The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

U.S./Iran:
The Threat of an Imperialist War

Sep 11, 2019

This article is from Issue #202, September-October, 2019 of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of the revolutionary workers group, Lutte Ouvrière active in France.

On September 3, the U.S. announced new sanctions against Iran, this time on account of its space program, accused of being a “front” for the ballistic missile program. “Iran’s August 29 attempt to launch a space vehicle underscores the urgency of the threat,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The next day, the U.S. administration denounced a supposed shipping network accused of illegally selling oil to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, “for the benefit of the [Syrian president] Assad’s brutal regime.” In response to that, the Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who had already turned down any bilateral discussion with the U.S., announced that he was forsaking all commitments made within the framework of the 2015 agreement—a perfunctory declaration, coming as it did from a regime with its back against the wall in the face of U.S. pressure.

The arm-wrestling with Iran, which Trump began in May 2018, after withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear agreement signed three years earlier, is still going on. Indeed, the U.S. has re-imposed the sanctions, decreed a blockade, and then issued a wholesale prohibition on buying any Iranian oil, thus depriving the regime of its main source of revenue. Over the months of June and July, tensions went up a notch in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic passage located between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is only 21 miles wide, through which one-fifth of all the world’s oil circulates. That is where attacks on oil tankers intensified, with the U.S. accusing Iran of being the instigator. Those tensions came to a head with the U.S. reaction to Iran destroying an American drone flying across its airspace on June 20. Trump claimed he had decided on a retaliatory bombing, which he canceled just ten minutes before the planes took off.

Iran is alleged to have broken the nuclear agreement and to be a threat which Trump, all the while proclaiming that he is opposed to war, wants to push back. But the threat comes rather from U.S. imperialism, which means to show that it is still the boss in the Middle East, and that it intends to defend its oil multinationals.

Behind the Conflict over the Nuclear Agreement

The agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, signed in July 2015 by the ministers of foreign affairs for the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, and their Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, made provisions to repeal most international sanctions against Tehran. It came after almost forty years of official rupture between the U.S. and Iran. It was the sign that U.S. imperialism was considering allowing Iran back on the diplomatic stage. The imperialist leaders are ready to resume relationships with states that may help them ensure their world domination, especially in that part of the Middle East which is increasingly unstable. But they are just as quick to break off with those very states if they prove too unruly.

All the summonses for Iran to limit its nuclear potential are merely pretexts to coerce it into complete submission. In 1957, the Iranian nuclear program was launched with U.S. help. But the country was then a reliable watchdog for imperialism, to which the dictator who ruled the country with an iron hand, Mohammad Reza Shah, was entirely submitted. The nuclear research reactor, fueled by highly enriched uranium, at the Tehran Center for Nuclear Research, was created a few years later, and was supplied by the U.S. as well. In 1974, the Shah started to build 23 nuclear plants, still with the support of the U.S., as American and European companies competed to help build the reactors. The reason why all those programs were later interrupted, was because of threats much more terrible to imperialist leaders than a nuclear explosion: the unrest and intense mobilization of the population, particularly the working class, against the Shah’s regime. On February 12, 1979, the monarchy was overthrown by the pressure from the streets, after months of clashes with the army. Once the Islamic Republic, led by an ayatollah, Khomeiny, was established, its priority was to restore order—in this respect, it saw eye to eye with the U.S. Indeed, the U.S. had been at work behind the scenes, in cooperation with Khomeiny, to prevent the army—the regime’s mainstay—from falling apart, at a time when the masses were mobilized.

But what ultimately ended the good relations between the two countries was the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran, on November 4, 1979, by students supporting the Islamic regime, who held 52 American civilians and military hostages. That blow was seen as a spectacular challenge. On April 7, 1980, the U.S. broke all diplomatic ties with Iran and imposed economic sanctions.

The regime had become disreputable. But that was not because it was ruled by ayatollahs. Imperialism relies on the most reactionary regimes when it becomes necessary in order to protect its interests. The close ties with Saudi Arabia bear witness to that, if any proof were needed. What the U.S. leaders could not accept was the will for independence proclaimed by Iran’s religious leaders. Upholding the interests of multinationals in such an oil-rich region of the world requires maintaining regimes loyal to imperialism, willing to submit entirely to its dictates.

After the war against Iraq in 2003, the increasingly chaotic situation in the Middle East drove the U.S. leaders to seek to resume relations with the Iranian state. Faced with the chaos in Iraq, the rise of uncontrollable militias which were to turn into the Islamic State (IS), and, since 2011, the war in Syria between armed gangs—those of Bashar al-Assad, and various jihadist groups, including IS—Iran could represent a source of help to stabilize the region. The Iranian regime was funding numerous Shi’a Islamist militias, fighting the Sunni IS gangs in Iraq. Not to mention the interventions in that country of the Guardians of the Revolution, the Pasdarans, and the financial support to the Lebanese Hezbollah, whose militias are present in Syria as well.

