Iran: Edging towards a settlement US sanctions appear to have produced results for imperialism

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As Iranian president Hassan Rowhani addressed the UN general assembly on September 25, there seemed to be no end to the charm offensive unleashed by the new government in Tehran. Following a number of conciliatory articles in US papers1 and a TV interview during which he emphasised Iran’s commitment to “peaceful nuclear development”, the Iranian president arrived in New York, accompanied by Iran’s only Jewish MP – apparently a supporter of the new government.

Two days into the UN’s 68th general assembly, Iran’s foreign minister had already met William Hague, Rowhani had shaken hands with French president François Hollande and it was announced that Iran will take part in negotiations with the ‘five plus one’ countries on September 26, along with US foreign secretary John Kerry. The proposed meeting between Kerry and Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will be the highest-level US-Iran contact for more than 30 years and, according to media reports,2 the UN was buzzing with rumours that there might be a Rowhani-Obama handshake in the corridors of the United Nations.

The ‘accidental’ meeting would not have been the first time the US administration had used the general assembly for communicating with moderate Iranians. According to Bruce Riedel, who was a senior director at the National Security Council and adviser to Bill Clinton on Iran, in September 2000 Clinton instructed aides to arrange a face-to-face encounter with Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami. At the secretary general’s lunch, the two presidents were supposed to be seated not too far from each other so that an ‘accidental’ meeting could be arranged. Thirteen years later, the Americans apparently made very similar efforts.

However, there was no handshake. According to the New York Times, “After two days of discussions between American and Iranian officials about a potential meeting of the leaders, a senior administration official said the Iranian delegation indicated that it would be ‘too complicated’ for Mr Rowhani and Mr Obama to bump into each other.” Rowhani decided he could not attend the lunch organised for heads of states “because alcohol was being served”. The truth is Rowhani can only test supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s tolerance of his ‘diplomacy’ so far and clearly a handshake with Obama would have been too much. However Rowhani did manage a meeting that was just as important – with an unveiled woman, International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde, to discuss “how the partnership with the IMF might be deepened”. At the end of the day, after all the hype, Obama and Rowhani both spoke of improved relations and backed the resumption of nuclear talks.

Of course, we have been here before during the Khatami presidency, when similar gestures were hailed as signs of a thaw in US-Iran relations, yet little came out of it. In fact in an editorial The Guardian drew attention to this, warning that this time the west must not turn its back on diplomacy: “Failure now to create an atmosphere of trust and meaningful dialogue will only boost extremist forces on all sides. The consequences of such a failure will be not only regional, but global.”3

As I wrote last week, Rowhani has less than six months to bring about a resolution of the nuclear issue and an end to sanctions.4 After that he will surely lose the supreme leader’s support for negotiations. Before Rowhani left Tehran, Khamenei gave his blessing to his president’s efforts, speaking of Iran’s “heroic flexibility” and “tactical diplomacy”. Revolutionary Guard leaders echoed the supreme leader’s message.

Clearly sanctions are taking their toll and forcing the Iranian regime to compromise. Ironically, the super-rich clerics who run the country, as well as their immediate families and allies, have been relatively immune from the disastrous consequences of sanctions. However, the majority of Iranians are facing severe hardship caused by food and medical shortages, spiralling prices and the destruction of Iran’s economy – no wonder the country’s religious leaders fear losing power. So Khamenei and his obedient servants in the Revolutionary Guards have been forced to make a U-turn, be it for a limited period – in the words of former supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini, they have accepted that they must “drink the poison” of negotiations.5

Defeat

No-one should be under any illusion: the reality is that a superpower, the US, has defeated a ‘third world’ religious dictatorship by using its economic power. It has stopped Iran’s oil exports, paralysed its banking and financial systems, destroyed an important part of its manufacturing and petrochemical industries. Indeed Iran’s economy is in a worse situation now than during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. So, before anyone starts celebrating the prospects of peace, let me remind you that these negotiations, like the conflict that preceded them, are part of a reactionary process. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, the current hype about a rapprochement in US-Iran relations should be recognised for what it is: tortuous negotiations on the nuclear issue while long-term tensions persist.

