The Spark

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

Iran-U.S. Relations:
Toward "Normalization"
– or Another War?

Jul 1, 2005

The following article has been largely excerpted from an article appearing in issue # 62 of Class Struggle, the magazine of Workers Fight, a British group, part of the Internationalist Communist Union.

The results of Iran's June presidential election, meant to replace Iran's "reformer" president Mohamed Khatami, surprised political commentators. There had been widespread predictions of low voter turnout after the regime's Guardian Council arbitrarily disqualified more than a thousand candidates, including all the women. And the opposition, both legal and illegal, had called for a boycott of the election. However, the election's first round on June 17th showed 62% of the electorate voting. Moreover, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, expected to be the winner, given the growing disillusionment with the "reformers," managed to win only 21% of the vote, even if he did come in first. Meanwhile, the candidate considered his closest rival, former higher-education minister Mostafa Moin, who was the main representative of the "reformer" camp, came in fifth.

Since no candidate won the absolute majority required by the country's constitution, a run-off election took place on June 24th between Rafsanjani and his nearest rival, a little known "hardline conservative." One of Iran's best-known clerics and politicians, Rafsanjani was predicted to be a sure winner, especially since most of the "reformer" camp had joined the regime's establishment to support him as the "lesser of two evils." However, once again, the political pundits were proved wrong. Rafsanjani's rival, Tehran's mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won with 62% of the votes.

The population of the slum areas of Tehran turned out in large numbers for both rounds of the election – but not as a voting bloc supporting the candidate of the "reformers," whom they had widely supported in earlier elections. The "reformers" had shown over eight years that they did not intend to stand up against repression from the Islamic state, nor against the parasitism of the profiteers. Moreover, starting in 2000, when they controlled both the presidency and the legislature, they had opened up the economy to imperialist companies and let a long list of state companies be privatized, with the backing of the "conservatives." These measures affected the working class considerably, through massive layoffs and a drastic worsening of working conditions. As for Rafsanjani – who had become the symbol of profiteering and corruption – the poor certainly did not come out to vote for him either. Instead, many in the first round, and most in the second, voted for Ahmadinejad, probably because he had promised to introduce a legal right to welfare provisions and said he would clamp down on profiteers.

The West's Hypocritical Lessons in "Democracy"

Practically before all the results were in, Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared, "Iran's presidential election shows the country is out of step with democratic reforms in the Middle East." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld condemned Iran's "mock election" for having inevitably produced a president who is "no friend of democracy."

Iran's Islamic dictatorship is certainly not "democratic" in any sense of the word, and least of all with regard to the poor masses. In its 26 years of existence, the Islamic regime built up a long record of bloody repression, oppression of women and ethnic and religious minorities, as well as corruption in every sphere of society.

But imperialist leaders are in no position to give Iran any lessons in democracy. From 1953 until 1979, the U.S. armed the corrupt dictatorship of the Shah of Iran against the Iranian population, until the Shah was overthrown by a popular explosion and finally replaced by today's Islamic regime. During the Iran-Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld, then Ronald Reagan's special envoy in the Middle East, provided U.S.-made "weapons of mass destruction" to another regional dictator,Saddam Hussein, helping him crush the young volunteers sent by Tehran to defend its borders. And during the 1980s and '90s, U.S. leaders accused Iran of aiding and abetting terrorism, citing its supposed links to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. At the very same time, ironically enough, the U.S. was aiding and abetting terrorist groups such as the Contras in Nicaragua, using the proceeds of undercover arms sales to Iran to do so!

Washington's speeches about democracy would be laughable were they not so hypocritical. Washington's best friend in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy, under which women have virtually no rights – not even to drive a car – and are constantly subjected to harassment and corporal punishment by a special "morality police." Did Rumsfeld, Rice or Bush criticize the Saudi monarchy for preventing women from voting in the first election ever held in the country earlier this year? No! Obviously U.S. leaders have no concern for the rights of women, democratic or otherwise, in Saudi Arabia or in Iran.

