With Iran partially withdrawing from the nuclear deal and the US imposing yet more sanctions, tensions are rising fast. This is an edited version of an opening given by Yassamine Mather on the political situation in the Middle East
A common question journalists ask these days – if they are not asking about Brexit – is ‘Will there be a war against Iran?’ and, if so, when? They seem to be thinking about a conflict within the next few weeks or months. In fact, a better question to ask would be: ‘Will there be a war in the Middle East?’
In the United States, this is the question that is being posed in mainstream commentary and journalistic speculation and I believe there are a number of reasons why one should consider such a scenario, however improbable it might seem. Let us start by looking at the situation in the US.
The Mueller report might in the long run become more damaging to Donald Trump, partly because of the way attorney general William Barr intervened to minimise the damage and the way this tactic has backfired. Barr, who was appointed by Trump, did all he could to give a good spin on the Mueller report, yet this might have actually damaged the president’s case. He presented such a whitewash, suggesting that Trump had nothing to answer for, that the negative impact, once the redacted report reached the House and the Senate, was significant. People recognised that there was a case to answer. In addition Mueller has been clear that Barr did not accurately reflect the actual content of the report.
This is not about impeachment – the whole issue is about Trump’s insecurity at home and the fact that he is clearly worried about what is happening. His unease increases the chances of him becoming more unhinged and taking precipitative action. If you had monitored the instances of factually incorrect nonsense spoken by the president over the last three or four weeks, as some journalists have done, you would have seen that the number has gone up considerably! This, along with the increasingly flaky nature of his tweets over this period, is perhaps indicative of an unravelling mind.
The other issue that has attracted attention in the last few weeks is the world economy. Stagnation has been a subject of unease for some time, but this question has become more pressing. While opinions vary, most commentators talk of uncertainty and the effect of raised tariffs – which has greatly exacerbated the problems for a world economy that was already running out of momentum. The latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund is negative for just about every economy in the world and the expectation is that the figures for the next three quarters in the United States itself will be pretty poor. Trump predicted that his tax cuts would win him a certain level of support amongst Republicans in the Senate, and claimed that this would boost the economy. But the dark clouds of recession are gathering.
All of this adds up to uncertainty in the United States and in these circumstances – as we know from history – conflict abroad is a good diversionary tactic.
We have also had the Israeli elections. It is not simply that Netanyahu was re-elected – that in itself was not a huge surprise – but it has also demonstrated a further rightward shift in Zionism. This has given new life to the scheme devised by Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner for a new ‘peace’ initiative in the Middle East, which apparently will be unveiled in June.
In the Middle East itself, Islamic State is supposedly defeated – Trump has announced this ‘victory’ four or five times, giving a variety of different, inaccurate dates for when it supposedly happened. However, the refugee camps in Syria and Iraq are full of IS fighters, while recent events in Sri Lanka indicate that they are scattered around the world and are ready to create mayhem. We do not know whether or not Saudi and United Arab Emirates support for them – from the state or via individual backers – continues and, if so, to what extent.
The Saudis have emerged relatively unscathed from the hostile reaction to the Jamal Khashoggi murder, plus the execution of other opponents, in recent months. While many expected them to be punished for this – or least given a diminished role in Middle East politics – this has not happened. We have seen, however, the formation of two new alliances – Egypt and Israel, on the one hand, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other. (The first of these alliances is particularly important, as it is meant to provide the political backbone for the Kushner plan.)
In addition, over the last two weeks we have seen what the Middle Eastern press calls the “threat of war” – not conflict, sharp exchanges or small incursions, but war – between Israel and Lebanon. This development has gathered momentum – far more than anyone expected. And, of course, a war between Israel and Lebanon would also involve Iran – it is an accepted fact that if Israel and Lebanon go to war, then Hezbollah will be the main target for the Israeli state. Once that dynamic is in play, Iran would have to become involved.