In their respective speeches to the UN both Obama and Rowhani made clear references to the history of the last three decades. Obama spoke of Iran’s hostage-taking, of its labelling of the US as the main enemy and of its threats against Israel. Rowhani gave what could be described as a ‘third-worldist nationalist’ speech, complaining about inequality amongst states, and the misconceptions about the ‘civilised’ west and ‘uncivilised’ countries like Iran. So even if nuclear negotiations progress – and that is a big ‘if’ – the conflict will continue.

Throughout the last three decades both sides have fuelled this confrontation: in the case of Iran for internal reasons; and in the case of the US for global reasons – to prove the power of the hegemon. Now, in desperation, a wrecked Iran and a weakened US are looking for a settlement. It will not lead to ‘peace’ in the region. Far from it – it might fuel further conflicts between an enraged Israel and an empowered Iran; or between a Sunni alliance and the Shia/Alawi axis of Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Of course, all this also shows a level of incoherence in the US approach to the Middle East in general. The ousting of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and the coming to power of a Shia government in Baghdad had the inevitable consequence of increasing Iran’s influence in the region. The US’s immediate reaction was to strengthen its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supporting their interventions in Syria, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards were taking part in the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

But the Israeli lobby and hawks amongst US Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are very concerned. The joke in Tehran is that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the only person on earth who wishes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still Iranian president. According to Benny Avni, writing in the New York Post, “Iranian president Hassan Rowhani will undoubtedly play the well-dressed matinee idol in this year’s UN annual gabfest, which begins Tuesday. But will Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu be the only one to note that this emperor has no clothes?”6 Only hours after Rowhani’s UN appearance, Netanyahu described him as making “a cynical speech full of hypocrisy”.7

Some have argued that the current situation proves ‘sanctions’ have forced Iran to ‘engage in nuclear negotiations’. Nothing could be further from the truth. For all the talk of peace and moderation, Iran’s Islamic regime maintains a commitment to pursue nuclear development – so as far as the nuclear issue is concerned, not much has changed. What is different is the new government’s willingness to negotiate with the US.

Sanctions against Iran date back to 1979 and, contrary to Obama’s claims, they have always been about regime change. In this respect the US has succeeded, in that sanctions forced all candidates in this year’s presidential elections in Iran to take a ‘moderate’ line vis-à-vis US relations. This was as true of the more conservative candidates as it was of the centrist, Rowhani. No wonder Iranian royalists, the Mujahedin and others who hoped to be the main beneficiaries of US regime-change policy are furious with the Obama administration. However, as we in Hands Off the People of Iran have said, the US plan A was always about regime change – and that meant a change in policy, not necessarily a change in personnel.

Clearly Iran hopes that improved relations with the US will result in the lifting of some of the harshest sanctions, allowing the sale of Iranian oil, a gradual reacceptance of Iran’s banks and financial institutions into the world economy, and that in turn these measures will improve the rate of exchange for the Iranian currency. Will this improve life for the Iranian working class? Not very likely.

Working class

As the world media pontificates about the significance of this week’s events in New York, it is worthwhile listening to the words of Labour activist Ali Nejati, a member of the Haft Tapeh sugar workers’ union: “Workers should not be under any illusion that change in the management of the state, within the confines of the existing order and for the purpose of maintaining this order in power, will bring about any change in the economic, political and social situation of the working class, nor does this change represent any move in that direction. It is no secret that our class, despite encompassing the overwhelming majority of the population, plays no role in the country’s politics – as far as the government is concerned, our only role is to produce more, accept lower wages and become cannon fodder.”8

By contrast, Iranian reformists, even when the most radical among them address working class issues (and that in itself is a rare event), consider the class as a minority and they talk of “the necessity of raising the demands of all minorities: women, national minorities and workers”.9

What they fail to realise is that:

  •  the majority of the population of Iran are workers of one kind or another;
  •   this majority, the working class, remains the only force capable not only of freeing itself, but of winning the emancipation of other oppressed sections of the population;
  •   woman and national minorities are themselves divided into antagonistic classes.

So what can the working class do under difficult economic conditions at a time when repression remains as bad as it was in the worst years of the Ahmadinejad period? The reformist left is telling everyone that now is the time for ‘national reconciliation’, to give peace a chance, and the nation has to be united!

Labour activists such as Ali Nejati are absolutely right to combat such ideas. On the contrary, this is precisely the time for workers’ protests – not just over economic demands, but for political freedom and the end of the dictatorship. In Hopi we will do our utmost to support such demands – as long as the forces putting them forward are not tainted by western or Arab funds for regime change from above.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. See, for example, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-19/opinions/42214900_1_violence-world-leaders-hassan-rouhani.

