Since last September the US, its European allies and Israel have been escalating tensions with Iran over its nuclear programme. They have repeatedly threatened Iran with military action. Both the US and Britain have provocatively stationed navy ships near Iran’s borders in the Persian Gulf.
And as Obama said at his joint press conference with Cameron last month, they have “applied the toughest sanctions ever on Iran”. Yet despite the similarities to the run up to war with Iraq in 2003, Iran is not Iraq. We need to examine why and look at the implications both for potential clashes between the West and Iran and for the democratic movement inside Iran.
The accusations about Iran’s nuclear programme are unfounded. Israel claims that Iran is close to making a nuclear bomb. But Israel has repeatedly made this claim since 1992. All 16 US intelligence agencies and Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, have recently confirmed that Iran is not aiming at the militarisation of its civil nuclear programme and remains years away from reaching the know-how for such a “nuclear capability”. Should Iran decide to move towards acquiring such a capability, it would have to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and ban inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from visiting its nuclear sites. Even then it would still take some years for it to reach nuclear weapon capability.
Echoes of Iraq
The rhetoric of war this time around does not even hang on the existence of imaginary WMDs as it did over Iraq. It relies instead on the thin possibility that the potential to make such weapons may be reached in the distant future. But despite the echoes of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, major events separate today from the Bush and Blair era.
Firstly, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, far from being the smooth and quick operations US imperialism and its allies promised, have proved disastrous, with the resistance in the occupied nations playing the major role in causing these failures. US imperialism faces deep uncertainty over its future political and economic interests in Iraq. The current political establishment in Iraq is led by Shi’ite groups and parties that have historically close relationships with the Iranian regime. US military retreat will further strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq.
The Afghanistan operation, described by Donald Rumsfeld as “a big success” in 2007, has unravelled. Sooner or later the occupying troops will have to be pulled out, leaving the country under the fragile rule of Hamid Karzai facing rising Taliban dominance. Again Iran is likely to at least partially fill the vacuum (the rest will be Pakistan’s share).
Secondly, the revolutions in Tunisia and especially Egypt are the biggest blow to Western geopolitical interests in the region since the toppling of the Shah of Iran by the 1979 Revolution. Egypt’s Mubarak was a key strategic ally for the US and an accomplice to Israel’s containment of the Palestinians. US anxiety has deepened with the spreading of the revolutionary wave across the region. Since February last year the US, the UK and France have been working to contain this challenge and regain part of their lost dominance in the region.
Israel’s lost allies
The revolutionary wave in the Middle East has also had a massive impact on Israel’s position in the region. Israel has lost long-term allies in Tunisia and Egypt. The military government in Egypt, under pressure from below, has opened up the border between Egypt and Gaza, mediated peace talks between Hamas and Fatah and let an Iranian navy ship pass through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979.
Confrontation with Israel from above will be limited. Muslim Brotherhood parties, now forming the dominant force in parliament in both Egypt and Tunisia, will take a pragmatic stance towards Israel and look to maintain economic and diplomatic relations with Israel but balance this with some critical rhetoric.
The real source of Israel’s unprecedented sense of isolation comes from the renewed potential for resistance by the Arab masses. Israel will now have to think twice about embarking on military assaults along the lines of the attacks on Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008.
Finally what differentiates the current period from the run-up to war in 2002-3 is the depth of the global economic crisis and the wave of mass resistance in response over the last 18 months, including inside the US and across Europe (and even inside the borders of Israel). The wars on Iraq and Afghanistan occurred against a backdrop of recovery from the recession of 2000-1.
Deadly and unpredictable
Although the wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq, produced a mass anti-war movement, given the overall weakness of the working class these movements had limitations. If the West were to risk a war with Iran today, a much more unpredictable and deadly conflict than previous ones, it is likely to lead to an anti-war movement growing out of and entangled with the wave of resistance against austerity, feeding into the anger spreading from New York to Athens.
Given this, what points can we draw out? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of an imperialist offensive to secure future dominance in the region, and in particular to allow the US to reassert its global primacy. The recent threats against Iran are signs of an imperialism that is weakened and on the defensive.
This has been reinforced by divisions between Western ruling classes in response to the crisis, something also reflected in their treatment of Iran. The forthcoming American presidential election will provide a stage for such divisions to unfold. While Israel, which acts as the attack dog of the neo-con section of the US ruling class who designed the wars of 2001 to 2003, depicts Iran as an imminent threat, Panetta and Obama are emphasising economic sanctions, or more correctly, economic war.
