The first few weeks of the new year have seen renewed tensions over Iran, leading to a decision to send the issue to the UN security council.
On 5th January Tehran announced plans to resume research into nuclear fuel after a freeze of 30 months. It broke off further talks with the European powers that had been negotiating with it and refused to meet the International Atomic Energy Authority. When the threat of a referral to the UN was first made, Iran countered by threatening to block IAEA inspections of its facilities. It also raised the prospect of restricting its oil production, taunting its critics that “You need us more than we need you” (Iranian president Ahmadinejad quoted in The Observer 17/1/06), leading to speculation of oil prices of $100 a barrel. At the same time an intelligence briefing, drawing on the agencies of several European countries, was published as evidence of plans to develop nuclear weapons. During the same period the Iranian president also made a number of provocative statements denouncing the holocaust as a myth and suggesting that Israel be re-established in Europe or Canada.
This prompted a chorus of disapproval from around the world, including from China and Russia, who have traditionally been supportive of the country, and resulted in the unanimous decision to report Iran to the UN security council. However, this apparent unity of the great powers is no more real today than at any time over recent years.
Behind the false unity
The response of the major powers to the events in Iran is a consequence of the global situation of increasing tensions rather than a consequence of any moral outrage. In this, it is similar to the attitude towards Iraq before the start of the war there. In the run up to that war the situation was dominated by the offensive of US imperialism. Today it is dominated by America’s difficulties, and above all by the quagmire in Iraq where the losses continue to mount, the attempts to stage manage the return of democracy unravel as quickly as they are put together and daily life remains harsh. The unilateral assertion of US power that followed 9/11 and led into Iraq stands in contrast to its current efforts to construct a multilateral approach to Iran.
All of this presents the US’s rivals, great and small, with an opportunity. For its major rivals there is little need to do anything much beyond watch the US suffer. Indeed it is even possible to indulge in mild, hypocritical support for the US.
This does not mean there is any real unity among the various powers involved. On the contrary each is fighting for its own advantage against all the rest. At one end stands Britain, apparently the most supportive of Washington’s allies but actually, as we showed in the last article on this question in WR 289, resolutely pursuing its own interests. While Britain has been at the forefront of attacks on Iran’s nuclear aspirations and led the way in calling for a referral to the UN, it has openly opposed the possible use of force and has repeatedly stressed that UN action does not have to take the form of sanctions.
At the other end, China and Russia have been the most open supporters of Iran; until the last week they opposed involving the UN and called for more negotiations. China’s position has been ascribed to its need for Iranian oil, which is true in part, but it also has its own imperialist ambitions and has developed relations with countries such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Sudan, as well as Iran, all of which are seen as anti-US. Russia for its part continues to propose a solution whereby it would process uranium for Iran on its territory. Russia and China met Iran on February 2nd to continue their efforts to find a compromise. The price of the unanimous decision to report Iran to the UN was the agreement that this would be delayed for a month and that Iran would only be ‘reported’ to the UN rather than ‘referred’, since the latter implies that the UN actually has to do something.
In between stand Germany and France, the former with very significant trade with Iran. Both have condemned Iran’s actions and worked with Britain at talks in London on 18th January to draft the resolution to put before the International Atomic Energy Authority’s meeting on 1st February, calling for it to refer Iran to the UN. While this has given a platform for plenty of rhetoric – the French Foreign Minister stated recently that “Iran has challenged the entire international community. The international community has to respond to that challenge with firmness and efficiency” (Guardian 31/1/06) - practically it means the issue has been put into the labyrinth of international diplomacy.
None of this means that the US is going to just stand by. All that has happened since the end of the cold war, and after the attack on the Twin Towers especially, shows that the US remains determined and capable of responding to a changing situation, indifferent to the slaughter and suffering caused along the way. Thus the threat of military action against Iran, although confined to the occasional isolated senator, is a real one. The fact that Washington has seemed to wait for the EU Three to call for a referral should not be taken at face value. It called for such a referral earlier and has gone further in outlining the possible consequences. On January 7th, two days after Iran’s declaration that it would resume nuclear fuel research, Condoleeza Rice, US Secretary of State, declared “When it’s clear that negotiations are exhausted, we have the votes…There is a resolution sitting here for referral. We’ll vote it. That’s not sabre rattling, that’s diplomacy…and diplomacy includes what you do in the Security Council” (Guardian 8/1/06) Two weeks later president Bush reaffirmed America’s commitment to defend Israel, while Israel in turn has raised the prospect of attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities without any reprimand from the US. In the recent State of the Union address Bush declared that “the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons”.
