The Spark

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

United States and Iran:
The Calculations of Imperialism Behind their Agreement

May 20, 2016

This is a translation of an article in issue #176, June 2016, of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), a Trotskyist group in France.

This past January 16th, the deal on Iran’s nuclear program went into effect, allowing for most of the international sanctions against Tehran to be lifted. This agreement had been finalized in July 2015 by the foreign affairs ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as well as those of Russia and China, and their Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The media rushed to label this an historic event, coming as it did after forty years of official break in diplomatic relations.

The desire of U.S. imperialism to reintegrate Iran into its diplomatic game does constitute a real change. The imperialist powers have always been ready to re-establish ties with states that could assure their domination in the world, especially in this region of the Middle East with a growing instability. They have been equally disposed to break with those who reveal themselves not to be docile enough. It has been this constant preoccupation that has guided their policy towards Iran for the past century.

When Iran Was the Enforcer of Imperialism

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the imperialist powers, starting with Great Britain and then the United States, turned their attention to making Iran into an effective overseer of their interests in the region. The country was rich in oil and occupied an important strategic position on the Persian Gulf. Reza Khan, the first Shah (Persian for king) of the Pahlavi dynasty, established a military dictatorship there in 1925 that allowed for the protection of British oil interests. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who came to power in 1941, quickly proved himself to be just as devoted to imperialism as his father.

In 1951, the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized the oil industry, which had been in the hands of Anglo-Iranian Oil, the ancestor of British Petroleum (BP). This action by Mossadegh, a bourgeois nationalist, provoked an open confrontation with the British government. The British government reacted by organizing a general embargo of Iranian oil exports. The United States at first decided to remain neutral and even encouraged the British to accept the nationalization, all while trying to negotiate an amicable arrangement. However, faced with strikes and demonstrations in support of the oil nationalization, the U.S. leaders finally decided that Mossadegh was creating a dangerous political instability. They feared that the mobilization of the working class would only continue to grow. Moreover, in this period of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, they worried that Iran would pass to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Therefore, working with the British, the U.S. leaders supported an Iranian general with the help of the CIA and the British secret services in carrying out a coup on August 19th, 1953, reinforcing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the throne, and arresting Mossadegh. The violent repression carried out against the working class and the militants of the Communist Party, the Tudeh, silenced them. The CIA’s role in the coup d’etat was only admitted many years later: U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright made a reference to it in 2000.

The United States profited from the occasion in order to take control of the Iranian oil industry from the British. From that point on, the United States helped the Shah to consolidate his dictatorship by establishing a durable instrument of repression. With the CIA’s help, the Iranian state created a secret police, the SAVAK, in 1957. This secret police, which became the backbone of the state, was trained to inspire terror in the population and it systematically practiced torture. The officers of the Iranian army received training in the United States, as well as in Israel, benefitting from the experience of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad. Iran became the major purchaser of U.S. arms. Between 1953 and 1973, the Shah purchased about five billion dollars in U.S. weapons. This deal had not only an economic interest but moreover a political one for the United States. The U.S. administration wanted to be able to count on the Iranian army to make an intervention if it became necessary, without having to resort to sending its own troops.

The U.S. leaders could therefore rely on a regime capable of silencing any opposition and of defending its interests in the region. In this way, Iran acted as an enforcer of imperialism for 25 years, assuring its control over the Persian Gulf after Great Britain withdrew its forces at the beginning of the 1970’s.

1979: From the Uprising of the Poor and Laboring Classes to the Installation of the Islamic Republic

The Shah’s regime appeared for decades to be a solid rampart against the peoples of the region, and it mattered little to the U.S. leaders that hundreds of thousands of Iranians were rotting in prisons or became victims of the SAVAK. The Democratic president Jimmy Carter had certainly made statements about the need to defend human rights at the moment of his election in 1976, which had the effect of inspiring some hope among those opposed to the Shah. However, one year later, the economic concessions that the Iranian ruler made – freezing the price of oil and buying nuclear power stations – put all the talk of human rights on the back burner.

Everything was going along smoothly for the imperialist world until the revolutionary uprising of the poor and working classes in 1978–1979, which would put an end to the Shah’s dictatorship.