At the same time, we have the continuing chaos in Afghanistan. The Afghan parliament was elected four years ago, but it sat for the first time during the week beginning April 22 of this year! This is because there is no real sense of what the government should be for. De facto the country is run by war lords, although the Taliban are gaining support – it is worth remembering that the Taliban previously came to power as a result of the chaos in the post-Soviet era and they are now viewed as the ‘cleaner’ (less corrupt) option amongst a bad bunch. This time they also have the Pakistani premier, Imran Khan, on their side.
In terms of the Yemen war, the US Congress voted to end military support for Saudi Arabia. However, within four hours Trump had vetoed it. In a way, the Yemen war is the red line for Trump. Via this conflict, he is showing his affiliation with Saudi. The repeated claims that Iran is the source of the conflict are just incorrect. Certainly, Iran is benefiting from it, but it is not “Iran’s baby” as secretary of state Mike Pompeo keeps saying.
The Saudi-Bahrain-UAE alliance came together because of the alleged fear of Iran. Its Arab neighbours claim Tehran has become too powerful: it does have allies in Syria, it does have the Iraqi government on its side and it does have supporters in the Lebanese government.
But there is an additional problem, which to a certain extent has been overlooked: we have all become so immune to the disasters created by the Trump administration that we are almost desensitised. The president has rid himself of any official who does not want a war with Iran, a country of 80 million people – some of whom are keen to martyr themselves in the name of the 12th Shia Imam! Worryingly, people like former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who were opposed to US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, have been replaced by the warmonger Pompeo. Trump’s former defence secretary, James Mattis, was dismissed for expressing doubts about military interventions in the Middle East and in particular in Iran.
Pompeo comes across as a buffoon who sounds off without thinking about the consequences. The secretary of state is promoting idiotic groups and cults that oppose the Tehran regime and he seems to have accepted the lies they feed him about having massive support inside Iran. Both the royalists and the Mujahedeen are giving the US administration assurances about how easy it will be to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Some US senators are comparing such groups to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader promoted by the United States, who claimed before the US invasion of Iraq that his supporters would ensure a smooth transfer of power to pro-US ‘democratic’ forces in Iraq (a fantasy eagerly repeated by Bush and Blair).
Considering all of this, I would say that we are in a far more serious position than 2007-10, when we worked under the banner of Hands Off the People of Iran. This is partly because the political scenario has changed so dramatically, but also because of the uncertainty in the US. This is explained by a combination of the unpredictability of the US president, along with the anti-Iran warmongers he has chosen to have around him.
The Washington Post reflected this uncertainty and the volatile nature of the current political discourse when it recently ran with the headline, ‘Has war with Iran started?’ Bloomberg has a different title: ‘What if Trump wants war with Iran and no-one trusts him?’1 This is undoubtedly a major factor. He does not have Congress on his side for a war on Iran and he has lost his secretaries of defence and homeland security.
Nor does he have the support of the major European states or the European Union itself. Angela Merkel does not want this war and, while Macron is prepared to talk about it, war is actually the last thing he wants. As for Theresa May, she is slightly distracted at the minute and is not exactly keen on getting embroiled in military action in addition to her other woes. This is a change from the past, of course.
In late April the US media paid a lot of attention to what the Iranian foreign secretary Mohammad Javad Zarif had been saying, during a visit to the United States – from this the media presented a scenario akin to the last days of Saddam. Zarif suggested that Trump does not necessarily want war, but the people around him could create conditions where a conflict starts accidentally – they are truly that stupid. I believe this is a more realistic scenario. Concretely, he identified the ‘four Bs’ as the main threat to peace – John Bolton (who wanted a war with Iran before 2003!), Binyamin Netanyahu, Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE.
