“I don’t know how many times the president, secretary Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran” (Guardian 10/2/07). These were the words of US Defence Secretary Gates in February a few days after President Bush threatened Iran with retaliation for its involvement in Iraq and as a US fleet of some 50 ships, including two aircraft carriers and others with cruise missiles, moved within striking distance of Iran. Perhaps not surprisingly, Washington’s actions were taken more seriously than its words and numerous commentators in the press speculated about the likelihood of action against Iran: “The US ‘push back’ against Iran comprises many other elements beyond Iraq. Unconfirmed reports suggest Vice-President Dick Cheney has cut a deal with Saudi Arabia to keep oil production up even as prices fall, to undercut Iran’s main source of foreign currency. Washington is pursuing expanding, non-UN global financial sanctions against Tehran; encouraging and arming a ‘new alignment’ of Sunni Arab Gulf states; and highlighting Iran’s role in ‘supporting terrorism’ in Palestine…Almost any of these developments might produce a casus belli. And when taken together, despite official protestations, they seem to point in only one direction. The Bush administration, an American commentator suggested, is ‘once again spoiling for a fight’” (Guardian, 31/1/07).
The campaign being waged by the US against Iran goes back several years. For much of that time the main issue has been Tehran’s nuclear programme, which was only revealed in 2002. There has been a diplomatic dance between the US, Iran and other countries in and out of the meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency with agreements made and broken, initiatives proposed and ignored, and threats made and reciprocated. A year ago Iran resumed uranium enrichment, leading to a referral to the UN Security Council and first the offer of incentives and then a vote to impose sanctions. The US has made veiled threats of military action while Israel, which bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1980, has been more open.
Iraq provided the second theme with reports of Iranian support for the insurgency leading to the claim that the weapons it had supplied were responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers. The threat to take action against Iranian agents in Iraq was followed just a few hours later by the detention of six Iranians alleged to be members of the Revolutionary Guard. The US has been keen to present evidence to support its claims - such as the serial number of weapons said to confirm their origin in Iran - but such claims, so reminiscent of the ‘intelligence’ used to justify the invasion of Iraq, have been widely ridiculed.
The weakness of US power leads to war
Why is the US making these threats and are they real? Both questions can only be answered by looking at the broader imperialist struggle. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the US has come to depend more and more on displays of military force to try and reassert its global dominance. However, all of its efforts, from the first Gulf War through Bosnia, Afghanistan and numerous smaller wars to the invasion of Iraq, have only provoked more challenges. The more the US has shown off its apparent strength the more its real weakness has been exposed. This paradox has been partially explained by no less a person than Francis Fukuyama, the prophet of the end of history and the untrammelled victory of capitalism: “American military doctrine has emphasised the use of overwhelming force, applied suddenly and decisively, to defeat the enemy. But in a world where insurgents and militias deploy invisibly among civilian populations, overwhelming force is almost always counterproductive: it alienates precisely those people who have to make a break with the hardcore fighters and deny them the ability to operate freely…The Bush doctrine sought to use preventative war against Iraq as a means of raising the perceived cost to would-be proliferators of approaching the nuclear threshold. Unfortunately, the cost to the US itself was so high that it taught exactly the opposite lesson: the deterrent effect of American conventional power is low, and the likelihood of preventative war actually decreases if a country manages to cross that threshold” (Guardian 31/1/07). Of course Fukuyama can’t see that this is not the result of particular circumstances but of the general tendency in decomposing capitalism for a generalised free-for-all amongst all states as they struggle for position. The US epitomises this not because it is the worst power but because it is the biggest. In their conduct and intentions the militias in the Middle East and Africa or the bombers in Spain and Britain are no different.
Since the destruction of the Twin Towers the US has waged an offensive around the globe to reassert its authority against all of its rivals, that is against every state and every would-be state and faction. This offensive has collapsed in the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan and has led to serious divisions within the American ruling class over the way to go. The report of the Iraq Study Group, which called for talks with Iran and Syria, was initially ignored by Bush who, in the State of the Union Address, declared that “to win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy” and identified “an escalating danger from Shia extremists” who “are determined to dominate the Middle East” and many of whom “take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah”.
The rise of Iranian imperialism
For its part Iran is no more a peace-loving nation that the US. Since the ‘revolution’ of 1979 this Islamic republic has aspired to regional dominance and has resorted readily to war, notably against its regional rival Iraq during the 1980s. Nor have its principles got in the way: in the 1980s it accepted arms supplied by Israel with US agreement and after 9/11 it moved towards the US: “…Iran’s desire for an accommodation with the US has led it to take steps that would once have been unimaginable. In 2001 it backed the US war against Afghanistan; and in 2003 it demonstrated its willingness to cooperate by encouraging Shia groups in Iraq to support the US invasion” (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2005). This strategy has been very successful: the invasion removed Iraq as a serious rival and the ensuing chaos offered it opportunities too good to resist: “The winner in this conflict is Iran. The US strategy of disbanding the army and de-Ba’athifying Iraq removed Tehran’s traditional enemy from the region, while the US reliance on Shia clerics empowered Iran’s allies inside Iraq. The US now confronts a greatly strengthened Iran because of its own actions” (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2007). Iran has developed its influence across the region and is “emerging as the champion of a new front of struggle that combines Arab nationalism with the rising tide of Islamic resistance” (ibid).
Iran has used the divisions between the great powers to pursue its nuclear ambitions and to cultivate its regional influence under the pretence of supporting its Shia co-religionists and has become more bellicose as the crisis in the Middle East has deepened. The election of the supposedly hardline Ahmadinejad and his nationalistic defence of Iran’s ‘right’ to nuclear power correspond neatly to this regional imperialist strategy. It is not Ahmadinejad who has taken Iran away from the path of moderation supposedly embodied in his predecessor Rafsanjani, but the needs of Iranian imperialism that have produced Ahmadinejad. The radical language, including the calls for the destruction of Israel and the denial of the Holocaust, are a calculated strategy to harness the despair of the layers of impoverished and disorientated workers and peasants throughout the Middle East. That the allegations of intervening in the neighbouring countries and of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons are true is obvious: this is the aspiration and the unavoidable need of any state that aspires to real power.
The rise of Iranian imperialism is a consequence of a point we have often made in recent years: that it is far easier for a second rate power to cause problems for the dominant power than it is for the latter to maintain order. War between the US and Iran may not be inevitable but it is inevitable that their imperialist manoeuvres will lead to more bloodshed. This remains true despite the apparent about-face of the administration over the last few days. Bush now seems to be taking on board the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and has invited both Iran and Syria to take part in talks aiming at the stabilisation of Iraq. This is certainly an admission of weakness on the USA’s part, but experience has shown that the weakening of the ‘Great Satan’ of US imperialism does not bring about an earthly paradise: rather it provides new opportunities for all the ‘Little Satans’ to pursue their own sordid imperialist designs. North, 1/3/07