The US, Iran, Russia-Syria and the geopolitical shift: Anything for the region’s oppressed?

In recent weeks and months, a pronounced geopolitical shift in US policy related to the Middle East has been widely discussed. This shift consists mainly of the US-Russia deal with Syria’s Assad regime to get rid of its chemical arsenal, in exchange for the US dropping its brief threat of air strikes over Assad’s chemical attack on August 21; and the high-level US-Iran negotiations over its nuclear arsenal, which led to a new agreement, involving a slight reduction on imperialist sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iranian concessions on its civilian nuclear program.   

 In a very general sense, it is a good thing to reduce tensions. In the Syrian case, if it headed off potentially catastrophic US “punishment strikes” on Syria, it can be called the lesser evil at that particular moment, but at that moment only; in the Iranian case, if it reduces (and eventually leads to the abolition of) imperialist sanctions on Iran, which cripple the ordinary people but do little to hit the theocracy, then that is certainly a good thing.

 It is even more a good thing if it moves the region further away from the possibility of a US or Israeli attack on Iran over their bogus claim of an Iranian nuclear weapons program; it would even be better if both the Syrian and Iranian processes exposed Israel as the only state in the region with a massive nuclear weapons’ arsenal and made it more difficult for Israel to maintain it, an unlikely outcome at this stage however. Finally, to the extent that regional tensions of a sectarian nature are reduced (if this were to be the effect, which is doubtful), then that should also be welcome.

At the same time we ought to remember that the US isn’t reducing tensions to please the international left and progressive and anti-war movements, still less as a concession to the oppressed in the region, but for the sake of imperialist stability, something badly disrupted by the Arab Spring and the ensuing genuine people’s revolutionary movements, not only by the sectarian and geopolitical tensions which often overlay this.

 Before looking at this, it is first worthwhile understanding how genuine these moves are. Three recent revelations underline this.

 First, the revelation that the US and Iran, whatever the public displays, had been secretly engaged in these negotiations for many months before they became public, and the US had not only not shared this information with the Saudis, but also not even with Israel, the local white racist outpost that expects the US to only do things in consultation with it. These talks were going on during the period since early 2013 when Iran was drastically stepping up its military support to the Assad regime’s savage war against its people: http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.559788

 Second, the revelation that the US government had been well aware that the Assad regime had used small amounts of chemical weapons over the last year and “had watched the regime carry out about a dozen small-scale chemical attacks before the big one,” the whole time suppressing the information, seeing it as essentially routine, while also denying opposition requests for provision of gas masks. In addition, US and Israeli intelligence had intercepted Assad regime communications from three days before the massive August 21 attack, but “had not yet translated them,” but officials claimed that even if they had been translated, “they likely wouldn’t have acted because there were no indications it would be out of the ordinary”:

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303914304579194203188283242

Third, perhaps the most surprising, though hardly after the last two were revealed: the UK has been mediating indirect secret talks between US and Hezbollah over a number of months, reportedly dealing with “the fight against al-Qaida, regional stability and other Lebanese political issues” and “are aimed at keeping tabs on the changes in the region and the world, and prepare for the upcoming return of Iran to the
international community” (http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Report-London-is-mediating-indirect-secret-talks-between-US-and-Hezbollah-333245).

On the other hand, understanding how genuine these geopolitical moves are should not be understood to mean the US is doing a complete shift and is about to dump its traditional allies, such as the Gulf monarchies, let alone Israel. Rather, the US is simply doing what it does best: looking after its strategic interests, not subservient to anyone. It will maintain its geopolitical alliances, and adopt new ones as it sees fit; if older allies complain, tough. 

 The US overtures to Iran and positive Iranian response have to be understood as part of a long-term process of bringing the relatively powerful Iranian bourgeoisie back into the fold – militarily, diplomatically and economically (http://eaworldview.com/2013/11/iran-spotlight-western-oil-companies-tehran-ready-make-deals) – where it always belonged. It has clearly been useful in the post Cold War era for the US and Israel to use Iran, as part of using “Islamic fundamentalism” (whether Shia or Sunni or both) as a scarecrow to replace “communism” in order to maintain a permanent war threat in the region, sell lots of weapons, feed the masses with irrational fear of an “enemy” and so on. Despite this, the fact remains that Iran is a very capitalist state, and as such, there has been nothing about the Iranian bourgeoisie for decades, since its very bloody suppression of the revolution there in the 1980s, that necessarily stands in fundamental conflict with imperialism.

Certainly, Iran’s relationship with imperialism has been of an antagonistic nature to an extent that appears qualitatively greater than conflicts such as those, for example, that have pit Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies against imperialism, such as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, or Saudi anger with Washington today. I would argue, however, that the difference is quantitative, even if the “quantity” is significant. To some extent there is the grandstanding of a powerful and growing Iranian national bourgeoisie, which can have its own tactical conflicts with greater imperialist interests; and specifically, the interests of this rising bourgeoisie often clashes with the interests of more powerful rival regional bourgeoisies, particularly those of the Gulf, which have had Washington’s favour for a protracted period. However, the greater power of the Gulf bourgeoisie, and Washington’s long-term relationship with it, does not necessarily mean that Washington must always favour this bloc as if such an alliance is as fundamental as its alliance with Israel. It is not. In fact, when the Gulf bourgeoisie throws its weight around too much, that might be precisely the point at which the US looks to balance this by bringing in a lesser, but rising, Iranian rival.

In fact, it is not just over Syria that the US and Saudi Arabia have blown apart (despite the fantasies of a lot of the left that they are allied over Syria); they have also long had a different perspective over Iraq, given that it was the US that essentially brought the Shia-led Maliki regime to power, which the Saudis viewed as facilitating an Iranian regional victory, while the Saudis actively back rival Sunni-led forces there. Indeed, since the Saudis played such a prominent role in mobilizing Sunni forces into the ‘Sawha’ (Awakening) militias to defeat Al-Qaida in Iraq, they expected a better deal from Washington. This article looks at how active this conflict still is:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/25022013-saudi-arabia-and-qatar-ratcheting-up-sectarian-and-ethnic-tensions-in-iraq-oped

It is in US interests to shift the balance of power around between such regional heavy-weight bourgeoisies with their clashing regional projects. The assertions sometimes made in tabloid-left analyses that there exists a solid, long-term US “pro-Sunni” bias are superficial to put it mildly. If anything it was distinctively “anti-Sunni” for a time after 9/11; and Iranian and US interests partially coincided over the US invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, precisely the subsequent Iranian/”Shiite” advances in Iraq and Afghanistan along with Hezbollah’s moment of glory in 2006 may have shifted the US tilt back to “Sunni” powers after that.

We need to understand such “Sunni” and “Shia” blocs as representing the attempts by powerful regional “sub-imperialist” forces to project their geopolitical interests in the region under these ideological covers; at the same time we also need to understand that there is nothing absolute about them, and that there are vast differences within each alleged “bloc.” For example, the “Sunni” bloc consists of a Qatar/Turkey/Muslim Brotherhood bloc, a Saudi/GCC (except Qatar) monarchial bloc, and an Al-Qaida bloc (largely privately funded by sections of the Gulf bourgeoisie opposed to the narrow monarchial regimes), and all are mutually hostile, in addition to other secular regimes in Sunni-majority states outside any of these frameworks, eg Gaddafi’s Libya. The “Shia” bloc is also divided; while currently the “Alawite”-led regime in Syria is conveniently classed as “Shia” to ideologically justify the Iranian and Hezbollah alliance, before the Arab Spring, the Assad regime’s closes allies in the region were Qatar and Turkey (and both, along with Saudi Arabia, initially came out strongly in support of Assad when the Syrian uprising began), while different Shia blocs inside Iraq have differing perspectives on regional issues.

