Redrawing the map Why is Trump abandoning the nuclear deal?

War will follow war

In a single speech on October 13, lasting just a few minutes, Donald Trump managed to succeed in doing what had seemed impossible for decades – uniting the Iranian government and the almost all the opposition to the regime (ironically including sections of Trump’s own ‘regime change from above’ gang), as well as the majority of Iranians inside and outside the country.

Having turned a deaf ear to pleas from European leaders, members of Congress and the Senate, as well as a large chunk of his own administration, the president’s ‘decertification’ of the Iran nuclear deal was, at least in the short term, in effect a gift to the Islamic regime in Tehran. As sections of the Iranian left have maintained, the country’s religious leaders thrive in situations of crises provoked by US threats – it could be argued that they owe their survival to them.

Over the last 16 years the US ‘war on terror’ has provided helpful conditions – not only by getting rid of its main regional enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but internationally the Islamic regime loves to present itself as a victim of global injustice. Trump has given Tehran a helping hand on this one, with Britain, Germany and France united in their opposition to the US president’s stance. In the British parliament, condemnation of Trump’s statement united Blairites with Corbyn supporters, pro-Brexit Tories with ‘remainers’, and the Democratic Unionist Party with the Scottish nationalists. Meanwhile, European politicians did not shy away from expressing their disappointment.

A joint statement by British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – was “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy” and “a major step toward ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is not diverted for military purposes”.

Of course, the European Union’s main concern is the economic benefits of the Iran nuclear agreement and the possibility of lucrative deals, which they hope will open up new markets. Having said that, many European firms have in the past faced huge penalties for trading with Iran and, at a time when we are witnessing renewed trade wars, Trump’s line on Iran could become a serious matter of contention between the EU and the US – although at this stage, of course, no-one can predict where the UK will stand, if such a situation occurs. However, if the US Congress agrees to new sanctions, it is also possible that European countries – not only threatened with potentially heavy penalties, but also eager to maintain economic relations with the US – would toe the line of the world hegemon.

Can we deduce from all this that there is consensus in opposition to Trump’s position? Not really. As always there are those in the US administration whose only purpose in politics seems to be taking revenge on Iran, and more particularly on the Iranian people, for the 1979 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the US stooge, the shah of Iran. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon may have left the White House, but Trump is surrounded by neoconservatives whose central political ambition seems to be the enforcement of regime change from above in Iran: John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani and even Trump’s main Republican opponent, John McCain, agree with this particular piece of Trump lunacy. And, of course, there remains amongst Iranians a minority under the illusion that regime change from above will bring about ‘civil society’, democracy and the rule of law (presumably with the return of the shah’s son or the rule of the loony religious cult known as the Mojahedin).

Within minutes of Trump’s speech Iranian president Hassan Rouhani appeared on TV with his response: “As long as our rights are guaranteed, as long as our interests require, and as long as we enjoy its benefits, we will respect the JCPOA within the framework of the interests of our nation.” However, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned of a different outcome:

If they revive the sanctions and we face an inability to use the deal in oil, gas and shipping arenas, and for bringing our money to the country, we have the right to make a decision about the continuation of our presence in the JCPOA.

If Congress imposes new sanctions, the first victim will be Iran’s multi billion-dollar contract with US plane manufacturer Boeing. On this, Zarif said: “In our view, there is no problem, but if the US government impedes this contract, then they haven’t honoured their commitments under the JCPOA.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, confirmed that Tehran would not willingly abandon the internationally backed nuclear deal – he welcomed the reaction of its European signatories to Trump’s decertification.

‘Rogue state’?

Iran’s relations with Hamas and Hezbollah are often mentioned as a source of ‘instability’ in the region. Apparently this is what Trump means by claiming Iran is breaching the “spirit” of the deal.