In the middle of the 1970’s, the regime was forced to confront the consequences of the global economic crisis. In 1977, oil exports fell by nearly 30%, damaging state revenues. Inflation accelerated. From 1975 to 1977, the cost of living rose by 200%. When a certain number of major public projects came to a halt, the number of unemployed shot up. Real estate speculation heightened the rise in rents, forcing a large part of the poor population to cluster into the slums built in the unsanitary zones situated around the outskirts of the capital. In 1977, clashes broke out between the police forces and the inhabitants whom the regime wanted to kick off the land that it deemed unfit for construction. And for its part, the commercial middle class, called the Bazaari, which constituted an important economic, political, and social force in Iran since at least the 18th century, began to be unhappy with the regime. They did not benefit from the oil windfall. This traditional merchant petty bourgeoisie felt itself to be even more injured in so far as the Shah blamed it for the rise in prices. Thousands of these merchants were hit with fines or deported from their villages, when the regime did not put them in prison. The Shah also turned a large portion of the Shiite clergy against him by reducing the official subsidies for the maintenance of mosques and Koranic schools and by imprisoning or even killing certain mullahs.

In 1978, demonstrations broke out that demanded the departure of the Shah. The army violently repressed them. But this did not discourage the demonstrators, who steadily increased in number. The revolt gradually reached the major Iranian cities. The working class, which represented between 1.5 and 2 million people, entered into the struggle on the side of the rest of the poor masses, not only by participating in the demonstrations, but also on its own terrain, in the factories, by going on strike. When the oil workers joined the fight in the autumn of 1978, this had a major impact. There were strikes in the steel plants, in the tractor factories, and in the coal mines. These spread to all branches of production. On October 18th, 1978, the workers in Iran’s largest oil refinery, the Abadan refinery, stopped work. However, no political party proposed a policy that would have allowed the working class to take the head of the movement. And it was the Shiite clergy, with the support of the great mass of the merchants of the Bazaar, who had always financed it, and the supreme Shiite leader, a certain Khomeini, who was in exile at the time, who took the head of the working masses in revolt.

Neither the declaration of martial law nor the repression of the demonstrations succeeded in bringing the movement to a halt, including the massacre on September 8th, 1978, when the army killed 4,000 people by firing on the crowd assembled at Jaleh Square in Tehran. In the beginning of 1979, the Shah hoped to defuse the anger of the population by appealing to an elite member of the bourgeoisie, Shapour Bakhtiar, to form a civilian government. But on January 11th, it was Washington that announced the Shah’s flight abroad. The United States, which had continued to unconditionally support the dictator up until that point despite the bloody repression, tried to put out the flames by sending him out of the country. On January 19th, a demonstration called by Khomeini from exile to demand the departure of Bakhtiar and the establishment of an Islamic republic brought three million people to the streets of Tehran. Then, on February 1st, the return of Khomeini to Iran, facilitated by the United States, led to another human outpouring of several million people.

Before his return, Khomeini had in fact been in contact with representatives of the United States and high officers in the Iranian military in order to negotiate a gentle transition of power. The U.S. representatives had worked behind the scenes in order to maintain the unity of the military and to bring the Iranian generals around to the idea of an Islamic republic. They wanted to avoid at any price the collapse of this pillar of the Shah’s regime that was the army, at a moment when the masses were mobilized and beginning to organize.

The insurrection of February 9th, 10th, and 11th of 1979 in Tehran finally forced Bakhtiar to concede his place to the government proposed by Khomeini and headed by Bazargan. On February 12th, the monarchy was abolished in Iran. The main priority of the Islamic republic that emerged from this period of agitation and intense political mobilization was to restore order. It did not have an easy time doing this, since the mobilization of the poor classes continued for several months after the revolution. The working class would be forced to endure a dictatorship even more harsh than that of the Shah.

