How to read a map: Iran, the broader Middle East, and Africa
The deserts of Iran
One of the central tenets of geopolitics is that geography has an inevitable influence on the way politics play out both within and across national borders. But when we're mired in the constant drum of a 24/7 international news cycle it can be difficult to step back and appreciate what simply looking at a map can teach us. Geopolitical analysis is complex business and good analysis is necessarily informed by solid open source and human intelligence. But it can be helpful to have a sense of where to start and, often, maps are a great starting point.
In this post we'll provide some initial thoughts on one approach to looking at maps and trying to draw out geopolitical insights. We'll use Iran as a test case but, ultimately, will only scratch the surface of what a more in-depth geopolitical analysis could teach us. We'll close with some implications of our map reading exercise for regional geopolitics and some general tips for reading maps with a geopolitical lens.
Geography influences the development of trade routes, transport networks, governance mechanisms, population density and distribution, and even culture. Iran is no exception. Here we will limit ourselves to highlighting some key aspects of Iran's geographic reality.
When we look at a map of Iran, one of the country's most notable geographic features is the imposing presence of several mountain ranges. Iran's mountain ranges enclose several broad basins, which house the country's major urban and agricultural settlements; these, in turn, were relatively isolated from each other until the construction of major road and rail networks. Most notable among Iran's mountain ranges are the Zagros Mountains, which run roughly along the country's western and southwestern border creating an imposing natural barrier. Their prominence is quite clear when we look at a topographical map of Iran such as the one below (See Fig. 1). This mountain range unavoidably influenced the development of Iran's internal rail and road networks.
Fig. 1: Topographical Map of Iran. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1469097
The influence of the Zagros Mountains becomes clearer still when we examine a map of Iran's rail network (See Fig 2. below).
Fig. 2: Rail Network of Iran. Source: By Ikonact - File:Map Iran railways fa.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88726067
Here we can see that there are areas of country (most notably in the Zagros Mountains) that rail networks have not traversed at all, even as single or double track railways provide connections to some key southern ports that connect to the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
The same phenomenon holds for road networks. In the below partial map of Iran's road network (Fig. 3), we can see that road connectivity in terms of primary roads (red lines) and secondary roads (orange lines) is significantly reduced in the area highlighted by the green rectangle. That is, much fewer primary and secondary roads intersect the Zagros Mountains relative to the rest of the country. This effect is even clearer when viewed in the context of the original map (here).
Fig. 3: Partial Map of Iran's Road Network. Source: https://dlca.logcluster.org/display/public/DLCA/2.3+Iran+Road+Network?preview=/853079/88507204/IRN_LCA_RoadNetwork_A4L_20220225.png
Iran's Maritime "Exits"
Iran's geographic reality dictates that its seaport "exits" to the open ocean are found in the south of the country (in the interest of brevity, we will mostly avoid discussion of the Caspian Sea in this post). The country's major southern ports grant access to the open ocean via the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. Crucially, however, the development and location of these ports has been concentrated, or "constrained" as it were, by Iran's topographical composition (See Fig. 1 and Fig 2). That is, the country's topography and geographic reality inevitably influence both the development of its rail and road networks and the location and concentration of its key seaports. Put simply, Iran does not have major seaports spread along massive swathes of its southern coast because easy access to the southern coast from further inland has been historically constrained by the presence of mountains.
As such, Iran's major southern seaports are, intuitively, connected to rail and road networks even as they straddle the more mountainous areas of its terrain. These ports include:
Bandar Abbas: The country's main maritime outlet located on the coast of Hormuz Bay across the Hormuz islands. With links to Tehran and major Iranian cities via road and rail, the port handles 37 million tons of cargo per year.
Imam Khomeini: Located at the edge of the Persian Gulf, the port is Iran's most modern and largest port in terms of port area. It receives oil tankers, bulk and container carriers that arrive via the Strait of Hormuz and is a major petrochemical export facility. It handles roughly 16.5 million tons of cargo per year.
Chabahar: Facing the Gulf of Oman and providing more direct access to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, Chabahar handles approximately 1.4 million tons of cargo per year. Its proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India also has geopolitical implications. India contributed financing for the port's development as it provides a means of accessing Afghanistan and other markets in Central Asia without traversing routes in Pakistan.
In effect these three ports (See blue markers in Fig. 4) are the major entry/exit points connecting Iran to the open ocean.
