A region in flux

Yassamine Mather of Hands off the People of Iran examines the failure of political Islam and imperialism’s attempts to adjust its alliances

John Kerry: Behind the scenes maneuvering
John Kerry: Behind the scenes maneuvering

Irrespective of what happens in 2014, the year 2013 will be remembered as a year of historic changes in Iran-US relations. For the first time in 34 years, a US president has spoken to his Iranian equivalent, and the two countries’ foreign ministers have held face-to-face negotiations as well as a number of phone conversations. Contrary to what the supporters of the reformist movement in Iran claim, the dramatic changes in Iran-US relations are not simply a consequence of the June 2013 elections and the coming to office of a ‘moderate’ president in Iran. We now know that secret meetings between US and Iranian officials took place in Oman last year, during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. According to a senior US official quoted by Associated Press, US foreign secretary John Kerry visited Oman in May 2013, “ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate but secretly focused on maintaining that country’s key mediation role”.

Above all, the initially secret and latterly open meetings that have led to the current negotiations mark a radical change in US policy towards the region. For most of the last three and a half decades, in fact since the coming to power of the Islamic Republic in Iran, US foreign policy in the Middle East has been to keep its two main allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, at loggerheads with the Islamic Republic. This post-1979 policy has had one strategic focus: preventing a repetition of Iran’s Islamic revolution in another Muslim country. Ironically it was the Arab spring, the rise and subsequent failure of political Islam in the Arab world, that alleviated this fear, and the US is now prepared to move towards rapprochement with Iran. In this article I will look at some of the factors that paved the way for these changes, and the possible consequences that might follow.

1. Shia supreme religious leaders in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, had promised their people and the world that future revolutions in the region will be Islamic in character and will seek to imitate Iran’s 1979 revolution. Indeed, at first glance events in Egypt and Tunisia in 2012-13 seemed to confirm this prediction. Yet even as the Muslim Brotherhood was gaining support in Egypt, and later as it came to power, it became quite apparent that the Shia-Sunni divide meant they were unlikely to be allies of Iran’s Islamic Republic. In fact, Tehran’s antagonistic attitude towards the pro-Saudi MB government in Cairo was as pronounced as it had been towards Egypt under Mubarak. US strategists had to accept that even if political Islam came to power in another Middle Eastern country, it was their allies in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf who would control the purse strings and dictate how events unfolded – not Iran. Even if an Islamic revolution succeeded in the Arab world, the Iranian model would not be repeated.

2. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain its support and retain power in Egypt, and the workers’ strikes and mass demonstrations of summer 2013 proved beyond doubt that in the first quarter of the 21st century – unlike 1979 Iran – the life of Islamic governments will be short. Such regimes misunderstand the political and economic reasons behind the upheavals of 2011-13, underestimate the anger of the youth movement and fail to realise that empty promises of ‘equality and social justice’ – even buoyed with expensive propaganda paid for by Saudis – might work at election times but can easily become the source of disillusionment once the new government fails to deliver. In Egypt the army had forged a convenient alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood; however, when it became clear that dissatisfaction with the Morsi government was fuelling the fires of another uprising, the military intervened in order to head off the revolutionary movement. For the US this was yet another awakening: fresh Islamic governments were unlikely to last as long as the Islamic Republic.

3. A decade ago, the US ‘war on terror’ led to the coming to power of a Shia government in Iraq, ironically making Iran a more powerful force in the region. Since then, Iran and the US have, despite themselves, been forced to work together to prop up the occupation-friendly Shia government in Baghdad. This situation has given Iran unprecedented political influence. For all the hysteria in the US about Iran’s clerical regime, the military success in overthrowing Saddam has aided the creation of a ‘Shia belt’ from the eastern borders of Iran to the Mediterranean, via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Initially the Arab spring found genuine supporters in Syria (Iran’s second main ally in the Arab world) and the protests by students, youth and Kurds against Assad’s dictatorship gained momentum. These protests were a genuine expression of the hopes of the Syrian people. But Saudi Arabia and its allies also saw an opportunity to intervene. The aim was to bring about a speedy overthrow of the Alavi regime of Assad and thereby weaken Iran’s regional role – and it was a big surprise that Iran actually got involved in the conflict to prop up Assad.

However ,the events of last summer, and the brutality of Islamic jihadists in both Syria and Iraq (where they engaged in the systematic use of car bombs in Shia civilian areas), whose methods and ideology began spreading to Libya and elsewhere, became a source of concern for US strategists. Saudi rulers who were financing these ‘holy warriors’ were incapable of controlling them. For the US this was a turning point in its policy towards Syria, and may have been as significant, if not more so, than the US administration’s failure to get international or congressional support for limited military intervention. In addition, as far as the survival of the Iraqi regime was concerned, Iran and the US had more in common than they had previously envisaged.

4. Last but not least, the US is well aware that sanctions have destroyed Iran’s economy. The punitive measures imposed by the US and its allies might have failed to stop the nuclear programme, or make much of a dent in the private wealth of senior clerics, but they were effective enough to ensure Iran was no longer in a position to become a real threat to US strategy in the region.

Though far less significant than the above factors, the election of a ‘moderate’ president and the supreme leader’s ‘heroic’ retreat on Iran’s nuclear programme, also helped increase the chances of further negotiations. Perhaps sometime in the summer of 2013, but probably much earlier, the US came to the conclusion that a change in Middle East policy was necessary; a twin track approach – relying on Iran in addition to Saudi Arabia, while remaining the main ally of Israel – presented a better guarantee for the sort of stability imperialism seeks. As we know from reactions in both Riyadh and Tel Aviv, this new policy has its opponents amongst Zionists and Saudi royals – and, of course, among their lobbyists in Washington.

Although a lessening of sanctions must be welcomed, the omens are not good for the Iranian working class. There may be a few more jobs, and the currency might pick up, but internal repression remains as severe as it was. French, German and UK companies are eagerly waiting to return, now that Baroness Ashton has announced EU sanctions will soon be lifted. They have only one goal in mind: using cheap, but skilled, labour in car plants, petrochemical plants and manufacturing … for higher profits.

As the British Chambers of Commerce start salivating at the prospect of new investments and new markets, we must organise our solidarity with the Iranian working class. The upcoming day school hosted by Hands Off the People of Iran (see box) will help us understand the complex issues involved.

Originally published in the Weekly Worker.

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