The Seizure of Hostages and the Break in Relations with the United States

It was in this context that the events of November 4th, 1979 broke out. Student partisans of the Islamic regime occupied the U.S. embassy, taking 52 U.S. civilians and military personnel hostage in order to demand the extradition of the Shah from New York to Iran. This incredible feat appeared as a spectacular challenge. During the 444 days that this crisis lasted, large anti-U.S. demonstrations swept the entire country. Khomeini had not foreseen this event at all – he had even tried to prevent any anti-U.S. actions of this kind. Finally, he settled into the role when it became clear that his own power was reinforced by this national unanimity of opposition to the United States. Even so, this event definitively spelt the end of the good relations between the two countries. On April 7th, 1980, the United States broke all diplomatic relations with Iran and enacted economic sanctions.

If the regime has become an international pariah, it is not because it is led by the ayatollahs. Imperialism has always known how to rely on the most reactionary regimes in order to safeguard its interests. The close relations that U.S. and European imperialisms have kept with Saudi Arabia constitute the proof of this. However, any regime, no matter how reactionary or dictatorial it is, can still pose problems for imperialism, as can be seen today with those brought into being by the sudden rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

What the U.S. ruling class could not accept was the drive for independence that the Iranian religious leaders showed. If Khomeini had overtly opposed the United States, even while not joining the Soviet side of the Cold War, it was not because he was an anti-imperialist. His ambition was to make Iran into a first-rate regional power with the aid of political Islam, hoping thus to gain some popular support from the Shiite Muslim world.

However, the defense of the interests of the multinational corporations, in this part of the world so rich in oil, requires regimes faithful to imperialism and ready to submit to its orders. The Iranian regime did not fit back into this framework. It was therefore necessary to domesticate it. The task was not easy. The religious hierarchy propelled to the head of the state apparatus forged under the Shah’s reign was always supported by the class of Bazaaris, linked to the commercial sector and to small-scale production, which formed the bulk of the traditional Iranian bourgeoisie. The mullahs had been brought to power on the wave of a powerful popular uprising. The regime had solid bases.

1980–1988: The Iran-Iraq War

The United States needed to find a force capable of weakening the new Iranian regime. And Saddam Hussein was the one to offer imperialism the solution it was looking for when, in September 1980, he declared war on Iran. By invading Iran, Saddam Hussein openly placed himself in the camp of the imperialists, rendering them a great service. Because of this, the United States supported him behind the scenes. When he used chemical weapons, no one protested. Recently declassified CIA documents prove that Washington knew perfectly well what he was doing.

This war between Iran and Iraq was a real bloodbath, the kind of attrition warfare that was seen in World War One. It would last for eight years, causing about one million deaths and bringing about enormous suffering for the populations of both countries. Hundreds of thousands of men, including many who were very young, were gassed or permanently disabled. In Iran, millions of people were displaced, since most of the combat took place on Iranian soil. These eight years were on the other hand quite prosperous for the arms manufacturers of the imperialist countries. France was not one to be outdone, selling weapons to both sides. There was no winner in this war besides imperialism, which killed two birds with one stone, profiting from the way it weakened Iraq as well as Iran.

The Iranian president Rafsanjani, elected in 1989, tried to renew ties with the United States in the hope of restarting an economy ruined by war. In 1994, the U.S. oil giant Conoco received the first contract for Iranian oil granted to a foreign company since the revolution.

But Israel, the unfailing supporter of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, was bitterly opposed to this reconciliation. In the 1960s, in order to counterbalance the weight of the Arab states, Israel had looked to move closer to Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. This attitude of the Israeli leadership persisted after the Iranian revolution. In the 1980s, Israel had even pressured the United States to reestablish relations with Iran. However, ten years later, Israel had made a 180-degree turn in policy. Iran became enemy number one, accused of supporting terrorism and looking to acquire nuclear weapons. The U.S. ruling class needed to take into account Israel’s fear of seeing the recognition of a regime that could exercise a real influence in the ranks of the Palestinians on its own territory and in Lebanon. The U.S. was also forced to acknowledge the fact that the Arab regimes felt threatened by the Muslim fundamentalism that the Iranian regime inspired. And the regional equilibrium between Iraq and Iran posed real problems for the U.S. Iraq had just suffered defeat in the First Gulf War, and U.S. imperialism needed to avoid having this defeat reinforce Iran’s position. In 1995, U.S. president Bill Clinton decided to impose a commercial and financial embargo on Iran, under the pretext that the country had “broadened its role as an inspiration and paymaster to terrorists.” He signed a decree banning U.S. oil companies from participating in the development of Iranian oil resources, which put an end to Iran’s contract with Conoco.