Condoleezza Rice may talk of so-called "democratic reforms in the Middle East." But what imperialism actually provides is gunboat diplomacy and terror bombings, twice against Iraq, and before that in Lebanon and Syria. The fairy tale about Middle East democracy is just a show for public opinion in the U.S. Meanwhile military aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq shows Bush's real imperialist policy.

How many more tens or hundreds of thousands of victims does this bogus "democratic process" require in the Middle East? How many more dead and wounded to satisfy the drive of Western imperialism to consolidate its stranglehold on the Middle East and to fulfill the greed of its multinationals.

U.S. "Containment" Policy toward Iran

Prior to the overthrow of the Shah in January 1979, the U.S. rested on three main pillars in the Middle East: Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel and Iran were in charge of policing the region and protecting the interests of Western companies, while Saudi Arabia was the main supplier of oil to the U.S. Not only did the overthrow of the Shah inflict a heavy blow to this arrangement, it also set a dangerous precedent: the Shah was overthrown by a popular uprising, which could have inspired the populations living under the region's many dictatorships to do likewise.

However, the revolution was hijacked by the fundamentalist clerics, helped by the Shah's repressive state machinery. The clerics crushed the aspirations of the Iranian masses, imprisoning them in a situation as repressive as that under the Shah. Moreover, the fierce anti-communism of the new regime proved itself an asset in this part of the Middle East, given the relations then existing between the USSR and various Middle Eastern regimes. These factors might have endeared the clerical regime to imperialist leaders.

On the other hand, the new Iranian leaders had come to power without the endorsement of the West, putting themselves at the head of the mobilized masses. As a result, the new regime had a social basis allowing it a certain degree of political independence from imperialism – and this made the new regime highly suspect in Washington. When, in addition, the Iranian leaders resorted to anti-U.S. demagogy in order to bolster their radical credentials among the population, going as far as to allow fundamentalist students to occupy the American embassy, holding 52 hostages for 444 days, Washington's suspicions turned into overt hostility.

Saddam Hussein stood ready to do Washington's dirty work. In September of 1980, Iraqi troops crossed into Iran with the tacit support of the imperialist powers. The ensuing eight-year war inflicted punishment on the Iranian population far harsher than what diplomatic and economic sanctions would have done. The Western intervention – direct, using their own military forces, or indirect, through arms sales to both sides – ensured that the war did not result in border changes, which could have affected the region's stability. Western intervention also guaranteed that neither Iraq nor Iran was victorious, thereby blocking the ambitions of each country to become the regional power. Both Iran and Iraq came out of the war in a state of catastrophic weakness, for which their populations still pay today.

But this was not the end of Iran's punishment. Although the regime was given funding through the IMF and World Bank and allowed to resume trade with the U.S., which had been Iran's most important trading partner, Washington maintained a diplomatic boycott of Iran. And U.S. companies were banned from importing Iranian oil.

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration further tightened the screws on Iran. While Iranian President Rafsanjani was proclaiming his aim to "reinsert Iran in the concert of nations," Clinton was embarking on the so-called "dual containment" policy against both Iraq and Iran, involving a large dose of scare-mongering and politicking. This policy reached a climax in 1995, when Iran was accused of developing nuclear weapons. U.S. companies were banned from any further financial or commercial operations with Iran, a sanction which was soon extended to non-U.S. companies.

The election of Bush Junior did not change this policy, even before he embarked on his "war on terrorism," following the September 11th attacks. In fact, the Iranian regime's supportive attitude toward the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan (and then of Iraq) did not stop Bush from including Iran in his "axis of evil" in a January 2002 speech.

Since then, the main focus of Washington's war of words has been Tehran's alleged "nuclear threat," according to a scenario reminiscent of Bush's campaign against Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction." Bush's recent rhetoric against Tehran even led to speculation that the U.S. could invade Iran at some point. While the quagmire in which U.S. troops find themselves in Iraq and the resulting unpopularity of the occupation in the U.S. make this less likely today, it can never be totally ruled out – although the 70-million-strong population of Iran could confront the imperialist leaders with far more serious problems than those they have experienced in Iraq.

