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Iranian presidential election: strengthening or weakening the new Mongol empire?

Contributor:  Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan Military Academy 
Posted:  06/10/2013  12:00:00 AM EDT    

Presidential election, strengthening or weakening of the new Mongol empire?
Over the past few years, Iran has moved much closer to China but also to Russia. This pragmatic alliance based on the Sino-Iranian axis is marked by mutual geopolitical support, close cooperation with the Russian energetic hinterland and the dissemination of a global vision that challenges our own stereotypes. Does Iran wish to build a new Mongol Empire with its two strategic partners? Between 1206 and 1294, the Turkish-Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan indeed extended over Central Asia before it broke up into four blocks. Beyond the debate on the huge domestic challenges of the Islamic Republic, the presidential election of 14 June 2013 will be an opportunity to consider a possible inflection of Iran's international position. Marked by an ancient cooperation with China and Russia, Iran now has the choice between strengthening or loosening its relations with its strategic partners.

The alliance of Iran with China and Russia, through the prism of history

Despite the vicissitudes that troubled their respective histories, the Empires of Iran and China have managed to maintain a continuous relationship for a long time. This can be explained by mutual commercial interests. Between the fifth century BC and the Renaissance, Persia played a fundamental commercial intermediation role between China and the West. The Silk Road, which has connected for nearly a thousand years the city of Chang'an in China to Syria, passes through Persia. Today, with the sharp increase in maritime insecurity, Iran is dreaming of regaining its traditional intermediation role. This is facilitated by the fact that Persia and China have long backed one another from a political point of view. Pressed by Western Turks on his eastern flank, the last Sassanid ruler Yazdegerd III sent an embassy to the Emperor of China in 638. Similarly, in 1987, when the rumour spread that Iran had installed missile batteries in the Strait of Hormuz, the Chinese were immediately suspected of having sold ballistic equipment to Iran. Geopolitical collusion between Iran and China is due in large part to the fact that these countries have mutually stimulated each other through the respective innovations they introduced. Despite their chaotic histories, China and Persia have managed to maintain a good relationship. Three peaks of cooperation can be mentioned: the Sassanid, Mongolian and contemporary eras. For its part, the collaboration between Russia and Iran appeared later. From the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725) onwards, Russia expanded its influence to the south. Russian-Iranian relations, initially bearing the hallmark of the Russian search for influence, have developed into a true partnership. Does this mean that Iran, China and Russia today form a genuine tripartite alliance?

Potential and limits of the new Mongol Empire

Despite the collapse of the ancient Mongol empire, it seems that the main protagonists of this epic have reformed a new alliance. The same causes producing the same effects, it is perhaps not absurd to speak of the emergence of a new Mongol Empire. Let us consider the facts. In 2001, China and Russia founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. One of the main objectives of this organisation was to counter the American influence in Central Asia. Tajikistan is one of the founding members of the organisation. It was joined by Iran in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2012, which were granted observer status. This means that the entire Persian-speaking world now belongs to the alliance. Totalling 1.5 billion people on 26 million square kilometres, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization concentrates 50% of world uranium and 40% of world coal. It conducts joint military exercises and exchanges in the fields of medicine and nanotechnology. This collusion between Iran, China and Russia nevertheless remains discreet and is visible in distant conflicts such as Syria or North Korea. The new Mongol empire has a definite advantage: none of the three civilizations that compose it believes that it belongs to a common cultural sphere. Rejecting the Western chimera of the abolition of frontiers, the three states will combine in future their pragmatism with a capacity for influence drawn from their respective pasts. This explains why above all the new plastic alliance fears the dissolving potential of globalisation.

Forming a true community of interest, the new Mongol empire propounds a highly original vision of the world. It must however overcome three structural weaknesses. The first is demographic. Since 1991, the Russian population has been declining due to a simultaneous decrease in the birth rate and increase in the death rate. The efforts of the government have only partially limited the collapse. In China, the inexorable consequences of the birth limitation policy threaten future growth. As far as Iran is concerned, fertility has come down from five children per woman of childbearing age in 1979 to 1.9 today. The consequences of this demographic decline are all too predictable: China, Russia and Iran will experience a sharp decline in imagination and innovation. These states will have to increase productivity in order to make up for the manpower shortfall. If they fail to recover, they will be unable to exert influence in the long run. Second, and in contrast to the thirteenth century, these three civilizations today encircle the island of Turkish civilization that once brought them together –China continues its policy of containment of the Turkic minorities of Xinjiang, Russia strives to control Altaic peoples of the Caucasus. Iran, for its part, sees Turkey as a regional rival. Thirdly, these three continental powers suffer from a real naval deficit. Iran, which achieved world power major status when it controlled its surrounding maritime areas, has opted for nuclear energy and against sea power. China, meanwhile, has experienced a recent naval reversal. However, it takes years to build a naval policy, and at present the new Mongol empire only controls part of the Eurasian continent.

The Iranian elections and the future of the new Mongol Empire

Just as was the case with the previous election, the Iranian presidential election to be held on June 14, will be analysed carefully by Western commentators quick to imagine a competition between conservatives and reformers. Instead of waiting naively for a hypothetical "Persian Spring", the election should be considered in its broader geopolitical context. It is indeed highly unlikely that a victory of the reformers would undermine the ideological foundations of the regime. It seems more important to focus on the geopolitical inflections that could occur after the elections. Among the candidates, A. H. Rafsanjani, before his candidacy was invalidated by the Council of the Constitution, could have embodied a return to lethargy for the new Mongol empire – with Iran and the United States moving closer to each other. Conversely, Saeed Jalili symbolizes the continued shift of the Islamic Republic to the east.
The Islamic Republic will continue its Ostpolitik in order to break at any price its diplomatic isolation. Iran is clearly playing alongside Russia on the Syrian issue. Relations with China are more complicated, since Beijing has taken advantage of its position of power, paying for Iranian oil with nonconvertible yuan, and flooding the Islamic Republic with mediocre products that ruin the Iranian small and medium sized enterprises. But, much more than his political affiliation, it is the personality of the new president that will play a decisive role in the country's position in the new Mongol empire. It would indeed be necessary for the new Iranian President to have exceptional charisma if Iran wants to become the leader of this odd alliance. After all, for Iran, assuming leadership of the new Mongol empire is only a stopgap alternative compared with the potential direction of the entire Muslim world –a dream that runs up against two obstacles, Iran being neither Arab nor Sunni.

Stéphane Baudens, Cultural and political analysis
Jean-Marie Holtzinger, Russian foreign policy
Michel Makinsky, Iranian domestic policy
Jérôme Pâris, Geopolitical issues
Norbert Lacher, Foreign policy of Iran
Antoine de Prémonville, History of central Asia
Anne-Sophie Traversac, Law and institutions
Serge Auffret, Communication and Government
Thomas Flichy, Coordination

The views developed in this article are those of its authors and should not be considered an official position of the Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan Military Academy or its Research Centre.


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