With the assassination of Qaseem Soleimani and nine other associates, including bosses of Iran’s powerful military groups, the Popular Mobilisation Units and Kata’ib Hezbollah on January 3 2020, Trump sent a signal, entirely consistent with his presidency, that all “convention” was out of the window and no-one was safe in this tense stand-off between the USA and Iran. Hassan Nasrallah, president of Hezbollah in Lebanon and firm ally of Iran, probably a little nervous in the hours after the attack, took to the airwaves to call on Tehran not to make any sudden response and, for “US troops to leave Iraq”. A day later, despite noise from some “hard-liners” within the regime that were quickly silenced, that was the official position of the Islamic Republic whose ruling elite signalled the details of their “retribution” to the Americans through Iraqi conduits. Despite being hyped-up in a general media campaign, there wasn’t any great possibility of a regional conflagration through an exchange of missiles (the use of US troops was not likely either) and there was even less possibility of a Third World War, despite the sensationalist headlines in some parts of the bourgeois press. Why we think that this wasn’t the case and why this means no attenuation in the spread of military barbarism we will return to below. In the meantime, the removal of Soleimani has dealt a blow to Iranian imperialism, but it’s never about one man and it remains to be seen just how grievous this blow is to the Islamic Republic; whether this further undermines it following the recent protests (quelled but not disappeared); or whether it strengthens Iranian nationalism and its base. Whatever the case Soleimani, over the decades, had already done a great deal towards the extension of Iranian imperialism throughout the Middle East and into sub-Saharan Africa.
Qaseem Soleimani: the butcher’s butcher
The Quds (“Jerusalem”) force and associated units, which Soleimani rose up through from the1980’s and took control of about 15 years ago, were responsible for the internal repression of struggling and protesting Iranian workers and others in 1999, ten years after that in 2009 and again a decade later, in 2019/2020. They were responsible for the many deaths of Iraqi protesters around the latter time and it was these forces which unleashed a pitiless repression against anti-Assad protesters after 2012, virtually saving the Syrian butcher and his tottering regime. Soleimani wasn’t a Shi’ite fanatic but an important representative of Iranian imperialism. He was an ally of the Russians but he was no Russian stooge He was also allied, at different moments, with the Americans, and with Kurds, Alawites, Maronites, Sunni, anyone in fact who would further his cause. He has even used al-Qaida against the Americans - for which Iran received its own “blow-back”. It’s no wonder that Soleimani was held in such high regard by the faction-riven Iranian regime and why he was anointed a “living martyr” by Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Iran and particularly the Soleimani elements were never puppets or pawns of Russia acting on Moscow’s orders. It wasn’t the case recently and after the fall of the Shah, which took place in 1979 when the blocs still existed, Iran has tended to go its own way. The Mullah’s regime was something of a wild card, presaging in some ways the collapse of the blocs and the ensuing imperialist free-for-all. But, if anything, while he was directly and indirectly responsible for many US deaths, Soleimani remained willing to work with the Americans; and there is no doubt that even after President George W. Bush targeted Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002, American diplomatic and military arms played a significant role in building up and consolidating the Quds and associated Iranian forces in Iraq. Even if relations became more complicated later, after Saddam’s fall, the Iraqi governing council was essentially set up by the Americans and Iranians, given that the US had no alternative but to tolerate the rise of the Shi’ite parties after Saddam’s overthrow.
After the Twin Towers atrocity in 2001 and a certain “reaching-out” by Iran, career ambassador and senior State Department official Ryan Crocker and his team, regularly met Iranian officials including Soleimani in order to discuss their common enemies: al-Qaida and the Taliban. Even after Bush’s Neo-Con inspired rant ended the official meetings (and the official rapprochement), Iranian-US contacts were kept up in the years that followed. The game that Soleimani developed was to carry on talking to the Americans, making concessions here, doing favours there, while continuing to pressure the US and kill and harass American troops and their allies. The release of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks shows that Soleimani was in touch with US General David Petraeus, Commander-General of forces in Iraq around 2008. It was in this unprecedented development of asymmetric warfare - a general factor of capitalist decomposition that includes terrorism - that the Iranian commander lured the US into a trap that would be sprung largely with the facilities and space provided by the Americans themselves. At this time there were over a hundred-thousand US troops in Iraq and every one of them was a target. The Iranians used them and then subjected to constant violence and psychological pressure which contributed to the gradual withdrawal of US troops; and while this may have pleased the Russians the driving force behind it was Iranian imperialism.