2. www.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/world/middleeast/obama-and-iranian-leader-miss-each-other-diplomatically.html?_r=0.

3. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/iran-west-not-turn-back-diplomacy.

4. ‘More than Syria in its sights’, September 19.

5. www.nytimes.com/1988/07/21/us/khomeini-accepts-poison-of-ending-the-war-with-iraq-un-sending-mission.html.

6. http://nypost.com/2013/09/22/will-us-get-suckered-in-by-iran.

7. www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.548957.

8. http://rahekargar.de/browsf.php?cId=1033&Id=487&pgn=

9. Interview with exiled reformist activist Mostfa Khosravi: www.bbc.co.uk/persian/tv/2011/04/000001_ptv_newshour_gel.shtml.

Rowhani’s visit to US

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The events we are now witnessing in the Middle East, the “United States’ accidental diplomacy” regarding Syria1 and renewed talk of the resolution of Iran’s nuclear programme were unexpected a few weeks ago. Having declared that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” the Syrian leadership should not cross, the US has now accepted Russian proposals for a ‘diplomatic solution’.

If the original decision to launch a ‘limited military strike’ was unpopular, retreating from it has proved as unpopular and, both in the US and beyond, critics claim that the climbdown is an expression of indecision, of weakness. Of course, there are no guarantees that the agreement between the US and Russian foreign ministers struck on September 14 will lead to any kind of the resolution. Disarmament is a conflicted process at the best of times, but in the midst of a civil war, with both sides accusing the other of unleashing chemical weapons, with the state and sections of the opposition unleashing gratuitous violence against civilians, it is unlikely that the current deal will be the end of the affair.

A series of unexpected events left the US administration with little choice. First, there was (and is) some cynicism in most western countries regarding claims of justifying war on the basis of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Iraq war created distrust even amongst the most die-hard supporters of imperialism. Austerity and the continuing effects of the financial crisis have also played a part in generating a mood of opposition to a Syrian war. The result is that parliamentarians in the UK voted down Cameron’s attempt to join a rapid US attack and all the signs were that Congress was unlikely to endorse Obama either. In many ways the Russian proposal for a compromise, a few days after the US had tried to gain the support of allies at the G20 conference, saved the administration from further humiliation. Probably that is why it was accepted, even though no-one can be under any illusion that it will end the Syrian conflict.

Against this, and irrespective of the specifics of the Syrian conflict, US backtracking will have international repercussions. According to the Washington Times, Obama’s “red line” vow turned a lighter shade of pink, with secretary of state John Kerry saying a US military strike “might” be necessary if talks led by Russia fail to compel Syria to turn over its chemical weapons.2

In the Middle East, mainly amongst America’s Sunni allies, the Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the jihadists in the Syrian opposition, there is anger. Meanwhile at home, Republicans who had given their support for military action are not pleased with the retreat. Some have argued that, by attempting to deal with too many issues, ranging from humanitarian intervention to restraining ‘Iranian aggression’ and ending its nuclear programme, the administration lost its way.

There is no doubt that many Republicans were sold the idea of supporting the attack on the basis that it would send the right warning to Iran. According to senator John McCain, “This is really about Iran and their continued development of nuclear weapons. If we stand by and watch chemical weapons being used, what signal do you think that sends to Iran and North Korea?”3

Doubtless, Obama, in advocating a limited military strike on Syria, was also thinking about Iranian nuclear capabilities: “Failure to act would embolden Assad’s ally, Iran.” He later added that recent negotiations over Syria could still deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons, even though the US had not used force to address the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.

So could it be that the threat of limited military action against Syria was a warning to Iran all along? Certainly over the last few weeks Iran’s tone regarding its nuclear programme and the possible resumption of talks with the US has changed considerably.

Since late August, the new government in Iran has embarked on a major diplomatic offensive. In the last couple of weeks alone we have had, for example, president Hasan Rowhani’s Jewish New Year message. A twitter account in the name of the Iranian president (by all accounts with his permission) was used to state, in English: “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah.” Contrary to Israeli reports, there has been no denial by the presidential office that this was a genuine tweet. Clearly an aide sent the message, but there seems little doubt that Rowhani was aware of it and approved. Later Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a twitter exchange with the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the US congress minority leader, distanced himself from Iran’s last president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had called the holocaust a “myth”.