This is not, of course, to rule out the possibility of military strikes against Iranian facilities or even a wider standoff between the West and Iran. In the current heated situation a contingent act can lead to unpredictable outcomes. But given its isolation, for Israel to initiate a unilateral military intervention against Iran is a grave risk. Israel’s warmongering rhetoric is designed to put pressure on the US and Europe to stoke up war tensions in the region – something Israel hopes to benefit from.
But it is not clear that even a Republican government would venture a military assault on Iran that aimed at regime change. What is clear is that the West is attempting to weaken the Iranian regime and its influence in the region through a strategy of harsh sanctions that target every aspect of the Iranian economy from an embargo on Iran’s oil to banning all Iranian banks, including its Central Bank, from international activities.
Despite talk of “smart sanctions” that only target the Iranian regime, it is obvious that the aim of sanctions is also to hit the Iranian people. The sanctions, the bulk of which were introduced at the beginning of 2012, have already crippled the Iranian economy. But Obama was right when he said that “those sanctions are going to begin to bite even harder this summer”.
The sanctions are comparable to those imposed on Iraq during the 1990s which, according to the UN, led to the death of over a million Iraqis – half of them children. The talk of keeping the use of force as “an option on the table” – repeatedly used by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy – is designed to distract the public from these unjustifiable sanctions.
The situation in Iran today is also drastically different from the 2001 to 2003 period. The Iranian regime initially responded to the War on Terror by retreating to a passive, defensive position. It collaborated with the US over the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and halted its nuclear enrichment programmes, going beyond what was demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the failures of the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan inadvertently turned Iran into a major regional superpower.
Hardline factions of the Iranian regime used the US threats against it as an excuse to increase the rhetoric of national security and to justify a clampdown on civil society and the reform movement which had started in 1997. The decision of Iran’s supreme leader in 2005 to help Ahmadinejad, a relatively unknown figure, to be elected as president was motivated by both the US threat and the opportunity to become a regional super-power. In the 2005 election the Revolutionary Guards’ militia forces (known as Basij) mobilised mass voting in favour of Ahmadinejad and there were widespread allegations of vote rigging.
Ahmadinejad was instrumental in delivering the Iranian regime’s new foreign policy. He has been misunderstood as a “leftist man of the people” or a fundamentalist fanatic. He is neither. Rather he is a populist who updated the Iranian regime’s anti-Western rhetoric and gave it a new façade, something necessary after its repeated use over two decades to justify the regime’s economic failures and resulting massive social inequalities and repression.
Ahmadinejad’s audacious language against Israel and the US, far from being insane, acted to raise support for Iran across the Muslim world. Israel’s response to Iran’s increased power was to initiate military conflicts with Iran’s allies, Hezbollah and Hamas. These proxy wars killed thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians but failed to weaken either the Iranian regime or its allies.
Inside Iran, however, Ahmadinejad’s populist politics soon became ineffective and lost its initial support. In the 2005 presidential campaign he had explicitly denied being opposed to the civil and political freedoms that had been gained through the struggles of the reform movement. Instead he focused on the economy and promised to redistribute wealth and fight against corruption. He capitalised on people’s bitter memories of the corrupt privatisation and neoliberal policies of the Rafsanjani era which had led to the emergence of a new bourgeois class.
Ahmadinejad coupled talk of social justice with a version of nationalism which initially succeeded in rallying significant sections of Iranian society behind the resumed nuclear program, which he called “our unalienable right”.
The state clamps down
But under the guise of Ahmadinejad’s populist rhetoric the state clamped down on political and civil freedoms and repressed ethnic and religious minorities. Many newspapers were closed down. University vice-chancellors appointed by Ahmadinejad suspended many student activists and forced out many critical lecturers. The state had bulldozed mosques belonging to Sunni and Sufi sects and many from the Baha’i faith were imprisoned. And despite unprecedented oil revenues Ahmadinejad’s economic policies led to a 70 percent rise in unemployment damaging the middle classes, sections of the working classes and even part of the new bourgeoisie.
Though labelled as mismanagement of the economy by Ahmadinejad what was really involved was a reshuffling of Iran’s class structure. A small section of the Iranian political elite which had come to office in 2005 was aggressively seeking to further its economic and political share of power. This was done by extending existing neoliberal policies, privatising the public sector to hand it over to the new elite and opening the borders to unregulated imports.
They also cut governmental support to the established bourgeoisie, which found it could no longer compete, despite being the product of similar policies during the 1990s. As a result many industrial and agricultural units, private and public, went bankrupt, often leaving their workers unpaid for up to 18 months. Many strikes and spontaneous protests took place with the demand that “being paid our wages is our unalienable right”.
At the heart of the newly emerging elite were the Revolutionary Guards. They had been given a more powerful political position as a consequence of US militarisation of the region since 2001. But since 2005 they have also become a major economic force openly bidding for, and obtaining, multibillion projects. The rigging of presidential election in 2009 was exceptional, even by the standards of the Islamic Republic. The regime had taken a great risk.