Also in April, US senator Paul Rand questioned Pompeo. This related to the law passed more than a decade ago which basically implies that if you can prove that Iran has any connection with Al Qa’eda, you are entitled to go to war with that country without further ado. Rand is anti-war, despite being a rightwinger, and he asked Pompeo if he was thinking of using that route to launch a war. Pompeo basically refused to give an answer – he dodged the question altogether. However, the mere fact that a senator of Rand’s political leaning is asking that – and not getting an answer – tells us how dangerous the situation is.
Now Iran is suspending some commitments made under the 2015 nuclear deal and Trump has responded with imposing sanctions on Iran’s export trade in iron, steel, aluminium and copper. The warmongers are delighted. However, the main danger of war is still the Israel-Palestine crisis. As I have stated, Kushner’s plan for the Middle East is expected to be unveiled in June so as to avoid a clash with Ramadan. From what we can gather, he will say that any two-state solution cannot work and should be taken off the table.
He will advance the idea of diminished autonomy within a smaller area for several Palestinian Bantustans. Apparently, they will be presented as ‘autonomous regions’, alongside a much-expanded Israel, which will, of course, include the Golan Heights and all of Jerusalem. According to some, Kushner basically wants to accept the 1967 borders as permanent. The incentive for the Palestinians will be that Saudi Arabia will apparently make substantial investments in Palestinian areas.
This is a recipe for disaster that will not be accepted by the Palestinians – it would surely result in a new war. Even the king of Jordan – an imperialist stooge – will not be able to sit safely in his palace if he accepts such a deal. The Qataris would not survive either, although perhaps Saudi Arabia would be able to keep its population in check, but this is the kind of ‘peace deal’ that would create huge turbulence.
To divert attention from all this – if this plan is actually announced in June, and I expect it will be – a useful ploy would be to trigger a conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and between the United States and Iran. We witnessed the rumblings of Israeli-Lebanese conflict in April. Hassan Nasrallah – the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who heads a party that is an exponent of neoliberal politics in the Middle East – is important in terms of political strategy. He is saying that the Israel army is not ready to attack Lebanon. Remember, the only time Israel has suffered defeat in its entire existence came with an incursion into southern Lebanon. We can assume that Israel will make sure that it is not repeated – so what will happen?
We have seen a number of different opening moves connected to the Kushner plan. Most importantly, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has been declared a terrorist organisation. In effect a declaration of war. Imagine if the British government declared that the entire French army was a terrorist organisation – that would signal an immediate prelude to war. We are still, after all, in the era of the ‘war on terror’.
The US has imposed sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and ended the waiver on countries buying oil from Iran: 85% of its income coming from oil. But this will now be squeezed to the point of strangulation. This is no longer just sanctions – it is a policy of imposing starvation. No doubt there will be ways around the siege, but Iran would be then selling oil without insurance – a bizarre arrangement under modern capitalism. And in order to attract customers in the first place, Iran is already having to sell its oil well below the market price.
China has said it is ready to step in and buy Iranian oil and claims it will deal with subsequent American sanctions – there is already a conflict between US and China regarding tariffs and it could be that China believes it is not losing much in terms of its relationship with the US. Presumably, this will be one of its bargaining chips in the next round of negotiations with Washington.
The US has been quite explicit about the purpose of its sanctions on Iran. They are imposed to put pressure on working people of Iran, to make life as hard for them as possible. This has been openly admitted by the ultra-hawkish John Bolton, for example. They are trying to foment a rebellion from below against the state – in other words, they are regime-change sanctions.
The other motivation behind the sanctions is that they might prompt Tehran to do something really stupid, such as mount an attack on the US naval forces in the Gulf or provoke flare-ups in Syria, where Iran, Turkey and Russia are basically an occupying force. Israel is bombing Iranian positions in Syria on a regular basis and Tehran is not saying much about it. It can retaliate via Hezbollah, of course – Israel is claiming that Hezbollah now has land-to-land missiles, which can hit Israeli cities.