But the Arab Spring – the revolutionary uprising of the Arab masses – has been overwhelmingly a Sunni-based affair; and at a similarly fundamental level, the Palestinian population are overwhelmingly Sunni. That obviously does not mean the US wants to shift all support to an Iranian/Shia bloc; that would be entirely counterproductive from the point of view of quelling the Sunni-based uprisings. But it does perhaps mean it is time for more balance of power, especially given the situation in Syria.

The Syrian situation is perhaps the most widely misunderstood in this regard. Both the Saudis and Iranians see it in sectarian/geopolitical terms; the US sees it as requiring the victory of counterrevolution. Of course the Saudis and Iranians also want counterrevolution, naturally enough, but it matters to each how it happens. The US preference for either continuing bloodshed to weaken all sides, or a restabilisation involving the core of the current Assad regime (perhaps without Assad himself) but broadened to include some bourgeois opposition figures, both represent outcomes based on balance. In fact, most likely the first followed by the second.

And both these US preferences represent the Israeli interest, that is, the interest of the US’s main ally in the region that has no love for either Muslim-based project getting too powerful. For Israel, and thus for the US, if Sunni and Shia jihadists are fighting it out and bleeding each other in Syria, and sucking in the energies of Iran and the Arab states, then that’s OK for Israel.

But ultimately even for Israel, as for the US, restabilisation is necessary. And this can only occur with the core of the current regime in one way or another maintaining power. And the irony of the current situation is that, while on a regional level Israel’s saber-rattling has long been directed against distant Iran and the pretence that it has nuclear weapons which threaten Israel (something they know is a lie), on the more local level Israeli and Iranian interests partly coincide in Syria, much more so than either do with Saudi/Gulf interests. I know that this is disputed (and certain individual Israeli leaders have said different), but at a fundamental level it is true – they both prefer the Assad regime, or some modification of it, over a victory EITHER of secular, democratic revolution OR Saudi-aligned Sunni Islamists OR Sunni jihadists a la Al-Qaida, OR any combination of these, especially if any of those alternatives were to come anywhere near the Israeli-stolen Syrian Golan Heights – which the Assad regime has protected without a shot being fired in 40 years, a policy Israel does not trust any of the alternatives to continue with.

 It may be objected that the growing dependence of Assad on Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia gangs and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 2013 now equalizes the two sides in Syria from the point of view of Israeli interests. To some extent this is true. But as long as Hezbollah is bloodily wasting its cadres and resources in Syria rather than in Lebanon or anywhere near the borders of Israel, then that suits Israel very well. Israel’s occasional attacks have very clearly been directed against shipments of advanced Iranian weapons from Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon, never against Hezbollah using its weaponry to kill Arabs in Syria. This factor merely means Israeli preference for both sides fighting on and bleeding each other is enhanced. But it in no way changes the Israeli preference, stated repeatedly over the last three years, for at least the main core of the Assad regime to remain in power to prevent a victory of any combination of opposition forces. 

 This was explained recently by Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University, one of Israel’s best-known academic experts on Syria and Lebanon and the former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies:

“At first, Israel wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, thinking it was “the devil we know” and fearing the spread of chaos along the border. Then Israeli leaders came to the conclusion that Assad is finished. But then they became aware of the presence of al-Qaeda elements in Syria, like the rebel Nusra Front. So now the real position—not the official one—is that we wish both sides good luck and that it is in the interest of Israel that they continue fighting. Essentially, we want Assad to stay in power. We want him to be strong enough to keep the border quiet but weak enough so he will not present any real threat to Israel” (http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53831).

This highlights an important difference between current Israeli and Saudi opposition to Washington’s current strategy, involving the nuclear dealing with Iran and the chemical dealing with Assad and Russia. Saudi Arabia views Iran through the prism of Syria (and other regional conflicts where Saudi-Iranian rivalry are played out, such as Iraq and Bahrain, but principally Syria at the moment); whereas Israel, on the odd occasions when it puts on its hawkish rather than dovish face over Syria, is viewing Syria through the prism of Iran.

 That is, for Saudi Arabia, the US-Russia deal over Syria, essentially aimed at bolstering Assad, after the Saudis had invested so much in publicly helping the Syrian opposition (indeed the secular opposition, the SMC and SNC, which they had actually helped much more than Washington had wanted them to), made them feel they were being laughed at in the face by Washington; the Saudis were thus already furious about this before the onset of US dealing with Iran consolidated the idea that Washington was presenting Iran with a regional victory. Thus Saudi Arabia has reacted by “going its own way” in Syria. On the actual nuclear deal with Iran, as opposed to the geopolitical shift behind it, the Saudis are not so concerned; indeed, the official statement by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states gave it cautious support as the beginnings of comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear program; moreover, both Saudi Arabia (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/11/25/Riyadh-Solution-on-Iran-needs-goodwill-.html) and Qatar (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/11/25/Qatar-Kuwait-welcome-Iran-s-nuclear-deal-with-world-powers.html) stressed this could lead to, in the words of Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja, “the “removal of all weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear, from the Middle East and the Gulf” – an obvious reference to Israel’s massive nuclear arsenal.

For Israel it is the complete opposite. Israeli leaders put out mixed reactions to the US-Russia dealing over Syria; reactions in general though were cautiously positive. In fact, what Israeli leaders had continually stressed was that the “worst possible outcome” in Syria, and, as Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, explained, the only reason Israel would ever intervene was if Sunni jihadists got their hands on Assad’s chemical weapons in the case that the regime should collapse (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57582025/syrian-rebels-to-get-1st-direct-u.s-support-as-$8m-in-medical-supplies-rations-set-for-delivery/); whereas, as Defense Ministry strategist Amos Gilad explained in May, Israel was not currently interested in attacking Syria’s chemical weapons’ stock because “the good news is that this is under full control (of the Syrian government)” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/04/us-syria-crisis-chemical-israel-idUSBRE94309720130504). Thus the chemical deal basically addresses this Israeli concern; in fact, the Saudi-backed leader of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, described the US deal with Assad on chemicals as the adoption of the Israeli interest.

 To the extent that Israel was somewhat cautious in its support however was entirely related to the Iranian issue; when the US did not go ahead with threatened strikes on Syria over a “red line” on a form of WMD that the US had drawn, Israel’s concern was what this would mean for the US-Israeli red-line on Iran over nuclear weapons. So when the subsequent negotiations with Iran opened soon after, Israel’s opposition was very much within this context. How can you use the Iranian nuclear “threat” to keep the whole region, and the Israeli public, on a permanent war footing, in a permanent state of crisis, if the US takes away the imaginary pretext.

