What lies behind the Mecca tragedy?
On September 24, the Saudi authorities told the world that 769 pilgrims had been killed and 863 injured during what was described as a “stampede” in Mecca, as Muslim pilgrims were beginning the Hajj ritual. A few days later, however, it was claimed that Saudi officials had given Indian and Pakistani diplomats 1,100 photographs of different corpses, and it was only after these revelations that Riyadh admitted the death toll was even higher.
According to Tehran, at least 246 of the dead and 630 of those injured were Iranians. Amongst those missing and presumed dead at the time of writing was Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi. Saudi administrators denied he was in Mecca, but Tehran produced a short film of him addressing Shia crowds during this year’s Hajj. Official figures released by Saudi authorities had the number of Iranian deaths at 131 – the largest national contingent (the second largest being Moroccans, of whom 88 are believed to have died).
Later the Iranian broadcaster, Press TV, quoted Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage organisation, who predicted there would be “3,000 to 3,200 bodies” in the 21 containers where the dead had been placed – clearly an exaggerated figure.1 The Iranian official claimed that “imprudence, irresponsibility and the mismanagement of the Saudi authorities are the main factors behind the tragic incident”.2 Iran’s Islamic republic has done its utmost to place the entire blame on the Saudi authorities, challenging the kingdom’s competence to run this “important event in the Islamic calendar”.
Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an investigation, and his demand was echoed by every Friday prayer leader in the country, prompting religious zealots to pour to the streets. Instructions from mosques were sent by text, urging Shias to demonstrate, in what was labelled “spontaneous protests”. Supporters of the regime, carrying black flags, shouted: “The Saudi regime is a friend of Satan” (part of the Hajj ritual consists of pilgrims throwing stones at ‘Satan’). One paper, Tasnim, carried a cartoon showing king Salman of Saudi Arabia as a camel riding over pilgrims and ayatollah Mohammad Kashani, addressing Friday prayers in Tehran, called on the Organisation of Islamic Countries to take over responsibility for Hajj, since the Saudi authorities were “incapable” of running it.
The war of words between the two regional powers rapidly escalated, with Saudi Arabia categorically denying “misleading and distorted allegations” about inappropriate road closures that it alleged had been started by Iranian state-controlled media. Iran’s allies were repeating the same claims, with Iraq’s discredited former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, stating that the disaster was “proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season” – a bit rich, coming from a leader who lost two of his country’s major cities, Mosul and Tikrit, to Islamic State in 2014, through incompetence and corruption. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah added his voice to the Shia chorus, saying the Hajj tragedy reflected a “malfunction in the administration”.3
Originally the Saudi authorities had claimed that African pilgrims had disobeyed instructions given by the Hajj authorities blocking the route of the procession. However, Press TV (not the most reliable source of information) countered that “the convoy of prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the son of Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz, had arrived at the site, forcing the pilgrims to change their original directions”.4Whereupon the Saudi media changed its story and Sabq News quoted unnamed “eyewitnesses”, who claimed that the “stampede” was actually caused by Iranian pilgrims. This was followed by a comment from Dr Khalid al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, who used his Twitter account to claim that “the time has come to think – in a serious way – about banning ‘Iranians’ from coming to Mecca, for the safety of the pilgrims”.5
The official Saudi response was more measured, with prince Mohammed bin Naff Al Saudi, the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, stating: “Claims that the stampede occurred following road closures because of a ministerial event or a dignitaries’ convoy are false.”6 However, Iran is not the only source claiming road closures played a part in the tragedy. On September 29 The Daily Telegraph quoted Libyan pilgrim Ahead Abu Barr as saying: “The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one.”7
To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, implied that nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. He told Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef: “As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.”8 Unsurprisingly, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani disagreed and demanded an international enquiry.
As I have said, the Islamic republic’s allegations about Saudi culpability are exaggerated, but there is no doubt that Riyadh’s incompetence in running the only major annual event they host should be exposed and condemned. This is not the first time that hundreds of Hajj pilgrims have died. In 1990 in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel, 1,426 pilgrims lost their lives – most of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis (the Saudi authorities encourage groups of each nationality to walk together). On top of that, incidents in May 1994, April 1998, March 2001, February 2003, February 2004 and January 2006 cost the lives of pilgrims – around 3,000 have perished in the last 20 years.
Given the Saudi royal family’s pride in hosting the event, the direct responsibility falls on the crown prince himself, who just happens to be minister of the interior. It is truly incomprehensible why even such a bureaucratic dictatorship cannot organise a better process, ensuring the safety of the pilgrims as they progress through the various stages of Hajj.
Hajj is the fifth ‘pillar’ of Islam – the other four being Shahadah (testimony to a single god and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet), Salat (physical and spiritual worship), Zakat (obligatory religious tax), and Sawm (fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan). According to Islamic belief, every Muslim man or woman should undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, should they be healthy and financially able to do so. The ceremony involves wearing a simple white cloth (hiram) – the idea being to strip away all distinctions of wealth, class, status and culture. Not quite true: in the first place, the cost of travel only allows the wealthy to attend Hajj, especially when it comes to believers from east Asia or Africa.
According to Basharat Peer, an Indian journalist who has written on Mecca,
You could be an Arab prince, you could be a south Asian construction worker, you could be an Afghan warlord … you are all wearing the same clothes and you just walk through this barren landscape and it is miserably hot. But when you look a little more carefully what you see is that even during the Hajj the distinctions of wealth and class do not disappear.9
The Saudi authorities have helped ensure such class distinction by overseeing the building of luxury hotels, where wealthy Muslims pay astronomical sums for rooms with a view of the Kaaba – the black stone structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque. The experience of the wealthy pilgrims is very different from that of the poorer ones, who suffer in the often sweltering heat in camp sites or hostels with no air conditioning.
As with everything else relating to Islamic economics, the ownership of land and capital are key factors. The cost of Hajj might be paid by the pilgrims, but the real price is obtained from the surplus value of workers, whose exploitation allows the Muslim shopkeeper or workshop owner to undertake the pilgrimage.
Hajjis from Iran are often representatives of the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie and small capital, on whose support the regime relies. Traditionally, the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches (who have accumulated huge fortunes under the Islamic republic) prefer to spend their wealth in holiday resorts in Europe or North America, while the less well-off middle classes and those who cannot afford to travel far would escape up Turkey, Dubai or anywhere near Iran’s border, where they can take a break free from strict Islamic regulation regarding dress, alcohol consumption, etc.
After over 36 years of unpopular rule, then, Iran’s Shia clerics can only rely a petty-bourgeois minority – primarily the bazaaris and shopkeepers, the section of the population that tends to be obsessed by Hajj. Hence the regime’s overzealous response to the Mecca tragedy, which can be blamed in its entirety on Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.
However, it is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. After all, Iran’s Islamic government cannot guarantee the health and safety of Iranian workers or flight passengers – let alone its political prisoners (many of whom ‘accidentally’ die in the regime’s many prisons).
Long before Tony Blair took the country into a disastrous war with Iraq, the foreign policy implemented by the Labour Party, in government and in opposition, had been virtually indistinguishable from that pursued by the Conservative Party, especially in relation to former colonies and the Middle East. There were Labour members of the war cabinet back in 1916-18, not to mention World War II. Sympathy for the new Zionist state, and the wish to remain a close ally of the United States, led the government of Harold Wilson to support Israel in the 1967 six days war and, although, under pressure from the party grassroots and the left, Labour took a more critical position to the Nixon administration’s alignment with Israel in 1973, the party’s foreign policy remained on the whole in alignment with that of the US.
It is clear that aspects of this foreign policy will change with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, which is why it is hardly surprising that almost every day the rightwing press comes out with another scare story about Corbyn’s international outlook and his current or past statements. His parliamentary record, his press and media interviews, on international issues have come under such intense and hostile scrutiny. The mainstream media have one aim: to demonise the new Labour leader.
The most recent ‘revelations’ were those in the Daily Mail and The Guardian about Corbyn’s interview with Press TV in 2011, during which he called the assassination of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy”, adding it would have been better if bin Laden had been tried in a court.
The readers of the Daily Mail and Rambo fans might be shocked by such a statement. However, many ‘moderate’ academics, lawyers and politicians have expressed similar opinions. In fact immediately after the execution of bin Laden, Dr Robert Lambert, a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, wrote an article in the very same Guardian, making a very similar point: “By choosing to execute the al Qa’eda leader, the US has denied justice to the victims of 9/11 and perpetuated the ‘war on terror’.”1 Similarly, in an article on the BBC website, entitled ‘Should Osama bin Laden have been caught and tried?’, Jon Silverman, professor of media and criminal justice at the University of Bedfordshire, made similar points,2 while Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, speaking on the BBC’s Question time in 2011, described the al Qa’eda leader’s “execution” without a trial as “wholly, wholly, wholly wrong”.3
The problem with the Corbyn statement is not that he called for a trial of Osama bin Laden, but the illusions this seems to demonstrate about bourgeois ‘international law’ and the judicial system under the capitalist order. In fact there can be no doubt that the United States would have never allowed such a trial. This would have opened up a whole can of worms about the origins of al Qa’eda and the CIA’s role in financing and arming it in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Saudi relations with the group would have been exposed too. And these are not allegations made only by the left. If you are in doubt about this, I recommend you view the video of Hillary Clinton and her statement to the US Senate.4
Corbyn’sillusions about ‘international law’ and the United Nations is also apparent in his comments about the Iraq war. There can be no doubt we should admire his consistency in opposing that war, and in opposing all military intervention and sanctions (itself a form of war) against Iran and air attacks on Syria. Corbyn’s anti-war record is excellent and he should be praised for it. But it is essential to establish whether the politics of the new Labour leader are different from those of the Marxist left. For us, war is the continuation of politics by other means and we have no illusions about international organisations such as the UN, which was set up to maintain the rule of capital and in practice acts to crown the supremacy of the US world hegemon.