I have been a life-long critic of Hezbollah and I have no illusions about its ‘social’ activities in south Lebanon. I blame it for events that led to Irangate. As far as Hamas is concerned, after the 1967 war with Egypt, Israel hunted down secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation factions, but in Gaza it dropped what had been Egypt’s policy for many years: the imposition of restrictions against Islamist activists. This relaxation played a crucial role in the creation of Hamas (influenced ideologically by the Muslim Brotherhood) and its subsequent evolution into a major political force.

In fact, for many years Israel tolerated and at times encouraged such activists as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO and its dominant faction, Fatah, and this inevitably strengthened the position of Hamas – although Iran’s own relations with Hamas has had its ups and downs.

We have to remember that, as far as Iran’s Islamic republic is concerned, sending arms to both Hamas and Hezbollah is a form of insurance. Iranian nationalists, who keep telling us that ‘Iran should stop arming these terrorists’ and ‘concentrate on the country’s own interests’, forget that, had it not been for fear of retaliation by Hezbollah, Israel would have bombed Iran’s nuclear installations a long time ago. That would have had disastrous consequences not just for Iran, but for the entire region. Of course, now that Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, not Khamenei, is Hamas’s best friend, Trump claims Iran is supporting the Taliban.

Here a bit of history might help the US president. When the Taliban were in power in Kabul their main religious/political opposition was from Iran’s Islamic Republic. In 2001, as far as the war against the Taliban was concerned, Iran’s then reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, gave all the political and logistic support he could to the US under its neoconservative president, George W Bush. What was Bush’s response? Naming Iran as a “rogue state”. So if there is any ‘cooperation’ between Iran and the Taliban, we know how that came about.

As for the claim that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (or Pasdaran) are a terrorist organisation, up until a few months ago when Iran was fighting Islamic State in Syria, the Pasdaran were hailed in the US media as the most effective force fighting ‘Jihadi terrorists’ and all this culminated in the Guards’ commander, major-general Qasem Soleimani, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine, which welcomed Pasdaran’s military operations.

Kurdistan

Of course, all this is related to the current situation in Kirkuk. As we predicted, while Islamic State is losing territory in Syria as well as Iraq, the battle for the areas ‘evacuated’ by the jihadi group is creating new conflicts. The Kurdish regional government tried to take advantage of all this by organising a referendum on Kurdish independence, but this week Baghdad government troops, accompanied by Shia militias, have moved into Kirkuk.

This is a rather sad end to the silly miscalculation of Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani, but it also reflects the worries of both the Iranian and the Iraqi governments about the current White House incumbent and his closest ‘advisors’. As Trump keeps saying, they are not into ‘nation building’, so the claim that they want regime change in Tehran is in reality code for their preference to see the destruction of the current states of both Iran and Iraq, and their replacement with smaller, national/regional governments more subservient to US foreign policy.

Of course, as far as economic policy is concerned, both Iran’s Islamic Republic and the Shia government installed in Baghdad in 2003 work entirely within the frameworks of neoliberal capitalism. However, when it comes to politics, Iran is not exactly in the US sphere of influence and current thinking on Iraq in the White House seems to be: ‘Let us get rid of the problem once and for all, by overturning the entire national set-up – Iraq can be divided into three separate entities surely.

In these circumstances one can only laugh at ‘leftwing’ Iranian Kurdish leaders who claim that a future ‘independent’ Kurdistan (‘liberated’ from Iran and Iraq thanks to US military and financial help) will be a step towards socialism. Global capital is already up in arms about the soft anti-austerity economic programme of the Corbyn/McDonnell opposition in the UK, because it challenges neoliberal economic dogma (it definitely does not challenge capitalism, as so many Corbynistas keep telling us). So how can anyone imagine that imperialism would tolerate ‘socialist’ economic policies in a tiny, land-locked Kurdish republic?

The US state department (not just Donald Trump) is the main sponsor of the attacks of the Labour Party right and the UK media on Corbyn’s soft anti-war stance. So are we really saying that it will allow a new ‘independent’ Kurdistan to exercise a ‘socialist’ foreign policy? One that might challenge Israel’s nuclear programme, for example? One that will be in solidarity with the Palestinians? The answer is, of course, in the negative. The Iranian Kurdish groups propagating such ideas have lost touch with reality – they are now part of the problem rather than the solution to the upheavals in the region.