 For these reasons, and others, the fantasies of Israeli-Saudi alliances being pushed by the conspiracist wing of the left and the tabloid wing of imperialist journalism are impossible. The LondonDaily Mail’s claim that Israel and Saudi Arabia had agreed to jointly attack Iran in reaction to the deal is inconceivably insane. Saudi Arabia’s reaction to this article, that it is fiction and that it has “no relations or contact with Israel of any kind at any level” (http://world.einnews.com/article/177082808/-XymoaCc3o3Ar1OJ?afid=777&utm_source=MailingList&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Breaking+News%3A+world540-Tuesday), is in fact highly believable. From a purely pragmatic point of view, if Israel did attack Iran (which is also very unlikely), it would bolster Iran’s standing among Muslims – Sunni and Shia alike – in the region, just at the moment when Iran’s and Hezbollah’s standing has dropped so low among the vast masses of Sunni Arabs due to Syria. If Saudi   Arabia participated in such an attack, it could lead to the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy by both the Shia masses in the east and the Sunni jihadists, even if both then slaughtered each other.

 Little wonder, therefore, that in 2012 Saudi Arabia had threatened to shoot down any Israeli aircraft over its airspace en route to Iran (http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article32129.htm); similarly, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Al Thani had declared “we will not accept any aggressive action against Iran from Qatar” (http://www.jpost.com/Headlines/Article.aspx?id=263818).

 (As an aside, a Sunday Times story several months ago, that alleged a military agreement between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey to cooperate against Iran (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1255088.ec)was angrily denied not only by Saudi Arabia, but by Turkey, which described it as “manipulative reports which have nothing to do with the reality” (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-foreign-ministry-dismisses-report-on-regional-cooperation-against-iran.aspx?pageID=238&nID=46250&NewsCatID=338). The inclusion of Turkey, if anything, made it more of a joke; Turkey’s relations with Israel have been bad for years, and while relations deteriorated with Iran over Syria, Turkey has opposed any US or Israeli aggression against Iran, explicitly giving strong support to Iran’s nuclear program (http://www.payvand.com/news/12/mar/1271.html); and anyone interested in the geopolitics of Mediterranean gas will be well aware of the rapprochement between Israel and Greece and Cyprus on an anti-Turkish basis).

 Furthermore, the Saudi monarchy, whose legitimacy is based on protecting Mecca and Medina, cannot simply “go into alliance” with a regime illegally occupying Jerusalem of all places (on top of a regime illegally occupying any Arab or “Muslim” territory) and survive. Just because the monarchy is reactionary and would probably be happy for the entire Palestinian people to disappear, this doesn’t alter the fact that they have not disappeared and the occupation is a fact; it is not coincidental at all that two major Arab-wide peace initiatives, the 1982 Fahd Plan and the 2003 Saudi Plan, were launched by Saudi Arabia; both had the support of virtually all Arab states (only Libya dissented in 1982, and no-one in 2003); in 1982 had the support of the PLO and in 2003 the support of both Fatah and Hamas; and both demanded the complete withdrawal of Israel from all Palestinian and Syrian territories occupied or annexed by Israel since 1967 and the right of Palestinians to set up their independent state over the entire part of Palestine occupied in 1967. This would the minimum for a Saudi-Israeli “alliance,” and it is clear that this has never been the plan of any wing of the Zionist leadership, including most “doves.”

 When discussing the effect of the US dealing with Iran perhaps moving the US away from Israel, these fundamental facts have to be taken into consideration. How likely is it that the US will now turn around and demand Israel accept and act on international law and withdraw from the occupied territories, when for years the US hasn’t even objected to the continual and massive increase of Israeli “settlement” of the West Bank? In other words, while the new regional dealing is bad news for the Syrian oppressed, is it possible that it may have spin-offs for other sections of the oppressed in the region due to geopolitical coincidence? I suggest, highly unlikely. So far, there is not a scrap of evidence that the super-oppressed Palestinians will be among those benefiting; if anything, with Israel demagogically screaming blue murder about the Iranian deal, the most likely US response will be to allow Israel to get away with more settlement building, more ethnic cleansing, and more murder.  Indeed, as Ali Abunimah suggests, Israel may already be “reaping rewards from Iran deal at Palestinian expense” (http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/israel-already-reaping-rewards-iran-deal-palestinian-expense?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter).

 The one section of the region’s oppressed who stand to gain are the Iranian masses, to the extent it brings some mild relief from imperialist sanctions. This is certainly not unimportant. At the same time, this should not be exaggerated: while Rouhani has been projecting “moderate” image to the West, that is a desire to work with imperialism, back home there has been a surge of executions – some 500 for the year, but 200 since Rouhani came to power in August. This includes political opponents, disproportionately Kurds.

 In fact, while all deals involve a certain amount of compromise, at least cosmetically, on both sides, the revelation that the UK has been organising secret negotiations between the US and Hezbollah over a number of months (http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Report-London-is-mediating-indirect-secret-talks-between-US-and-Hezbollah-333245) suggests the likely direction of the pressure that will be exerted. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the latter’s alleged “threat” to Israel is a major US-Iranian difference; but the negotiations suggest attempts to ensure Iran’s interests in Lebanon while presumably trying to keep Hezbollah tamed. The fact the negotiations include the topic if “fighting Al-Qaida” suggests a very different western view of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria than that publicly projected (And the fact that the CIA warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning to bomb Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs, “with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah,” and which Hezbollah acknowledged (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/15/196755/lebanese-officials-say-cia-warned.html#.Ug6CQLzgKCQ) suggests this orientation is already being acted upon).

What is often forgotten is that Hezbollah’s success in driving the Israeli occupation out of Lebanon – ie the reason it was seen as the “resistance” – is over a decade old, and even the 2006 moment is a long time ago. Hezbollah has not fired a shot at Israel since then, the Lebanese people have no appetite to undergo such slaughter again, only the relatively tiny Shaaba Farms remain in Israeli hands to give “resistance” any clear meaning, and the link with Hamas in Palestine which was an important aspect of the “resistance” back then has been broken over Hezbollah’s support for Assad. It is therefore not hard to imagine a deal that allows Hezbollah to continue with a certain amount of bluster but in fact continue to do what it has been doing, with a “new Iran” guaranteeing this situation.  

 All that said, will current US geopolitical dealing with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime in Syria simply mean an out and out support for victory of the latter? Or might Iran’s role with the Syrian solution, while reactionary to boot, perhaps be to help edge Assad aside and allow a ‘Yemeni solution’, an ‘Assad regime without Assad’, that the US and other imperialist powers have long believed was the only way to bring the revolution to a grinding halt and end the destabilization that is boosting the anti-imperialist jihadist fringe?

 The answer to that of course remains to be seen. It is possible however to sketch some possible scenarios and examine some hints.  

First, in the short-term, the outcome has been a victory for Assad’s regime of bloody counterrevolution. Assad successfully tested the US “red-line,” and now, under the guise of cooperating with the US and Russia to get rid of its chemical weapons, Assad has been assured a year or so of unfettered – indeed stepped up – use of his massive arsenal of conventional WMD with which he has done nearly all his killing anyway; to this has been added a series of horrific starvation sieges on various towns around Damascus and Homs. The US has essentially moved into alliance with the regime; indeed, the Assad plan of cleansing the region from Damascus to the Alawite heartland on the coast is being justified as necessary to secure the path for vehicles removing the chemicals to ports. In October, even the minimalist non-lethal US aid to the FSA in the north was officially halted (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/us-halts-aid-to-syrian-rebels.aspx?pageID=238&nID=56624&NewsCatID=358). As Iran and Hezbollah continue to play a significant role in the slaughter – indeed Hezbollah has been heavily involved in the regime’s recent bloody offensives around Damascus – the distinctly counterrevolutionary nature of the US-Syrian and US-Iranian understanding is clear.