In the years that followed, Iran tried numerous times to obtain an end to the sanctions in exchange for certain services rendered to imperialism. But in 2002, Bush placed Iran on the list of countries in the “Axis of Evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea. And the election in 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, signaled the return of Iran’s bellicose policy of criticizing the “Great Satan” of the United States. The new president feared that Iran would become the next target of the United States after Iraq, which the U.S. army continued to occupy after having defeated Saddam Hussein.

The Chaos Engulfing the Entire Middle East Changes the Playing Field

The increasingly chaotic evolution of the situation in the Middle East is today pushing U.S. leaders to try to reestablish relations with the Iranian state. Iraq has been sinking into chaos and war between religious or ethnic militias since the start of the war waged by U.S. imperialism in 2003. Since 2014, a section of Iraqi territory has been in the hands of jihadists of the Islamic State (IS). The puppet government put in place in Iraq by the United States is at the head of an imploding country. And since 2011, Syria has been beset by a war between armed bands – those of the regime of Bashar alAssad and those of different jihadist groups, including ISIS. And the chaos continues to spread well beyond, including into Libya and Yemen.

Iran is one of the rare Middle Eastern governments whose stability is still intact. Moreover, its state apparatus is granting financial and military support to the Shiite Islamist militias who oppose those of the Islamic State in Iraq. The elite corps of Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, are equally active in Iraq and Syria, as is the Lebanese Hezbollah, financed by Iran. In the eyes of U.S. imperialism, Iran constitutes a possible means to stabilize Iraq and beyond.

However, normalizing relations with this country is not without obstacles, due to the clashes between regional powers. Each one among them continues to play its own political game in order to become the main regional power. The United States wants to rely on Iran but also does not want to anger its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. “A few years ago, our allies did not pose the same problems of consistency for us. They were following the main lines of our actions and we knew to give them enough slack to not force them into complete docility. Today we are continually forced to reconcile contradictory positions,” regretted one U.S. diplomat.

Even while it is not the main reason, the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran also opens to capitalists the promising market that is Iran, home to 80 million people. Many delegations of foreign firms have already rushed into the country, almost as soon as the accord took effect. Since the end of last January, the French government has received the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in Paris in the presence of Pierre Gattaz, the head of the French bosses’ confederation. This was a rather profitable meeting, since 15 billion euros worth of commercial agreements were signed, including a contract with Airbus for the purchase of 118 planes. For the moment, the United States has not yet lifted all the barriers. The U.S. is still keeping available several means to put economic pressure on Iran. For this reason, Washington is still banning all transactions with Iran carried out in dollars. The International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a federal law dating back to 1977, allows the president of the United States to restrict commercial relations with certain countries. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a powerful economic strong-arm of the United States, regularly updates a list of people and companies with which it recommends that no one have any relation, for example. This list targets most notably those businesses linked to the Revolutionary Guards, directly linked to the “Supreme Guide of the Revolution,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

One thing is certain: in all of these dealings, the interests of the populations are totally absent. There is no issue made of human rights in Iran, even though these are respected no more today than when the United States first broke off relations. There is nothing but silence about the executions by hanging, the imprisonment of opposition activists, and the repression of strikes. As for any hope of relief that the population may see in the political and economic opening, this will not exist for the poorest among them.

The history of relations between Iran and the United States illustrates how all of these calculations and shifts in alliances, all of these maneuvers that consist of playing on rivalries between certain powers and others, are a fundamental part of imperialist policy. The imperialist leaders carry out an empirical policy which they modify as the relations of force change. It has only one goal: to preserve a regional status quo stable enough to guarantee the profits of the multinational corporations and to allow them to continue to pillage the natural resources of the region. But at each stage, at each intervention, in one sense or another, imperialism leaves flammable material in its wake. This policy has marked the entire Middle East for decades. And it will only come to an end once the working classes and the poor, who are its victims, decide to put an end to this system.