The agreement, negotiated for months and signed in 2015, was an undeniable show of good will on the part of the Iranian leaders, who had become more moderate concerning the U.S., and therefore, the U.S. thought, more likely to bring Iran back into the fold. Repealing the sanctions was vital for the Iranian economy, which was mired in crisis. The Iranian regime was ready to pay the price. The list of conditions speaks volumes: cutting Iran’s enriched-uranium stock by 98%; putting a 3.67% cap on enrichment levels—a nuclear bomb requires a level of enrichment of over 90%; cutting the number of its centrifuges from 20,000 to just over 5,000, that is, well below what it would take to make a single bomb; closing down the Arak reactor, which can produce plutonium; and accepting inspections of nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But no sooner had Trump been elected than he took a radical policy shift, denouncing the 2015 agreement as a disaster, and starting his “maximum pressure” policy against Iran.

U.S. Imperialism Imposes Its Rule

That shift cannot be explained by the president’s personality or his electoral calculations, even if those factors come into play. Nor by the Republican party, which elected Trump, being supposedly more aggressive than Obama and the Democratic party. It is true that there are in Trump’s entourage advocates of a war against Iran in order to overthrow the regime. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or former National Security Advisor John Bolton—recently dismissed by Trump—are the best-known representatives of those “hawks.” To give but one example, while he was still a congressman in 2016, Mike Pompeo had called for an action aiming to “change Iran’s attitude and, ultimately, its regime.” For the moment, however, that view is not widely accepted by the U.S. bourgeoisie.

What makes it necessary to bar Iran from the diplomatic stage again today, from the U.S. point of view, is precisely what had led to its brief inclusion. The situation in the Middle East has changed. The Islamic State group is virtually defeated and the Syrian dictator, Assad, has more or less got the situation back under control. Therefore, U.S. leaders now reckon it’s time to check Iran’s influence in the region. All the more so as Saudi Arabia, one of their most reliable allies, is a regional power which is in direct competition with Iran. Besides it being a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest buyers of American armaments. In March 2018, Trump had boasted selling it 12.5 billion dollars in weapons of all kinds.

Even though he may appear more unpredictable, Trump actually behaves like many other imperialist leaders before him, playing it by ear as it were, using some, then others, fueling one fire while trying to put out another. The aim is always the same: to maintain imperialist domination so as to allow American multinationals to go on plundering the planet.

The arm-wrestling between the U.S. and Iran has compelled all great powers, from European imperialisms to Japan and Russia, to position themselves with respect to—and ultimately to align themselves with—the American position. The members of the great powers’ club meeting at the G7, at the end of August in Biarritz, repeated over and over again that they shared the same objectives as Trump. Macron repeated that “no member of the G7 wants Iran to be able to get the nuclear weapon,” as a way of pledging allegiance to Trump. Nevertheless, those second-rate imperialist powers, such as France, would have liked to carry on doing business with that country and its 82 million strong population—which is more than the added populations of its seven neighboring countries in the Persian Gulf—whose middle class is substantial, and which needs huge investments. The delegations of many countries, including European countries, had indeed followed one another into Iran as soon as the 2015 deal was finalized. But as soon as the U.S. administration decided to walk out on the agreement, in 2018, it prohibited not only buying Iranian oil, but also maintaining trade relations with Tehran. Those who would not comply faced sanctions, especially measures barring them from the U.S. market.

The French minister of the economy, Bruno Le Maire, whined over the nefarious consequences for French big businesses such as Total, Sanofi, Renault, Peugeot, or Airbus. But he had to give in. So in August 2018, Total withdrew from the country, ending its participation in the South Pars gas project, the massive offshore natural gas deposit straddling the territorial waters of Iran and Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.

The European powers are still bent on finding a way to “negotiate” a resumption of the terms of the 2015 agreement, which would give them renewed access to Iran’s oil and markets. But since they cannot afford to alienate the U.S., nothing has come out of it so far. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran also aims to prevent the boycott that he decreed from enabling European and Asian leaders to grab positions in the Iranian market. Trump’s war is also economic: it is about wiping out any serious competitor. U.S. imperialism has demonstrated its strength, political as well as economic.

Disastrous Consequences for the Iranian Population

To uphold its rule, imperialism will do anything, whatever the consequences for the people. The U.S., as well as France or Great Britain, has proved it repeatedly. In 2003, Bush did not hesitate to start the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He accused him of owning weapons of mass destruction, a blatant lie.

