts of King Abdullah to reduce the disabilities long imposed on the Shia minority. It also details the deep discrimination that the community has faced, while showing that its situation could have been much worse: after the Saudi state conquered the eastern region in 1913, “The ikhwan [religiously impassioned tribal warriors] exerted considerable pressure on the future King, Abd al-Aziz, either to forcibly convert or kill [the Shiites]. His refusal led in part to the ikhwan‘s 1926 uprising, which the al-Saud ultimately crushed.”

Saudi Shiites began to agitate for greater rights in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but their aspirations were crushed. Shia leaders subsequently urged their followers to work patiently with the country’s authorities to improve their situation. Many Sunni leaders, however, remain skeptical of such an accommodating stance. According to the report’s authors, “The belief remains strong among Sunnis that Shiites are merely biding their time, banking on external support — U.S. or other — to establish their own independent state. Such views regularly find their way to internet sites and chat rooms; some clerics have explicitly warned of a Shiite-U.S. connection.”

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saudi Shia leaders again pressed the government to relax religious restrictions and to establish a constitutional monarchy. The Saudi government responded by arresting the activists. When Abdullah gained the throne in 2005, however, some constraints on the Shia community were eliminated. Such cautious movements toward religious pluralism have not pleased all members of the country’s religious establishment. As recently as 1991, the report specifies, “a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, issued a fatwa designating Shiites as apostates and condoning their killing.” The Crisis Group’s document also notes that many Saudi radicals who fought in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein did so precisely in order “to kill Shiites.”

Ralph Peters Blood Borders  MapThe Crisis Group’s report concludes by noting that “sectarian relations in Saudi Arabia are far from the boiling point, and the risk of imminent violent confrontation is low,” adding the opinion that “King Abdullah’s accession offers cautious reason for hope.” Such assessments now seem a bit premature. The widespread Saudi theory that the United States is abetting Shia unrest, however, seems unreasonable if not paranoid, considering the American fear of spreading Iranian influence in the region. The publication of Ralph Peters’ “Blood Borders” map of 2006, however, did seemingly lend credence to such conspiratorial thinking.

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Why Iran’s Azeris Are Iranian

The weakness of Azeri nationalism in Iran (discussed last week) seems surprising at first glance. Iranian Azeris form a large, distinctive, and relatively cohesive ethnic group that has been deprived of basic educational rights in its own language. Similar situations in neighboring countries have resulted in serious unrest if not prolonged insurgency – think of the Kurds of Turkey. One might assume that the unpopularity of Iran’s restrictive clerical regime and the fact that independent Azerbaijan offers the attractions of a relatively open and globally engaged society would incline the Iranian Azeris toward separatism. Yet with a few exceptions, the southern Azeris show few signs of seeking autonomy, much less independence or union with Azerbaijan.

Historical factors figure prominently in explaining this seeming paradox. Persian- and Turkic-speaking peoples have been intertwined throughout Iran and Western Central Asia for centuries; historian Robert Canfield thus delineates a large cultural-historical region that he calls “Turko-Persia.” The region’s socio-political foundations long rested on a combination of Turkic military might and political power and Persian economic and intellectual ascendency. The ruling dynasties of Persia (what is now Iran) from the end of the Mongol period through the first quarter of the twentieth century were of Turkic origin, and relied heavily on the military power of Turkish tribal groups scattered widely across the country.

Persia’s last major Turkic dynasty, the Qajars, held power, albeit in a decentralized manner, from 1794 to 1925. Originally of Turkmen stock, the Qajar rulers spoke a language similar to Azeri in their homes, while employing Persian for court proceedings and administration. In the early 1800s, the Qajars lost their northwestern territories in the Caucasus – modern Azerbaijan – to the expanding Russian empire. Continuing threats and interference by both Russia and Britain would compromise the sovereignty of the country until the mid twentieth century. Such foreign pressures, if anything, enhanced the linkage between the Persian and Turkic peoples of Iran.

Ethnic relations were transformed under the Pahlavi dynasty, which came to power in 1925. To modernize Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to construct a nation-state based on Persian culture and language. This required a campaign of Persianization, and corresponding de-Turkification, in much of the country. Restrictions were placed on publication in Azeri and other Turkic languages, place names were changed, and pressure was even put on parents to give their children Persian-sounding names.

The Persio-centric policies of the two Pahlavi shahs antagonized Iran’s ethnic minorities, including not just Turkic-speakers but millions of Arabs, Kurds, and others. They also failed to resonate deeply with many Persians, who formed a bare majority of the country’s population. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s head of state from 1941 to 1979, Iranian nationalism was officially based not merely on contemporary Persian culture but on 2,500 years of imperial history. By glorifying his country’s pre-Islamic past, the Shah deeply antagonized Iran’s religious leadership, contributing to the collapse of his regime in 1979.