Fig. 4: Google Earth image of Iran with main ports marked.
A maritime traffic density map provides a sense of the volume of maritime traffic and the importance of these ports for Iran (See Fig. 5 below).
Fig. 5: Maritime traffic density map. Source: https://www.vesselfinder.com/
If we "zoom out" slightly we note that there are at least a few additional geographic constraints on these three ports worth mentioning. The first and most obvious is the natural barrier created by the Arabian Peninsula (See Fig. 6 below).
Fig. 6: Google Earth image of Iran with ports and chokepoints marked.
Secondly, there is a "triangle" of strategic "maritime chokepoints" around the Arabian Peninsula (red markers in the above image) with noteworthy implications for trade (including oil trade routes). These chokepoints constitute significant hurdles to maritime traffic between Iran and Europe on the open ocean. That is, having to avoid them adds notable complexity to trade routes since the alternatives would include routes over land and the Caspian Sea or costly trips around the southern tip of Africa. The chokepoints include:
The Strait of Hormuz: Roughly 90% of Iran's oil exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz. A horn-like landmass of Emirati and Omani territory ( somewhat reminiscent of the Horn of Africa) juts into the strait whose width varies between 52 to just 21 nautical miles. One-third of the world's liquefied natural gas and almost 20% of its oil production traverse this narrow passage.
Bab-el-Mandeb Strait: About 10% of global trade transits this narrow passage between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Near the Horn of Africa and bordered by Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea , the strait is a crucial chokepoint between the Arab Gulf states and Europe as well as Asia-Europe trade.
The Suez Canal: The fastest and most direct maritime trade link between Asia and Europe, approximately 12% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal and some 30% of global container traffic.
Select Implications for Regional Geopolitics
According to Israeli Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, Iran, "plays the whole field". Expanding on this assessment, international terrorism researcher Yoram Schweitzer highlights Iran's increasingly aggressive and brazen activity beyond its borders citing reported Iranian involvement in terrorist activity in Europe, Turkey, the US, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, the DRC, Colombia, etc. But Iran's wide theater of action and motivations extend well beyond mere military or tactical objectives and desire for revenge on Israel and the US. In fact, its actions and motivations are shaped by the constraints engendered by its geographic reality.
Iran's present "pariah status" in the West has arguably been further cemented by the "collapse" of the JCPOA (the Iran Nuclear Deal); the recent Iranian government crackdown on domestic protests; and a flourishing Russian-Iranian military alliance in the context of the widely-condemned war in Ukraine. The bottom line is, increases in diplomatic, economic, military, and sanctions pressure on Iran ostensibly increase pressure for the country to seek further geostrategically important footholds, allies, and additional outlets and routes through which to move goods, weapons, and other resources. Crucially, however, the shape of any such routes will be influenced by Iran's geographic reality.
What exactly does this mean? For example, while there has been some past discussion of a North-South Transport Corridor as an alternative to the Suez Canal, Mehr News only recently reported on significant investments by both Russia and Iran to build out this "sanctions defying" corridor along rivers and railways linked to the Caspian Sea. Notably, the reported investments include connection of Chabahar Port to Iran's existing rail network (See Fig. 2). This is likely motivated by the fact that, of Iran's main ports, Chabahar is both beyond the Hormuz chokepoint and slightly more removed from the UAE and Bahrain, countries in the sphere of influence of Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.
Once we add some context about recent geopolitical events, we can see that Iran's geographic reality helps contextualize its activities in the region and beyond along with shedding light on its geostrategic goals. To start with, we must bear in mind the ongoing rivalry of two competing regional coalitions. On one side is a "pro-Iran" coalition led by Iran itself and including state and non-state actors. On the other side is an "anti-Iran" coalition centered on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel. With added context, we can further explore some aspects of Iran and other regional players' behavior.
Iranian determination to build a "land bridge" to the Mediterranean: For a number of years, Iran has been determined to build a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon (See the upper yellow markers in Fig. 7 below). This has been facilitated by Iranian-Russian cooperation in the Syria, for instance. On one level, a land bridge somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road with additional sea access is logistically attractive to Iran precisely because of its existing constraints with access to the open ocean. These constraints are not strictly geographic in nature, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia form part of the "anti-Iran" coalition in today's Middle East and they potentially stand in the way (even geographically speaking) of Iran's ocean access due to both their position in the Persian Gulf and proximity to chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz. On another level, such a land bridge also provides a series of fronts with which Iran and its proxies can threaten Israel and other states like Jordan.