In a statement to The Guardian, Corbyn said he would apologise to the British people for the “deception” in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and to the people of that country for their subsequent suffering. There is no doubt that the Labour government’s role in helping to drive the invasion was totally abhorrent and merits a clear and strongly stated apology. But Corbyn adds:
Let us say we will never again unnecessarily put our troops under fire and our country’s standing in the world at risk … Let us make it clear that Labour will never make the same mistake again, will never flout the United Nations and international law.
Leaving aside the question of “our troops” and whether they should “unnecessarily” be put under fire, it could be said that, given the current situation in the Middle East, in the civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – most of them direct or indirect consequences of the invasion of Iraq – what is at stake is more serious than the UK’s “standing in the world”. When it comes to war, the definition of ‘legality’ is not as clear-cut or straightforward as Corbyn implies. The UN sanctions imposed on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and more recently on Iran’s Islamic Republic were forms of war, aimed at weakening a ‘rogue state’, a dissident former ally, and paving the way for regime change from above. In the case of Iraq, the subsequent military invasion and occupation came after years of UN-approved ‘legal’ sanctions, but there can be no doubt about the damage they caused to the ordinary citizens of the country. The destruction of the Iraq’s infrastructure was also undertaken through the use of punitive sanctions justified by ‘international law’. They paved the way for both the invasion and regime change Rumsfeld-style.
In the case of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Corbyn rightly opposed sanctions and campaigned for their lifting. However, there can be no doubt that those sanctions were imposed under “international law”. They were ‘legal’ right up to July 2015, when the United States and other P5+1 countries signed a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear development programme. In fact the UN played an active role in the implementation and policing of sanctions that cost the lives of hundreds of Iranians, including hospital patients, the poor and the vulnerable.
Until we accept that these wars are international crimes, that they are not mistakes, whether or not they are ‘illegal’, we will not be able to deal with the massive problems they have caused. Unless the international left takes on the issue of ‘legality’ when it comes to imperialist war, we will see further alienation of the peoples of the region, as they fall into despair, anger and frustration, helping the jihadists to recruit volunteers, and eventually causing hundreds of thousands to flee the region.
Of course, at the time of the Iraq war, the Stop the War Coalition (including Corbyn as one of its leading members) argued that the coalition’s stress on ‘illegality’ helped attract large numbers to the anti-war cause. That might have been true in the case of the Liberal Democrats, for instance. However, it did not stop the warmongers in the US and elsewhere – and it certainly did not help the left recruit from amongst the radicalised youth opposed to the war. It did not help win people to oppose the imperialist pillage of the ‘third world’ or US world hegemony.
Whether or not the invasion of Iraq was ‘illegal’, its occupation was swiftly approved by the UN security council. On day one of the occupation, the question became irrelevant. Having been given a platform from which to speak at the February 15 2003 demonstration, the Lib Dems returned to type. Once British soldiers were on the ground, the Lib Dems went patriotic and severed themselves completely from the anti-war movement.
As Mike Macnair wrote at the time,
By arguing against this invasion on the grounds of its illegality, we hand a weapon to the warmongers, which has been and will be used in other invasions. If – in whatever way – the US-led ‘war against terrorism’ is driven by the economic interests of US capital, the strategic problem of stopping the war drive becomes united with the problems addressed by the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement: the problem of world order in the 21st century. And it is here that international law comes back into the picture, as the symbol of a certain sort of strategy for dealing with these problems.5
To sum up this section of the article, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to issue a public apology over the Iraq war on behalf of the party should be welcomed and attempts to undermine the importance of such a gesture should be exposed. However, we should have no illusions in the new leader’s analysis of legality, war and imperialism in the 21st century.
Trident and Nato
Speaking at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament commemorative event in London in August, Corbyn reminded the audience that if he were prime minister he would not replace the Trident nuclear weapons system and would initiate a transition away from nuclear weapons entirely.
While he was criticised for jeopardising some 19,000 Scottish jobs, the strategy seems well planned and clearly defined in a document entitled ‘Plan for defence diversification’. This explains how the skills of those who work on Trident, as well as in other defence-related industries, will be protected and how “socially productive”, hi-tech industry and infrastructure projects will be able to use such skills. The document includes in its aims and objectives “making the case for a defence diversification agency, because we have a moral duty, and strategic defence and international commitments, to make Britain and the world a safer place.”6 It states:
As a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Britain should therefore give a lead in discharging its obligations by not seeking a replacement for Trident, as we are committed to accelerate concrete progress towards nuclear disarmament.
Corbyn’s anti-nuclear policy has attracted a lot of attention, with the rightwing press doing its best to ridicule it. However, there is nothing ultra-left about such proposals. In fact, as some journalists have admitted in the last few weeks, senior military figures have argued that the UK’s nuclear weapons are ‘militarily useless’ and its possession of such weapons encourages other countries to seek a similar arsenal, so undermining efforts being made to advance the cause of international nuclear disarmament. In 2009, field marshal Lord Bramall and generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach labelled Trident “irrelevant”.7
In my experience the majority of nuclear scientists and engineers would agree with such an approach, so the proposal is indeed fairly mainstream – it should, of course, be supported. The Scottish National Party campaigned on similar lines in this year’s general election campaign and the party’s defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, pledged that an SNP group of MPs holding the balance of power in the House of Commons after May’s general election would make halting the renewal of Trident an “absolute priority” – and health and education would be the SNP’s “first call” on the billions of pounds freed up.8
Under such circumstances, it is extremely worrying that, according to The Daily Telegraph, Corbyn’s advisors have suggested that “scrapping Trident and leaving Nato” should be placed on the back-burner.9 On this I agree entirely with CND chair and Left Unity national secretary Kate Hudson, when she writes: “Now is the time to stick to principles.”
Trident cannot be put on the ‘back burner’ because a decision on whether or not Trident is to be replaced is expected in parliament in early 2016. Labour will have to vote on it, and Labour needs a policy which represents the majority view of the population – which happens to be the view of Jeremy Corbyn: Trident should not be replaced. This is not something that can be deferred. This is without doubt a question for the first 100 days and it should not be fudged because a relatively small number of powerful Labour figures are attached to a cold war system of weapons of mass destruction.
If Jeremy’s advisors are trying to sanitise Jeremy, push him into the middle ground and drop policies that will challenge the Labour establishment, then they are doing him a grave disservice. Nothing is to be gained from ‘triangulating’ with the right. Maybe they want to keep Andy Burnham on side, but dropping a fundamental issue because he threatens to leave a shadow cabinet over it is just plain ludicrous. If anyone thinks that the party establishment will be satisfied with a few policy concessions – like Trident, for example – then they are seriously mistaken. They will come back and back for more, and eventually nothing will be left but a few gestures to those at the bottom of the pile.10
At the start of the leadership campaign Corbyn made it clear that he was calling for a withdrawal of the UK from Nato. However, by late August this was in doubt. According to reports that appeared on August 27, he appeared to water down his position by claiming that there is no “appetite” among the public to oppose Nato. When challenged by Andy Burnham on whether he would pull out, Corbyn said he would have a “serious debate about the powers of Nato”, but was silent on withdrawal. Instead it appears he will argue for Nato to “restrict its role”.
Admittedly, “I have criticisms of Nato – it’s a cold war organisation and it should have been wound up in 1990, along with the Warsaw Pact.” However, “I think there has to be a debate about the powers of Nato, the democratic accountability of Nato and why it’s given itself a global role.”
It is regrettable that so early in the process we are witnessing a compromise on this issue. You do not need to be on the radical left to be concerned about the international role played by Nato in maintaining the imperialist world order.
Hamas and Hezbollah
First of all, we should point out that Hamas and Hezbollah are very different organisations. Hamas is currently an ally of Saudi Arabia and in fact is in the process of considering a peace proposal put forward by Tony Blair. According to The Daily Telegraph (August 19), Blair is “holding secret talks with Hamas”, which “are apparently aimed at securing a deal that would guarantee Israel an eight- or 10-year truce in exchange for the Gaza Strip blockade, that has been in place since 2007, being lifted”.11
Corbyn has always made it clear he does not agree with Hamas or Hezbollah, but has said: “I think to bring about a peace process you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree.”12 It isn’t clear how the Blairites justify attacks on Corbyn for commenting that any peace deal must involve discussions with Hamas. True, on this Corbyn was years ahead of Blair! The same could be said of Hezbollah. And, as far as I know, unlike sections of the British radical left Corbyn never used the dreadful slogan, “We are all Hezbollah”.13
Since 2008, Hezbollah has been part of the Lebanese government, elected by the Shia population in the south as well as parts of Beirut. In other words, a call for talks with elected members of the Lebanese parliament and government is not exactly an extremist position. However, the fact that the press is paying so much attention to these statements shows how far Zionist propaganda and a pro-US international agenda has dominated the British political scene for the last few decades.
When it comes to Palestine or Lebanon, we cannot and should not expect left Labourites to propose radical solutions. It will be up to the Marxist left to argue for revolutionary positions in support of the Palestinian Arab cause, while at the same time opposing the anti-Corbyn, pro-imperialist positions of the rightwing press.
Jeremy Corbyn has consistently called for the immediate scrapping of sanctions on Iran, and for many years he had called for an end to the “demonisation” of that country by the west. Now that is more or less the mainstream US/European position – once more it could be said that Corbyn was ahead of his time on this issue. Following the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, European foreign ministers, including Philip Hammond, and prime ministers and heads of states are now queuing up to visit the country. Angela Merkel is about to go there, and president Barack Obama is likely to meet his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rowhani, when he visits New York later this year.
Having said that, it probably was not a good idea for Corbyn to do a trailer for a chat show on Press TV in July.Corbyn’s aids later made the claim that he was not aware of the connection between Press TV and the Iranian government.
But in general Corbyn’s anti-war position on Iran has to be lauded. As I have written before, he was also one of only two MPs (the other being John McDonnell) who have consistently defended Iranian workers against the attacks of the Tehran regime. It is a shame that in order to maintain peace with the rest of the STWC leadership he failed to take a principled position regarding the ban imposed on Hands Off the People of Iran. At the time his silence on the subject was taken as support for STWC’s apologist position regarding Iran’s Islamic Republic. Presumably, the conciliatory Corbyn did not want to confront others on the STWC leadership.