In the previous article we noted that “this chaos [of the situation in Iraq]…is not merely encouraging Iran to be more bold; it is actually requiring it to be so if it is actually to have any chance of advancing its interests…The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is fundamentally a symptom of the situation in the region rather than a cause”. This strategy has been continued and, with the recent threats to world oil prices, has become more daring. There is a logic to all of its actions: the attacks against Israel and the Jews, the declarations about the Holocaust, allow it to position itself at the radical edge of Islam and to present itself as the champion of the dispossessed Shia in Iraq and the oppressed Shia minorities in other parts of the Middle East. Thus, even while the tendency towards irrationality that emerged with the revolution of 1979 in Iran continues, expressing the weight of social decomposition, Iran’s strategy is also wholly within the imperialist logic of decadent capitalism. The radical language it addresses to the masses under the sway of Islam is fuelled by the same spread of chaos that pushes Iran towards greater defiance and greater radicalism in its strategy and tactics. The return to the language of the 1979 ‘revolution’ in Iran reflects this as does the recent election victory of Hamas in the Palestinian statelet. There is in all of this a coming together of factors that have a common root in the generalised chaos within capitalism as a whole and in the Middle East specifically.
However, the fact that Iran’s actions are not a simple outpouring of irrational rage can be seen in the control exercised over the radicalism, in the proposals for new talks that follow the denunciation of the West as being still in the dark ages, and in the claim that a compromise can still be reached after the threats of destruction against its enemies. It is evident too in the maintenance of diplomatic relations with neighbouring Arab countries, as well as with supposedly Communist China and corrupt, gangster-ridden Russia. It can be seen in the level of unity shown by the Iranian ruling class over the nuclear issue, with even moderates such as the former president giving support to the government’s strategy.
Of course, it goes without saying that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, that it has bought plans and materials on the black market and is using nuclear power as a cover for its real aim. This is the goal of every aspiring international player.
In the last article we reiterated the position that Britain has pursued its own imperialist strategy so that while “at times this has seen it going in the same direction as the US...its destination was never the same”. This remains the case. It has been at the forefront of condemning Iran, and when Blair supported a referral to the UN Security Council he raised the prospect of unspecified action: “Obviously we don’t rule out any measures at all. It’s important Iran recognises how seriously the international community treats it.” (Guardian Unlimited, 13/1/06). A day later, however, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw was more circumspect: “There are many issues which go on the agenda of the Security Council and which are actively discussed and where you then get action without sanctions. Everybody knows the range of measures available to the Security Council. The first decision for us to make is whether it goes on the agenda” (Guardian Unlimited, 14/01/06). A few days later, as we have seen, Britain joined France and Germany in drafting a resolution for the IAEA and was subsequently reported to be engaged alongside them in “an intensive round of worldwide lobbying…to try to maximise a vote on Iran” (Guardian 20/1/06). More recently, in response to the US’ position that keeping the military option open gave them ‘leverage’, Straw declared bluntly “I understand that’s the American position. Our position is different…There isn’t a military option and no one is talking about it” (Observer, 29/01/06).
Towards more death and destruction
The drawn-out crisis over Iran stands in continuity with US strategy since 9/11, but also shows the extent to which that offensive has slowed under the weight of events and has been unbalanced, delayed and diverted by the opposition of its rivals.
Are we then witnessing an unravelling of US strategy? The answer seems to be no; both because the US has vast untapped resources at its disposal and also because it has no real alternative. However, this does not mean that there might not be changes in tactics or tensions within the American ruling class as a consequence. Nor are we seeing the rise of any direct challenge to the US. All of its rivals have to speak the language of the ‘war on terror’, despite the fact that they frequently try to use the US’s words against it. All know that they lack the power to directly challenge the US, despite all the talk about the rise of China and the predictions that its military spending will outstrip that of the US over the next decades. However, the rational balancing of interests and resources exists alongside the more irrational pressures coming from the decomposition of capitalism and the drive to look after number one at all costs.
Will there be military action against Iran? At this point that cannot be answered. It fits into the logic of recent developments but it would also be a major escalation with profound and very widespread consequences. Iran is not Iraq. Its army is larger and better armed and it has stronger regional ties. This is one of the factors that allows it to act so defiantly.
What we can say is that whether there is war this time or not, the
dynamic of violence, destruction and disorder throughout the region and beyond