The Spark

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

Does the Crisis in Iran and Afghanistan Signal the End of Detente?

Jun 30, 1980

When Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned recently, there was speculation that this cabinet shift represented a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy in the post-Viet Nam war era and the return of the kind of tense relations which existed during the Cold War.

The juxtaposition of the two policies had been posed previously in the conflict between Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser, and Vance. Vance’s resignation from the State Department fueled the rumors that Brzezinski had won out, and was steering Carter in a more war-like and anti-Soviet direction.

Carter has juggled his cabinet members as well as his images, depending on what suits his purposes at any particular moment. One time he is the human rights advocate, the conciliator, the man of temperance and reason, the peacemaker and dove. And the next he is the warrior, the hawk, the patriotic defender of American interests, the strong man, defender of the so-called free world against communism.

The resignation of Vance came on the heels of the helicopter mission to Iran. It came at a time when Carter was putting forth a new, tougher, more aggressive foreign policy image. And no doubt Vance’s resignation served Carter’s purposes in reinforcing this stance.

Carter wanted people to believe that he was taking a tougher line at the time for at least two reasons. First, he certainly does not want to appear as weak and helpless on the eve of the presidential elections, especially facing Reagan. Second, perhaps he hoped to warn other underdeveloped countries against following Iran’s example and attempting to defy imperialism. But beyond Carter’s own immediate reasons, do these changes signal the will of the American bourgeoisie to come back to the Cold War as the American press has been saying?

What Was the Cold War?

The Cold War was initiated in the post-World War II period as a means to cope with the continued existence of the Soviet Union. The U.S. wished to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its camp and its influence. The Cold War meant a continual intervention by the U.S. anywhere in the world to prevent this expansion. It meant a continual policing and menacing of the U.S.S.R.

As a result, imperialism also wished to prevent any emancipation struggles in the former European colonies which might precipitate these new countries into the Soviet camp. However, it didn’t oppose these movements in all cases. If the struggle did not seem to lead to the country joining the Soviet bloc, imperialism was willing to try to deal with the nationalist regime. But certainly in the majority of cases, it viewed the national liberation struggles as a part of the power struggle between itself and the Soviet Union.

While the Cold War policy overall was efficient for imperialism, it was not a total success. Both Cuba and China managed to get rid of regimes tied to imperialism’s wishes, and, in spite of a total blockade by imperialism, they managed to survive. Both countries ended up in the Soviet orbit.

The Cold War, despite its name, wasn’t the avoidance of war. In fact, the period was marked by a series of wars, large and small, whenever imperialism saw the necessity to send troops in to maintain the status quo. It was the case in Korea. It was once again the case in Viet Nam. It was this last war that brought down the policy of the Cold War and led to the initiation of a new policy–detente.

From Cold War to Detente via Southeast Asia

If the Cold War policy was abandoned in the late 1960s, it was the consequence primarily of the inability of the U.S. armed forces to win a decisive military victory over the Vietnamese people.

In Viet Nam in 1968, the U.S. was confronted with a dilemma. It could have continued to drag out the war and leave its troops there, with no more chance of a victory than it had had up until then. But to continue the war, the U.S. would have had to deal with the growing domestic opposition to the war, and also the developing anti-war sentiment in the armed forces. Imperialism did not like to entertain the prospects of continuing the war with no chance to win, and simultaneously of facing increasing problems at home. So it decided to withdraw the American army.

But imperialism feared that a defeat in Viet Nam could lead to a chain reaction in Southeast Asia. It feared that, if it withdrew its troops without some force to replace them, then it could face new problems in the region and even in other parts of the world.

The U.S. ruling class recognized that it needed to seek another means to solve the problems it faced in Viet Nam and in the world in general. This new policy, a policy that tried to move away from confrontation and military intervention, was called detente. Certainly, the policies of both detente and the Cold War are not completely opposed. If the U.S. now proposed to discuss, it certainly had not abandoned its possibility of intervening militarily, even if in a limited way, as it had in Viet Nam, nor of initiating a real direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Detente meant that the U.S. would now seek to work out its international problems–such as those in the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, or Africa–by attempting to discuss them and work out a deal with the Soviet Union.