Could the U.S. Normalize Relations with Iran?

In reality, there are important reasons why the U.S. might cautiously move to normalize relations with Iran, despite today's rhetoric.

From the standpoint of the imperialist world order, the oil-rich Middle East requires a power capable of acting as guarantor of Western interests, one that can police populations throughout the region. Israel, alone, can't do it, even if it had the resources to maintain a big enough military machine – which is not the case. Egypt, the next closest U.S. military auxiliary in the Middle East, is much too far away to play such a role, and its regime is probably not very stable either. Finally, the new U.S.-backed regime in Iraq, incapable of maintaining any kind of order at home, certainly can't be used any time soon as a regional policeman. In fact, it may not be able to prevent the breakup of Iraq itself.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. It is still the largest U.S. oil supplier and a pillar of the imperialist order. Yet it looks increasingly like a powder keg waiting to explode.

A number of new, independent countries have emerged following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most of these countries have large natural resources coveted by Western multinationals. But most of them are also politically unstable, ruled by brutal and corrupt dictatorships, with opposition forces among Islamic or fundamentalist currents, which are or could be influenced by Iran. Of course, U.S. leaders have been quick to trade economic aid to the former Soviet republics for U.S. military bases on their territories. While this sprinkling of U.S. forces may be enough to protect Western-controlled oil fields, they may not guarantee political stability.

In the long run, this leaves Iran as the only possible guarantor of the imperialist order in the region, as well as a potential source of considerable profits for imperialist companies.

The strategic regional importance of Iran has increased significantly since the overthrow of the Shah. Although still weakened by the consequences of the 1980-88 war, Iran has the largest population, economy, industrial infrastructure and, potentially, the largest domestic market in the Middle East. And today, its combined gas and oil reserves are estimated to be the second largest in the world.

A number of U.S. multinationals have already been lobbying Washington for a relaxation of sanctions against Iran and the opening of trade negotiations. U.S. oil companies and car manufacturers have expressed their displeasure at a policy that deprives them of significant access to Iran, while allowing an almost free ride to their European and Japanese rivals.

These factors may explain Bush's cautious approach to Iran despite his tough-sounding rhetoric. On the nuclear issue, for example, while making a point to refuse any direct contact with the Iranian leaders, Washington has allowed international institutions such as the U.N. nuclear watchdog to negotiate with Iran, along with the main European powers. As a result of these negotiations, Tehran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activity. In exchange, the world bodies are to initiate a process leading to Iran's admission to the World Trade Organization. This concession to the Iranian leaders could not have been made without Washington's agreement.

Of course, "the reinsertion of Iran in the concert of nations" requested by Rafsanjani 12 years ago is not likely to happen overnight. But it is more likely to happen now than ever before. If and when it does happen, however, it will only be on terms dictated by imperialism. And the Iranian leaders will have to give enough guarantees of their willingness to submit their policy to the rulers of the imperialist world order – in particular, by opening their country to looting by the multinational companies.

The main obstacle to this normalization will not be the regime's dictatorial character nor its theocratic nature. Western capitalists can live with that quite happily. In fact, they sleep far better when their exploitation of the poor masses is enforced by a dictatorship – bloody and reactionary it may be as long as it respects the interests of Western capital.

And What about Iran?

In most respects, the divisions which appear to exist between Iranian politicians merely reflect the ups and downs of the West's attitude to Iran. The so-called "conservatives" play the religious card as a way to assert their determination to keep both the political independence gained by Iran after 1979 and the social positions they have acquired in the state machinery. The so-called "reformers" use the lure of "democratic reforms" to introduce economic changes and canvas political support for a quick normalization of relationships with the West, through which they hope to improve their own social positions.

But these divisions are far more blurred than is made out by political commentators.