It did so to consolidate the economic hegemony of the newly emerged ruling faction. The protests in response to the rigged election, the Green Movement, soon transcended its initial demands. It was the first time in 30 years that the Iranian people had revolted in millions against the regime which had usurped their revolution in 1979. The movement became a focus for many sections of society with different sources of discontent.
The 2009 events have been described by Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei, as the biggest threat the regime has ever faced. He was correct. Although the movement did not manage to defeat the regime, it has severely damaged its overall legitimacy and has laid the seeds for future revolts and possible revolution. The nuclear programme no longer acts to unite the nation.
Iranian working class
The Western media at the time gave a selective picture of the Green Movement. The movement was analysed through the language of its elite figures. But there was a gap between their demands and those of the people. This has led to some misunderstanding of the Green Movement. Iran’s impoverished working class made up a significant section of the movement but they did not manage to participate as a collective force and so were overshadowed by other social forces. This was due to the weakness of the workers’ movement and the left.
More than two decades after the slaughter of the left in 1980s the workers’ movement had re-emerged in the early 2000s, trying to establish independent trade unions. In 2004 the bus drivers’ union staged a significant strike. The state, officially in the hands of reformists at the time, reacted sharply. Ahmadinejad’s government increased the repression of this new movement further and with greater severity. Many of its leaders remain in prison.
The result was that, due to the weakness of working class organisations in 2009, sections of the middle classes allied themselves with the sections of the bourgeoisie or opponents of the regime within the elite. The outcome of this alliance was the dominance of liberal ideas that focused on non-violence and the role of social media, and too often was distracted by the false dichotomy between secularism and religion. It legitimised its anti-revolutionary sentiments by drawing on the traumatic experience of violence that followed the 1979 Revolution.
The official rhetoric of the Green Movement never targeted the regime’s neoliberal policies as such, only criticising the harsh methods by which it was delivered. Nonetheless, the movement from below went as far as occupying parts of Tehran on 27 December 2009. Next day the movement’s leadership, secular and Islamic alike, criticised such acts and tried to contain the movement.
This was the last significant day of street protest and the beginning of the decline of the Green Movement. The 2011 Arab revolutions have produced contradictions both for the regime and the people. Geopolitically, the Arab revolutionary wave has been a mixture of gains and losses for the Iranian regime. It has gained from the removal of Mubarak and Ben Ali and the weakening of the pro-Western Bahraini monarchy by the majority Shi’ite uprising.
It has tried to appropriate these revolutions by labelling them “Islamic awakenings” inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution (the regime’s official interpretation of Iranian Revolution). But it has also seen the weakening of its closest ally, the Syrian government, and the recent shift of Hamas towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and away from Iran and Syria.
The topplings of Mubarak and Ben Ali were sources of inspiration for the Iranian masses. The Green Movement called for a solidarity demonstration on 14 February last year. After 13 months of hibernation, tens of thousands of people in Tehran shouted “Mubarak, Ben Ali, Nobat-e Seyyed Ali”, meaning it is Seyyed Ali Khamenei’s turn to be toppled. Moussavi and Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement, were put under house arrest the next day, something that continues today.
The streets of Tehran were kept under heavy security for the next few weeks. The national TV became much more conservative in its coverage of the Arab revolutions.
The Arab revolutions have posed critical questions for pro-democracy forces in Iran and challenged their ideological limitations. These questions have been met with some genuine and some false answers.
The intervention in Libya and its celebration by the dominant liberal ideology was a false answer. Last November Hillary Clinton in an interview with BBC Persia recommended to the Iranian opposition that it act like the Libyan National Council and ask for US support. There are many reactionary and opportunist members of the Iranian opposition who are currently being groomed by the US, the UK and France to play such a role if a similar situation occurs.
The economic, political, gender, ethnic and religious inequalities have turned Iran into a pressure cooker. Given the recent experience of the 2009 revolt and the regional revolutionary upheavals, if Iran is left alone by imperialist forces, it will not be too long before Iranians revolt again and this time it will be much deeper.
This imposition of sanctions acts to disempower Iranian society, adds to social and economic inequalities and will destroy the democratic movement. Sanctions will allow the regime to further militarise Iranian society. Anti-imperialists should fiercely oppose these sanctions and prevent the further suffering of ordinary Iranian people.
If Iraqi society had not been destroyed by ten years of sanctions, followed by invasion and occupation, one could predict that Iraqis would have been part of the Arab revolutionary wave. Iranians demand their “unalienable right” to determine their own democratic and equal future. We should not allow them to be deprived of this right.
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