In September and October relations between Britain and Iran grew increasingly hostile. In late September Britain supported calls for Iran to be reported to the UN Security Council over its determination to restart its nuclear programme; for several years beforehand, Britain had opposed this. In early October it accused Iran of complicity in the killing of British soldiers in Iraq by supplying the insurgents with arms, explosives and training. Iran responded by accusing Britain of involvement in a bombing in Tehran that killed several people and wounded about 100. At the end of the month Tony Blair attacked the call by the Iranian president for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and seemed to hint at military action (Guardian, 28/10/05). The latest action has seen the recall of a number of ‘moderate’ diplomats by Tehran, including the ambassador to Britain.
In Britain this has been portrayed as the result of the new hard line taken by Iran following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. In reality these developments are a consequence of the growing instability in the region. This instability has existed for some time but has been sharply accelerated by the invasion of Iraq and the bloody chaos that has resulted.
Britain, for its part, is neither the USA’s loyal ally in the fight against terrorism, as the right would have it, nor the pawn of the US, as the left would have us believe. Britain’s interest in Iran, as with its involvement in Iraq, is motivated by its own imperialist interests rather than subservience to those of the US. Contrary to what the left says, Britain has pursued its own policy since the collapse of the cold war blocs in 1989. It is true that at times this has seen it going in the same direction as the US, but its destination was never the same. Throughout the last 16 years Britain has sought to pursue an independent foreign policy, steering a course between the forces of America and those of the European powers, particularly Germany. However this has become an increasingly hard course to follow as the gradual worsening of the global situation has increased the pressure from both sides, with the result that Britain is increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place. The bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001 made this dilemma even worse and led to an apparent shift towards America. In reality, this was not the abandonment of the independent policy, but its adaptation to the new situation, dominated by the US offensive under the smokescreen of the ‘war on terror’.
The strategic importance
of the Middle East
The Middle East has been an arena for imperialist struggle for close to two centuries. It remains so today. The US has recognised its strategic importance for decades; since the collapse of the blocs it has assumed an even greater importance, and today domination of this region is an important part of the USA’s global strategy. Through a succession of spectacular military interventions in the region, the USA has attempted to reinforce its status as the world’s only superpower; but from the first Gulf war of 1991 to the current mess in Iraq, the result each time has been to create new rivals and new enemies for every one it subdues.
Britain has sought to pursue its own path in the Middle East, marked by a tendency to try to win influence amongst Arab states more than with Israel. This has been a difficult and largely unsuccessful effort – diplomatic efforts have been rebuffed, sometimes publicly, as when Robin Cook visited Syria some years ago. There have been diplomatic overtures towards Iran on several occasions. In 2003, Britain sided with Europe to oppose the US call to refer Iran to the UN: “this is the first time that the Americans and the Europeans – with Britain for once in the European camp – have been so severely at odds” (Guardian, 21/11/03). Britain has continued this more recently as part of the EU Troika (with France and Germany). This initiative seemed to have some success earlier in the year when the US softened its rhetoric, having previously hinted that Iran might be the next country to benefit from liberation, US style. Iran has made itself into a serious obstacle to US domination of the area, and is consequently on the receiving end of a growing barrage of threats.
Iran’s regional ambitions
That said, Iran is also an imperialist state, and has had aspirations to be a regional power for many decades. Iraq has been its main rival in the region and this rivalry was one of the causes of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The imposition of a fundamentalist theocracy following the Iranian ‘revolution’ of 1979 was an expression of an irrational trend within the life of the bourgeoisie, an early sign of the decomposition of capitalist society. But this did not prevent Iran from playing its own hand in the imperialist game. The religious rhetoric in which it framed its imperialist ambitions was a precursor of that employed today by Al Qaida and echoed by the London bombers of 7th July. The changes in the global imperialist configuration following 1989 and 9/11 required Iran to adapt its strategy, just as every country has had to. In particular, it has sought to strengthen its situation through diplomatic means: “Since the early 1990s Iran has accelerated the normalisation of relations with its neighbours (in particular Saudi Arabia), and, as a number of experts have pointed out, has strengthened political, economic and commercial ties with the European Union, Russia, China and India.” (Le Monde Diplomatique, English Language Edition, January 2005). In the Middle East it retains close links with Lebanon and Syria and with Hizbollah and Palestinian armed groups; it also has influence within the forces of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Despite the ritual anti-US rhetoric, Iran backed the US invasion of Afghanistan and accepted the subsequent invasion of Iraq, doubtlessly hoping to benefit from its rival’s misfortune. This seemed to be mirrored by internal changes under the supposedly more moderate leadership of the former president Mohammed Khatami. The evolution of the situation, in particular the fact that America is getting bogged down by the chaos and that this chaos is threatening to break Iraq apart, is not merely encouraging Iran to be more bold; it is actually requiring it to be so if it is to have any chance of advancing its interests in the present climate. This is what lies behind its resumption of nuclear activity and its growing involvement in the violence in Iraq. The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is fundamentally a symptom of the situation in the region rather than a cause.
British policy adapts to
the spread of chaos
British strategy towards Iran has also changed as a result of the development of the situation in Iraq and its consequences for power relationships in the Middle East and beyond. In the past Britain has sought to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq, readily going along with the decision of the US to leave Saddam Hussein in place after the first Gulf war and even to allow him to brutally crush the uprisings in the north and south of the country in the immediate aftermath of the war. Support for Iran was a counterbalance to this: participation in the Troika provided a convenient means to offer this support and, more importantly, to apply some pressure on the US. Today, however, the possible splintering of Iraq into separate Kurdish, Shia and Sunni parts, implies that Iraq can no longer be relied on a counter-weight to Iran. For British diplomacy, this requires an equally weakened Iran. At the same time Iranian backing for insurgents in Iraq has led to the death and injury of a number of British soldiers.
Britain now wants to see Iran reined in. This is what lies behind the hard line now being taken by Britain over the nuclear issue and its open attack on Iran for harbouring and training terrorists. It may also explain why the SAS soldiers caught in Basra were carrying bombs and dressed as members of Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mehdi Army, a Shia militia with links to Iran: they may have been planning a ‘false flag’ operation to discredit Iran.
Britain’s convergence with US strategy over Iran is more apparent than real: while the US wants to impose its order in the region in order to maintain its position as the sole superpower, Britain wants to play one against another in order to enhance its influence. Essentially, the change in policy is an adaptation to the spread of chaos, an attempt by British imperialism to ride on the rising wave of barbarism. However, such a strategy can only have one outcome: the fuelling of still more imperialist confrontation and the acceleration of the spread of chaos.