At this time, the radical left must combine robust defence of Corbyn’s progressive international statements with a commitment to move the arguments beyond the rightwing, Eurocentric colonial approach of mainstream press and media, and so open up a genuine debate about war, the world order and both the legal and illegal means. Some of these arguments will be beyond the comprehension of many who traditionally lead a bourgeois workers’ party, yet they remain vital if we want to change the dominant discourse about the ‘third world’, about current conflicts in Africa and the Middle East and about jihadist political Islam and ways of disarming and defeating it.
13. The slogan, used in pro-Lebanon demonstrations, ignores the fact that Hezbollah is associated with the Iranian organisation of the same name: ie, club-wielding government militia used to attack workers’ protests.
After 18 days of negotiations, and 20 months after the initial talks regarding Iran’s nuclear programme started in New York, Iran and the P5+1 powers finally signed a deal on July 14.
Not everyone was happy. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu had already declared that “some of the negotiating countries” (a clear reference to the Americans) were “willing to make a deal at any price”,1 and afterwards he described it as “a mistake of historic dimensions”. His allies in the US Republican Party echoed these sentiments.
As details of the 159-page document became known, it was clear it was neither the “win-win” claimed by Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, nor the disaster that conservative Islamist opponents inside Iran said would result from any deal with the ‘Great Satan’. While Iran’s nuclear programme was not “heroic resistance”, as supporters of the regime claimed, giving up major aspects, it was not “heroic softening” either, as supreme leader Ali Khamenei had claimed earlier this year. The Financial Timessummary is accurate: “Iran has accepted unprecedented international control and surveillance over its nuclear programme, as well as cuts in its uranium stocks and in the number of centrifuges.”2
At the end the day Iran’s neoliberal, dependent capitalist economy was brought to its knees by punitive sanctions imposed by successive US administrations. They had little to do with the country’s nuclear programme: they were about regime change from above. But for the time being that threat, along with the possibility of a military attack, is lifted – at least until the US presidential elections of 2017.
Rowhani, speaking immediately after the deal was signed, claimed Iran had actually won the right to pursue its nuclear programme and, strictly speaking, this is true: low-enriched uranium can now be used to produce fuel for nuclear-power plants.
In exchange, Iran’s Islamic republic has to remove or destroy two-thirds of its existing centrifuges, used for enriching uranium, as well as getting rid of 98% of its stockpile of enriched uranium, leaving just 300kg for the next 15 years. The heavy-water reactor in Arak will be converted, so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium and Iran will not start building any new reactors for the next 15 years. It will be limited to installing no more than 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges for 10 years. In fact the restrictions accepted by Iran are far more severe than any regulation stipulated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
We are back to where we were 13 years ago, when the nuclear conflict started. However, in the meantime, Iran has spent billions buying dodgy nuclear equipment, often on the black market, while, as I have said, sanctions have destroyed its economy.
A compromise was reached over Khamenei’s ‘red line’: the inspection of the country’s military sites. Iran has agreed to allow United Nations inspectors to access any site they consider to be suspicious. However, Iran will be able to challenge such requests and a meeting with the P5+1 will make the final decision on its legitimacy. One could argue over to what extent this is a face-saving solution. After all, Khamenei had categorically stated: “I will not allow inspection of Iran’s military installations.”
However, sanctions (another of his ‘red lines’) will be removed at once, when the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms that its ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ has been followed through, which the IAEA declared should be completed by the end of the year. Iran has accepted that if it violates the deal sanctions could be restored within 65 days.
While a UN arms embargo will remain in place for five years, this could end earlier if the IAEA is satisfied that Iran is pursuing an entirely peaceful nuclear programme. A UN ban on the import of ballistic missile technology could remain in place for up to eight years. Although by all accounts the Russians, keen to sell such missiles, were opposed to this, the Iranian delegation gave in.
On July 11, as Iranians awaited the conclusion of the negotiations, ayatollah Khamenei addressed the issue of Iran’s relations with the US after the deal. Khamenei called the US the “ultimate embodiment of arrogance” and warned that Iran’s opposition to America would continue: “Get ready to continue combating the arrogant power.”
In fact Tehran’s pursuance of a neoliberal economic agenda has long since demonstrated that it has to succumb to the wishes of this “arrogant power” and the system over which it is the global hegemon. Iran is now one of the most unequal societies in the region, where “a new class of untouchable one-percenters hoards money, profiting from sanctions and influential relations, leaving Iran’s middle classes to face the full force of the country’s deepening economic woes”.3
This week news came of billions of dollars of personal wealth accumulated by ministers of the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a result of both privatisation and sanction busting. Ahmadinejad – Khamenei’s favourite president, the man who claimed to be the defender of the poor and the disinherited, who claimed he would stamp out corruption – was by all accounts heading one of the most corrupt governments of recent times. In June his vice-president, Hamid Baghaei, was charged with embezzlement, while in January, another of Ahmadinejad’s vice-presidents, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, was jailed for five years and ordered to pay 38.5 billion rials ($1.3 million) in connection with a money-laundering scheme worth billions of dollars.
But Khamenei’s reaction to the seemingly endless revelations of corruption, alongside the continued abject poverty for the majority, has been to call for such matters to be played down. According to him, there is no need to exaggerate things – think of the demoralisation that will cause!
In other words, our ‘third worldist’ supreme leader, who is presiding over one of the most unequal and corrupt capitalist countries anywhere in the world, where the neoliberal economic agenda imposed by the IMF, World Bank and indeed the US has created conditions of mass unemployment, ‘white contracts’ and wholesale privatisation, every now and then comes out with slogans about fighting US arrogance (he consciously avoids using the term ‘imperialism’ because of its Marxist connotations).
Our supreme leader’s politics are indeed frozen in the 1970s. He fails to acknowledge that, for all the slogans of the Islamic revolution about economic independence, full employment and a comfortable standard of living for all, by the end of the 20th century, things remained pretty desperate. Iran’s population more than doubled between 1980 and 2000 and its median age declined. Although many Iranians are farmers, agricultural production has consistently fallen since the 1960s. By the late 1990s, Iran imported much of its food. At that time, economic hardship in the countryside resulted in many people moving to the cities.
Iran might seem to be a regional power because of its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, but it is very much economically dependent on international capital. Conditions imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in exchange for loans made a mockery of claims of independence. Khamenei chooses to ignore the fact that, long before sanctions, Iran was totally dependent on the sale of oil.
In February 2015, an inspection team from the International Monetary Fund visited Tehran. It was led by Martin Cerisola, assistant director for the Middle East and central Asia. In their discussions with Iranian authorities, the IMF team discussed developments in the Iranian economy, short-term programmes and the Rowhani government’s macroeconomic policies and reform agenda.
Cerisola’s statement at the end of this visit was typical of such inspections by IMF:
The discussions focused on the policies needed for preserving disinflation gains and for supporting the economy in its adjustment to lower oil prices. For this, the IMF team recommended that fiscal policy should aim at limiting the budget deficit in the next fiscal year to around 2.5% of GDP … The discussions also focused on the need for pressing ahead with reforms and the authorities’ plans in the banking sector to address nonperforming loans and strengthen the efficiency of financial intermediation.4
We all know what IMF “reforms” have done so far – Khamenei does not need to look very hard to see signs of imperialist “arrogance”. However, as the negotiations progressed, foreign firms – in particular European-based transnationals – started queuing up to invest in Iran, with its cheap labour, stringent restrictions on workers’ rights and a workforce that has been disciplined by years of unemployment.
No wonder France, Germany and the United Kingdom were so keen to find a solution to the remaining points of contention. The German industrial group, BDI, is already trading with Iran to the tune of $2.4 billion, and it now hopes to increase this to $10 billion. According to Jean-Christophe Quémard, one of the directors of French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroën, plans are being discussed to resume car assembly in Iran (Peugeot had closed its plant in Tehran in 2012). Of course, this will mean jobs for hundreds of workers, but it will also yield major profits for the French car manufacturer.
And, according to the Wall Street Journal,
American firms have already been exploring the market potential. Apple Inc has been in touch with potential Iranian distributors … Boeing Co started selling aircraft manuals and charts to an Iranian airline last year, its first Iranian sales in more than three decades …
General Electric Co already has limited exposure. Under the current sanctions’ humanitarian exemptions, the company distributes medical equipment like MRI machines and CT scanners in Iran … a spokeswoman said … “We look forward to reviewing the details of the agreement reached and will watch the regulatory landscape that may unfold.”5
Someone should tell the supreme leader that Iran’s corrupt Islamic Republic is part and parcel of the capitalist order and its “world arrogance”, into which it will be now much more closely integrated.
For all the hysteria expressed by Israel and to a certain extent Saudi Arabia in opposition to the deal, it is very clear from statements by both president Barack Obama and Khamenei that the political situation in the region will not change dramatically.
The US is determined to support Turkish and Saudi efforts for regime change in Syria. The fact that arms embargoes remain in place for the foreseeable future show that, contrary to what Robert Fisk has written, the US has not changed track. According to Fisk,
Goodbye, therefore, to the overwhelming influence of the Sunni Muslim nations, which gave their sons to the 9/11 crimes against humanity and provided the world with Osama bin Laden, which supported the Taliban and then the Sunni Islamists of Iraq and Syria and – finally – goodbye to those emirs and princes who support Isis. Washington is sick and tired of the decrepit princes of the Gulf, their puritanical lectures, their tiresome wealth (unless it’s paying for US weaponry) and their grotty civil war in Yemen. Shia Iran is now the good guy on the block.6
Not true. The twin-track policy of containing Islamic State, while promoting failed states in Iraq and Syria, is now supplemented by a policy of controlling Iran. There will be no sanctions against the main backers of IS – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states. On the contrary, arms sales to all these countries will continue and by all accounts the Saudi kingdom is seeking to develop its own nuclear programme. Let us hope that this aspect of Saudi military expenditure is not shared with IS.