Of course, no major policy shift is simply the result of one event. Detente is the most recent stage of an evolution. Even while the Cold War policy was still the dominant strain in U.S. foreign policy, in the early 1960s there had been a certain move towards a redefinition of the Soviet-U.S. relationship. This was symbolized by the Kennedy-Khrushchev talks and visits.

By 1968 the rupture of relations between the Soviet Union and China was an obvious fact. This gave imperialism more maneuverability in the world situation and the possibility to redefine its relations with both big powers, while playing on the rupture that existed between them.

This contributed to imperialism’s decision to abandon the Cold War and replace it with detente. Of course, it was Viet Nam that was the decisive factor and set the time table for the shift. But wishing to change and putting the new policy in place are two different problems. The Vietnamese had to suffer five more brutal years of war while imperialism sought to put in place a new framework for solving its problems.

To do this, imperialism initiated a new relationship with both the Russian bureaucrats and the Chinese rulers. This was the period of the Nixon trips to both Russia and China. Imperialism proposed in place of the former hostility that it had initiated against both regimes, that there would now be a more open cooperation, a collaboration to police the world. And imperialism wanted a settlement that went beyond Viet Nam alone. It wanted first for China to take over the principal policing of Southeast Asia, allowing the U.S. to remove its troops. If the Vietnamese war was to be brought to a close, imperialism wanted to be able to set up a framework for dealing with the other hot spots in the world that were potential dangers. This was the period of the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy, as the U.S. with Russia’s help began the process of trying to rationalize the situation in the Middle East and deal with the Palestinian problem. In the same period, the U.S. began to allow some visits to Cuba, and also began an exploration of ways to ameliorate the tension and conflicts in Korea, Germany and in Europe in general.

But while detente may have meant the lessening of international tensions, and the elimination of certain political and economic barriers that the U.S. had formerly placed in the path of the Soviet Union, it certainly did not mean the abandonment of the fundamental antagonism that imperialism has for the Soviet state. And while the U.S. was willing to discuss and to trade with the Soviet Union, it continued its preparations for war. While it signed arms treaties, it continued to produce arms and to maintain military bases around the world.

In the long run, and no one knows exactly how long this could be, the situation between Russia and imperialism will likely end in war. But in the 35 years since the end of World War II, U.S. imperialism has tried to avoid a direct military confrontation between itself and the Soviet Union. If there have been wars, they have been fought against intermediaries like in Korea or in Viet Nam. Of course in such cases, there is always the risk that the war could spill over and involve the rivals. But detente signifies that they want to avoid even this kind of risk and that both sides know the ground rules and can see behind the war-like words whether a real action is intended or not.

Is Iran the Crisis that Will Break Detente?

So far the usual channels provided for by the framework of detente have not been sufficient to deal with the problems caused by the overthrow of the Shah and the setting up of Khomeini’s regime. The U.S. has no ally which has the possibility of peacefully implementing a solution in Iran that is to imperialism’s liking; that is, the Soviet Union does not have the possibility of intervening and, through negotiations or pressure applied behind the scenes, of solving the problem for imperialism. The regime of the Ayatollah is as hostile to the Soviet Union as it is to imperialism.

So, the question has been raised about the possibility of a direct military intervention in Iran, either by a military proxy acting for imperialism, or by the entrance of U.S. troops into the conflict. Consequently, the question has also been raised whether this military intervention could call into question the policy of detente.

Iran, up until the Shah’s overthrow last year, was one of the most loyal outposts for imperialism in the world. The Shah was a supplier of oil, a guardian of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf-Middle East region. And his country shared a border with the Soviet Union and was a key post for U.S. military and intelligence operations. Because of all this, the U.S. spent billions to support the Shah. It helped build, equip and train his army and secret police.

The Shah’s regime was one of the most brutal regimes in the world. And this repression, linked to his support for imperialism’s draining off of the wealth of the Iranian people, led finally to a massive popular mobilization and to his eventual downfall. The U.S., however, continued to support him, even bringing him to the United States for medical treatment. It was this latter act which provoked the taking of the American hostages and brought on the current crisis.

If the student militants holding the hostages were isolated and lacked support in the Iranian population, Carter would have had a greater margin of choice. In such a situation, Carter could have ordered a much larger scale operation than the helicopter rescue mission. He could have ordered a land and sea invasion of Iran in order to rescue the hostages, and co-incidentally to get rid of Khomeini’s regime.