The case of Rafsanjani illustrates this point. One of the country's highest ranking clerics, Rafsanjani was among the leading figures of the Islamic Revolutionary Council in 1979, before becoming Ayatollah Khomeini's right-hand man until Khomeini died in 1989. He was then elected president for the two consecutive terms allowed. Then he became head of the shadowy Expediency Council, an unelected body, which acts as a referee between the regime's appointed Guardian Council and the elected bodies. In other words, Rafsanjani could impose the Guardian Council's decisions on the elected bodies. He is so close to the regime's leading clerical circles that the Guardian Council invalidated hundreds of thousands of votes in the 2000 election to ensure his election to parliament. In the end, Rafsanjani preferred to resign his seat rather than be elected by such obvious tricks.

However, Rafsanjani was also the first Iranian leader to break an official taboo: he publicly declared himself in favor of resuming normal relations with the West. In 1997, he was part of the coalition that elected Khatami, the figure-head of the "reformers" for the past eight years. Rafsanjani's own family clan has been involved in the "reformer" camp; they started the first legal paper for women since 1979 and set up a party aligned to the "reformer" camp....

There are social reasons for this blurred dividing line between "conservatives" and "reformers."

Today's Iranian ruling class comes from the ranks of the traditional class of traders and medium-sized businessmen,the so-called "bazaari" capitalists. These businessmen had been pushed to the side by the Shah's regime; they took part in its overthrow and pushed the religious hierarchy to the forefront in order to crush the mobilization of the masses. Having ruled the country for over a quarter of a century, these "bazaaris" have had plenty of time to increase their wealth by living as parasites off the state machinery, most importantly off the state sector of the economy.

Officially, this state-controlled sector accounts for as much as 50 to 70% of the economy depending on the estimates if one counts the "bonyads," or charitable foundations created from the assets confiscated after 1979. The assets of the Shah's family became the "Foundation of the Deprived," a charity which has turned into a giant industrial and service empire. Its revenues are comparable to the total tax revenues of the state.

This sector of the economy, although controlled by the state, is not opposed to private profit. Just the opposite. The entire sector is organized precisely to generate profits. There are an infinite number of ways by which private profiteers manage to milk the state-controlled cow. They get lucrative state-issued licences for the transport, distribution, import and export of certain products, or for the supply of all sorts of professional services to state enterprises, etc. But the largest source of private profit is probably the system of subcontracting in the state-controlled manufacturing sector (representing 60% of the value created in manufacturing). Private contractors are invited to take over entire workshops in a factory and run them as their own private businesses. The activities thus sub-contracted are still counted as part of the state-controlled sector, but they produce hefty profits for the sub-contracting bosses. Finally, there is another very common source of profits for the Iranian privileged classes – the embezzlement of public funds and outright theft of workers' wages.

So much for the Islamic Republic's claim to "morality"! Whether under the Islamic crescent or the stars and stripes, capitalism remains a system of organized theft against the poor!

In any case, the state sector has produced a class of extremely rich capitalists, the "bazaari." Rafsanjani is a case in point; his family clan has a business empire said to include everything from key positions in strategic state-controlled industries like mining, oil, engineering and TV networks to controlling positions in private companies in the car industry, airways, media, financial sector, etc.

These rich capitalists now aspire to new sources of profit, and they probably see a normalization of Iran's relationships with the West as the best way forward. Some of these capitalists may feel more dependent on their control over the state machinery, and therefore take a more cautious approach; others already in the quickly growing private sector may feel less threatened by such a change.

But overall, the Iranian capitalists share the same ambitions:to gain unlimited and uncontrolled access to the domestic economy on the one hand, and to the bounty of Western finance on the other. From this point of view, the "conservative" and "reformer" camps among politicians are primarily two faces of the same capitalist coin, reflecting the same perspective, and differing only over the details of how to achieve it.

All factions within the Iranian ruling class have shown they are ready to normalize their relationship with imperialism. If this normalization has not yet been achieved, this is primarily due to Washington's policy, rather than anything done by either the "conservatives" or the "reformers."