What about the situation inside Iran following the deal? The Iranian people celebrated it in their thousands and there are reasons to do so. Hopefully the lifting of sanctions will mean better access to medication and essential supplies. The country will be able to import spare parts for production and for transport vehicles and undoubtedly this will save lives. The lifting of banking sanctions means Iranians can enter into personal and commercial international transactions and this has already seen an improvement in the rate of exchange for the rial, Iran’s currency.
Iranian students will be able to continue their studies outside the country, and there will be work for some of the millions of workers who have lost their jobs over the last few years, courtesy of the ‘targeted sanctions’. Those sanctions impoverished the majority of the population, while bringing windfalls of billions of dollars to the select few, including within the Islamic government. The regime will no longer be able to cite sanctions as its excuse for economic mismanagement, unemployment and poverty.
But do not expect improvements in democratic rights. On the contrary, having made the decision to reverse the nuclear programme for the sake of remaining in power, the regime (all its factions, ‘reformist’ and conservative) will remain opposed to basic political freedoms, and those fighting for the rights of workers, women and national/religious minorities will continue to face an uphill struggle. They will now find fewer allies and supporters outside Iran, as funds for regime change dry up.
Having said that, we in Hands off the People of Iran will continue to extend our principled solidarity to those struggling against oppression.
In the weeks leading up to June 30 2015, it was clear that the real deadline for Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 powers was July 9. For the Obama administration, the potential resolution of the conflict with Iran will play a significant part in the president’s legacy, and from this point of view, the less time opponents of the deal in Congress have to mobilise, the better. If a deal is reached by July 9, they will only have 30 days. After that, they would have 60 days, taking into account the summer recess. That would give a better chance to Republican and Democrat allies of Israel and Saudi Arabia to derail the agreement.
From the first days of this round of negotiations it was clear that, for all the claims of unity, each of the 5+1 powers were following their own agenda. The European countries – Germany and Britain, and to a lesser extent France – are keen to resume economic relations with Iran, while Russia and China, hoping for arms deals, seem to support the Islamic Republic’s additional demands for an end to the arms embargo. For its part, the US administration is under pressure to take a hard line – or at least appear to take a hard line – and achieve, in the words of secretary of state John Kerry, a “good deal”.
Of course, what is a “good deal” for the United States, and by extension Saudi Arabia and Israel, will be a bad deal for Iran, which is why there appeared to be deadlock in the last hours of the negotiations. Earlier this week Iran and the P5+1 had drafted a document addressing the contentious issue of how the pace and timing of sanctions relief would proceed, though US officials claimed that there was still more work to be done. But on July 6, western foreign ministers gave ‘unofficial briefings’ to the media, claiming that Iran’s demand for the lifting of all UN sanctions on weapons sales had become a major sticking point. If these rumours are true, foreign minister JavadZarif (and president Hassan Rowhani) had taken an even harder position than that of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. His maximum demands, declared more than a week before the start of the latest negotiations, only mentioned economic and banking sanctions. It is assumed that this new, harder position was taken during Zarif’s unexpected return to Tehran last week.
Russia has already sold advanced anti-aircraft S-300 missiles to Iran, following the Geneva agreement in April 2015. The original $800 million deal signed in 2007 was suspended because the US and Israel objected, and then in 2010 the UN security council imposed more sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear programme, and delivery of the missiles was frozen. By the evening of July 7 senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi was claiming that 95% of the agreement had been finalised. However, there was one issue remaining – that of the arms embargo.1
For the US this is one red line it cannot cross. Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and Israel are all vehemently opposed to the sale of ground-to-air and ground-to-ground missiles, especially as it is likely that some of these missiles will end up in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
Inside Iran, the continuation of the sanctions is causing frustration and despair. In May 2015, the centre for international and security studies at Maryland University conducted a poll of the Iranian people, in collaboration with the University of Tehran and IranPoll.com. Although opinion polls are often subjective – they depend on the question being asked and the timing – this particular study shows that two thirds of Iranians are opposed to nuclear weapons, that eight in 10 approve of the goal of eliminating them and establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. In addition a substantial majority agreed with what was known at the time of the western conditions for an agreement – only one in six opposed. The study also found that nearly three in four were optimistic that Iran and the P5+1 would arrive at a deal and hoped sanctions would be lifted soon.2
According to another study, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, “61% of Americans support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Only 36% support ending the current negotiations and increasing sanctions in an effort to get Iran to stop all uranium enrichment.”
So why is there so much opposition to the proposed deal both from within Iran’s Islamic Republic and legislators in the Senate and Congress? In Iran the opposition comes from some of the most corrupt sections of the regime – mainly the conservative factions, who have profited from the black market resulting from sanctions. The billions of dollars of wealth accumulated by allies and officials of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad explain why they are amongst the harshest critics of these, and indeed any, negotiations. They have not been concerned about the details – their main worry is the protection of their business interests, many of which rely on the continuation of sanctions.
Then there are the exiles. Iranian opponents of the deal, some of whom were frequently present outside the hotel in Vienna where the negotiations were taking place, are often beneficiaries of various regime-change funds associated with the US, European and Arab countries. They and their groups, some claiming to be on the left, have flourished in the last few years. In fact their political positions have been very close to those of Israel and Saudi Arabia. These exiles fail to realise that the current sanctions against Iran have nothing to do with the country’s abuse of human rights, women’s rights or workers’ rights. If the US or its European partners were really concerned about such issues, their main regional allies would hardly be Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, some bizarre comments are coming from Iran’s apologists – reminiscent of the infamous statements defending the regime’s policy of forced transgender operations as a victory for homosexuals! Today ‘leftwing’ supporters of the Islamic Republic are claiming that the country’s stance on the nuclear issue should be considered ‘heroic resistance’.
In reality billions have been wasted on redundant, second-hand technology to maintain unsafe nuclear enrichment plants, while at the same time Iran has faced the most paralysing sanctions – exposing the disastrous effects of its complete economic dependence on the world capitalist order. Hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of patients have died because of the shortage of proper medicines and equipment – all for 20%-enriched uranium, which the International Atomic Energy Agency then insisted had to be disposed of. A year ago the IAEA reported: “209.1kg of 20%-enriched UF6 held by Iran in January 2014 has now been either diluted or converted to uranium oxide.”3
What a waste of life, money and resources – proving once more that this third-world dictatorship’s ‘anti-western’ slogans are nothing but empty, dangerous rhetoric. After 36 and a half years of ‘anti-American’ slogans, the leaders of Iran’s Islamic republic are now dreaming of the day when the US embassy will reopen. As negotiations dragged on in Vienna, ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Islamic republic’s former president, toldThe Guardian, “It was ‘not impossible’ that an American embassy could reopen in Tehran. But that depends on the behaviour of both sides.”4
One of the controversial issues in the current discussions is the inspection of Iran’s military bases by the IAEA. It is clear that the six world powers have made Iran an offer on this question.
Again according to unofficial briefings, the current proposal is that a commission would be set up to resolve disputes when the IAEA seeks access to certain sites. If Iran refuses access and the IAEA’s case is strong, then the commission would look into the issue and its decision based on a simple majority would be final in determining whether such an inspection was ‘legitimate’. In analysing this, sections of the press in Iran have pointed out the obvious: the kind of punitive sanctions Iran was facing had one raison d’être: regime change from above. If the Islamic republic accepts inspection of its military bases in exchange for the removal of sanctions, it would be ceding a major advantage to those contemplating such regime change.
According to deputy foreign minister Araghchi, previously “We never progressed as far as we have now; we never went so far in drafting. However, there are still differences.”5 When asked about the ‘red lines’ set by Khamenei and whether they made reaching a deal impossible, Zarif replied: “Nothing the supreme leader said is new; this is the consistent position of Iran from the day we started the negotiations.” On June 28, as negotiations were starting, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Khamenei displayed a picture of Zarif and his team along with the text: “I recognise our negotiators as trustworthy, committed, brave and faithful.” In subsequent interviews with the international media Zarif has proudly referred to this.
However, Iranian conservatives see things differently: for example, ‘Shamisan’ has posted this message: “While the soldiers on the diplomatic front, with the backing of a nation, have taken on the enemy, some, instead of having sympathy with them, are playing another tune.” He said such people in their attitude to the US have tried “to depict an angel … instead of the great Satan”. And the problem is that “when you are sitting opposite an angel, you have no reason not to trust him or resist his aims.”6
If these talks result in a final agreement, European cities such as Vienna and Geneva will miss the ministerial gatherings around nuclear negotiations. They are good business for hotels, restaurants – and by all accounts brothels. According to the Reuters news agency, brothel owners in Vienna were looking forward to the extension of the talks. One brothel manager reportedly “declined to say who were his most frequent customers, but made clear that, as far as he was concerned, the longer the negotiations between Iran and six world powers drag on, the better”.7
In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks of June 26 in Sousse, Lyon and Kuwait, David Cameron said: “We must be more intolerant of intolerance.” He called for a rejection of “anyone whose views condone the Islamist extremist narrative”. This was in line with comments made a week earlier when he condemned those British Muslims who he said “quietly condoned” the actions of groups like Islamic State.
Sections of the left, including Socialist Worker, have responded by attacking the government’s Islamophobia:
The Tories are certainly off the leash – as prime minister David Cameron’s Muslim-bashing speech to a security conference in Slovakia last week demonstrated. Heralding a new battery of repressive measures contained in the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, Cameron pointed the finger at Britain’s Muslims.
Both Cameron and the SWP are wrong. IS’s terrorism has little to do with Islam and it is a mistake to accept the premise of the prime minister’s arguments. These terrible events have everything to do with politics and wars in the Middle East. While we should condemn the death of 30 innocent tourists in Sousse, we should not forget that they are the latest victims of bloody wars in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, and new wars in Kuwait and Tunisia.
Kuwait is now saying it is engulfed in a major battle against Islamist fundamentalists and there are unconfirmed reports that Turkey is planning to invade Syria:
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has authorised a change in the rules of engagement agreed by the Turkish parliament to allow the army to strike at Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), as well as the Assad regime, according to local newspapers. The aim is to establish a buffer zone for refugees and against Isil, but Mr Erdoğan has also suggested that the main target of the intervention, if it goes ahead, will be to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s doorstep.
