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Behind the push for war with Iran

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As tensions between US president Donald Trump and Iran escalate, Nick Clark looks at how decades of Western imperialism in the Middle East lie behind the latest crisis
Issue 2687
The threat of war with Iran is tied up with the USs wars in Iraq
The threat of war with Iran is tied up with the US’s wars in Iraq (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The march to the brink of war with Iran began as far back as 1979. But it gained speed with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Apologists for the US’s assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani this month point to Iran’s aggressive expansion in the Middle East. It’s worth pointing out that the US made it all possible.

The US gave its biggest Middle Eastern rival the opportunities to grow in power and influence—and even helped it along the way. Now it will risk war to put Iran back in its box.

A big irony of the clash is that in recent years the US relied on an uneasy alliance with Iran and its military forces to keep control in Iraq.

When Islamist group Isis took control of a vast swathe of northern Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014, it shook the US’s grip on the region.

The US’s ruling class—with Barack Obama as president—was left desperately looking for forces that could help it defeat Isis. In northern Iraq, that turned out to be Shia Muslim militias armed, trained and funded by Iran.

While US warplanes fought Isis from the sky, Iranian-backed fighters took control of the territory on the ground.

It was a strange dynamic that gave the Iranians unprecedented influence in Iraq.

Spearheaded by Soleimani, Iran used the civil wars in Iraq and Syria to become much more powerful in the Middle East than it had been previously.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps—which Soleimani led—joined the Syrian civil war to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2012.

It fought not only Isis, but also the various armed groups that developed when Assad tried to crush the Syrian revolution of 2011.

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In doing so, they established military bases almost at the border with Israel, the US’s most important ally in the Middle East—as well as more political influence in Syria.

So when the Iranian-backed militias were able to take credit for defeating Isis in Iraq, it gave Iran a level of power it hadn’t had before. This wasn’t a sudden development.

Iran was already a key player in Iraqi politics—thanks to the political system the US imposed after invading in 2003.

That invasion was supposed to re-establish the US as the dominant power in the US for decades to come. The aim was to get rid of a regime that challenged its dominance in the region and—above all else—to get hold of the vast oil reserves underneath Iraq.

Instead, the war left the US and Britain much weaker—and utterly humiliated.

People who backed regime change in Iraq sometimes claim it all went wrong because the US didn’t have a plan for what to do next. That’s not true.

The US did have a plan. It involved dismantling the Iraqi state and replacing it with something that matched the US’s vision for capitalism in the Middle East.

Under the guise of “marketisation” US corporations were allowed to plunder not just Iraq’s oil industry, but the rest of its economy too.

The war had destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure, causing shortages of food, clean water and energy. Meanwhile US corporations received billions of pounds for “reconstruction” projects and privatisation.

Iraqi society has never been as clearly split between Sunni and Shia Muslims as the West often likes to portray it

And a loan from the International Monetary Fund—supposedly to “help” Iraq towards marketisation—sought to lock in a cycle of debt and re-borrowing. So while ordinary Iraqis were impoverished, US corporations and a rich Iraqi elite enriched themselves

They put in place a government system where corruption and sectarianism went hand in hand.

Iraqi society has never been as clearly split between Sunni and Shia Muslims as the West often likes to portray it. Despite that, the US imposed a form of government where positions and ministries were doled out based on religious affiliation.

In particular, the US hoped this would leave in charge a ruling Shia elite loyal to it and the occupation.

Along with the poverty created by the war, and any form of united resistance to the occupation brutally crushed, this laid the basis for sectarian violence and the growth of Isis.

Meanwhile Iran, with a Shia ruling class, had close ties with the ruling groups.

So Iran gained much more power in Iraq’s politics and economy, while the US was eventually forced into a humiliating withdrawal.

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Though the US is still by far the most powerful force in the Middle East, other states have been able to grow and take advantage of its decline in the wake of its defeat.

With Barack Obama as president, the US signed a deal with Iran in 2015 that was an attempt to adapt to this new situation.

The US has wanted to get rid of the Iranian regime ever since 1979, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran as one of the US’s most important allies.

This has involved bankrolling a devastating war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, and years of economic sanctions that punished ordinary Iranians.

But in 2015, Obama championed the “Iran nuclear deal”. This would end the sanctions and eventually allow Iran to fit in to the US’s vision for capitalism in the Middle East, if it ended its nuclear programme.

This suited one part of the US’s ruling class and most of those in the West, who wanted to avoid more war and confrontation after their defeat in Iraq.

But things have become a lot more chaotic and dangerous under Donald Trump.

Another section of the US’s ruling class won’t accept Iran as a growing power in the Middle East, and have never forgiven the regime for events in 1979.

Trump seems to be on their side. He went back to threatening military confrontation with Iran, ditching the nuclear deal in 2018. But he’s flip flopped between that and seemingly wanting to pull all of the US’s soldiers out of the Middle East leaving its allies there to deal with Iran instead.

Any misjudged gamble by Trump could end up sparking a major war that neither he nor Iran really want

Over the past year the US has repeatedly seemed to gear up for war with Iran, only for both sides to back down again.

Each time they come closer to actual war—and the assassination of Soleimani has put the situation on a knife edge.

That’s one element that makes the situation so dangerous. Any misjudged gamble by Trump could end up sparking a major war that neither he nor Iran really want.

But another real danger is that the threat of war engineered by Trump could smother mass movements in both Iraq and Iran. Last October a movement against poverty and dire public services exploded onto the streets mostly in south and central Iraq.

Despite Iraq’s vast oil wealth, the lives of ordinary Iraqis haven’t improved since 2003.

The movement is led by young people who grew up in Iraq after the invasion. They’ve known nothing but war, high unemployment and lack of basic services.

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They’re angry at the corrupt elite at the top who they rightly see as stealing their future. And because Iran’s rulers are so closely involved in Iraq’s government, much of the anger is directed at them.

Protesters burned down the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi city Najaf last November.

Yet these protests also have their roots in the 2003 invasion. Ultimately, they challenge the corrupt system that the US imposed and is desperate to maintain.

The movement follows on from similar waves of protests in 2011, 2015 and 2018. But it’s on a much bigger scale, with a much wider base.

Protesters have occupied Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital Baghdad for months, and have also blockaded ports in cities such as Basra, disrupting oil exports.

Despite brutal repression—protesters say at least 600 of them have been killed since October—the government hasn’t been able to crush the movement. Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign last year. Yet now, some protesters have said they’re worried US’s offensive could be used to crush their movement by pro-Iranian militias.

Pressure could push activists to postpone the protests in the face of Trump’s threats. A smaller number could even end up backing the US. Similarly in Iran, riots against the government have been eclipsed by mass anger at the US.

For all Iran’s aggression, the US is still the biggest imperial power in the Middle East—and at the root of all violence and war there.

We have to oppose all the justifications our governments give for invading.

Only the ordinary people can decide their future, and do away with the imperialist system of war that’s wrecked their lives for decades.

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