For the Iranian population, the measures taken by the U.S. administration have catastrophic consequences. Trump is basically destroying the country’s economy. Crude oil exports have fallen from 2.6 million to 400,000 barrels a day. Oil accounts for about 80% of Iran’s state revenue, and Iran possesses the fourth largest oil reserve in the world. With the consequent deficit, President Hassan Rohani’s administration cannot fund the numerous public companies and institutions that make up over 60% of the state’s spending. Many economic sectors—such as housing and construction, the second most important activity after oil—are paralyzed, and the banking system is in shambles. That recession causes massive unemployment. Even for educated people, the employment situation is getting worse. One-third of men and half of the women under 30 with a university degree are jobless.

Inflation is nearing 40% a year. The prices for many foodstuffs are multiplied by two or three. Iranians tell of prices rising by 50% for fruits and vegetables, by 100% for meat. Many medicines are not to be found anywhere. Two official consumer price indices in Iran, by the Center for Statistics and the Central Bank, respectively reckon that prices rose by 5.4% and 6.1% in September 2018. Inflation has soared to 37.6% since March of 2019.

A number of reports have shed light on the deterioration of living standards for the petty bourgeoisie. One can only imagine what the popular classes endure, unheeded by the media, in the slums around the large cities. According to 2015 statistics, during these last years, 33,000 Iranian villages were abandoned by their population, fleeing destitution and settling on the outskirts of the big cities. The figure is telling, considering it represents a little over 50% of the whole village population in Iran. Iranian slums are reckoned to accommodate 11 million people, that is, the equivalent of half the village population who have run away from their lands and homes.

For the poorest, misery is getting worse with the renewed sanctions. According to a recent report by Iran’s Center for Statistics (ICS), the destitution index—an unofficial measure of the state of the economy, combining the rates of unemployment and inflation—has soared. It reached 39% last winter, while a year before it stood at 19.4%. Independent economists even reckon that unemployment and inflation are much higher, as in Iran working just one hour per week is considered as having a job. The monthly income for millions of workers is reported to be around $100, well below the country’s estimated poverty line. In 2018, the Iranian currency lost two-thirds of its value.

A fruit peddler said: “Everything is expensive, misery is everywhere (…) we can’t live. Meat is expensive, rice is expensive. We haven’t bought meat in a year. It’s getting worse every day. I think (…) there’s going to be a war.”

How Far Will Trump Go?

Over fifteen years after the invasion of Iraq, is Trump preparing a new Gulf War, this time against Iran, as a large part of the Iranian population no doubt fears? The propaganda that is broadcast in the U.S., but also in France, is always presenting the Iranian state as the bellicose regime. But Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that they are willing to undergo even more draconian nuclear inspections in exchange for scrapping the sanctions. However, they are in a blind alley. Although they do not want war, they cannot back off altogether from the U.S. challenge. President Rohani is compelled to show some resistance, especially as he has to deal with a number of clans within the regime, particularly the Pasdaran leaders, who are willing to take advantage of his weakened position.

Whether or not Trump and his entourage are determined to trigger a new war, the current escalation might still lead up to it. And U.S. leaders seem willing to run that risk anyway. Last May, invoking Iranian threats against American interests, without giving any more details, the U.S. government sent the aircraft carrier Lincoln and its accompanying fleet to the Persian Gulf. Exploiting the accusations made by its loyal allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and claiming that four oil tankers had been attacked in the Gulf, Trump sent another warship and a system of missile defenses, while threatening the intervention of 120,000 soldiers. In the Persian Gulf alone, the U.S. has long-established military bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which have enabled it to operate in Iraq since 2003. Thirty-five thousand soldiers are stationed in the Gulf countries’ U.S. bases. Other powers, including France, also have military bases in the Persian Gulf. The whole region is bristling with armaments of all kinds and soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, at the borders of Iran.

The world already has one foot in war. While the imperialist strongholds celebrate the peace they have enjoyed since the end of World War Two, for many peoples that period has never ceased to be marked by war. The Syrian people have lived under bombs for nearly eight years. And what about the situation in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Yemen, which has been bombed by Saudi Arabia since 2015 with support from the U.S., Great Britain, and France, all of which supply it with weapons?

When so much explosive material is accumulated, it only takes a match to blow it up. If a war began against Iran, it could expand and multiply war zones, bringing about catastrophic consequences for peoples across the planet. The only way for mankind to escape that fate is to overthrow the capitalist system.

“Under the constant pressure of capitalist decline, imperialist antagonisms have reached a point beyond which separate clashes and bloody local disturbances (Ethiopia, Spain, the Far-East, Central Europe) must inevitably coalesce into a conflagration of world dimensions […] Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole human civilization. Everything depends on the proletariat, i.e. chiefly its revolutionary vanguard,” wrote Leon Trotsky in the Transitional Program, in 1938, on the brink of World War II. The analysis is still valid.