Recent articles in the mainstream media have clarified this further. Former senior US diplomats Daniel Kurtzer and Thomas Pickering and former Iranian Ambassador Seyyed Hossein Mousavian wrote this week for Al-Monitor that “timely implementation [of the joint plan of action] will not only build trust and credibility, but will also significantly improve the atmosphere and prospects for a full agreement within the next six months. Such a trend would facilitate further constructive cooperation between Iran and the world powers on other crises in the Middle East such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The interim agreement — and its faithful implementation — is a significant opportunity which should not be missed or it will constitute a failure of unimaginable proportions” (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/12/syria-emirate-fears-iran-nuclear-deal-week-in-review.html#).

More specifically regarding the Assad regime, the December 3 New York Times reported:

“Some analysts and American officials say the chaos there could force the Obama administration to take a more active role to stave off potential threats among the opposition groups fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But striking at jihadist groups in Syria would pose formidable political, military and legal obstacles, and could come at the cost of some kind of accommodation — even if only temporary or tactical — with Mr. Assad’s brutal but secular government, analysts say.
“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/world/middleeast/jihadist-groups-gain-in-turmoil-across-middle-east.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimesworld&pagewanted=all&_r=1&).

These views have been bolstered by almost daily rhetoric in the mainstream media about the jihadist threat in Syria, and by almost daily statements by ruling class figures that an Assad victory is currently the most preferable outcome: Michael Hayden, retired US Air Force general and CIA head till 2009, and former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Dan Halutz, have said as much in recent days (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Dec-13/240934-assad-win-may-be-syrias-best-option-ex-cia-chief.ashx#axzz2nKspUd4f, http://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-idf-chief-israel-prefers-that-assad-stay-in-power).

More long-term, however, the US will still have the problem of restabilising Syria, and unless the unlikely scenario of a total crushing of the revolt by Assad comes to pass, ultimately the same issues will remain. Certainly, the leeway being given to Assad currently to smash the revolution will significantly weaken it, thus forcing the opposition to agree to a worse bargain than they may have otherwise hoped for, and this is undoubtedly the imperialist plan. But most likely, opposition in parts of the country will remain; and the simple demographics of a country where 70 percent of the population are (mostly poor) Sunnis under an Alawi-dominated ruling clique strongly suggests that some broadening of power in the central regime, while maintaining it military-security-bureaucratic core, giving the dictatorship a cosmetic facelift, will be essential to winning a significant enough section of the bourgeois opposition leadership over to the perspective of some kind of ceasefire. Given regional dynamics, this would also be the minimum concession necessary for Saudi/GCC agreement to a settlement.

 While in theory, a broadening of the regime to include some bourgeois oppositionist and Sunni figures may be possible with Assad still in some kind of role, in practice he is seen as the key symbol of the regime that has waged ferocious war on the people for 3 years and no section of the opposition so far has said it will even consider an agreement that does not involve Assad stepping down. Indeed, much of the opposition refuses to even attend the Geneva talks, scheduled for late January, if Assad is present. Under massive American pressure, the main exile-based Syrian opposition leadership, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has agreed to drop this condition and will attend Geneva, alongside the Assad regime and some other smaller forces. But the SNC still insists it will not agree to anything that leaves him in power; they see leaving the regime in power as compromise enough, while Assad has insisted there is no way he won’t stay in power.

 It may be that Iran’s role will be to try to edge Assad out, secure some safe place for him and ensure the interests of the Alawite and Shia factors in the make-up of the regime’s new face. There are a number of indications of Iran’s flexibility on this question. The chemical attack itself strained Assad’ relations with both Iran and Hezbollah, especially given Iran’s own history of suffering chemical attack by the Iraqi Baath regime in the 1980s; some Iranian leaders explicitly blamed Assad for the attack (I guess they weren’t reading “Global Research”). Leading Iraqi Shiite Ayatollah Sistani recently called on Assad, and Iraq’s Shiite leader Maliki, to step down; Iran and Turkey, a country prominently backing the Syrian opposition, recently made a joint call on government and opposition to stop fighting and declare a ceasefire even before Geneva, to ensure Geneva proceeds (http://eaworldview.com/2013/11/iran-forecast-turkey-tehran-proclaim-reconciliation/); the two states also called for reconciliation and a joint approach to the region’s problems. And on a tour of the Gulf, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on Saudi Arabia to cooperate with Tehran on “achieving regional stability” (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Dec-02/239605-irans-zarif-urges-saudi-to-work-jointly-for-stability.ashx#axzz2mQ3jab6V).

 Finally, some Iranian revolutionary guards have expressed criticism of the Syrian military, whether on the one hand, due to oppressive practices towards the people, or on the other, due to the fact that many ordinary Syrian soldiers, quite rightly, have little interest in fighting (http://www.albawaba.com/news/syria-iran-military-536246), unlike these foreign mercenaries. The recent abandonment of Hezbollah ‘true-believers’ by Assad’s army south of Damascus during an opposition counterattack, leaving them to face the music, may have also opened a few eyes there.

   On the other hand, what even this regional and pan-Syrian agreement from the top can achieve is dubious. While the SNC has accepted going to Geneva, on the ground none of the fighting forces have: not only the jihadist groups, but also the mainstream Islamic groups gathered in the new Islamic Front, and even the secular exile-based Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the FSA have all refused to attend; indeed, the SMC/FSA has insisted it will not even announce a ceasefire during talks, putting it at odds with its SNC partners (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/26/us-syria-crisis-talks-rebels-idusbre9ap0bb20131126?utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=%2amideast%20brief&utm_campaign=mideast%20brief%2011-26-2013). Just what can be achieved without fighters represented is unclear. Even among the political opposition, a major section of the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian National Council (the first exile-based opposition group) has rejected attendance at Geneva (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/10/13/Key-Syrian-opposition-group-rejects-peace-talks-.html).

 Arguably a ceasefire achieved via a political solution at Geneva, however transitory, would be a positive step compared to the ongoing war with its catastrophic bloodshed, absolute military superiority of the regime, and political inability of the opposition to win certain sectors of the population (particularly minorities). While the proposed set-ups, featuring the maintenance of the core of the regime, are far from ideal, whether it is positive or negative depends a lot on the detail, and on the relationship of forces. For US imperialism and its current allies, the aim would be to stabilise Syria’s capitalist state and contain the revolution enough to be able to crush any recalcitrant elements; however, given the alternative being a continuation of the current bloody stalemate, for the Syrian revolution the aim would be to take advantage of any such opening to deepen and broaden the revolutionary struggle by allowing a return to mass civil struggle and allowing the people some relief from the impossible situation.

 However, this is just the analysis of a writer from afar. If things are seen by those on the ground differently to how it may look to us from afar, it is best to try to understand why, especially given the fact that in rejecting attendance at Geneva, they are standing up to massive imperialist pressure to take part. Aside from the question of Assad’s attendance at the conference, the broader question is the relationship of forces. The FSA leadership did not reject negotiations in principle, but stressed the conditions are not right; they clearly see they are being railroaded into a potential agreement in conditions when they have been starved of weaponry by the same imperialist powers who insist they attend, thus attending at a moment when they are in a weakened bargaining position. Their gamble is that fighting on may either reverse this before future negotiations, or lead to uprising within the centres of regime control. From afar, such scenarios seem highly unlikely. But the unanimity among fighting forces on the ground, from the most secular through to the jihadists suggests they may know things we don’t.