Trump declared himself the victor over Isis recently but if one man was responsible for the defeat of Isis (along with US logistics, Russian air-power and Kurdish ground troops) it was Soleimani and his forces. In the battle against Isis, US and Iranian high commands worked very closely together, with Iran sometimes calling the shots. The battle over Isis-held Amarili, a Shi’ite Turkmen town in Iraq, saw combined air and ground attacks involving both forces in what was a significant defeat for the Islamic State and a major victory for the US/Iranian coalition. In this respect, Soleimani could also lean on the Russians and the Kurds with some pressure; once again, it shows the relative independence of Iranian imperialism.
Taken from the “extreme” end of the spectrum of possible US responses to continuing Iranian aggression, the hit against Iran/Soleimani was directed by Trump in true Mafia style. The President, who was calm and lucid throughout the whole episode, clearly laid his cards on the table, was open about those up his sleeve, and the Iranians, understandably, folded. There was no interest in a missile exchange, no interest from Iran in suffering further, greater losses and no interest whatsoever from Trump in getting engaged in a wider war. Nor was there any interest at all from China and Russia in getting involved in war in the Middle East over Iran, the consequences of which were obvious. All the wars of imperialism are fundamentally irrational but a wounded, possibly leaderless Iran would have been a dangerous development for all the imperialist vultures, creating an unstable black-hole sucking in all sorts of elements (including a partly resurgent Isis) and aggravating further the centrifugal tendencies already at work.
Nevertheless, the USA’s general policy of turning up the heat on Iran will certainly result in further instability in the region. Even though National Security Advisor John Bolton’s gone, Trump is still surrounded by anti-Iranian “hawks”. The letter to the Iraqi government from US Iraqi overlord General W. H. Seely, acceding to the former’s request to withdraw all US troops, shows the confusion that reigned in the upper echelons of the US military. The Germans and the French were openly scornful of the action and Britain, which desperately needs Trump on side, joined the EU’s criticism. None of them have much to gain from the USA further exacerbating the chaos in the Middle East.
New blocs not on the agenda
The relationship between Russia and Iran, highlighted by recent events, is worth a brief, closer look, particularly in relation to the ICC’s general analysis of decomposition and the perspective raised by the Internationalist Communist Tendency, who talk of the potential for a bloc-wide world war led by Russia which, according to the ICT’s position can’t stand by and “watch” (the US assassinations) and it can’t allow Iran to be attacked “with impunity”. Not only can Russia “allow” this, it facilitates attacks on Iranian forces in Syria by Israel and is not averse to attacking Iranian positions in Syria using its own forces. The overriding tendency is not towards the “coherence” of a bloc-wide world war but one of each against all and the development of military barbarism which is just as dangerous for the working class and humanity - if not more so.
In his comments after the US attacks Putin did not mention the name “Soleimani” once and his muted criticism of the attack reflected the view of the Kremlin as a whole, which left it to its media to play up the question of “the aggression of US imperialism”. Russia’s historical relations with Iran have left deep scars and its relatively recent relations have been ambiguous to say the least; but Soleimani’s death does present Russian imperialism with a chance to further strengthen its grip in Syria and, possibly, in Iraq.
Although his role was exaggerated somewhat by Tehran, Soleimani worked very closely with the Russians in Syria as an ally. But we have also seen that he has worked very closely with the US high command in both Syria and Iraq. The recent strategy of Soleimani and the IRGC (Quds and other militias) has been to strengthen the role of Iran in Syria in order to further its reach; opposed to this, the Russian aim is to strengthen the Assad regime and thus its own position. Rather than pushing for a wider confrontation over US attacks on Iran, the Russians may not be too unhappy about the outcome of these US attacks; and if there was one world leader that would have been informed of the drone attacks beforehand by Trump, it would have been Putin.
Under the leadership of Soleimani, the IRGC has been buying vast tracts of land and buildings around Homs and Damascus which are being turned into Iranian enclaves. There are clear tensions here that are split three ways and Russia does not see eye to eye with Iran over Syria. Russia could have protected Iranian forces in Syria from attacks by Israel by simply keeping its newly-installed S-300 missile system deployed but, in collusion with the Israeli state, it regularly allows Israeli war planes to enter Syrian air-space, unleash their weapons against Iranian positions and get out again. Iran has repeatedly expressed its anger at Russia over this but the latter just ignores it. Russia has also let Israel know that it might be able to help reduce Iran’s weapons supplies through Damascus, a card it holds over Iran, and it’s not above confronting Iranian forces in the country directly - as it did in Deera Province when it routed the Iranian-backed Fourth Division. And along with Israel, Russia has recently developed ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all of them no allies of Iran.