But Carter did not do this. Today the student militants enjoy the support of the majority of the Iranian people. It is because of this level of sympathy and the level of mobilization of the Iranian population that Carter cannot attempt such a grandiose mission.

A military intervention in Iran by the U.S. holds grave risks for imperialism: first, because such a war in Iran would have to be waged against the whole population; and, second, because there would be the potential to set off a conflict in the whole Persian Gulf area that could mobilize the whole Moslem population in the region in a war against imperialism. In the process, a number of regimes which are currently allied with imperialism could be toppled. Imperialism could become embroiled in a long and difficult war with little chance of victory.

If imperialism found itself caught up in a costly, unpopular military effort, the Soviet Union could remain on the sidelines as a spectator, or worse, from imperialism’s viewpoint, free to act elsewhere on its own, precisely because the U.S. would already be tied up in the Persian Gulf. In such a situation, imperialism might choose to extend the war, and even to attack the Soviet Union. At that point, it would not be a question of a new Cold War, but of World War III.

It is because of such a possibility that the situation in Iran could call detente into question. But so far today, we have seen Carter hesitate to take any military action to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Carter can see only too well the potential risks with such a move. It is why Carter waited so long before attempting the rescue mission. It is why he called it off when several helicopters failed. It is why he tried to explain it away as a humanitarian gesture and not a military act. And it is why on the whole Carter has limited himself to angry words or changes in his cabinet but has refrained from any action that could imply a new policy or effect a change in the relations with the U.S.S.R.

Or Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan even more perhaps than in Iran, one can see the potential of a new tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. In Iran, a military intervention is only a possibility; in Afghanistan, Russian troops are already in place. Here imperialism and the U.S.S.R. are caught up in a situation not completely of their own making and certainly not totally within either their separate or mutual control.

The Soviets thought they could go into Afghanistan quickly and decisively strangle the opposition and set up a new regime.

If the U.S.S.R. had been able to enter Afghanistan and quickly strangle its victim, like it did in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, imperialism would not have bothered much about it. The U.S. government could simply make a moral condemnation like it had in the earlier incidents and let it go.

The Russians took advantage of the fact that imperialism’s attention was focused on Iran and calculated that it could move into Afghanistan without much chance of a repercussion that would change the status quo. And, in a certain sense, the invasion was not opposed by imperialism because it was somewhat convenient for it in relation to its problems in Iran. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets might also have been able to prevent the rebellion of the Islamic peoples from spreading from Iran and Afghanistan. And it changed the image of the Soviet Union into that of a conqueror. So the invasion would not have posed a problem for imperialism, provided that the Russians had done their work both quickly and completely.

But this is not the case today. So far, the Afghanistan victim has refused to die. Instead, it is continually crying out for help. The more this goes on, the more the opportunity to embarrass the U.S.S.R. presses on the U.S. The longer it lasts, the more imperialism could be tempted to support the Afghani people in their struggle against the Soviet Army, and force the Soviets to be tied up in a long and politically costly war.

So far, this has not been the choice of imperialism. Carter and his spokesmen have limited themselves to symbolic gestures and critical statements about how disgusting and terrible the Russians are. The cancellation of their participation in the Moscow Olympics and their refusal to sell the Soviets wheat are examples of their policy. They are hardly an indication that detente is finished–at least for the time being.

Today, in spite of all the tough talk, the U.S. has not yet initiated a change of policy. Today, certainly, there is a lot of talk about abandoning detente and entering a new Cold War. It is because today there are elements in the military and political ruling circles in the U.S. who want more military spending. It is easier to justify such an expense, particularly in the light of the current inflation and unemployment, if there is a tense international situation. It is easier to get the American public to swallow a swollen defense budget if they believe U.S. interests are in danger. But U.S. imperialism does not seem to have decided to abandon detente.

Of course, the possibilities for war always exist. This is in the nature of a world dominated by imperialism which seeks to exploit and oppress the peoples of the world and to crush the Soviet Union. And, especially if we have a deepening of the world economic crisis, the U.S. could look to war as the solution.

But, in any case, we can say for sure, for a fundamental change to take place in U.S. foreign policy, it will take more than the wish of Carter for a tough guy image to win a presidential election. And it will involve more than a change in the members of the cabinet.