More recently, there have been contradictory indications from the SMC, some suggesting they would attend Geneva after all despite Assad’s presence, with the very strict condition that Geneva must lead to Assad’s departure; yet at the very moment that such flexibility has been expressed, imperialist states have apparently seen it as a sign of weakness, with a December 18 report claiming “Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace next month talks may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration,” because “because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue” (http://in.news.yahoo.com/exclusive-west-signals-syrian-opposition-assad-may-stay-193919109.html). Where exactly this would leave SMC or even SNC participation remains to be seen.

 Whether this plan by virtually the entire armed opposition to fight on will work any more than the US-Russia-Turkey-Iran plan to stabilise a modified regime remains to be seen. But as someone recently posted to the FSA website, there remains another scenario: the regime and main opposition leadership attend Geneva; they are forced into agreement, which is imposed on Syria; the US then declares all those on the ground opposed to the “international” agreement to be “terrorists,” with whatever punishment that flows from that … .  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “The US, Iran, Russia-Syria and the geopolitical shift: Anything for the region’s oppressed?

  1. The Iranian masses may or may not gain in the short term from U.S.-Iranian rapprochement but the Syrian masses are the big losers in the short and long term. Iran’s rulers are trading nukes for a freer hand and greater resources to devote to slaughtering Syrians just as Hitler played peace games with Chamberlain and the West while arming Franco.

    This analysis focuses way too much on rulers and not enough on the ruled.

  2. Tim Dobson posted the following comment on Facebook. As I see little point in getting into big discussions on a single person’s facebook account, I ahve taken the liberty to post his comment here so that I can reply. This is Tim’s comment:

    I disagree with Michael Karadjis on Syria but since this article is just as much about Iran (which know more about), I’ll just comment on that and how it has led some people astray on Syria (referring to Iranian imperialism, their ‘sectarian’ politics etc etc)

    Mike writes ‘The US overtures to Iran and positive Iranian response have to be understood as part of a long-term process of bringing the relatively powerful Iranian bourgeoisie back into the fold – militarily, diplomatically and economically where it always belonged. While it may have been useful in the post Cold War era for the US and Israel to use Iran, as part of using “Islamic fundamentalism” (whether Shiite or Sunni or both) as a scarecrow to replace “communism” in order to maintain a permanent war threat in the region, sell lots of weapons, feed the masses with bullshit etc, the fact remains that there hasn’t been anything fundamentally antagonistic towards imperialism about the Iranian bourgeoisie for decades since its very bloody suppression of the revolution there in the 1980s.’

    I think there are a number of things wrong here. Firstly, what powerful Iranian bourgeoise exists inside Iran? There isn’t one. The most powerful Iranian bourgeiouse live in Los Angeles and aren’t welcome back in Tehran. Why? Because the most powerful force during the 1979 revolution was the petty bourgeiouse (the Bazaari people) and that remains the case today. This may be peculiar but nonetheless true. This explains why politically they broke with imperialism but haven’t been able to break the back of imperialist domination economically (hence why the sanctions were so damaging). Its why the bazaari people and Sepah play such a big role politically and economically. Therefore, this process that Mike describing isn’t actually occurring. There has been little to no internal shifts within Iran economically during the last period (which surely such a process would bring about)

    This idea of an Iranian bourgeiouse being reintegrated also leads Mike to the strange conclusion that there hasn’t been anything ‘fundamentally antagonistic’ between Iran and imperialism. This may seem strange to people and that’s because it is. Firstly, Iran has never been that heavily demonised for its fundamentalism by imperialists, (mostly this has only be done by liberals), it has always been demonised for its antagonism towards imperilaist interests, however. Whether it is Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain etc the sanctions were imposed because of its threat to Israel, not because of its fundementalism.

    After the revolution in ’79, Saudi Arabia funded and armed a wave of Wahhabists to try and roll back the revolutionary spirit from Iran spreading, which has never been charctisced by its religious stance but by its anti-imperialism.

    Since the revolution of 1979, we’ve seen a ten year war waged against Iran by Iraq funded by US imperialism, using chemical weapons which killed millions of people. We’ve seen Iran become the biggest financial and military backer of Hamas, which has resisted multiple Israeli invasions, they are the biggest financial and military backers of Hezbollah who inflicted Israel possibly its greatest defeat in 2006. We’ve seen some of the harshest sanctions ever implemented on Iran, we’ve seen terrorist attacks occur in Iran itself and we’ve had at least 7 years of Israel trying to drum up a war against Iran.

    What was this about if there was no fundamental antagonistism between Iran and imperialism? What is it all about? If that is not fundamental, then what is?

    Instead, Mike reduces it to tactics and probably most extraordinarily as no different to US imperialism relationship with Saudi Arabia! (I must have missed the ten year war waged against it by US imperialism)

    Over the past 35 years, it would be hard to find a country which has lost more people due to US imperialism, yet Mike has turned Iran into a sub-imperialist country engaged in Shiite sectarian politics (funding that well known Shiite group Hamas) and made it seem that US was engaged in anti-Sunni politics (Maliki was never popular with the states, nor was Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, UAE affected by this anti-sunni politics. Bahrain, a mostly Shiite country, didn’t seem to benefit much either.)

    I know Syria is the topic of the day for the left (Poor Iran had its day of focus in 2009) and Iran is the comfortable bogeyman in that context but to try and argue that Iran is an imperialist force requires such a re-writing of history and of contemporary reality, not to mention a denial of the lived experience of the Iranian people, that it becomes seriously offensive.

  3. My reply to Tim Dobson on Iran:

    When writing this article that Tim is replying to (his comment was first put on his facebook account: https://www.facebook.com/tim.dobson.376/posts/10152117708801514), I thought it possible that I might be treading on the holy grail that many leftists have made of the blood-drenched Iranian theocracy, which some still consider to be, curiously enough, the imperfect embodiment of the revolution that took place way back 35 years ago. But I was a bit taken aback by the extent of Tim’s illusions in the regime.

    I certainly concede that some of the ways I expressed myself in the article were rather sweeping, and if Tim looks now he will see I have adjusted and clarified some of my language. I thank Tim for his comment for facilitating these improvements to my article.

    That said, I remain convinced of the fundamental (oops, that word again) correctness of my article. I think one of the key problems is perhaps a different understanding of the word “fundamental.” For me, in saying there is no “fundamental” reason for US-Iran antagonism, I simply mean that there is no fundamental reason for ongoing conflict between a capitalist state and imperialism. Many capitalist states have of course had significant conflicts with imperialism, even long-term, but I see such conflict as less fundamental than the conflict between the US and Cuba for example.

    Thus not “fundamentally” different does not mean quantitatively similar. Certainly, the expanding capital emanating from the Gulf is far more powerful than that from Iran; certainly, the US has had close relations with the Gulf monarchies, whatever their differences, that are in sharp contrast to US relations with Iran for the last few decades. But whether the difference is “fundamental” or not depends on how we define that term.