Bolton, Pompeo and attorney Rudy Giuliani are hoping to provoke the Iranians into mounting an attack, which would legitimise an Israeli response. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah is probably correct to claim that the Israelis are not yet ready to deploy land forces, but they do have an airforce far superior to that of any other state in the region – it would easily be able to target Iran’s nuclear facilities. It would not be necessary for the US to become embroiled in such a conflict from the beginning, but Washington would surely intervene on the side of its primary ally in the region at some convenient stage.
There is also the possibility that things settle down and the prospect of war recedes. After all, Iran-US negotiations – open and secret – have taken place throughout the last 40 years. In 2017, when both president Donald Trump and president Hassan Rouhani were attending the United Nations general assembly, there was a ‘chance meeting’ in a corridor and a handshake.
Apparently Macron was the intermediary – the French president called Rouhani and asked him if he would be interested in a meeting. But the day before Trump had delivered a blistering speech to world leaders, in which he denounced the Iranian leadership as dictators who have turned a wealthy country into an “economically depleted rogue state, whose chief exports are bloodshed and chaos”. So, understandably, Rouhani said ‘no thanks’ to a chat, citing his talks with Barack Obama, which had caused him lots of problems back home – and Obama had not launched a tirade like Trump!
On the other hand, it is important to remember here that, as I have already pointed out, over the last 40 years there have been many examples of cooperation between Iran and the US – including military cooperation.2 So we must be aware of the possibility of tensions receding and a relative calm being established.
That said, US senators are comparing the current period to the one that prevailed before the Iraq invasion. The constant attempt to equate Iran with terrorism and Al Qa’eda come from the same template as the one used against Iraq – it was false then and it is false today.
A number of senior US figures – not least Hillary Clinton – have admitted that the US knew about Islamic State and its predecessor being financed by the Saudis. However, the US turned a blind eye because the activities of this organisation weakened Iran. But, incredibly, IS was destroyed as a state with help provided by Iran. Alliances are made, alliances dissolve, and yesterday’s allies become today’s ‘terrorists’ – the cynicism of the ruling classes is beyond a joke.
We must draw some lessons. If there is an escalation and the threat of war becomes palpable, there will be many people on the left who will automatically defend the Islamic Republic. No doubt they will point to the superficial improvement in Iranian rights – some women now go unveiled, for example. We will be inundated with the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’ – the enemy of my enemy must be a friend, so we must support the Iranian government. That is something we have rightly rejected in the past.
We will also see a major challenge for the Labour leadership and – given the trends at the top of the party that we have noted and commented on before – the possibility that John McDonnell will strike a ‘statesman’ like pose and Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition will be muted because of the need to avoid charges of anti-Semitism.
Since Corbyn’s election as leader, Labour has said very little about Iran. In 2017 Corbyn was challenged by Jon Snow about his appearances on Iran-sponsored Press TV. The Labour leader responded weakly and came across as very apologetic. Of course, we also have that bizarre Emily Thornberry statement at the height of the protests in early 2018 when she told the BBC’s Political thinking podcast:
Our approach now is one of extreme caution when it comes to Iran and a recognition that the society in Iran is an immensely complex one, and seemingly contradictory. For example, with these current riots, sometimes they are calling to reinstate the monarchy, sometimes they’re calling out against [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, sometimes they’re calling for Khamenei, sometimes they’re calling for the price of eggs.3
But that is about it. Even on Yemen, Corbyn has been pretty tight-lipped. McDonnell’s last parliamentary intervention on Iran dates back to 2013, when he submitted a motion on Iranian trade unionists, presumably prompted by Hopi.
I realise there are other pressing issues in British political life at present. However, the question of the Middle East is hardly unimportant. If the conflict escalates, we should not expect any strong opposition from the Labour leadership. The Stop the War Coalition, weakened by contradictory positions on Syria and eager to ensure no damage is done to Corbyn, is unlikely to take any serious initiatives. That does not auger well.
This article was first published in the Weekly Worker.