Where is Iran? A Layman's Geography Guide to the Most Confusing Region Of the World

Iran sits smack in the middle of one of the most important geopolitical regions on Earth. Much of its western flank is bordered by either Iraq or the Persian Gulf, and it has considerable control over one of the world’s most important waterways for oil shipping and trade, the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran also shares large borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan to its east, as well as Turkmenistan to the northeast and the Caspian Sea to its north.


Image Source: CIA (edited by author)

Iran's location places it within a hotbed of Islamic extremism and enormously complex sectarian and ethnic conflicts that go back centuries (See map 2). Iran is one of two Shia-dominant countries in a region largely dominated by Sunni Muslim majorities. It has much to lose in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan, and therefore seeks to secure these borders from Sunni and fringe group extremists as well as drug traffickers who smuggle enormous amounts of heroin, but also the U.S., which Iran considers its gravest national security concern. A quick look at U.S. military installations encircling Iran justifies their fear.

Religious Break-Down in and Around Iran:


Image Source: CIA

U.S. Military Bases Around Iran:


Iran has been using geography to its advantage however. When looking at the map of the Strait of Hormuz, one can see how precarious the shipping situation could become if Iran decided to use military force to interrupt it. The depth of the Strait is very shallow – less than 75 meters in most areas - making it difficult for larger ships such as U.S. Navy destroyers to maneuver rapidly. This is where Iran’s fleet of small, fast attack craft has the advantage. Further, the islands dotting the landscape of the Strait – many of which Iran has stationed missile batteries on - make it a perfect launch pad for guerrilla-style naval attacks, which Iran has been preparing for decades.


Image Source: CIA (edited by author)

Iraq’s southeastern border city of Basra has become a major entry point for Iran’s intelligence agencies to gain considerable influence in the country as well. Many Iraqis, as well as Saudi officials when asked, have stated that the Iraqi government is nothing more than a puppet regime for Iran, and the U.S. exit as well as a large Shiite majority in Iraq has made this much easier.

Although Al-Qaeda’s recent “African awakening” and a U.S. pivot to Asia all pose security challenges in the near future, Iran cannot be ignored not only because of its deep-rooted ties in the Middle East, but also its controversial nuclear program. Iran continues to state that its program is for peaceful power, but U.S. and Israeli officials are increasingly skeptical. Numerous plots to stop Iran’s enrichment have been proposed; the most hotly debated being a strike on nuclear facilities. But looking at a map of Iran’s nuclear sites shows a problem: most are out of Israel’s reach, and hardened within nearly impenetrable bunkers.


Image Source: The Economist

Iran’s economy is currently on life support due to brutal sanctions imposed upon it by the West to try and curb Iran’s nuclear enrichment as well as its nefarious activities in the region. Whether this leads to Iranian acquiescence or a harder stance has yet to be seen, but so far Iranian citizens have taken the brunt of the punishment.

Whatever happens between Iran, Israel, and the West will have significant implications for regional security, the global economy, and the future of the Middle East. Hopefully now, the picture is just a little clearer.

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Joseph Sarkisian

Joseph graduated with a Master of Science in international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston and was an intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. He completed his BA at Arizona State University in political science as well as studied Arabic language, terrorism/counterterrorism, and religion. Joseph also lived in Egypt where he studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo in 2007. Joseph was the Secretary of the Executive Committee for the University of Massachusetts Graduate Student Government, a teaching assistant in his department, and teaches a class on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His main areas of interest are the Af/Pak region, Iran, Syria, and other current foreign policy issues.

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