For far too long, western governments have ignored these conflicts and the death and destruction they have caused; the only time we see any concern is when the victims of these atrocities are western visitors or tourists. As Robert Fisk wrote on June 28,
It’s ‘us’ and ‘them’ again. It started just after news of the three Islamist attacks broke. David Cameron initially talked about the French and Tunisian killings. He left out the Kuwaiti mosque massacre – only picking up on it later.
Confrontation between IS or Al Nusra, both offshoots of al Qa’eda, with the Syrian dictator, Assad, and the Shia government in Iraq, the bombing of Shia mosques in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – these have little to do with Islam. The tens of thousands of civilians killed in these Middle East wars in the last few years have been mainly Muslims, irrespective of whether they are Shia, Sunni, Druze, Alavi, Houthi, Kurds, Arabs or Afghans.
The language of a Shia-Sunni conflict may be used, but that is only a diversion. What is happening in the Middle East is part of a proxy war between two regional powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. No amount of preaching and deceiving by Cameron, Hollande and other ‘world leaders’, calls for sending in British troops or for other types of intervention can solve the problem. The colonial policies of ‘divide and rule’, plus historic and recent military interventions, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, collectively constitute the cause of the problem.
Someone should tell Cameron that there is no point threatening Muslims in the UK. They did not create al Qa’eda: Saudi Arabia did. No-one is excusing IS, but the reality remains that, in order to defeat it, we have to deal with the root causes of this phenomenon. It was those imperialist allies, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, who have supported and financed jihadist groups and continue to turn a blind eye to IS financial transactions in bank accounts held in such states. In addition Saudi Arabia and Turkey are currently arming and funding Al Nusra (another offshoot of al Qa’eda) in the hope of toppling the Assad regime. We know from the experience of the last few years that some of these arms end up in the hands of IS fighters – and no-one should have any illusions about Al Nusra: a vicious Wahabi jihadi group.
The British prime minister wants to cover up the fact that the United States and its allies are culpable in the creation of IS, not only by creating the conditions for its existence, but by failing to curtail the Saudi princes and other financial backers in the Emirates or Persian Gulf states.
The United States, France, the United Kingdom and other western countries do not want to draw attention to the fact that the failed states they have helped create in the region – Iraq, Syria, Libya – are the breeding ground for the jihadists. The Tunisian gunman who mowed down the British tourists was trained in Libya, where regime change from above went disastrously wrong, but let us not talk about whose bombs paved the way for jihadists taking over most of the country. In the rest of the Middle East dictators supported by the west for decades have, imprisoned, exiled and killed all liberal, secular and leftwing opposition. Cameron wants us to forget that the Islamic groups the US and Britain supported as opponents of communism have become monsters they cannot control. The Iraq war of 2003 in particular created the conditions for unprecedented regional influence for Iran’s Islamic republic, helping to ferment the Saudi phobia about this growing power. The Saudi princes are fearful of a much larger, more populated neighbour and it is precisely this fear that has paved the way for their unlimited support for Jihadi groups.
Robert Fisk, who is researching the history of the current conflicts, going back to the 1980s and 90s, says:
I’ve uncovered a world of almost inexpressible anger – yes, and talk of revenge – despite the Arab dictators who worked for us at the time and tried to smother this frustration, even when Iraqis were dying by the thousandfold. No, it didn’t create the Islamists who kill us today. But it helped lay the foundation for their cults of death – and for the world they grew up in. We had a hand in that. Cliché, of course. But it all goes back to justice.
The current situation in the Middle East is a mess, but to complicate matters this week’s negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran might lead to an even more volatile situation. A landmark agreement is in the pipeline , one that that can ‘change dramatically the political map in the Middle East’ – or at least that is what the two main allies of the United States in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, fear. If a deal is signed, Iran, a country with 80 million inhabitants and relatively advanced levels of industrial development, will no longer be considered a rogue state. If efforts to derail the current nuclear negotiations do not work, we will see renewed Saudi and Turkish efforts to overthrow Assad, as well as Israeli plans to start a confrontation with Hezbollah, as part of their plans to weaken Iran’s Islamic republic.
Two years after the talks began, the prospect of success is far from clear, even once a deal is signed. In addition both Iran and the United States are adamant that it will only relate to the nuclear issue and the two countries do not intend to become allies. However, for both Saudi Arabia and Israel the prospects of an Iran free from sanctions remains a nightmare. That is why we can expect that forces connected to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states will intensify attacks against Shia mosques, Kurds, Druze and Shia /Alavi cities, in order to ‘encourage’ an Iranian military response. There will be those in Tehran who would welcome such an opportunity. The Iranian regime has survived because of crises, and the likely end of the stand-off over nuclear weapons is already creating fears amongst the Revolutionary Guards and conservative factions of the regime that their survival might be in danger if sanctions and the threat of foreign intervention are lifted for good .
This week it became clear that nuclear talks would be extended beyond the end of June deadline. Two days before, the Iranian foreign minister returned from Vienna to Iran for consultations – clearly the Iranian team did not believe the Austrian authorities’ reassurances that their hotels were free of computer bugs. On his return, the deadline was extended by seven days, yet a number of thorny issue remained unresolved.
According to the Geneva deal, Fordow, Iran’s fortified enrichment facility, will not be destroyed, but it will be decommissioned. The heavy water reactor at Arak will have its core removed, so that it will no longer produce such large quantities of plutonium as a by-product of its operations.
The P5+1 insist sanctions will be lifted gradually if and when the decommissioning takes place, while Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, wants them to be removed immediately. The question of how and when sanctions will be lifted remains unresolved. There are obvious reasons for these red lines. Everyone knows that the punitive sanctions imposed against Iran were part of ‘regime change’ and had little to do with the country’s nuclear programme.
In these last days and hours of the negotiations Iranian hardliners and Khamenei have made clear what the country’s other ‘red lines’ are: no inspections of military bases, no interviews with Iranian nuclear scientists. The inspection of military bases is potentially a more serious threat than sanctions, having nothing to do with the non-proliferation treaty. It represents an insult to Iran and can only have one purpose: the identification of military bases with a view to aerial bombing at a future date. This would have only one aim: regime change from above. The majority of the Iranian people want to see the back of the current regime, but they have seen the consequences of regime change from above in Iraq and Libya. They have seen how the failed state in Syria has paved the way for civil war and atrocities committed by jihadists. Contrary to the wishes of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the plethora of Iranian ‘regime change’ opposition groups, all such efforts only lead to the consolidation of the Islamic republic, convincing the Iranian people to settle for the bad for fear of something worse.
In the recent negotiations, France consistently represented the views of Saudi Arabia and Israel, so it was no surprise that at the start of the latest round of negotiations French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was intransigent in his insistence that Iran agrees to limit its research and development capacity and accepts rigorous inspections of various sites, including military sites, with the threat of an automatic return to sanctions if Iran fails to comply.
What the minister failed to mention is that last week France discussed aeronautical and nuclear (!) projects worth billions of euros with Saudi Arabia. Recent deals with the kingdom, and earlier in the year with Qatar, have been very positive for France’s balance of payment, so its lack of enthusiasm for a deal with Iran is not surprising.
A week is a long time in politics and even longer in Middle Eastern politics. The Iran nuclear negotiations might fail, paving the way for further sanctions and US military intervention. However, the threat of war and the current conflicts will persist even if the talks succeed. Saudi Arabia, the countries of the Persian Gulf, Turkey and Israel are in an unofficial alliance to make sure conflict continues in the region, with the aim of weakening Iran’s regional dominance. The consequence will be more atrocities and massacres committed by Islamic State and other Jihadi groups.
What is the significance of the power struggle within the Saudi dynasty?
Last week, in the middle of a war in Yemen, where Saudi troops are engaged in major battles, we witnessed a quiet but significant, not to say unprecedented, coup within the Saudi royal family.
On April 29, king Salman bin Abdulaziz dismissed his half-brother, sitting crown prince Muqrin, and appointed his nephew, former interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, as his replacement. The 55-year-old Nayef is relatively young for the post, in a country where the average age of recent crown princes has been over 70 – Salman had that status in his late 70s. In a single move the king has decided the line of succession for the next few decades, on the same day announcing that his son, Mohammed bin Salman, 30, will become deputy crown prince.
The outgoing crown prince confirmed his departure, but failed to give any explanation for this obvious removal from office. The rumour mill in the Middle East has been claiming that his mother’s humble origins (as a Yemeni slave) had played a part in his downfall. The current holders of power in the Saudi court all come from the Sudairi section of the royal household. They share the same mother, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who was the favourite wife of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz.
However, a more credible reason for Muqrin’s dismissal might be the widespread belief that he had doubts about the war in Yemen and believed Saudi forces were getting nowhere. The news came at a time when the Saudi air force is engaged in bombing Houthi rebels, including in the capital, Sana’a. The war is not going well for the Saudis and so far the weeks of air strikes have brought no tangible military success.
In April, Saudi Arabia tried to organise a coalition of Muslim countries to intervene in the war against its southern neighbour. However, a number of Sunni countries refused to join the war effort and on April 10 the Pakistani parliament decided against military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition. So far, apart from the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain) and moral support from general Sissi of Egypt, the only military contingent has come from Senegal. The north African country is planning to send 2,100 troops to join the “international coalition fighting Houthi rebels”.
Although Iran’s claim that Saudi military intervention has been a disaster is just propaganda, the situation on the ground is not great. Last week the Sana’a-based Hisham Omeish, writing on the Al Jazeera website, summed up the mood amongst forces inside Yemen supporting Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Sunni president favoured by Saudi Arabia:
… the coalition’s campaign resulted in the Houthis taking far more hostile and aggressive steps than they ever dared before, expanding into more territories than when the coalition started its operation. The coalition’s blockade of airports and seaports; the collateral damage from the air strikes, both to infrastructure and in terms of civilian casualties; the multiple battlefronts raging across Yemen; and the overall devastating impact of war on the local population, eventually led to the local buy-in rapidly evaporating.
