Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Mountain Fortress

Taken from George Friedman

To understand Iran, you must begin by understanding how large it is.
  • Iran is the 17th largest country in world.
  • It measures 1,684,000 square kilometers: i.e. larger than the combined territories of France + Germany + the Netherlands + Belgium + Spain + Portugal
  • Iran is the 16th most populous country in the world, with about 70 million people. Its population is larger than the populations of either France or the United Kingdom.
  • To benchmark Iran against Iraq or Afghanistan: Iraq is 433,000 square kilometers, with about 25 million people, so Iran is roughly 4 times as large and 3 times as populous. Afghanistan is about 652,000 square kilometers, with a population of about 30 million.

One way to look at it is that Iran is 68 percent larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, with 40 percent more population.

More important are its topographical barriers. Iran is defined, above all, by its mountains, which form its frontiers, enfold its cities and describe its historical heartland. To understand Iran, you must understand not only how large it is but also how mountainous it is.

Iran's most important mountains are the Zagros. They are a southern extension of the Caucasus, running about 900 miles from the northwestern border of Iran, which adjoins Turkey and Armenia, southeast toward Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz. The first 150 miles of Iran's western border is shared with Turkey. It is intensely mountainous on both sides.

Running east along the Caspian Sea are the Elburz Mountains, which serve as a mountain bridge between the Caucasus-Zagros range and Afghan mountains that eventually culminate in the Hindu Kush. The Elburz run along the southern coast of the Caspian to the Afghan border, buffering the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. Mountains of lesser elevations then swing down along the Afghan and Pakistani borders, almost to the Arabian (Oman) Sea.

Iran's population is concentrated in its mountains, not in its lowlands, as with other countries. That's because its lowlands, with the exception of the southwest and the southeast (regions populated by non-Persians), are uninhabitable. Iran is a nation of 70 million mountain dwellers. Even its biggest city, Tehran, is in the foothills of towering mountains. Its population is in a belt stretching through the Zagros and Elbroz mountains on a line running from the eastern shore of the Caspian to the Strait of Hormuz. There is a secondary concentration of people to the northeast, centered on Mashhad. The rest of the country is lightly inhabited and almost impassable because of the salt-mud flats.

The center of Iran consists of two desert plateaus that are virtually uninhabited and uninhabitable. These are the Dasht-e Kavir, which stretches from Qom in the northwest nearly to the Afghan border, and the Dasht-e Lut, which extends south to Balochistan. The Dasht-e Kavir consists of a layer of salt covering thick mud, and it is easy to break through the salt layer and drown in the mud.

Iran is a fortress. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the ocean, with a wasteland at its center, Iran is extremely difficult to conquer. This was achieved once by the Mongols, who entered the country from the northeast. The Ottomans penetrated the Zagros Mountains and went northeast as far as the Caspian but made no attempt to move into the Persian heartland.

As always, the Persians face a major power prowling at the edges of their mountains. The mountains will protect them from main force but not from the threat of destabilization. Therefore, the Persians bind their nation together through a combination of political accommodation and repression. The major power will eventually leave. Persia will remain so long as its mountains stand.


Renegade Eye said...

Very good post. I found it informative.

Randy said...

Naj - i saw your post on Les Politiques that it implied one can/should not make fun of Jews.

But the Arab media/press has joked about Jews in the most insulting ways for 60+ years. All Arab papers contain numerous cartoons that portray Jews in the most ugly way.

Naj said...


That's great!
I am sure the jews have a great sense of humor, being the funniest people of the earth and will laugh hard :)

Randy said...

i do not quite understand your reply. You said that one cannot make fun of Jews. As you know the Nazis made fun of Jews for many years. And now the Arab world has mocked Jews for 60 years.

Anonymous said...

"Iran is a fortress."

The "fortress" wasn't of much use against the Arabs, was it? They came, they saw, and they imposed their cult on the Zoroastrian people. Even today the Iranians are ready to give their blood for an Arab. And yet they call themselves "The land of Aryans".

"Iran is extremely difficult to conquer. This was achieved once by the Mongols and the Ottomans."

Ever heard of Alexander the Great. He reached the River Indus, many kilometres east of Iran.

Naj said...