A Social Powder Keg Waiting to Explode

With its 70 million inhabitants, Iran has the largest population in the Middle East. With 65% of its population living in cities, it also has the largest urban population and the largest working class in the Middle East. Moreover part of its industrial working class is concentrated in very large production units, such as the factories of the giant car manufacturer Iran-Khodro, which builds local versions of Peugeot, Renault and Nissan models, as well as its domestic model cars, plus trucks and buses under a license from Mercedes, etc.

But the situation of the Iranian working class is rapidly deteriorating. The combined effect of the Iran-Iraq war, Western economic sanctions and corruption in the regime is causing what can only be described as a social catastrophe. This year the minister of welfare admitted officially that 10% of the Iranian population lived on less than $50 a month, unable to meet basic nutritional requirements; another 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. Living conditions for many are akin to those in the poorest Third World countries; huge numbers were forced to leave the countryside and joined the squatter camps around the main towns, either due to the Iran-Iraq war or to avoid starvation. The welfare minister admits that nearly 40% of the population live in what he euphemistically calls "unofficial settlements," which often lack the most basic facilities.

Over the past few years, the working class has been hard hit by the privatization and sub-contracting processes. Unlike many poor countries, Iran has a system of paternalistic employment laws, a result of the social weight and fighting traditions of the working class. Permanent workers have some degree of protection – at least when the bosses abide by the law, which is usually only when they are forced to do so by the workers themselves. But even that is too much for the employers. Increasingly, through the sub-contracting process, they have transformed workers into temps or even what is called "blank contractors," which amounts to being self-employed, with no rights and no guarantee of a minimum income.

Wages are very low, all the more so because of inflation. The minimum wage was set this year at $120 a month. Many employers do not even pay this minimum. But according to an interview released by the official Iranian Press Agency, the monthly rent of a basic workers' apartment in Tehran's slum tower blocks is $150. At a demonstration in Tehran, marchers carried banners protesting a wage of $70 a month. Official statistics for last year showed that one million workers were owed wages, sometimes more than a year's worth.

The Iranian working class is not taking these attacks lying down. Strikes, as well as independent workers' unions, are illegal. Only the state-controlled "Workers' House" and Islamic Councils are legal – and they are management bodies. But, according to reports published by the official news agency itself, there were 1,500 "anti-government protests" during the year ending in March, including 450 strikes in industry. Some of the strikes were long and involved large numbers of workers. There was a 50-day strike at the Sangroud coal mines. Most of the strikes concerned non-payment of wages, low pay, firings, lay-offs and the growing use of temporary workers.

The other "anti-government" protests included 330 strikes and protests by students, 110 by teachers and 550 protests of other kinds. This latter figure does not include the World Cup qualifying football match between Iran and Japan. In March, the sports event turned into an anti-government demonstration, with the Special Security Forces firing into the crowd, killing seven people. There were riots for hours afterwards in the streets of Tehran. Nor do official statistics include a sit-in staged by women outside a football match in Tehran against Bahrein, protesting the fact that women in Bahrein have been banned from sports stadiums since 1979.

The Iranian poor, and particularly the Iranian working class, have proved time and again that they have the capacity, the energy and the courage to change their own lives. Their two largest movements since World War II were eventually thrown back, but not before they showed the capacity of this working class. The first occasion was in 1953, when the U.S. and British leaders engineered a military coup which brought the Shah's dynasty into power. The second occasion was in 1979, when the working class was betrayed by the very left-wing parties that, after having led the fight against the Shah's regime for over two decades, ended up endorsing Khomeini's bid for power.

A large section of the generation of Iranian workers who brought down the Shah's dictatorship are still around, in their mid-forties. They have a whole fighting tradition and a wealth of experience to pass on to the large layers of youth who are joining the ranks of the Iranian working class. Together, aided by those prepared to choose the side of the proletariat rather than fall for the Western mirages of the "reformer" camp, these workers could build a genuine workers' party, a communist party, willing to take the lead of the working class in the name of its political interests, instead of surrendering this role to some ayatollahs, "reformers" or other representatives of today's system of capitalist exploitation. Then, and only then, will the Iranian working class have an instrument with which to break the stranglehold of the clerics and to build a future for itself and for the proletariat of the whole region.