None of these things point to any sort of bloc coherence with Russia, or with Russia “having” to respond to US attacks on Iranian interests in the way the ICT envisages and none of it prevents Russia posing as a “protector” of Iran and using its “assets” which have proved very useful to it in Syria. And with Turkey very much in the mix, upsetting everyone with its drive for the so-called New Ottoman Empire, which has recently led to direct confrontations between Turkey and the Syrian army around Idlib, we are not seeing the development of a drive towards unified military blocs. Rather we see the war of each against all and centrifugal tendencies dominating. Without going into to the myriad divergences between the different powers over different regions, now the “Great Game” in the Middle East resembles even more what was described by one British diplomat a while ago: “a nine-sided game of chess with no rules”.
The collapse of the two bloc system and the rise of the “New World Disorder”
From the early 1950’s to the late 1980’s, World War III was a distinct possibility. The two imperialist blocs existed, the world more or less carved up between them and tensions were rising everywhere, particularly around key flashpoints. But throughout the period 1968-89, when the return of the open world economic crisis “logically” implied a new march towards war, the proletariat’s dogged insistence on fighting for its own class interests staved off any mobilisation for an imperialist conflagration. Today though, with the complete absence of unified imperialist blocs, with no prospect of them on the horizon and, possibly, their disappearance for good, the bourgeoisie is not forced to confront and mobilise the proletariat in this way. And this is the result of capitalism’s own inability to impose and cohere the discipline necessary for major blocs to fight a world war. Instead of that there are all sorts of centrifugal tendencies at work, dog-eat-dog, fragmentation, ‘Us first against the others’ and instability. The formation of blocs is not at the root of imperialism - it’s the other way round, and the consequence of 1989 is that imperialism now takes on a different, but no less dangerous form in keeping with the general decay and decomposition of the entire capitalist system. World-war-fighting imperialist blocs are a consequence of decadent capitalism, but the fragmentation of this particular form and its elimination, certainly for the foreseeable future, is significant of capitalism’s further decay and the consequences of the Pandora’s Box that opened up in 1989.
The collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, was one of the most spectacular “peace-time” expressions of the crisis and decomposition of the entire capitalist system. Overnight, world war was off the agenda. The implosion of the eastern bloc and all its structures had its reverberations in the west where, almost immediately, bloc ties became loosened. Despite the deafening campaigns about the “death of communism” and the “victory of capitalism”, it didn’t take long - two years - for the reality of the “New World Order” to assert itself. Soon after the USA’s doomed attempt to prevent the fragmentation of its own bloc via the coalition that fought the first Gulf War in 1991, war broke out in Yugoslavia 1992, the first outright war in Europe since 1945. A brutal, bestial conflict, targeting civilians in ways reminiscent of World War II; it was stirred up initially by Germany, which expressed the tendency for bloc indiscipline and then descended into hell with almost every major power backing their own factions and joining in. And it’s been downhill in the expanding zones of war and militarism ever since, with the Middle East and Africa prime examples.
More problems for the proletarian perspective but its tasks remain the same
It’s certainly true that since the downfall of the USSR, Russian imperialism has rationalised and re-armed, once again emerging as a major player on the world arena. Even more importantly, China has appeared as the major challenger to US hegemony, demonstrating that that a tendency towards bipolarisation between the most powerful imperialist states still exists. Furthermore, it is above all the rise of China which, already under Obama, led to the USA declaring Asia to be the new pivot and the containment of China its main priority; this was the real meaning behind Obama’s policy of disengagement from large parts of the Middle East, which the Trump regime has taken even further. But neither the mounting rivalry between US and China, or the tensions between Russia and the US, should be confused with the actual formation of blocs, which is being continually undermined by the dominant tendency towards fragmentation. This tendency has been illustrated very clearly not only by the incredible military chaos in the Middle East but also by threats to the unity of the European Union, the World Trade Organisation, NATO and a whole host of “international” organisations and the protocols and agreements that they are based upon.
None of this makes the struggle of the working class any easier, more difficult in fact, but it does make it all the more essential for its future and the future of humanity. The united proletariat remains the only possible force able to confront and eventually overturn the unimaginable perspective that capitalism has in store for us. And, from our point of view, it doesn’t really matter if we are blown up by explosives, poisoned to death or fried by climate change. In the meantime, as recent developments in the class struggle have tentatively indicated, the working class, as an exploited class, has the potential to fight, to organise itself, to set up its assemblies for consolidating and spreading its combats against being locked up by the unions, isolated as “citizens” and trapped behind corporatism and national borders.
We would be lying if we did not lay out the serious and difficult challenges facing the working class by these developments of capitalism, developments that can only facilitate further decay and barbarity. But despite the retreat and demoralisation of the last few decades, the working class has historically been and remains the only possible social force that can offer humanity a way out of the nightmare of moribund capitalism.