So you think making fun of people mounts to acts of genocide?! :)
In that case, the jews have been making fun of all sorts of people, including themselves (take a look at hollywood :) ) ... Chill buddy :)


Iran was conquered by Alexander, by Arabs and by Mongols ... however, Iran also conquered its conquerors in a cultural way. If you have paid attention, Iran is not a Greek-speaking, a Pan arabist, or a Mongol state today, is it? :)

Also, keep in mind that Alexander's path to conquering the world was arrested in the Iranian plateau, it was too rough to cross; the mongols were mountain dwellers themselves, and as for the Arabs, they came through the easy route, which you will learn from the article, to be the only opening to Iran. Yet, after 200 years of their dark reign, they too were transmogrified into something more civilized :)

Iran civilizes its conquerors ... so this is not a bad contribution to the world, is it? :)

Naj said...


Do you dare, ... um , I mean care to create your blog and your profile so I can come and visit you and god forbid do not jump on the presumption that you are an automatic zionist troll who just blabbers decontextualized propaganda? :))

Pedestrian said...

I really liked the whole emphasis on the mountains ... I had never looked at it this way before.

Naj, I had a question! I though you might know! I am looking at the statistics,



definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 82.5%
male: 81.4%
female: 85% (2003 est.)



total population: 91.3%
male: 95.9%
female: 86.3% (2003 est.)



total population: 80%
male: 86%
female: 73.0% (2003 est.)

And as you see, Iran is lower than both Qatar and Jordan. For some reason, I assumed that our female literacy rates are higher than those countries and only comparable to Turkey.

Our gender empowerment measure is also lower than both countries.

I don't get it?!

Naj said...


William Durant has a nice delineation of Iran's mountain culture vis a vis that of India and the Arab regions.

As for stats, what is the source? I usually consult UN sites, or CIA fact book.

Chester said...

HapiBlogging to you my friend! Have a nice day!

nunya said...

"The mountains will protect them from main force but not from the threat of destabilization"

Generally destabilization needs insiders.

Brother Tim said...

Good post, Naj, I don't know how I missed it.

It adds even more fuel to the futilty of Israeli/American aggression.

goatman said...

I am not sure the mountains helped when Persepolis was burned by Alexander the Great!
And how, exactly do you burn stone?

I love your piece on Iran. There is a coverage this month in National Geographic on the Persian Empire (with maps) which greatly increased my knowledge of your lands.
A great history still being discovered.

Naj said...


The mountains did slow down the advance of the Macedonians into thr Iranian plateau and in fact they stopped him from ever reaching India.

Alexander's army, compared to Persia's Achamenid army (that was huge, and too heavy to move) was more versatile and agile! The Mongols and the Arabs conquered Persia in the exact same way :)

The mountains are there to 'stop' big armies, now those big armies may also be the Persian ones ;)

Now about 'taarof'. I actually had to look at the NG article on my friend's coffee table to see what it says.

Taarof is an important aspect of Iranian manners and even diplomacy. "competing for the lower hand" and a "system to create 'egalite' in a hierarchical society" are good descriptions. A few examples best describes it:

Imagine you come to my home, I "taarof" you to take the best seat. I "taarof" you all the best of food and drink that I have in my house. When I offer you, you 'taarof' back. It means you will recognize that my offering of ALL that I have is just my 'polite' "taarof", and therefore you will "politely" refuse. Your refusal is also "taarof". Then I "taarof" more.. Meaning, that I insist that you do eat and drink all that i have. But you "taarof back", meaning that you refuse and come up with an excuse that you are so full you cannot even think of food! Now, at this point, if I insist again, then you MUST accept my taarof and nibble at what I offer you! Otherwise, you will be considered impolite :)

If you are dizzy already, don't be alarmed, I get dizzy myself in Iran too :)

Taarof makes Iranians very nice and sweet and hospitable. But it also makes then somewhat dubious and disingenuous. that's because you never know whether they really mean what they say/offer or are just being polite.

Interestingly, Iranians exercise taarof in their politics too; and this usually confuses the Americans. But, Europeans and Asians are well educated about Iranian mannerism, and this is why they usually have better diplomatic relations. Of course, that doesn't apply to a horse like Sarkozy!


Has it become a bit more clear?

goatman said...

It has become more clear, thank you for the lesson. Sounds like the ubiquitous jewish grandmother but with varying degrees of sincerity!

Our particular "horse" will be out of office soon and many of us are patiently holding our breaths for the eventual release of pent-up hatred for the man -- all is one glorious exhalation. Glory be to whomever!!

The best to you, my friend.

gokul said...

amazing geography...