Following the USA’s targeted assassination of Iran’s top military strategist Qaseem Soleimani, the talk in many of the world’s capitals, especially in western Europe - whether or not they voiced explicit support for the US action - was about the need to avoid an “escalation” of military tensions in the Middle East. Commenting on the limited nature of Iran’s initial response – a missile attack on US air bases in Iraq which seemed to have caused little damage or loss of life – the same voices were breathing a sigh of relief, hoping that Iran would now call it quits.
But the escalation of military confrontations in the Middle East– and the USA’s particular contribution to it – has deeper and wider roots than the current stand-off between Iran and the Trump government in the US. Already in the Cold War period the strategically vital region had been the theatre of a number of proxy wars between the US and Russian blocs, notably the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 and the “civil wars” that tore through Lebanon and Afghanistan or the war between Iran-Iraq in the 1980s. With the collapse of the Russian bloc at the end of that decade, the US sought to impose itself as the world’s only super-power, demanding that its former western bloc partners join the first war of Bush Senior’s “New World Order” against Saddam’s Iraq in 1991. But this New World Order soon proved to be a delusion. Instead of achieving a new global stability - one that would be dominated by the US of course - every new American military adventure only accelerated a slide into chaos: the current state of the two countries it invaded at the beginning of the new century, Afghanistan and Iraq, provides ample evidence of that. Under Obama, US reverses in these countries and the need to “pivot” towards the Far East to face up to the rising challenge of China further underlined the weakening of American imperialism’s grip on the Middle East. In Syria it has had to cede more and more ground to Putin’s Russia, which has now formed an alliance with Turkey (a NATO member) to disperse the Kurdish forces which had previously held northern Syria with the backing of the US.
However if the US has been in retreat, it has continued to insist that it has by no means withdrawn from the region. It has instead shifted its strategy towards unfailing support for its two most reliable allies in the region - Israel and Saudi Arabia. Under Trump it has virtually abandoned any pretence to be an arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians, supporting Netanyahu’s openly annexationist moves without demur. Equally, it has no qualms about supporting the Saudi regime which is waging a brutal war in Yemen and which brazenly murders opposition spokesmen like the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed and dismembered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. And above all, it has piled on the pressure against its chief enemy in the region, Iran.
Iran has been a thorn in the US flesh ever since the so-called Islamic Revolution which overthrew the strongly pro-US Shah in 1979. In the 80s it supported Saddam’s war against Iran in order to weaken the new regime. But the toppling of Saddam in 2003 has opened a large part of Iraq to Iranian influence: the Shia-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad is closely aligned to the Tehran regime. This has greatly increased Iran’s own imperialist ambitions in the entire Middle East: it has established a kind of state within a state via Hizbollah in Lebanon and is the main support for the Houthi forces battling Saudi Arabia and its proxies in Yemen. And Soleimani was the principal architect of Iranian imperialism in these and other adventures.
Trump’s decision to go ahead with the assassination of Soleimani was not, therefore, based on a mere whim of this admittedly unpredictable US president, but is part of an imperialist strategy backed by a considerable portion of the US bourgeoisie – even though pursuing its logic has certainly sharpened divisions within the military/political apparatus of the US ruling class. In particular it has angered those who supported Obama’s more conciliatory approach to Iran as embodied in the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, one of the first diplomatic deals to be ditched by Trump when he became president. This attempt to build bridges with Iran has also been the approach of the main European powers, including Britain, who have again expressed their misgivings about Trump’s policies following the Soleimani killing.
Behind the spiral of violence: the impasse of world capital
These bourgeois critics of Trump have complained that they can’t see the “long game” behind Soleimani’s assassination, that Trump hasn’t thought things through. They continue to affirm their commitment to rational, political, diplomatic solutions to the war-like conflicts and rivalries that are spreading throughout the globe. But capitalism’s slide into militarism is not the product of Trump or other bad leaders, but of the historic impasse of the capitalist system, and these “responsible” bourgeois factions are no less reliant on the military machine than Trump and other populists – the use of drone warfare in the Middle East and surrounding regions was pioneered under Obama.