When the coalition announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm and the commencement of a new operation named Restoration of Hope, the vast majority of emotionally and physically drained Yemenis prematurely celebrated. Unfortunately, the air strikes continued, and public dissent grew. The coalition’s lack of a solid plan was now being starkly highlighted against the dangerously erratic and callous military actions. Furthermore, the realities on the ground for ordinary Yemenis have worsened dramatically since the bombing began.1
According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi-led coalition has used US-supplied cluster bombs during recent air raids. United Nations officials in the region have said that between March 26 and April 22 551 civilians, including 31 women and at least 115 children, were killed as a result.
On May 3, news agencies reported the arrival of a special forces contingent in the Yemeni port city of Aden – elite troops deployed to bolster the anti-Houthi forces,2 although Saudi Arabia denied the claims. By May 5 the situation had deteriorated further, with Houthis firing rockets and mortars into Saudi Arabia.
Many have called the current conflict in Yemen a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and there is no doubt that Iran has supported the Houthis. However, in recent weeks the Islamic Republic’s involvement in the conflict has been low-key, partly because of fears of jeopardising the nuclear deal with the P5+1 powers.
In addition to the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s fears about such a deal with Iran, which would ultimately marginalise Riyadh’s influence in Washington, played an important role in last week’s royal appointments. The new appointees all have a record of opposing any deal with Iran – they are all considered hard-liners, at least in this aspect of the kingdom’s foreign policy.
In Saudi Arabia, power has always been determined by age, irrespective of the physical and indeed mental health of the post-holders. King Salman, who is rumoured to be fighting dementia,3 has changed all this, removing his youngest half-brother (apparently with his consent) and appointing a crown prince from the next generation. Hundreds of other princes amongst the 7,000 that form the Saudi royal household would have had seniority over Nayef, the man named as heir to the throne. Of course, at 79 the king might not have long to live and the Iranian press, for one, has been quick to point out that so many changes in a kingdom used to tradition will create uncertainty – one Tehran paper claimed this would mark the beginning of the end of the Al Saud dynasty. Of course, this is wishful thinking. In fact in Yemen Iran is as much of a loser as Saudi Arabia.
So who is Mohammed bin Nayef, the new crown prince? For many years he has held the post of interior minister and has been in close contact with US security forces. Because of his role dealing with ‘counter-terrorism’, his nickname in the Middle East is “America’s favourite Saudi”. He is credited with championing the so-called rehabilitation programme, Saudi Arabia’s well-publicised policy of ‘re-educating’ captured al Qa’eda members, including former prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay. Nayef is also credited with winning the war against al Qa’eda in Yemen, albeit with the help of US drones.
Nayef’s father was a reactionary even by Saudi standards, nicknamed the ‘black prince’. He was an advocate of Wahhabism, with a low opinion of fellow Arabs:
At an infamous meeting in February 2011, with the region erupting and the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia toppling, prince Nayef summoned the leading Saudi editors and columnists to a Riyadh dinner. In an extended tirade, he dismissed the Tunisians as basically French, and those in Cairo as louche urbanites, while arguing that the Saudis remained bedrock Arabs who held their traditional political system in high esteem, according to several accounts.4
The Saudi king’s second appointment – nominating his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince – has created more resentment. Previously a political unknown, he now holds the post of minister of defence, the youngest in the world to hold such a post, and so is in charge of the Saudi intervention in Yemen. This has led to accusations of nepotism – no other Saudi king has promoted his immediate family at the expense of older, higher-ranking princes. Both appointments are resented by other fractions of the Saudi royal family.
There were other changes in the government. King Salman removed the powerful Saud bin Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, who had worked for 40 years with successive US administrations and, according to the bourgeois press, was one of the world’s most powerful voices in international affairs.
The former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, was named as Saud’s replacement. Unlike holders of most other ministerial posts, Adel al-Jubeir, is not a member of the royal family – his meteoric rise is due primarily to his strong anti-Iran stance. In 2011, while he was the ambassador to Washington, the US administration charged an Iranian-American car salesman with plotting to assassinate him.
Some in Saudi royal circles have voiced their frustration with Washington’s foreign policy, blaming successive administrations for the disintegration of Iraq. In particular they round on Barack Obama for his failure to intervene militarily in Syria in 2013. The new team will look for allies amongst neoconservative Republicans, as well as pro-Israel Democrats, to consolidate its position as the main US regional ally, at a time when the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran is causing hysteria in Riyadh. Of course, Saudi fears of a US-Iran rapprochement are premature. Even if Iran and P5+1 succeed in signing a final deal, the two countries will remain regional adversaries for many years to come. Last week, for instance, Iran and the US were sabre-rattling over shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.
Two weeks ago the US and Saudi Arabia threatened to board a flotilla of Iranian cargo and naval ships, accusing the Iranians of carrying weapons for the Houthi rebels. The ships were forced to change course to avoid a confrontation. Obama then asked the navy top brass to send a US aircraft-carrier to Yemen. In retaliation, Iranian naval forces seized a cargo ship, the Maersk Tigris, flying the flag of the Marshall Islands. They forced its crew to steer towards the island of Qeshm. The ship’s last port of call was Jeddah. The US navy responded by escorting all US-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. All this is adding to the tension in the strategic waterways used for the transport of one-fifth of the world’s oil flows.
In addition Iran-US relations remain tense over Syria. The Obama administration is persevering with plans for regime change in Syria, in alliance with Saudi Arabia, the emirates of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey, even though this policy involves tacit support for former al Qa’eda affiliates. Between them Islamic State and Al Nasr (the jihadi group supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey with tacit US support) control swathes of Syria. US troops stationed in Turkey are also engaged in training the Syrian opposition, including al Nasr. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah continue to support the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad.
Yet another UN-sponsored conference is currently taking place, aimed at finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. As with Libya and Iraq, there is only one essential precondition for any solution to the conflict: an end to foreign intervention both by Iran and by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries. The civilian population in Syria and now in Yemen have suffered enough in proxy wars.
The changes in the Saudi court make the prospects for a resolution of the conflicts in the Middle East less likely.
Three deadly road accidents in one week, involving expensive cars driven by super-rich young Iranians, have dominated this week’s news in Iran – especially after the country’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used a meeting with police chiefs to criticise fast-driving, wealthy youngsters. Khamenei said: “I hear that young people from the generation of wealth, a generation intoxicated by their money, are driving luxury cars and parading in the streets, making the streets insecure … This is an example of psychological insecurity.”1
The cars involved in these accidents were Porsches, Ferraris and Maseratis driven by sons and daughters of ayatollahs or their cronies – people who live in multimillion-dollar luxury apartments, wear branded clothes and boast all modern accessories. An Instagram page, Rich Kids of Tehran, dedicated to the spending habits of this group, has gained notoriety as an example of obscene spending. The page shows young men posing next to private planes and helicopters, wearing expensive Rolex watches and holding gold-plated mobile phones, plus young women wearing ball gowns in luxury mansions with private cinema screens and swimming pools. A far cry from the lives of ordinary young Iranians, who need two or three jobs just to survive – and even then on incomes close to the state’s own poverty line.
According to Saham news, the owner of the yellow Maserati killed in last week’s accident was Mohammad Hossein Rabbani, the grandson of ayatollah Rabbani Shirazi.2 Rabbani is listed in the official media as a religious scholar who opposed the shah’s regime and became a servant of the newly founded Islamic Republic after 1979. However, most of us on the Iranian left remember him as the personal representative of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamist movement that overthrew the shah. Rabbani was sent to Kurdistan soon after the February uprising to uphold the rule of the “government of the poor and disinherited” by overseeing attacks on villages where leftwing groups who were fleeing the Islamic regime’s terror had sought refuge in Kurdish areas. It is also claimed that he played a part in show trials that led to the execution of communists in Kurdistan and Khuzestan.
How ironic that the grandson of this fine representative of “the poor and disinherited” should be killed driving a Maserati. It is also interesting to note that the supreme leader, who presides over a $95 billion foundation, is disturbed not by the excessive wealth gathered by clerics and their relatives per se, but by its ostentatious display in the form of expensive cars.
All those studying the economic, political and social consequences of gross inequality should visit Iran’s Islamic Republic. In explaining the current economic disaster in Iran, bourgeois economists are quick to point out the rentier nature of the economy – the reliance on oil, the role of the Revolutionary Guards in controlling the black market … However, what they fail to point out is this is made possible and compounded by the fundamentals guiding Iran’s economic policies: unfettered neoliberal capitalism. Fast, expensive cars are not a major contributor to the “psychological insecurity” of the population. Low wages, job insecurity, systematic non-payment of wages, spiralling prices, food shortages, lack of basic medication are.
As elsewhere under neoliberal capitalism, there is no ‘trickle-down effect’. While clerics and their closest civilian and military supporters have made billions from sanction-busting and the black market, ordinary Iranians have faced hunger, abject poverty and death due to shortage of medicines and surgical equipment. No doubt the display of grotesque wealth is adding insult to injury, but the supreme leader should pay more attention to the injury. Shahrzad Elghanyan, a New York Timesreporter, 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.”
Thirty-five years after a revolution that promised an egalitarian utopia and vowed to root out gharbzadegi – the modern, westernised lifestyles of Iran’s cosmopolitans – how have some people become so rich?
Much of Iran’s wealth, it turns out, is in the hands of the very people in charge of maintaining social justice. Hard-line clerical leaders, together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards corps …, have engineered a system where it is largely they, their family members and their loyal cronies who prosper.3
I have previously written about the pro-rich policies under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but there is no doubt that Hassan Rowhani is continuing along the same lines. What is different is that the current president is more ideological in his defence of neoliberal capital and, now that the nuclear negotiations have progressed, he is turning his attention to internal politics, with disastrous consequences for working people.