    Incidentally, the fact that Gulf capital is more powerful than Iranian capital is not necessarily a reason for the US to be always and only linked closely to the former. On the contrary, the very fact of the projection of power by the Gulf in recent years can be one reason, among a number, for the current US partial geopolitical shift, to help balance powerful Gulf interests which are not always in exact accord with overall US and other imperialist interests.

    Yet the fact that, as Marxists, we understand that a capitalist regime can have considerable conflict with imperialism without it being of a “fundamental” nature has led Tim, not to deny this understanding, but to deny that a powerful bourgeoisie exists in Iran, meaning all I write is based on an illusion. Tim writes:

    “Firstly, what powerful Iranian bourgeoisie exists inside Iran? There isn’t one. The most powerful Iranian bourgeoisie live in Los Angeles and aren’t welcome back in Tehran. Why? Because the most powerful force during the 1979 revolution was the petty bourgeoisie (the Bazaari people) and that remains the case today. This may be peculiar but nonetheless true … Therefore, this process that Mike describing isn’t actually occurring.”

    With all due respect to Tim who clearly understands a lot about Iran, I find this extraordinary. Tim is essentially offering up Iran as an example of a permanent “petty-bourgeois state.” Yes it is well-known that the petty-bourgeois bazaari merchants, strongly connected to the mullahs, played a prominent role in the Iranian revolution (another revolution, like the Syrian, with a massive religious “Islamic” component, with the difference that the Islamic hierarchy were the overwhelmingly leading force in Iran in 1979, whereas in Syria the various stripes of Islamists have been one component alongside the strong secular component of the uprising). And so a large part of the existing Iranian big bourgeoisie under the Shah fled to the US after 1979, as Tim explains.

    I’m not sure if Tim still sees the theocratic dictatorship as an embodiment of the revolution as some leftists do. For the record, I personally abandoned that view about 30 years ago, so what I wrote here was entirely consistent, and not simply opportunistically related to Syria. That is, once the mullah regime was able to smash all opposition, crush organised labour, organise a bloody cultural counterrevolution on the universities, start lining up literally hundreds of leftists at a time to be publicly shot or hung, once it had killed tens of thousands of leftists, many already in its dungeons, including those who had held grotesque illusions in the mullocracy for the longest (eg, Tudeh), launched a bloody war on Kurdistan, turned the legal value of women into half of that of men and other such triumphs, my view was that the only way to keep speaking of the “revolution” and to say it hadn’t been extinguished was when speaking of the continued ability of those opposed to the regime to resist it, but absolutely not in terms of the regime itself.

    I’ve never seen any evidence that this assessment was wrong. But more importantly, what was this all about? Surely it was the reconsolidation of a capitalist state in order for the capitalist class to reconsolidate power. Not necessarily to invite back the old guard bourgeoisie who had fled, the Shah’s narrowly “secular” big bourgeoisie (like Assad’s equivalent), but rather for the more broadly-based, in the real Iran, traditionalist petty-bourgeoisie and smaller bourgeoisie, especially from semi-rural and regional towns, to develop into the new capitalist ruling class and grab the same kind of wealth once held by a narrower, less representative clique – the same process behind “Islamist” leaderships in Egypt, Turkey and Syria and their conflicts with the narrow “secular” capitalist cliques they have replaced or aim to replace.

    And, despite Tim, the evidence points to the development of a huge “Islamic” bourgeoisie having developed since 1979, as would be expected in a capitalist society under a petty-bourgeois leadership. The article “Millionaire mullahs” from 2007 (http://www.forbes.com/global/2003/0721/024.html) seems a good place to start, detailing the super-wealth of the new Iranian capitalist class and how it has emerged from the very structures of the petty-bourgeois clerical establishment:

    “The 1979 revolution transformed the Rafsanjani clan into commercial pashas. One brother headed the country’s largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran’s $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani’s sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far). Today,
    operating through various foundations and front companies, the family is also believed to control one of Iran’s biggest oil engineering companies, a plant assembling Daewoo automobiles, and Iran’s best private airline … Rafsanjani’s youngest son, Yaser, owns a 30-acre horse farm in the superfashionable Lavasan neighborhood of north Tehran, where land goes for over $4 million an acre. Just where did Yaser get his money? A Belgian-educated businessman, he runs a large export-import firm that includes baby food, bottled water and industrial machinery.”
    Some other useful articles on the development of an Iranian mega-capitalism, including its extension beyond its borders: http://mondediplo.com/2009/06/02iran,
    http://www.marxist.com/iran-clumsy-fraud-provokes-two.htm, http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0806/p06s07-wome.html
    The Rafsanjani family is named in this article as a well-known example of the new hyper-capitalists; not surprisingly, his regime (fresh from killing off thousands of leftists in the regime’s dungeons around 1990) launched the new liberalisation and privatization drive, which was continued with gusto under both the alleged “reformist” Khatami regime and the alleged “populist” Ahmedinejad regime. Not surprisingly, therefore, the connection between super-wealth and the prospect of a renewed alliance with US imperialism was expressed well in a recent article fittingly entitled “Revolutionary Pragmatists: Why Iran’s Military Won’t Spoil Détente with the US”:

    “Although the Guards were founded as an ideological organization, they have become vastly more pragmatic as they’ve acquired more power in the Iranian establishment. The Revolutionary Guards are no longer simply a military institution. They are among the country’s most important economic actors, controlling an estimated ten percent of the economy, directly and through various subsidiaries. And those economic interests
    increasingly trump other concerns. And, although the force can corner a greater share of the domestic market under the sanctions regime imposed by the United States because the private sector has a chronic shortage of funds, many Guardsmen are aware that they stand to gain much more if Iran strengthens its ties to the rest of the world. Companies controlled by the Guards would likely win a lion’s share of new foreign investment. In a speech on October 16, Major Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, was even more explicit. He called on the United States to take advantage of the “historic opportunity” to cooperate with the Islamic Republic in combating extremist groups such
    as al Qaeda and in providing stability in the Middle East”
    (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140253/akbar-ganji/revolutionary-pragmatists?cid=soc-twitter-in-snapshots-revolutionary_pragmatists-111113&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=%2AMideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%2011-12-2013).

    In fact, it seems to me ironic that Tim has missed what has precisely been a major “gain” of the revolution, one which I admit I did not envisage back in the 1980s (and neither did most leftists – many of those talking about an ongoing forever “deepening and broadening” of the “revolution” were imagining the socialist revolution on the horizon): the massive, rapid development of capitalism! As Babrak Zahraie, in an article which by and large is probably closer to Tim’s framework on Iran than my own, explains (http://babakzahraie.blogspot.com/2009/06/whither-iran.html):

    “The Iranian revolution of 1979, due to special circumstances of its development, became the spring board for something that was most unexpected: the greatest development of capitalism in the country’s history. This came as a shock to the gang of royalists and the segment of capitalists and landlords that were thrown out of Iran. As far as capitalist development, Iran was cruising, and in their absence it was cruising faster than ever in its history.”

    In and of itself, this was actually progressive compared to the rule by the relatively narrow state-led elite in the Shah’s time. In fact, just like the massive, rapid development of capitalism in China, this had many positive effects in terms of overall modernisation, despite the extreme backwardness of clerical rule in the social field. While somewhat unnecessarily romanticised, the following gives a reasonable overview:

    “Peasants were transformed into farmers. Villages gained electricity, bathhouses, libraries, and access to healthcare. Roads and travel by automobile expanded. Internal air travel became a common option. Magazines and books appeared in the languages of national minorities. Ordinary folks would travel in the region regularly for religious duties or tours. Schools and universities multiplied. Women came to represent 62% of university students. Farsi became the fourth most utilized language on the Internet for bloggers.”

