Southwest Asia: The Northeast

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE On March 16, 1988, Iraqi Air Force planes released poisonous gases over the Kurdish town of Halabja, Iraq. An estimated 5,000 Kurds, an ethnic group in Southwestern Asia, died from the chemical weapons attack. The Kurdish people have occupied the lands they call Kurdistan for thousands of years. In the modern world, those lands are located in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. For most of the 20th century, these three nations disagreed with the Kurds over control of these lands. In fact, clashes over land have been the focus of much unrest in the northeastern part of Southwest Asia.

A Blend of Cultures

The nations in this subregion include Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They are mostly Muslim in religion, but only Iraq is Arabic in cultural life. All these nations were influenced by early civilizations and empires in the region.


Part of the cultural hearth known as the Fertile Crescent is located here. Some of the earliest civilizations in the world developed in Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and Chaldea all built empires in Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers.”

The Hittites, whose empire stretched across what is Turkey today, brought innovations such as the use of iron weapons. Persia, which developed in the region occupied by Iran today, introduced innovations in government organization.

Northeast Ethnic Areas


Living in this subregion are members of many ethnic groups, including Turks, Kurds, Persians, and Assyrians. The map on page 482 shows where these groups live. They speak languages such as Turkish and Farsi, which are different from the Arabic that is spoken in the rest of the region.

Though the different ethnic groups all follow Islam, tensions exist. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims divided into two main branches—the Sunni and the Shi'ite. About 83 percent of all Muslims are Sunni. Most Iranians are Shi'ite.

Clashes Over Land

Clashes over land in this region increased after World War I. Some were disagreements over homelands claimed by ethnic groups whose demands for land were ignored. Other disputes were over control of valuable oil fields.


The Kurds have been called a stateless nation. At the end of World War I, they were promised a homeland but never received it. Clashes between the Kurds and the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq have prevented the Kurds from becoming a nation-state.

Because of its location, Iran has become home to refugees fleeing oppressive governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, Iran has the largest refugee population of any nation in the world. Iraqi Shi'ites persecuted by their government have sought refuge with fellow Shi'ites in Iran. Decades of war drove many Afghan refugees to Iran, although some began to return in 2002.


Access to the oil-rich regions on the Persian Gulf is strategically important for all nations that import oil. Between 1980 and 1990, Iran and Iraq fought a war over control of oil fields. Then, in 1990–1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait, starting the Persian Gulf War. The United States and 32 other nations fought to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and keep oil fields open.

Clashes Over Leadership

The war on terrorism declared by President George W. Bush led to clashes over leadership in the Northeast subregion. Within a month of the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, the United States and the coalition forces fought in Afghanistan, where the terrorists responsible for the attacks were being harbored. In 2003, fear for national security prompted the United States to declare war on Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein.


A fundamentalist Muslim political group called the Taliban was protecting Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan. On October 7, 2001, U.S.-led coalition forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom to seize the terrorists' financial assets and destroy their infrastructure.

By March 2002, the Taliban had been removed from power. A transitional government, headed by Hamid Karzai, replaced the repressive regime. However, some Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, managed to escape the coalition forces.


After the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, the United Nations ordered Saddam Hussein to destroy his biological and chemical weapons. President George W. Bush, however, believed that the Iraqi dictator was continuing to develop and expand a weapons of mass destruction program. As a result, American and British forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 to stamp out Hussein's ability to wage mass war or aid terrorists. Major combat ended on May 1, and the long process of working toward a democratic government in Iraq began. Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. But by 2005,weapons of mass destruction still had not been found in Iraq.

Reforming Economies

The nations in this subregion face a variety of economic challenges. All of them have limited agricultural land. Production must become more efficient in order to produce surplus crops to sell elsewhere. Most of these nations have oil or natural gas resources that can generate revenue. This money is needed to update and expand transportation systems, communication systems, power generation plants, and water and sanitation systems.


Turkey and Iran are making progress in modernizing their economies. Turkey is developing its water resources and hydroelectric plants to supply energy and to boost production of cotton and other agricultural products. It is the only nation in this subregion that produces significant amounts of steel. Turkey straddles two continents—Europe and Asia—which makes it ideally located for trade.

Changes in Iran's government have had a major impact on its economic progress. Government attitudes have swung between strong support for economic growth to no plans for change. The current government is supporting growth. Oil money fuels most of the plans for developing a diversified economy.

But Iran is still recovering from a war with Iraq (1980–1990) that severely harmed its economy.


For many years, war and political problems in Iraq and Afghanistan prevented these countries from improving their economies. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, economic restrictions were imposed, limiting much of Iraq's foreign trade. As a result, the Iraqi people have lacked basic goods such as food and medicine and other medical supplies.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world. Most of its people are engaged in agriculture and animal herding. Afghanistan has great mineral resources, but civil war and turmoil during the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in 2001 and 2002 interrupted any attempts at progress in the area. After the Taliban regime was removed from power, however, the transitional government began taking steps toward rebuilding Afghanistan's economy.

Modern and Traditional Life

As the nations of this subregion move into the new century, they face internal struggles. In each country, a division exists between those who want to adopt a modern lifestyle and those who want to preserve more traditional ways.

Nowhere was this division more apparent than in Afghanistan. There, the Taliban imposed strict rules on people's behavior. After the regime was toppled in 2002, however, newly installed president Hamid Karzai began restoring civil liberties and improving education.

In Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, groups similar to the Taliban exist but have not been able to gain control of the governments there. These fundamentalist Muslim groups have very different ideas from each other about the way people should behave. It has led to conflicts within the societies that have sometimes flared into serious political problems. In the next chapter, you will study more about issues that affect the countries of Southwest Asia.