Why are Iran, Turkey, and Russia always in the news?
A global contest for power and influence is underway. The roots of the struggle go back more than a century, but today's controversies reflect a shift in the global balance that will only accelerate as the US declines further.
It is not a coincidence that these three nations attract so much news coverage. To understand why, it is useful to consider English geographer Halford Mackinder’s 'heartland theory'. In his paper The Geographical Pivot of History, published in 1904, Mackinder said:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world."
The world island is the Eurasian continent (Europe and Asia) plus Africa. The heartland is Central Asia: the region between the Volga and the Yangtze river and from the Himalayas to the Arctic. Mackinder's idea is that the world-island contains the great bulk of the world's resources, including population (87% of the world's total), wealth and land area. Whoever might control the heartland (Central Asia), stands to gain the world.
The map highlights how Russia, Iran and Turkey are well-placed to exert dominance over the heartland. Historically, the Russian Empire and the Persian Empire ruled here, while the locals are Turkic peoples.
In Mackinder's time, the world was ruled by the European colonial powers. He understood that through mastery of the oceans, and in particular the Atlantic, they had been able to spread their power to every part of the globe. The British Empire was a classic example of this: it ruled over India and much of Africa at the time, and had colonies and bases across the world. But Mackinder knew that things could not go on the same way forever.
The rise of a new era
The industrial revolution, and in particular, the coming of the railways, posed a mortal threat to the dominance of the old colonial empires, based on control of the seas.
In the past, it had been easier to send a shipment of goods from any coastline in the Mediterranean (for example) to the opposite side, than it had been to send the same goods 50 miles inland. This is why ancient powers such as the Romans spread around the Mediterranean, and why the European colonial powers had colonised the Americas.
But now, the value of that advantage was eroding. The construction of the Trans-Siberian railway (1891-1916) across the vastness of Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, pointed the way to the future.
Mackinder realised that if countries like Russia and China were able to industrialise and build railways, their vast land area and population advantage might allow them to dominate the world island. The 'Great Game' between the expanding Russian Empire, which had been spreading into Central Asia for centuries, and the British Empire in India, was doubtless a reflection of this changing balance of power.
The Decline of the West?
Fears that the balance of world power was shifting against the West surfaced again a few years later, with German historian Oswald Spengler in his book The Decline of the West, published in two volumes in 1918 and 1922.
Spengler believed that the true meaning of history was found not in epochs such as the ancient era, the medieval, and so on - but rather in civilisations, which rose and fell over many centuries. In Spengler's opinion, civilisations were like living organisms, that had a phase of growth, followed by decline and fall. The civilisation of the West, he believed, was ending.
Although some of Spengler's ideas were later twisted and misused by the Nazis to justify their extreme nationalist and racist agenda, Spengler's idea of culture was more based on the 'spiritual' character of each culture, which inspired and motivated the people that belonged to it. He rejected more biological ideas of 'race' which were popular at the time.
The West was in decline, he believed, because of the natural cycle of rise and fall that affected every civilisation.
What's the relevance to today?
Since 1989, the USA has been the unchallenged global superpower. But not everyone is happy about that. The United States and its allies dominate the current world order, and they have set up the world to benefit their interests.
The dollar is the international currency, the UN Security Council's five members include the United States, Britain and France, NATO is the world’s largest alliance, and the vast bulk of global economic activity is controlled by the West. The West also pushes its favoured ideologies, such as neoliberal economic policies and democracy.
But some countries feel that their national spirit, identity and culture is under attack. They feel that the system is set up in such a way that it works against their interests. US sanctions against Russia and Iran are a prime example of this. They also feel their national character is being eroded by Western culture, fashions, clothing, western music, and Western values. Some people want to protect their national heritage, culture and way of life, and reject foreign ideas and foreign ways of doing things.
Eurasianism and the rejection of the West
Eurasianism is the theory that the peoples of Europe and Asia evolved cultures that best suited their natural geography and climate. One of the key themes of Eurasianism is that Russia is not just another European power, but rather has its own unique culture, perfectly adapted to the geography and climate of Eurasia.
It follows from this, that the native culture should be protected, and that importing foreign ideas, which developed in an entirely different geography and climate, would only lead to disaster.
This image shows the climate zones. The orange area was historically inhabited by peoples such as the Turks and Iranians, while Russia inhabits the cool blue and dark purple areas. Eurasianism points out that by working together, the Eurasian cultures could successfully resist dangerous western nations (such as Germany and the USA) and secure dominance of the world island.
Eurasianists reject outside influence (particularly that of the West), and seek to protect the native culture of Russia and its allies. Only by fully embracing its own identity and traditions, could Russia ensure a strong, healthy society.
According to Eurasianism, Russia’s destiny lay in working together with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia (who lived in the steppe region to the south of Russia), as well as the Slavic nations, to resist Western influence and to protect the native cultures of this region.
The Soviet Union was one expression of this project. It united Russia with various Turkic states in central Asia including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It also saw Russia dominate the Central European Plain, which is roughly speaking the area between Germany/Poland and and Russia. This area was invaded twice in history, first by Napoleon and then by Hitler, and so it was seen as vital to Russia’s national security.
Western ideas were seen as a form of pollution, which would only corrupt society and weaken the Russian state. This must be avoided at all costs.
It is also worth noting that these ideas are pretty similar to the Iranian revolutionaries of 1979, who became anti-Western after decades of their country’s oil wealth being exploited by the Western-backed Shah, a dictator who squandered the nation’s wealth on lavish parties and undermined the country’s traditional culture by importing Western fashions, cuisine and various reforms, including ones which reduced the power of the Islamic clergy.
The Foundations of Geopolitics
An alliance between Russia, Iran and Turkey could, theoretically, be a great way of challenging the current world paradigm, which is based on the power of the United States.
One of the concepts of Alexander Dugin’s highly influential book “The Foundations of Geopolitics”, is that Russia should seek to push back the Atlanticist powers (i.e. the United States and its allies), using subterfuge, cyber attacks, asymmetrical warfare, infiltration tactics and so on.
The end goal of this policy would be to protect Russia’s interests, and to bring about a new world order, in which the power of America and its Allies is overthrown, and in which Russia and its allies can prosper.
It would make sense then that Turkey, Iran and Russia - three nations which have a troubled relationship with the West - would fit very nicely into the Heartland Thesis, as well as the concept of Eurasianism.
If these three countries could work together, they could gain dominance over the world island, push back the influence of the United States, and (perhaps with a little help from China) rule the world.
Above, from left to right: Presidents Rouhani of Iran; Putin of Russia; and Erdogan of Turkey.
That’s why these countries are so important to the global balance of power. And that is why the US media often portrays them as a “trouble”.
China and the future of global power
Regardless of one's opinion on the three presidents above, the global balance of power is shifting. As China rises, the country's Belt and Road initiative is spreading Chinese money, infrastructure and influence right across the whole region. Iran is one of China's key partners; the country recently signed an agreement with China said to be worth $400 billion.
Meanwhile, Turkey's decision to purchase the S400 missile system from Russia (rather than the equivalent American system) has angered the United States. Turkey's relations with the European Union, and with NATO, are more fraught than they have ever been.
Separately, the ongoing US-China trade war can be interpreted as a reflection of the increasing discomfort of the United States at no longer being the unchallenged global superpower. How the US responds to that, and to its decreasing control over the heartland, is likely to become one of the pressing questions of our time.