Arab-Iran conflict over Qatar: Qatar has been something of a "wild card" player in the ongoing conflict between the two rival coalitions in today's Middle East. Qatar has been a flashpoint for the conflict due to its conciliatory stance on Iran, which has led to frustration among some of the Arab Gulf states ultimately culminating in the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis. More broadly, however, if we look at a map (See Fig. 7 below) we note that, in theory, the addition of Qatar to the Iranian sphere of influence would, alongside Iraq and Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, provide Iran with further means of encircling its regional rivals. Essentially, Iraq, Qatar, and Yemen would form a "triangle" of points of influence surrounding the Arabian Peninsula.
Proxy war in Yemen: Iran's interest in Yemen (and Yemen's geostrategic importance) where it has been supporting Ansar Allah (informally known as Houthi movement) is clearer when contemplating the below map. As noted above, Yemen provides Iran with a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula from which to threaten rivals like Saudi Arabia. But Yemen is also important due to its proximity to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (See Fig. 7 below). The country's geostrategic importance helps contextualize motivations for the Saudi/UAE-Iran proxy war there as well as reports of the Saudi-led coalition's military presence on Perim (Mayun) Island in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen (also highlighted by a yellow marker).
Fig. 7: Google Earth map with markers on some strategically significant locations.
The above are only select examples, the overarching point is that reading maps with this sort of geopolitical lens helps us understand and contextualize geopolitical developments, for instance:
The significance of the Abraham Accords and the context of regional reactions to them (e.g. why does Iran feel so threatened by the UAE's inclusion and why is it such a strategic win for Iran's rivals?).
The importance of Sudan's inclusion in the Accords given its location and access to the Red Sea.
The geostrategic importance of, among others, Somaliland (highlighted in the above map by a yellow marker) in the Horn of Africa also becomes clearer with a map. Understanding this also helps contextualize both Russian activity there and recent analyses of possible Iranian weapons smuggling from Somaliland and neighboring Puntland. The geostrategic importance of the Horn of Africa also ties into the Abraham Accords and the overall picture as well with the UAE and Saudi Arabia's (among others) involvement in the area.
Tips for Reading Maps
We close with some general tips for reading maps with a geopolitical lens:
Examine the target country's internal geography: Mountains, impassable jungles, desert areas etc. can form protective barriers, but they can also impede trade and movement as well as hamper internal governance of isolated regions. Rivers, on the other hand, tend to be transit and trade routes, but they can also be barriers in certain circumstances and must be considered in conjunction with seasonal weather patterns and changes in their flow and path. To the extent rivers straddle borders they can also act as facilitators for illicit traffics, especially in the context of borderlands with reduced state presence (See, for instance, rivers and channels in the Tri-Border Area).
Consider the impact of internal geography on the target country's development and infrastructure: The target country's geography has economic, governance, and even military implications. Geography can impact both infrastructure development and population concentration. For example, that Brazzaville is a major population center in the Republic of Congo is not surprising given the importance of the Congo River as a trade facilitator. The subsequent construction of the Congo-Ocean Railway connecting Brazzaville and the port city of Pointe Noire in the context of the Congo River's innavegable rapids past Brazzaville, along with Pointe Noire's consequent importance as a commercial and population center, is also unsurprising. But keep in mind that population concentration can mean there are remote areas of the country that are "less governed" and coupled with geographic barriers this has implications for internal governance and illicit traffics both within and across borders (See, for example, the Darien Jungle in Panama).
Zoom out: Consider international barriers and borders along with their implications. For example, is the target country landlocked? Does it have "exits" over land or on water? Is it bordered by natural or other barriers?
Add context: Consider recent geopolitical developments, relations with neighbors and broader region. How can these impact the target country's behavior? How will the reactions of the target country and its regional neighbors be impacted by the local and regional geographic realities? How will global superpowers involved in the target region react?
Geopolitical analysis is a complex and multi-faceted undertaking. The degree to which one is informed by up-to-date open source and human intelligence, for instance, has a significant impact on the quality and depth of the analysis. But if you're looking for a starting point it's often a good idea to go "back to the basics" and pick up a map or two.