    Though he also emphasises the limits to this “Further capitalist development was not able to address the key tasks of industrialization and agriculture. In a country that needs development in every conceivable area of health, education, urban and rural development, industry, agriculture and defense, the Iranian state advocated policies that revived the old capitalist state apparatus after the revolution”

    Yet, he stresses, perhaps in a way that “permanent revolutionists” never quite got, that while this actual progress can take place, this nevertheless remains capitalism, the regime of our class enemy:

    “We must not misunderstand: the greatest cycle of capitalist development meant more people than ever before in the history of Iran were getting rich – even super rich. These occurrences became a source of envy for the entire model of semi-colonial capitalism throughout the region. The rich in the region all envied Iran’s ‘model’ for the quick acquisition of wealth through land and other speculations. Meanwhile, the profits amassed by the rich in Iran created an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.”

    Interestingly, all this sounds remarkably similar to developments in Turkey under the AKP: a terrific expansion of capitalism as the productive forces of the Anatolian regions were liberated from the strictures of the elite “secular” Kemalist state; a rapid development of infrastructure, poverty reduction, real gains for the masses; yet despite this, a growing gap between rich and poor as the new bourgeoisie goes on a neo-liberal craze.

    In Babrak’s opinion, how did the US view this massive independent development of capitalism:

    “Iranian capitalist development and the extension of capitalist relations, which received a major boost after the Iraq war, became a demon to imperialism. Washington would look to Iran and see its own face, as if it was waking up each morning and looking with hatred at itself in the mirror”

    And thus tried to be rid of this new capitalist kid on the block. But ultimately, this is a strategy that will need to change, as Washington needs to catch up with the other imperialist powers who never (until the 2009 round of sanctions) stopped dealing with Iranian capitalism, and reincorporate Iranian capitalism into its system of capitalist relations:

    “Iran’s progress, thanks to its mighty revolution and its increasing strength in the Middle East and South Asia region, has forced Washington to come up with a new approach … The US policy of cultivating an overt threat of war, imposing sanctions and labeling Iran as ‘axis of evil’ has given way to a more sober realization of the need for diplomacy. The plan of diplomacy requires recognizing the Iranian revolution of 1979 through acknowledging the gains and leaderships resulting from it, rescinding all sanctions, and freeing blocked Iranian assets in the US”

    But he notes that the current regime, in 2009, was still not ready for this necessity. However, what if it is now?

    And what does all this “the greatest development of capitalism in the country’s history” mean in terms of capitalist expansion outside of Iran’s borders? Why would it act any differently to any other capitalism? Well, it hasn’t: Iranian “Islamic” capitalist investment abroad has been ongoing since the 1980s. It has reached a stage – with significant influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Lebanon etc to be referred to, loosely, as a case of “sub-imperialism” in rivalry with other (albeit more powerful “sub-imperialisms”, such as in the GCC).

    This article on Iranian economic influence in Iraq (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/17/world/middleeast/17iran.html) and this one on Afghanistan – if we can ignore the obvious propaganda and just focus on Iranian economic penetration (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6741095.stm) are good examples of this entirely natural process.

    Let’s just clarify that for a moment: at one point Tim accuses me of arguing that “Iran is an imperialist force.” I do nothing of the sort. However, the term “sub-imperialism” has always seemed useful to me, even though banned under orthodox Trotskyism, to describe the very normal process of medium-sized capitalist, non-imperialist, countries, expanding economically beyond their borders, and the subsequent rivalries, geopolitical maneuvering etc that goes with this, which can at times be useful as partners to imperialism and at other times be seen as dangerously independent by imperialism. The five famous ‘BRICS’ fall into this category, and it seems to me the GCC, Iran and Turkey fit the bill as well. If you want to think of it as more “descriptive” than “scientific”, then that’s OK with me.

    Strangely, not only does Tim think that Iran is not “sub-imperialist” in this sense, or even properly capitalist, but also that Iranian policy is virtually consistent in its “anti-imperialism,” and certainly not sectarian. Indeed, imperialism has apparently never either demonised, nor penalised, Iran for Islamism, but only for “anti-imperialism.”

    First, imperialism definitely has demonised Iran for “Islamic fundamentalism,” hypocrisy aside. It has been a very large part of the post-Cold War propaganda; and also a genuine fear of the potential for “Islamic”-led revolt, a la Iran, in neighbouring Muslim states: regardless of whether the outcome may be progressive or reactionary, the US didn’t want these regimes destabilised.

    Where I agree is that of course imperialism doesn’t penalise states for having reactionary-Islamist theocratic governments, otherwise Saudi Arabia would have been penalised more than Iran. I’ve given my overall analysis above of why I think the US has been largely hostile to Iran since the revolution, and yes the degree of independence of the new, assertive Iranian mega-capitalist class is part of this, for good or for bad.

    You can of course call that “anti-imperialism” if you want (and in some cases it is), but to see it as consistent, or as consistently non-sectarian, is entirely wrong and rests on massive illusions in the anti-imperialist consistency of a marauding, mass-murdering capitalist elite.

    That of course doesn’t mean Iranian foreign policy is always bad (let alone as monstrous as it is in Syria). Iran’s support for Hezbollah’s struggle against Israeli occupation of Lebanon should certainly be hailed, and as Tim knows I wrote extensively supporting Hezbollah in 2006.

    Indeed, getting back to my opposition to bullshit-style “anti-imperialism,” you might remember that my conflict with this kind of politics actually originated in the 1990s with my defense of Bosnia against Serbian fascism; many of these types fantasised that “the West” had ganged up on Serbia and so, though the West was in fact doing nothing but imposing a criminal military blockade on besieged Bosnia, they still thought they had to support Serbian aggression and anti-Muslim genocide in Bosnia. I still have no idea why. But in any case, Iran, for its own geopolitical reasons, became the chief supplier of the Bosnian army, doing its best to evade the imperialist-enforced arms embargo. What was hilarious was watching the “anti-imperialists” of the day find clear evidence of “US intervention” when, two-thirds of the way into the war, the US announced it would stop enforcing the imperialist arms embargo (while UK and France continued to enforce it), thus refusing to continue to actively prevent Iranian arms deliveries! Rotten imperialists refusing to militarily prevent Iran from carrying out its activity half a world away from the US borders!

    So, in that case, I also hailed Iran. Whether Iran’s activities could still be called “anti-imperialist” after the US stopped enforcing the embargo though really depends on how people choose to fit facts into their “neat” categories. Indeed, despite Tim, and despite the current “anti-imperialist” support for Iran due to its bolstering of Assad’s tyranny, another “anti-imperialist” mantra I have often heard is along the lines that “Iran has collaborated with US imperialism in three major conflicts, in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, proving how phoney it is.” For me, this is merely the reverse nonsense of the same mechanical “anti-imperialist” line.