Iran’s super-rich, the one percent, are getting richer by the minute, because they thrive on neoliberal economic policies, implemented with the help of the state’s military and security forces. Ahmadinejad promised a situation where 100% of Iran’s workforce are employed on temporary contracts and this is one of the few aims that were all but realised during his presidency. Currently the overwhelming majority of the country’s workforce are employed on such contracts, deprived of any employment rights. Companies do not need to sack rebellious workers and those who organise protests: they just refuse to renew their contracts. In this respect Rowhani is merely following in Ahmadinejad’s footsteps.
Since 1988, when Iran first accepted International Monetary Fund loans, the IMF has sent a commission to Tehran every spring to verify the country’s compliance with global capital’s requirements. Every year by mid-summer the central bank and the government propose further privatisation in the industrial, banking and service sectors, bringing further misery to tens of thousands of workers, victims of subsequent job losses and casualisation. However, the level and scope of privatisation approved by Iran’s supreme leader in 2006 was unprecedented – Khamenei had to ‘re-interpret’ article 4 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. The government initiated plans to sell off 80% of its stake in a range of state-run industrial companies, in the oil sector, banking, media, transportation and mineral sectors, thus contravening one of its own economic ‘principles’, as laid down in the constitution.
As early as August 2006, when Iran first entered nuclear negotiations, most of the 100 or so points raised in the document sent by Iran to the US administration read more like a begging letter. They called for the lifting of sanctions to allow US transnationals the kind of investment opportunities enjoyed by European, Japanese and Chinese companies. By 2007, sanctions imposed by the United Nations created a situation where European and Asian companies were also prohibited from dealing with Iran, leading to the desperate situation of the last few years.
In 2013 Rowhani’s electoral success came about because he promised to end the country’s isolation and the asphyxiating sanctions. The implication was that all this would inevitably lead to economic recovery, as Iran is integrated closely into the world capitalist order. It is therefore not surprising that, following the partial success in nuclear negotiations, Iranian capitalists and the Rowhani administration are eager to encourage western investment, with promises of a skilled and semi-skilled workforce at dirt-cheap rates, courtesy of the ‘economic restructuring’ programmes of the last two decades. Since the Lausanne deal in early April, the Iranian president and his ministers have only one item on their agenda: ‘foreign investment’, presented as the panacea for all the country’s economic woes.
As I have pointed out, previous Iranian administrations also presided over market-oriented capitalist economies. As state-owned companies were privatised, the main beneficiaries were regime insiders, so individual clerics, their immediate families, bazaaris, landowners close to the regime, as well as Islamic collectives, including sections of the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), grew super-rich.
The old bourgeoisie keeps referring to this stratum as thenouveaux riches, amidst complaints about their greed, corruption and pitiless exploitation. However, the reality is that all sections of the capitalist class benefited from and relied on government ‘restructuring’ policies to sack workers and re-employ them under temporary contracts. Successive administrations watered down the post-revolution labour legislation in favour of the factory owners. ‘White contracts’, where the worker signs a blank sheet of paper and the employer fills in the contract details, are now the norm.
All this has contributed to a massive gap between rich and poor. The Maserati driven by Shirazi’s grandson cost around half a million pounds – the equivalent of the monthly salaries of 2,500 industrial workers or 2,000 teachers. According to leftwing economist Parviz Raees,
Ahmadinejad supported semi-governmental capitalism – meaning corporations, organisations and semi-governmental military and non-military institutions – against a governmental, clerical and bureaucratic economy. All these factions existed before, but Ahmadinejad’s administration, a conservative administration with radical rightwing economic policies, was trying to strengthen this new faction and create a new layer of capitalists. This layer established itself and took over as the main agent for investments, civil projects, extraction of natural resources, civil-military projects and developmental contracts.
Rowhani’s administration has clearly accepted and recognised the existence, and the interests, of this new group. Right now, the problem is their disagreement regarding a portion of the resources and interests. We can see signs of this disagreement, for example, in [members of parliament] attempting to expose the supposed, not the real, corruption figures.4
In recent weeks, the issue of corruption and use of illicit funds (eg, from drug deals) in election campaigns has become a hot topic in Iran. In February 2015, the official news agency, IRNA, quoted Iran’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, as saying that political life in the Islamic Republic was tainted by “dirty money”, including from drug smuggling. The minister gave the example of $600,000 spent by one candidate during a city council election as an example. The accusations ahead of crucial parliamentary elections were aimed at the more conservative opponents of the current administration and the minister faced an attack by 30 MPs, who accused Fazli of “undermining the healthiest and most transparent electoral system in the world”.5 By late April he was retracting his claims, but the damage was done – the minister’s comment confirms what most Iranian people have long known: the Islamic Republic is institutionally corrupt.
The Rowhani administration has made a number of claims about its policies aimed at improving the economic situation, not least in tackling the spiralling rate of inflation combined with stagnation. However, most of the publicity about the government’s Proposed package to turn stagnation to expansion is waffle. As Ismail Hossein Zadeh points out inCounterpunch, the document “turns out to be disappointingly devoid of any specific guideline or clear policy for economic recovery”. He goes on:
Slightly more than 40% of the package is devoted to a withering criticism of economic policies of the previous (Ahmadinejad’s) administration, which is not only full of factual falsehoods and distortions, but is also dubious on theoretical grounds. The rest of the package consists of a series of vague statements and general descriptions that fall way short of a meaningful economic plan or programme. Reading through the package feels like reading through lecture notes of an academic economist on neoclassical/neoliberal macroeconomic theory, not a policy prescription or an economic agenda.6
Over the last two years the international press and media have concentrated on Rowhani’s foreign policies, in terms of both negotiations with the P5+1 and confrontation with conservative figures internally. Outside Iran very few are familiar with the Iranian president’s economic vision. He is an avid defender of market forces and opposed to state intervention (unless it is directed towards helping the market). In a major speech delivered in August 2014 Rowhani claimed: “The state must stay out of economic activities, and place those activities at the disposal of the private sector … The private sector understands the economy much better, and it knows where to invest.”7
He has written extensively on this subject in National security and economic system of Iran (August 2010). According to this book, the economic hardship faced by the peoples of the third world has nothing to do the global economic order or imperialist exploitation. It is a direct result of their own isolationism and economic mismanagement. So recessions, joblessness and hardship have nothing to do with neoliberal economics.
In other words, Iranian workers can expect little help from Hassan Rowhani. He is opposed to “oppressive” labour legislation (ie, legislation that restricts the freedom of capitalists) and believes that low wages and temporary-contract employment helps promote prosperity. His book states: “One of the main challenges that employers and our factories face is the existence of labour unions. Workers should be more pliant toward the demands of job-creators.” The fact that there are no independent trade unions in Iran and that most of those who have fought to establish them are currently in jail escapes the president’s notice. The book should be read by neoconservatives in the Republican Party – surely they will appreciate many of the Iranian president’s comments.
According to Rowhani,
There is a close correlation between economic development and political stability, which means maintaining dialogue and friendly relations with the outside world. As stable international relations paves the grounds for economic development, economic development, in turn, makes a country more secure or stable, as it makes the country less vulnerable to external threats. Thus, there is a positive correlation, akin to a virtuous cycle, between the goal of economic development and the policy of establishing or maintaining friendly relations with the outside world.
For Rowhani, the man with an eye on the international situation, there are lessons to be learnt from the ‘Arab spring’. Economic misery, frustration with ever-increasing unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor fuelled the revolt. In countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria the super-rich were identified as pro-western, decadent and anti-Islamic. Yet ruthless repression of the left had created a situation where Islamists, often supported by Saudi funds, could benefit from the political vacuum created when protestors took to the streets, expressing all the frustrations built up over decades.
In Iran, the Islamists have been in power for 36 years and no-one amongst the millions of unemployed or unpaid workers have any illusions about the regime. They have seen how Islam’s version of neoliberal economics works. The youth (some 78% of the population) – at least those not affected by drugs and addiction – can be divided into two categories: a minority who maintain illusions about the west and bourgeois democracy, hoping that full integration into the world capitalist order will bring prosperity; and a majority who reject current economic policies.
Since January 2015 we have seen a wave of workers’ protests for pay increases in line with the growing rate of inflation, against the non-payment of wages, against employers’ refusal to renew contracts and against mass lay-offs.
According to IRNA, Khatoon Abad Copper workers have gathered with their families on a number of occasions and at times for consecutive days in front of the governor’s office in Kerman province, where they were protesting against threats to their job security. Varamin Sugar Company workers took to the streets in January to stop the closure of the company and the loss of their jobs. Ahvaz Water and Wastewater workers and miners from Tazeh in Semnan province were amongst large groups of workers waging protests over the non-payment of wages, while Iranian cities have witnessed demonstrations by teachers over poverty pay. They refused to attend classes for two days in January and there were similar protests in February and April.
Meanwhile, thousands of nurses from across the country gathered in front of the parliament to protest against the government’s failure to implement regulated rates for nursing services. According to these protestors, although the new health bill has resulted in pay increases for doctors and surgeons, nurses have seen no significant improvement despite a substantially increased workload. This despite the fact that the country faces a serious shortage of nurses – the current ratio is only one nurse for every 1,000 patients.
On foreign trips the president and his foreign minister are eager to tell reporters that there are no political prisoners in Iran. However, those of us who are in touch with labour activists in Iran know otherwise. Despite the sackings and threats, many workers continue to organise and participate in demonstrations, strikes and protests and many are sent to prison. The long list of labour activists currently incarcerated include: Yousof Abkharabat, Sharokh Zamani, Vahed Sayedeh, Jafar Azimzadeh, Jamil Mohamadi, Rasoul Bodaghi, Abdolreza Ghanbari, Muhamad Jarahi, Mahmoud Bagheri, Kourosh Bakhshandeh, and Behnam Ebrahimzadeh.
And, as Iranian workers prepare for protests to be held on May 1, the authorities have arrested a number of labour activists, including Mahmoud Salehi and Ossman Esmaili, members of the union committee at the Vahed bus company in Tehran, as well as the secretary of Tehran’s teachers’ association, Alireza Hashemi.