Change of heart

So why the change of heart in Tehran? What has made Iran’s clerical dictators keen to compromise? First of all, the effects of sanctions. The country is on its knees. For years Iran’s rulers deluded themselves that oil exports and the banking system would go unaffected.4 They were mistaken and the US has won the cold war against the Islamic Republic. Sanctions have indeed brought the country’s economy to a virtual standstill. There is a shortage of basic food and medication, Iranians drive dangerous cars, because spare parts are unavailable, and they fly in aeroplanes using inadequate, faulty, old components. Premature babies die because incubators can have ‘dual use’ (apparently the technology can be also used in nuclear plants) and so it is difficult to repair them. Children also die from out-of-date, dangerous vaccines, again because the correct vaccines cannot be imported. Iranian patients die because of shortages of surgical equipments and drugs.

The car industry, petrochemicals and a large part of manufacturing have come to a standstill and as a result more than a third of the population is unemployed. The rate of ‘growth’ is -5.4% and the population is understandably angry both with western powers which have imposed sanctions and their own rulers whose nuclear policies and adventurism have provided imperialism with the excuse. The election of Rowhani was an expression of the desire for change in foreign policy. The new government is now desperately trying to make the right noises. However, before anyone gets too excited, it should be noted that last week Iran’s supreme leader warned the new government not to trust “foreign powers”. Iran “should not be duped,” declared ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And at the end of the day he is the man who will make the decision about nuclear negotiations. Khamenei later added that he is “not against diplomacy”, but he remains unconvinced that the US wants a resolution of the nuclear issue.

Khamenei and the more conservative factions in the Iranian majles (parliament) are also reminding Rowhani that previous overtures to the US did not yield results. In 2003, when Iranian and US interests over Iraq converged, president Mohammad Khatami (like Rowhani a ‘reformist’), managed to convince the supreme leader to accept a series of proposals for better relations with US. The package included acceptance of tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency in exchange for “full access to peaceful nuclear technology”, and a policy change to Israel in return for a withdrawal to 1967 borders. According to a number of political memoirs written by high-ranking US officials, Washington flatly rejected the overture.

So the last attempt at diplomacy, far from bringing about a rapprochement, left Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’. Apparently this incident had a deep psychological impact on Iran’s supreme leader.

So, while the presidential office in Tehran has launched a diplomatic offensive, US officials point to an intercepted message urging attacks on the US embassy in Iraq along with other targets if a military strike on Syria occurred. According to the Wall Street Journal, Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods force, pulls the strings of the Iranian-supported Shiite militias in Iraq.

Rowhani, however, insists that in the event of a military strike against Syria, Iran will only send medical aid: “If something happens to the Syrian people, the Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duties to send them food and medicine.” For his part, the supreme leader has warned that the US would be making a big mistake if it attacked and would “definitely suffer” as a result. But the reality is that, for all the talk of retaliation, Iran is in no position to make the US “suffer.” Everyone knows that the supreme leader’s comments amount to no more than the threat of a minor action by Hezbollah or a limited militia operation in Iraq.

The Israeli government is keen to pour cold water on any rapprochement between the US and Iran. Netanyahu’s response to the tweeted peace messages was clear: “I am not impressed by the blessings uttered by a regime that just last week threatened to destroy the state of Israel.” He warned the ‘international community’ not to be “deceived” and called on it to focus instead on Tehran’s ‘continued pursuit’ of nuclear weapons. That is why the pro-Israeli press in the US and elsewhere has concentrated on the more antagonistic messages coming out of Iran regarding the possible implication of US intervention in Syria.

In the midst of all the threats of war and promises of peace, it is quite clear that, as far the US and its allies are concerned, negotiations will have nothing to do with the suffering of either ordinary Syrians or Iranians. It is all about furthering imperialism’s strategic interests in the region.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/09/gaffe-heard-round-world/69205.

2. www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/sep/12/obama-now-hopeful-russian-deal-avoid-syria-strike.

3. http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2013/09/16/foreign-policy-spotlight-u-s-fumbling-on-syria-guarantees-a-dissatisfying-outcome.

4. www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/09/130916_ l39_salehi_nuclear_file.shtml.