Iran and the Reconstruction of the Royal Road

In 2002, to the disbelief of Iran, the U.S. put Iran in the ‘Axis of Evil’. While Western media still portray Iran as unpredictable, radical, and hostile, the country is slowly recovering from a traumatic period marked by repression and war. As Iran slowly reemerges to expand its influence from the Mediterranean to South Asia, recent developments could accelerate the resurgence of Iran.

Observations

  • In ancient times, Persia stood at the center of the world through diplomatic contact with the Chinese Han dynasty and the Roman Republic. In the 5th century BC, Darius the Great built the Royal Road on which Persian merchants traveled to the West. The road also passed through modern-day Turkey and was later connected to China’s Silk Road.
  • Iran has the second largest gas reserve and the fourth largest oil reserve. As the West clashes with Russia, Iran could become a more suitable partner for energy. French energy giant Total will sign a deal that finalizes a $1 billion investment in an Iranian gas field. Meanwhile, European airlines are resuming direct flights to Iran, Iranian authorities relax visa requirements, and tourism is rapidly increasing.
  • Iran will commit $500 million to expand the port of Chabahar. A primary interest of the project, which will include a free trade area, is to stabilize Afghanistan by connecting the land-locked country to maritime trade. For India, Chabahar is an important node in its international grand strategy.
  • Iran, Turkey and Qatar signed a transportation agreement intended to facilitate trade among the three countries. It effectively makes Iran the transit country for the trade between Turkey and Qatar.

Connecting the Dots

Iran is slowly recovering from a traumatic period in its history, one marked by foreign repression and brutal warfare. This period started in the 18th century, when the modern armies of Russia invaded from the Caucasus, and Britain invaded from the seas. While Iran remained independent, Russia took control of its army, and Britain enforced monopolies on goods. Ever since, the religious class has been the guardian against foreign interference, culminating in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in which Iran freed itself from a brutal regime supported by the U.S. and the U.K. However, shortly after the revolution, Iraq invaded Iran, starting a devastating war that ended only 8 years later. The end of the war marked the beginning of the recovery from trauma. On its way towards recovery, Iran is also on a path to become more liberal. This year, reformist President Rouhani won reelection with a much wider margin of support than the first time around. However, history shows that if confrontation with the West intensifies or if the government neglects the poor, a radical non-liberal leader will come to power with the support of the religious class. Nonetheless, as Iran recovers from its traumas, it will return to its natural position as a powerful regional player with strong cultural influence across the territory of the former Persian Empires.

Even if Iran’s attempts to expand its military presence abroad fail, its commercial expansion will reshape the region.

Recent developments have opened doors for Iran to expand its influence. Iran has benefited from the Arab Spring and American foreign policy. During the Arab Spring, many pro-Saudi and anti-Iran regimes fell. In addition, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq removed the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, which were both opposed to Iran. Furthermore, Iran strengthened ties with Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Shia uprisings in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen increased Iranian influence. Moreover, the end of fighting in Syria creates a massive opportunity for Iran: to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Lastly, Iran, especially in the long term, has the upper hand in the rivalry with Saudi Arabia: countries such as Iraq and Lebanon benefit from Saudi investments without harming Iran’s ability to influence policy. Most importantly, as the political arena opens up opportunities for Iran to reemerge, the country will continue to expand commercially by rebuilding the Royal Road. Iran is connecting land-locked Afghanistan to the sea and has deep-rooted trade ties with Emirati cities. All in all, even if Iran’s attempts to expand its military presence abroad fail, its commercial expansion will reshape the region.

Implications

  • As Iran rebuilds the Royal Road, countries in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East could benefit, especially because the project lines up with India’s alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative.
  • While the reemergence of Iran will encounter hurdles in regional rivals, there need not be a confrontational clash. Historically, despite recent tensions with Israel, Iran had friendly relations with the Jewish people and with regional rival Turkey.