A few weeks ago the US looked poised to launch a military attack on Syria. Now a deal on Syrian chemical weapons appears to be sealed—and a historic thaw in relations with Iran has been thrown in for good measure.
The Syria deal was struck in the United Nations (UN) Security Council. It says all production and equipment used to manufacture chemical weapons in Syria must be destroyed by 1 November. All existing chemical weapons are to be eliminated by the middle of next year.
All sides claim to be satisfied with this solution because it suits their own ends.
Barack Obama, facing problems at home, wants to spin this as a great achievement for him on the international stage. He is less keen to acknowledge what the deal exposes about US imperialism. First is that, whatever the rhetoric, the US was not confident or strong enough to launch a military attack on Syria.
Obama was loathe to commit to a military attack. He was forced to talk tough rather than risk appearing weak. Yet by pulling back and accepting the UN deal as a solution he has confirmed his weakness. The deal doesn’t even include the US’s preferred wording, which asserts the right to automatic “punitive measures” if Assad breaks any of the conditions.
The second thing the deal shows up is that the motive for an attack on Syria was never humanitarian. Only last weekend an air attack on a school killed at least 16 people. More than 100,000 people have died in the struggle against Bashar al-Assad since the revolt began in 2011.
Obama is content to let the killing carry on—so long as the US has not lost face as the global superpower. He has managed to avert the risk of the US getting bogged down in yet another war, at least for the moment.
The sudden thaw in relations with Iran exposes the same dynamic. Obama fears a war with Iran. But it seems both he and the Iranian regime accept they have reached a stalemate in the battle to force Iran to give up its nuclear programme.
That is why both want to look happy to be talking again. Last week’s 15 minute phone call between Obama and Iran’s president Hassan Rohani was the first direct talks since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Then a revolution brought down the US-backed Shah, rather like the recent ousting of Western-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.
Western sanctions against Iran have caused much damage. The main victims are ordinary Iranians who suffer from medicine shortages and rising food prices. But sanctions haven’t forced Iran to give up its nuclear programme.
US imperialism’s closest allies in the region are Israel and Saudi Arabia. They are angry at any hint of detente with Iran, as are the hawks in the US ruling class.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is flying to the US to address the UN on the issue. He is set to challenge Iran’s assertion that it merely wants to develop nuclear power and not a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu wants to stop any further retreat by the US on Iran.
But pragmatism is driving events—and that says that the US cannot risk a war right now. What of the plight of the ordinary people that make up the populations of Syria and Iran?
Any Western intervention will make their situation worse. Western bombs don’t discriminate between Syrians who are pro and anti the Assad regime. And they can deflect people’s anger away from their own rulers towards the West.
In Iran the campaign of imperialist sanctions has helped maintain the regime and stifle the democratic opposition there. The pulling back of a military threat can help create the space for the domestic opposition to repressive regimes.