Workers organising protests face sentences of at least four to five years. Many of those currently held suffer from ill health caused by poor conditions. Political prisoners also complain of kidney pain, gum disease, arthritis and stomach ulcers – all due to torture.
This May Day Iranian workers will demonstrate and celebrate where they can – openly in some major cities, elsewhere by gathering in secret locations. They all have one thing in mind: solidarity with fellow workers in Iran and in oyher places. In the midst of the ravages of neoliberal capitalism in the Middle East, they are a beacon of hope for all those fighting for secular, progressive and internationalist values.
1. Quote from the Iranian leader’s website: www.Khamenei.ir.
7. ‘Rowhani explains anti-stagnation economic policies’:www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13930519000461.
Finally, after eight days of intensive negotiations, on April 2 Iran and the P5+1 powers agreed a statement of intent, which will become the framework for the final deal to be signed in June 2015.
This does not mean the US administration has decided on a strategy of rapprochement with Iran – the proposed ‘framework’ does not address any issues beyond the immediate subject of the country’s nuclear installations. However, if the final deal is reached, it will herald a new era in the two countries’ bilateral relations and for Iran’s economic and trade relations with the European Union. Sections of Iran’s industry, paralysed by sanctions, will resume operation, the rate of inflation might fall if the price of the rial rises, and the price of basic goods might come down if the internal mafia of black marketeers can be controlled.
It is too early to speculate how all this will play out in detail, but we can safely, I think, predict four things. Firstly, European companies will return in the hope of securing new markets and large profits. Secondly, the Islamic Republic will persevere with its neoliberal economic policies. Thirdly, in any ensuing economic upturn, the gap between the rich and the poor will get wider, non-payment of workers’ wages will continue. Fourthly, the ‘reformist’ faction of the Islamic regime will maintain power for longer than one presidential election.
Lengthy negotiations are in store until the agreement is signed. And already opponents of the deal, inside and outside Iran, are lining up to denounce what is known about the main points. On paper it looks like both sides have made concessions, while keeping to their ‘red lines’. As far as uranium enrichment is concerned, Iran has agreed to reduce its centrifuges by approximately two-thirds, from 19,000 currently to 6,104, with only 5,060 of these enriching uranium for 10 years, and at levels below 3.67% for at least 15 years. The country will reduce its current stockpile of about 10,000kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300kg of 3.67% LEU, while excess centrifuges and enrichment infrastructure will be placed in storage and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran will convert its nuclear facility in Fordow so that it is no longer used to enrich uranium, again for at least 15 years. However, the country will be allowed to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility, using first-generation centrifuges for 10 years, with excess centrifuges being handed over to IAEA inspectors. Iran has also agreed to destroy the original heavy-water reactor in Arak. It will redesign and rebuild this reactor so that in future the plant cannot be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and instead the facility will be used to support peaceful nuclear research and produce radioisotopes.
In return, according to the official White House statement, “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.” However, “If at any time Iran fails to fulfil its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.” Furthermore, “The architecture of US nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.” Finally, “All past UN security council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD and transparency).”1
The two sides have different interpretations of both nuclear decommissioning and the lifting of ‘all sanctions’. One of the red lines of supreme leader Ali Khamenei has always been the demand that all sanctions (it is assumed by this he means sanctions imposed because of the country’s nuclear programme) will be lifted in one go. The US administration’s interpretation is that sanctions will be suspended gradually after each step of compliance with the agreement and lifted permanently after Iran has adopted all the measures stipulated by the agreement. Either way, the majority of the Iranian people are facing years more of misery, economic hardship and high inflation.
In its first session of the new Iranian year (1394) the Iranian majles (parliament) was divided on the subject. President Hassan Rowhani and his foreign minister have hinted that throughout negotiations in Lausanne Khamenei was informed of every detail and therefore the signed statement and details released by both sides have his seal of approval. Of course, the fact that there is confusion about the thorny issue of sanctions does not help and Iranian opponents of the deal have picked up on this. A day after his triumphant return from Lausanne, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was heckled in a session of the security committee of the majles. The arguments became so heated that he threatened to leave the meeting and cameras were removed. A leading conservative figure compared the deal to “trading a saddled horse for a few broken reins”.
However, other conservative figures welcomed the agreement and congratulated the government. The supreme leader is likely to express his opinion later in the week and it is expected he will give it a guarded welcome. The leader of Friday prayers, ayatollah Emami Kashani, who is close to the more conservative factions of the Islamic regime, hailed the deal. And in a significant move, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, expressed support for the agreement: “With God’s grace, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have succeeded in defending the rights of the Iranian nation, and the Revolutionary Guards appreciate their honest political efforts.”
The Iranian parliament might insist on a vote regarding the delay in the lifting of sanctions, but the government is only obliged to place the issue of Iran allowing more extensive inspection of the country’s nuclear facilities, as well as related industries, before parliament.
Rightwing Republicans and pro-Israeli Democrats in the US congress and senate will also try to stop the deal. Scott Walker, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said he would – if elected – “renege on any deal with Iran”, while Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, alleged: “Iranian leaders will now find a nuclear weapon dangerously within reach.”
Responding to such claims, Barack Obama went on the offensive to defend the deal, calling it the best possible option: “Bombing the country” and starting a new war in the Middle East would only set back Iran’s programme a few years, while just continuing sanctions would not be sufficient, as they had never stopped Iran “making progress with its nuclear programme”.2
The Iranian people have suffered considerably from the sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy, isolated its banks and financial institutions, yet now we hear from the US president that they made no difference to Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranian exiles (on the left and the right) who remain advocates of sanctions (or, as Hillary Clinton called them, “targeted sanctions”) should bear this in mind. By definition sanctions increase the power of the existing state, punish ordinary citizens and only result in two possible outcomes: regime change from above or the creation of a failed state, in both cases for the sole benefit of imperialism.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called the Lausanne agreement a “bad deal”, even though some, if not most, of his demands were added to the conditions by US secretary of state John Kerry, including the reduction of uranium stockpiles and the decommissioning of the current reactor in Fordow. So the Zionist leader is now forced to look for new demands. On April 4, he said the final deal must include Iran’s recognition of the state of Israel. A bizarre addition, given that these talks were supposed to be solely about Iran’s nuclear programme.
As negotiations dragged on in Lausanne, it was clear that all parties were desperate to reach a deal:
- For Iran it was necessary because the economy is on its knees following the collapse of the price of oil.
- For the EU because a new market desperate for goods and services in a semi-developed country, with a population of nearly 80 million, presents many ‘opportunities’.
- For the US because it is facing so many challenges in that part of the world that reaching agreement with Iran could be presented as the Obama administration’s crowning success.
As Iranians celebrated the possible end of punitive sanctions, many commented on the billions of dollars spent on developing nuclear plants, a project that benefited from astronomic funds at a time when most people were suffering from food shortages, lack of medicine … all courtesy of the west. The Iranian people have paid a heavy price for the supreme leader’s ‘heroic flexibility’ regarding the nuclear issue. Contrary to silly comments by sections of the exiled left, the celebrations on the streets of Tehran last Friday were not in support of the government, but an expression of hope that the economic situation will improve after sanctions are removed.
For the EU, the prospects of new markets were making some capitalists salivate. The ink on the Lausanne deal was barely dry before Richard Branson purred with satisfaction: “Well done to Iran’s foreign minister … in bringing home an historic deal for Iran and the world. Commendations to John Kerry and the leaders from the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany in reaching an agreement … There are millions of young, ambitious, decent Iranians who can now start to enjoy some prosperity in Iran, as sanctions are lifted without the threat of war.”3
However, predictions that Iran will become the US’s best friend in the region, or a regional economic power allied to the US at the expense of Saudi Arabia,4 are premature to say the least. Since 2001 US policy in the region has been such a disaster it is difficult to see how a deal with Iran will improve the situation. The world hegemon has managed to create and oversee disaster in Iraq following the invasion and occupation, and it has inflicted poverty, hunger and the threat of war on the peoples of Iran. It egged on fundamentalist groups in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, only for them to end up fighting each other in a civil war. During the ‘Arab spring’ the US supported president Hosni Mubarak until it became obvious that his regime could not survive, so it then tried to make deals with the Muslim Brotherhood and finally supported a military coup. A coup that effectively ended hopes of radical change for millions of Egyptians and Arabs.
Since 2012 the world hegemon power and its allies, encouraged by Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, have been pursuing one aim: to weaken Iran’s regional influence. That is why they have supported jihadists in Syria (the same jihadists who ended up as Islamic State). While the rhetoric was for democracy and civil society, in practice the three main allies of the US were reactionary religious and semi-religious states: Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. As far as relations with the arch-enemy is concerned, while the Iranian people were punished through sanctions, the US administration had no hesitation in coming to arrangements with the regime whenever their common interests demanded it, including in the 2003 war in Iraq, in Afghanistan since 2001 and now in opposing IS in Syria or Iraq.
In Syria the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains the main enemy – because, according to many in and around the administration, Iran is more of a threat than IS. In the last few weeks there have been many days when the US army was bombing IS forces in northern Iraq, while using drones to attack pro-Assad forces in Syria and sending arms to jihadists fighting the Assad regime. In the first instance the enemy was this major threat to world peace, IS, while in the second it was about undermining Iran’s regional ambitions. All this while Obama’s secretary of state was engaged in the nuclear negotiations.
Muddled and ineffective US foreign policy in the region has been disastrous for the peoples of the Middle East and north Africa, those who have to live with the subsequent chaos. Many have argued this is symptomatic of a superpower in decline and there is historical precedence to validate such an argument. On the other hand, it could be that there is method in this madness, that the world hegemon power is deliberately following a policy of producing failed states: Iraq, Syria, Libya , Yemen … Far from seeking stability, it could be that the US actually wants to spread chaos, hoping to benefit from national, regional and religious divisions, thanks to the good old tactic of divide and rule. With current US policy there is the prospect of decades of war, civil strife and regime change in the region.
The deal in Lausanne has done nothing to change this.
1. Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program:www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/04/240170.htm.