Part and parcel of global capital

Solidarity with workers needed

In late July around 50 political prisoners in Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison were moved to new cells, where windows are covered by metal sheets, access to drinking water is limited and prisoners complain of suffocation and dehydration. In protest 17 of them began a hunger strike.

One of them is labour activist Reza Shahabi. He has gone without food for more than 20 days and, according to his family, his physical condition has deteriorated considerably in the last few days. Shahabi is the treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and has been in and out of jail since 2010. In the spring of 2012 he was sentenced to six years by an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran – five years for “conspiracy against state security”, and one year for “propaganda against the system”. He was also fined and banned from all trade union activities for five years.

Many Iranians have compared his plight with that of former presidential candidate and leader of the 2009 ‘green’ movement protests, Mehdi Karroubi, who is currently under house arrest. He recently staged a hunger strike, which succeeded in its aim of removing members of the security forces from his house. Karroubi’s plight was widely reported by a number of media outlets, including the BBC Persian service and Voice of America, and was also widely reported inside Iran. However, when it comes to Shahabi’s hunger strike, there is a deafening silence.

Of course, the charges against him are nonsense: a trade unionist who has constantly opposed war and regime change from above is not a threat to “state security”. However, he is a threat to the regime, as he symbolises workers’ protests against the neoliberal economic policies of successive governments, both ‘reformist’ and conservative.

In the midst of all the publicity for regime change from above (boosted no end after Donald Trump’s election) it is often difficult for those opposing both the Islamic regime, together with its oppressive, neoliberal form of capitalism, and the threat of war and new sanctions to make themselves heard. But in fact Shahabi is not alone. Every day there is news of demonstrations and protests by Iranian workers across the country.

A comrade reminded me recently that many of the younger supporters of the conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who stood against Hassan Rouhani in this year’s presidential elections, believe corruption and the current problems of Iran’s economy – in particular the financial hardship faced by the overwhelming majority of the population – is down to the specific capitalist path taken by ‘reformists’ like Rouhani. Such elements genuinely believe that a fairer economic system is possible within the framework of Iran’s Islamic Republic and blame the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the all-encompassing corruption, solely on policies followed by the ‘reformist’ faction. They have illusions in the likes of Raisi and in supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s so-called ‘resistance’ economics.

Although it is correct to say that the implementation of neoliberal economic policies started with ‘reformist’ president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) and both the Khatami and Rouhani governments have implemented the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in terms of ‘privatisation’, casualisation of work, the imposition of ‘white’ contracts (where the employee signs a blank sheet of paper regarding terms of employment), etc, we should not forget that it was Khamenei himself who decided overnight to rewrite article 44 of the constitution, removing any legal barriers to full-scale privatisation of the state sector. The original constitution anticipated state ownership for key economic areas – although, of course, this was never enforced strictly by the market-loving clerics who came to power in 1979: after all, their social base was in the bazaar and amongst the property-owning classes.

However, as time went on, the role of the private sector gradually increased. By 2004, an amendment to this article, approved by Khamenei, allowed for 80% of state assets to be privatised. The IMF and World Bank have constantly encouraged Iran to pursue these polices and in fact it was under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by the conservative factions of the regime, together with Khamenei, despite his claims of being “on the side of the poor and the deprived sections of society”, that Iran was heralded by the IMF as a ‘model’ country following its economic liberalisation programmes. Over the last few years a government body called the Iran Privatisation Organisation has pursued an aggressive policy, aiming to ensure that the remaining state-owned enterprises are privatised.

Successive governments have declared the aims of Iran’s economic policies in terms that include “economic competition through the market”, an “increase in labour productivity”, the shrinking of government through privatisation, and a reduction in subsidies and budget costs.

For all their talk of a ‘resistance economy’, the conservatives consist of individuals and institutions overseeing billion-dollar private organisations. During the presidential elections, Raisi told voters: “I own nothing but a 140-square-metre apartment and a private bank account”, but the reality is, he is head of the multi-billion-dollar religious foundation, Astane Quds Razavi.