The new Islamic Republic of Iran fixed its national foundations firmly on the religious ties of Shiite Islam. Although Persian remained the favored language, especially in education, many of the restrictive linguistic policies of the previous government were dropped. As Shiites, the Azeris could easily share in the country’s reformulated scheme of national identity. (The same cannot be said for Iran’s Sunni groups, most notably the Baluch and the Kurds.)

Developments in northern Azerbaijan, under Russian and then Soviet control from the early 1800s to 1991, also militated against the formation of a pan-Azeri national consciousness. Russian imperial rule was harsh, and did not encourage the emergence of Azeri political identity. Under Soviet rule, such identity was nurtured insofar as it remained subsumed within communist ideology. Soviet agents promoted communist ideas in Iran as well. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Iranian Communist Party gained strength in the north, and especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest. But the Soviets overplayed their hand. After having occupied much of northern Iran during World War II, the Soviet Union set up a quasi-independent communist state in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945, appealing to Azeri ethnic identity. Most Iranian Azeris, however, rejected the Marxist ideology of the “Azerbaijan People’s Government,” which collapsed in 1946. As much as they may have distrusted the Pahlavi dynasty, most southern Azeris preferred it to the Soviet Union.

The independence of Azerbaijan in 1991 again changed the dynamics of Azeri identity, opening the doors for the first time to the emergence pan-Azeri nationalism. The effects of long-term historical development, however, are not so quickly erased. In terms of political identity, Iranian Azerbaijan remains far more Iranian than Azerbaijani.

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Azerbaijan: Warming to Iran, Cooling to the U.S.

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are rapidly warming. In early May 2010, the two countries signed a security memorandum, promising to cooperate on issues ranging from drug smuggling to human trafficking to terrorism. Iran’s foreign minister framed the bilateral relationship as one between “friendly, fraternal and neighboring countries.” On May 5, Azerbaijan’s defense minister pledged that “No threat will be made against Iran from Azerbaijan’s territory and we will not help the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran under any circumstances.”

Until recently, the relationship had been frosty. Iran has long railed against Azerbaijan’s ties with the United States and Israel, while Azerbaijan has denounced Iran’s friendship with Armenia. Iran took umbrage at a 2006 World Congress of Azerbaijanis in Baku, where participants mooted the idea of a “united Azerbaijan” and charged the Iranian government with human rights abuses against Azeris in northwestern Iran. Iran’s clerical establishment still fumes at the burgeoning tourist trade. The Atlantic recently showcased Astara, Azerbaijan as the “Tijuana of the Caspian” where “everything’s for sale,” ranging from sex, to liquor, to body piercings, to astrological forecasts – even during Ramadan. “It’s common knowledge,” reported an Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, “that the Iranians want the border shut down.” Yet in early May 2010, Baku and Tehran agreed to build a $220 million trans-border bridge in Astara to encourage the transit of goods and people.

The turnabout in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations stems in part from the increasing stress between Washington and Baku. Over the past year, the United States has pushed hard for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, with a small measure of success. By seeming to favor Armenia, the U.S. has irked Azerbaijan; as long as Armenia and its client quasi-state of Nagorno-Karabakh occupy a large swath of Azerbaijan’s official territory, Azerbaijan will remain Armenia’s foe. According to Alexander Jackson, Azerbaijan’s government also feels slighted by the United States. Washington has reportedly failed for eight months to send an ambassador to Baku. More egregiously, Azerbaijan was not invited to the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010. Armenia and Turkey were; their leaders came, and they spoke with President Obama about the region and its problems. In late April, Azerbaijan cancelled a joint military training exercise with the U.S.

The Caucasus is probably the second most ethno-linguistically diverse place in the world (after New Guinea), and it surely forms one of the most complex geopolitical chessboards. Any move to improve relations with one nation appears to result in worsened relations with another. The United States may well want better ties with Armenia, but they will come at the expense of those with Azerbaijan.

In terms of immediate geopolitical calculation, the U.S. would lose raw advantage if it were to shift favor from Azerbaijan to Armenia. Oil-rich Azerbaijan is a much wealthier country. Its total GDP is estimated at $86 billion, its annual exports at $13 billion, and its 2009 economic growth rate at 9.3 percent; Armenia’s total GDP is estimated at $16 billion, its exports at $715 million, and its 2009 growth rate at negative 15 percent. All the same, tilting toward Armenia could help satisfy other current U.S. objectives, notably reducing the tension between Washington and Moscow. Armenia and Russia are tightly allied. The Russian 102nd Military Base is located in Gyumri, Armenia, a few miles from the Turkish border, and according to the provisions of a 1997 treaty of friendship, Armenia must allow Russia to patrol its frontiers with Turkey and Iran.

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