Trump’s administration is founded on the recognition that both the old order of disciplined military alliances, which held sway during the Cold War, and the post-1989 New World Order project, are equally dead and that the real dynamic in the world since 1989 is “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost”: this is the real significance of Trump’s “America First” slogan. And this in turn is the expression, at the level of international relations, of the underlying decomposition of capitalist society itself – of the final phase of capitalism’s decline as a mode of production, which was first clearly signalled by the outbreak of the First World War. In this context, the US is no longer the gendarme of the world, but the principal factor in the descent into chaos. Trump is merely the personification of this remorseless tendency. That is why the “long game” being played behind the Soleimani killing, irrespective of the subjective fantasies of Trump or his acolytes and supporters, can only have one result: the escalation of military barbarism, whether or not this takes place in the shorter or longer term. And, as the nightmare in Syria starkly illustrates, the first victim of this escalation will be the mass of the population, the “collateral damage” of militarism. In this sense, whether intentional or not, the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner over Tehran on the same day as the Iranian missile strike against US airbases demonstrates the real human cost of these military confrontations.
The Iran regime and the left wing of capital
The left wing of the capitalist political machine – the Democrats and “Democratic Socialists” in the US, the Corbynists in the UK, the Trotskyists everywhere – have their own agenda when they blame the racking up of tensions in the Middle East on Trump or US imperialism. This flows from the idea that America or the western powers are the only imperialists, and that they are opposed by non-imperialist or even anti-imperialist countries such as Russia, China – or Iran. This is a lie: in this epoch, all countries are imperialist, from the biggest and most influential states to the smaller and less global powers. Iran, no less than Israel, has its own imperialist drives, expressed in its attempts to use proxy forces to become the leading power in the Middle East. And behind them lurk the bigger imperialist states of Russia and China. By contrast, those exploited by capital, whatever nation state presides over their exploitation, have no interest in identifying with the imperialist adventures of their own ruling class
The left, while calling for the defence of the so-called “oppressed” nations and nation states, also claims to be on the side of the exploited and the oppressed in these countries, where the long reign of the war economy together with the impact of the world economic crisis –to which we can add the weight of US sanctions in a country like Iran – has certainly led to a massive build-up of social discontent and opposition to the existing regimes across the Middle East. This has been demonstrated by the popular revolts in countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Iran in the past two years. But while the leftists trumpet their support for these movements, they really undermine the possibility of an independent class movement emerging in these countries, because they refuse to criticise the weaknesses in these revolts where different class interests are melded together. Indeed, with their support for the “nationalism of the oppressed”, the leftists can only further strengthen the tendency of these revolts to take on a nationalist direction (as with the anti-Iranian slogans raised in the protests in Iraq, or the waving of the Lebanese flag as a false solution to sectarian divisions in Lebanon). And now that the regimes in Iran and Iraq, are for the moment, seeking to drown discontent towards the regime in a hysterical campaign of anti-American national unity, the left, by echoing the anti-US slogans, reveals itself as a cheerleader to the war effort of the Ayatollahs. And it is one of the ironies of the situation that the US assassination of Soleimani enables the Tehran regime to use these campaigns to bolster its credibility as the defender of Iranian “national interests”.
And yet, despite the well-publicised pictures of hundreds of thousands in the streets weeping for Soleimani, we doubt that the exploited and the oppressed of Iran and Iraq have been entirely taken in: this after all is the same Soleimani whose elite forces have been in the forefront of the merciless repression of the protests against the regime, which has left hundreds of corpses in the streets. The angry anti-government demonstrations that broke out across Iran immediately after the authorities admitted that they had shot down the Ukrainian airliner show that the “Sacred Union” promoted by the regime after the killing of Soleimani has no real solidity.
The working class in Iran has waged some courageous struggles in the past two years, revealing once again that it has the potential - as we saw at certain moments in 1978-79 – to provide a leadership to the mass of the population, to integrate their discontent into an authentically proletarian movement.
But for this to happen, the workers of Iran, Iraq and other countries in the front line of imperialist conflict will have to develop the capacity to avoid all the traps laid in their path, whether in the form of nationalism or illusions in the superiority of “western democracy”. And they will not be able to make this vital step forward without the active solidarity of the international working class, above all in the central countries of the system. The current struggles of the working class in France indicate that this is not a forlorn hope.
Against the escalation of military barbarism, the only way forward for humanity lies in the escalation of the international class struggle against capital, its national rivalries, its repression and its wars.
 The “shirt changing” of Erdogan’s Turkey works both ways however, like most alliances in this period: in the Middle East, it has sidled up towards Russia against the US, but in Libya, it has sent in troops to support the UN-recognised Government of National Accord, against the forces under Khalifa Haftar, which are backed by Russia…
 Let’s also recall that the same Trump who hypocritically declares his support for the protests of the Iranian population against poverty and unemployment is now threatening to make their living conditions yet more desperate by inflicting even more crippling economic sanctions on Iran. No less hypocritical is Trump’s pretence of supporting the protests that followed the downing of the airline, an attempt to instrumentalise Iran’s blunder and spread illusions in the moral scruples of the western powers.