In 2013 Reuters revealed that Khamenei is head of an organisation created to help the poor that is now a major business worth tens of billions of dollars. In the last decade it has become a conglomerate that holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and farming.1

Of course, the idea of a third-world economy surviving independently of global capital is either day-dreaming or a deliberate lie – in the case of Iran’s supreme leader and his claims of building a ‘resistance economy’ clearly the latter. It is true that, like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, Khamenei claims he is in favour of ‘delinking’ Iran’s economy from western capital (his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, famously declared that dependence on Japanese capital was acceptable, as Japan was not part of the west!). But the reality is that his own ‘charitable’ multi-billion-dollar organisation, not to forget the partly privatised banks and industries owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are actually part and parcel of global capital.

A few months ago Khamenei complained about the gap between the rich and the poor in Iran. But, despite the fact that the Islamic regime has been in power for over 38 years, there are many reasons why that gap keeps growing. First of all, those sections of the Iranian aristocracy and bourgeoisie that were not directly involved with the shah’s regime have retained their wealth, their capital and their land: and, thanks to Iran’s extremely high interest rates, that wealth grows daily. In addition the exploiting classes have been augmented by a whole new layer of nouveaux riches. What Iranians call aghazadeh-ha (sons and daughters of the ayatollahs) spend money at levels comparable to Saudi princes – driving sports cars and generally displaying their wealth.

As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. During the years of sanctions senior clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, while ordinary Iranians faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to a shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. Shahrzad Elghanayan, a New York Times reporter, was astonished by what she saw in a programme screened by the pro-government Press TV: “It was not just the wealth that struck me, but how freely Iran’s one percenters flaunted the symbols of western decadence without fear of government retribution.”2

Nowadays no-one denies that the nuclear deal was promoted and managed by Khamenei every step of the way. One of its main aims was the further integration of Iran’s economy within the global order and in this all factions of the regime, irrespective of their rhetoric, are united. The warnings of both supporters of regime change from above – who keep telling us that the supreme leader wants to isolate Iran and turn it into another North Korea – and the conservative factions – who claim they want to save Iran from globalisation – are nonsense.

The Islamic Republic is and will remain an integral part of global capitalism. That is why the idea that somehow a bourgeois government (either one composed of ‘more committed’ reformists or one imposed by regime change from above) would introduce democracy and workers’ rights is also a complete nonsense. Freedom of movement for capital has its rationale and the post-war commitment to democracy, trade union rights and public services has ended. There is a need more than ever for uninterrupted free movement of capital to the cheapest zones of exploitation. In the advanced capitalist countries concessions to workers are threatened, while trade unions have been considerably weakened by membership losses, as well as draconian legislation.

Under such circumstances it is criminal for the Iranian left to sow hopes that bourgeois democracy can save workers such as Reza Shahabi from arrest, intimidation and long prison sentences. It is irresponsible to offer Europe or the USA as models to be followed. The gains won in the advanced capitalist countries came at the expense of the superexploited third world. We live in the era of new imperial practices – as Alain Badiou puts it, “the policy of destroying states rather than corrupting or replacing them”3 – and that is the kind of future ‘regime change from above’ will bring to Iran.

As for Reza Shahabi, we have a duty to support his struggle, calling for his immediate, unconditional release and building support for his case amongst the international working class. But we should have no illusions in the rightwing, pro-regime-change NGOs, political groups, charities and other organisations which also claim to support him. They are an insult to the Iranian working class, which, despite severe hardship, has maintained its principled opposition to foreign intervention, while pursuing class-based struggles against Iran’s Islamic Republic and its internal and external capitalist allies.

Notes

1. www.reuters.com/investigates/iran/#article/part1.

2. www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/opinion/clerical-rule-luxury-lifestyle.html?mcubz=0.

3. A Badiou Notre mal vient de bien loin Paris 2015.