    Yet, how consistent is Iran? Isn’t it true that Iran effectively collaborated with the US in both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, because it was in sectarian and geopolitical conflict with the regimes that the US deposed? What of the role of the Iran-based Badr Brigades during and after the US invasion of Iraq? Are you sure it was consistent anti-imperialism (not to mention anything even remotely progressive)? Or its support for Karzai and the Northern Alliance? What of its long-term excellent relations with the Turkish regime, especially under the AKP, on an anti-Kurdish basis?

    Iran’s support for Hezbollah and, until recently, Hamas, was to be welcomed, but Iran’s economic and geostrategic intervention into the Arab world necessitated breaking from the Shah’s pro-Israeli legacy (in the same way that Erdogan and the AKP have had to the same re the Turkish generals’ pro-Israeli legacy). Being far away from Palestine makes this easy: note that the verbally “rejectionist” states have always been distant from the action (Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya, Algeria, the old South Yemen). Iran’s actions such as these are aimed at some kind of deal recognising its role in the region.

    Of course Tim is correct to note that Hamas is Sunni; so, I might add, were the Bosnian Muslims, and most of the Afghan Northern Alliance. Sectarianism as policy is not consistent, because by definition it is only a tool of a capitalist ruling class in its geopolitical rivalry. After all, Saudi Arabia’s on-again, off-again relationship with the “Alawite” Assad regime in Syria over the decades is another example, including full-scale Saudi support to the Syrian invasion of Lebanon at a time when the majority of Lebanese Muslims aligned to the Palestinian-leftist coalition, crushed by Assad, were Sunni; the Saudi-Syrian accord of 1991 held Lebanon together the next 15 years. And the Saudis just backed the overthrow of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, bringing to power Mubarakist generals who … see themselves in brotherly solidarity with the “Alawite” Assad regime!

    Don’t try to make too much sense of it. However, sectarianism is one of the weapons. Tim forgets to tell us that, after the Assad regime had slaughtered a certain proportion of the Syrian (Sunni Muslim) population via high-tech savagery, Hamas could no longer bear the “neutrality” and declared support for its brothers and sisters in their uprising for the same kind of human dignity the Palestinians have long been fighting for, against the same kind of barbarism. Not the mention the fact that Palestinians in Syria are part of the uprising and that the regime has barbarously besieged and starved Palestinian camps there, and tortured and murdered Palestinian militants. And after that point, Iran, in sectarian, or geopolitical, or whatever you call it, solidarity with Assad, cut off its support for Hamas: its solidarity with some tyrant slaughtering his people was far more important than its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

    Indeed, prodding Hezbollah into its suicidal adventure in Lebanon may have been one sectarian step too far.

    Furthermore, if its about consistency, what can one say about Iran and Hezbollah having the complete opposite view on Syria and Libya? Surely, if it is “anti-imperialism,” then the 10,000 NATO bombs on Libya would be more significant than the handful of flack jacks, night goggles, “ready-meals”, and other such rubbish, but not a single gun or bullet, that the US has supplied the FSA in 3 years?

    Yet both Iran and Hezbollah supported the rebellion against Gaddafi right to the end, and even celebrated when he was sodomised to death with a knife after being captured in a tunnel due to a NATO bombing raid. The difference: the sectarian need to relate to the Lebanese Shia community, which still remembers that Musa Sadr went missing in Libya 35 years ago.

    Finally, Tim says that

    “Since the revolution of 1979, we’ve seen a ten year war waged against Iran by Iraq funded by US imperialism, using chemical weapons which killed millions of people … We’ve seen some of the harshest sanctions ever implemented on Iran, we’ve seen terrorist attacks occur in Iran itself and we’ve had at least 7 years of Israel trying to drum up a war against Iran … Over the past 35 years, it would be hard to find a country which has lost more people due to US imperialism”

    … so that to even question the left narrative about the allegedly continuing Iranian “revolution” (often coming from people who don’t recognise a revolution in their face in Syria today), “it becomes seriously offensive.”

    I’ll tell you who got “the harshest sanctions ever implemented,” significantly hasher than Iran has had just for the last 4 years: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for a period four times as long, during which time anywhere upwards of 500,000 people died as a direct result. The sanctions on Iran since 2009 certainly have been harsh, and criminal, and of course I welcomed their very partial end at the beginning of my article, but they don’t compare to the Iraqi genocide, and as for the 3 decades prior to the 2009 tightening of sanctions on Iran, the US’s Iran sanctions didn’t even come close to the Iraqi sanctions-genocide.

    What should we decide from this? That Hussein’s bloodthirsty, ultra-repressive capitalist tyranny was some “anti-imperialist fighter” state that still imperfectly represented the continuity of the 1958 revolution? If you say similar stuff about Iran, why not?

    Tim says that few have lost more people to US imperialism than Iran has, but most of it seems to be the Iran-Iraq war, where Tim seems to say that Hussein’s chemical war “killed millions.” Of course it did nothing of the sort, but all in all it is estimated that over a million Iranians and Iraqis were killed in that war, and Tim is right that Iraq holds the main responsibility for launching the war, and for using chemicals much later in the war. He is also right that the US bears responsibility for its initial encouragement of Hussein into this catastrophe.

    But after this encouragement, the US basically left Iraq in the lurch; the US view was well-expressed by Kissinger in the 1980s: the US interest was for them to bleed each other, to fight on, to “both lose.” Most of Iraq’s weapons throughout the war came from France and the Soviet Union, hardly any, if any, from the US; more US and British weapons actually found their way to Iran, and not only via the famous Iran-hostage-contra dealing between the US and “anti-imperialist” Iran. Israel in particular openly advocated an Iranian victory, seeing Hussein as its worst enemy at the time (Iraq was closer, and Arab); Israel openly provided weapons to Iran. US intervention against Iran came mostly in the last year of war, with Iran on the offensive, and mostly in the form of protecting “re-flagged” Kuwaiti oil tankers.

    And this was the Iraq that the US then turned around and destroyed in 1991 (with implicit Iranian support and direct participation of Assad’s Syrian regime), and then imposed 12 years of history’s worst sanctions on before invading, killing a million people and destroying the country – the actions of this Iraq allows you to say that “imperialism” has killed “millions” of Iranians. And yet this extraordinary imperialist treatment of Iraq does not for one moment make me turn around and declare the Hussein tyranny “anti-imperialist.”

    To see the whole million or so killed on both sides of the Iran-Iraq war as all the fault of Iraq, or even all the fault of US imperialism, is just pro-mullah delusion; it avoids the inconvenient fact that after Iranian forces drove Iraq right out of every inch of Iran by mid-1982, two years into the war; and Hussein began suing for peace on the basis of the international border which he had repudiated (while his invasion was reactionary, this repudiation was just: the mullah regime maintained the new border that the Shah had created by invading part of Iraq); that the only reason the war continued for the next 6 years – ie, an entire three-quarters of the war and the killings of hundreds of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi workers – was due to the mullah regime crossing this international border, invading actual Iraq, occupying Iraqi territory, and declaring it would not end its invasion until it forcibly overthrew Hussein’s regime, a prospect most Iraqis considered terrifying.

    I know these facts might not be popular on the left, but they nevertheless are true. Millions were killed by the regime. I still find it breathtaking 30 years later that much of the left believed Iranian workers should have to continue to slaughter Iraqi workers, and get slaughtered, on the altar of Khomeini\s entirely reactionary war to decimate and subjugate Iran’s bourgeois rival, based on the sensationally fertile imagination that this would result in the “extension of the revolution.”

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