Robert Kaplan prefers to emphasize the geography of the Middle East, rather than its various ideologies:
As advocates continue to urge intervention in Syria, it is useful to recall that the modern state of that name is a geographic ghost of its post-Ottoman self, which included what are now Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Even that larger entity was less a well-defined place than a vague geographical expression. Still, the truncated modern state of Syria contains all the communal divides of the old Ottoman region. Its ethno-religious makeup since independence in 1944 — Alawites in the northwest, Sunnis in the central corridor, Druze in the south — make it an Arab Yugoslavia in the making. These divisions are what long made Syria the throbbing heart of pan-Arabism and the ultimate rejectionist state vis-à-vis Israel. Only by appealing to a radical Arab identity beyond the call of sect could Syria assuage the forces that have always threatened to tear the country apart.
But this does not mean that Syria must now descend into anarchy, for geography has many stories to tell. Syria and Iraq both have deep roots in specific agricultural terrains that hark back millennia, making them less artificial than is supposed. Syria could yet survive as a 21st-century equivalent of early 20th-century Beirut, Alexandria and Smyrna: a Levantine world of multiple identities united by commerce and anchored to the Mediterranean. Ethnic divisions based on geography can be overcome, but only if we first recognize how formidable they are.
Finally, there is the problem of Iran, which has vexed American policy makers since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The U.S. tends to see Iranian power in ideological terms, but a good deal can be learned from the country’s formidable geographic advantages.
The state of Iran conforms with the Iranian plateau, an impregnable natural fortress that straddles both oil-producing regions of the Middle East: the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Moreover, from the western side of the Iranian plateau, all roads are open to Iraq down below. And from the Iranian plateau’s eastern and northeastern sides, all roads are open to Central Asia, where Iran is building roads and pipelines to several former Soviet republics.
Geography puts Iran in a favored position to dominate both Iraq and western Afghanistan, which it does nicely at the moment. Iran’s coastline in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz is a vast 1,356 nautical miles long, with inlets perfect for hiding swarms of small suicide-attack boats. But for the presence of the U.S. Navy, this would allow Iran to rule the Persian Gulf. Iran also has 300 miles of Arabian Sea frontage, making it vital for Central Asia’s future access to international waters. India has been helping Iran develop the port of Chah Bahar in Iranian Baluchistan, which will one day be linked to the gas and oil fields of the Caspian basin.
Iran is the geographic pivot state of the Greater Middle East, and it is essential for the United States to reach an accommodation with it. The regime of the ayatollahs descends from the Medes, Parthians, Achaemenids and Sassanids of yore — Iranian peoples all — whose sphere of influence from the Syrian desert to the Indian subcontinent was built on a clearly defined geography.
There is one crucial difference, however: Iran’s current quasi-empire is built on fear and suffocating clerical rule, both of which greatly limit its appeal and point to its eventual downfall. Under this regime, the Technicolor has disappeared from the Iranian landscape, replaced by a grainy black-and-white. The West should be less concerned with stopping Iran’s nuclear program than with developing a grand strategy for transforming the regime.