Mike Macnair explains why it is now more urgent than ever to fight on two fronts
(first published in the Weekly Worker- source)
In last week’s issue James Turley charted the responses of the British left to the mass mobilisations in Iran against Ahmadinejad’s ‘re-election’ and to the repression unleashed by the regime. In the main comrade Turley celebrated the fact that the majority of the organised left had chosen the right side, though towards the end of the article he warned against the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s uncritical support for the social-imperialist International Trade Union Confederation’s June 26 solidarity protest (‘Litmus test for the soul’, June 25).
In the event, this sort of uncritical support turned out to affect wider parts of the left who attended that protest. It is therefore necessary to re-emphasise a very fundamental point. Solidarity with the mass movement in Iran has to be placed together with opposition to the US imperialist state’s (and its British side-kick’s) threats against Tehran, to the sanctions and to US plans for the Middle East.
Hands off the People of Iran has been arguing since its formation for the converse. That is, that opposition to US imperialism’s threats to Iran has to be placed together with solidarity with workers’ and democratic movements in Iran. Clearly it is one and the same point, simply seen from different angles. An independent working class policy in this context starts from fighting positively for the interests of the working class. It therefore involves fighting on two fronts: both against the big criminals (the central imperialist powers) and against the little criminals (the local capitalist states – in Iran, the clerical regime).
The victory of the working class can only come through ‘winning the battle of democracy’. This implies radical democracy in the government of particular states – and therefore, in Iran, the overthrow of the clerical regime; and therefore, immediately, support for the mass movement against Ahmadinejad’s ballot-rigging. But radical democracy also requires an end to the subordination of one nation to another – and therefore, opposition to an imperialist military attack on Iran, to the current regime of sanctions blockade and to any extension of sanctions. This also means opposition to the sort of regime change from above or stage-managed ‘colour revolution’ which would put in place a government more immediately dependent on the US.
The replacement of Bush by Obama has altered the tone and the rhetoric of US policy. But the same underlying structural dynamics are still in place which have led to the continuing war in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, US support for the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006 and air strike against Syria in 2007, and the war threats and sanctions against Iran.
US productive dominance in the world economy is in (relative) decline, just as the productive dominance of British capital was in (relative) decline in the later 19th century. The result is a necessity for the US to shift – as Britain shifted in the later 19th century – towards increased exploitation both of the central role in finance and of military-political resources, in order to maintain its dominance or at least slow its decline.
In this context, the US has an objective interest in control of the Persian Gulf region. This was stated as a formal foreign policy principle – the ‘Carter doctrine’ – in 1980. The underlying ground for this interest is military, and not an interest in ‘cheap oil’.
It is true that cheap petrol and other energy resources support the American suburb, the mechanised agriculture of the Midwest, access to the wilderness resorts in the mountains, and the cities in the deserts like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In doing so, cheap petrol supports the domestic political-economic regime in the US which provides consent for its regime and its imperialist role from the US ‘middle class’ (in US terms, mainly the upper part of the working class). But until the 1960s US oil producers dominated a cartelised oil market, and since then oil markets have become globalised. So political arrangements in the Middle East are almost completely irrelevant to the availability of cheap fuel – Cyrus Bina, in The economics of the oil crisis (New York 1985), provides a systematic treatment of the issue.
More fundamental is the fact that the military regime which has continued to operate since the US victory in World War II runs, almost entirely, on oil. Except for a few nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, the navy runs on diesel, the air force on aviation fuel, and the army on petrol and diesel. Not only does oil fuel the direct weapons of war (fighting ships and aircraft, tanks, etc), but also the logistical underpinning which keeps troops in the field and these weapons running and supplied with munitions.
The problem this poses is not that of US access to oil (or to cheap oil) to run its military. Again, oil resources are global and the oil market is globalised. The problem is, rather, of US capacity to interdict access to oil by potential state competitors under hypothesised conditions of open great-power war (when the globalised oil market would disappear). The potential state competitors are all on the Eurasian ‘supercontinent’: the USSR before its fall, Europe if it can overcome its political subordination to the US, China if it can manage the transition from Stalinism to imperialism successfully. Hence, given US air and naval dominance, oil reserves in the Americas and Africa are strategically secondary. Military-political control of the Gulf region is strategically dominant.
The other side of this coin is that the cold war system allowed the local states of the Middle East some room for manoeuvre between the US and the USSR. Thus Iran was – until the revolution of 1979 – a US client, while Ba’athist Iraq was – between the late 1960s and Saddam Hussein’s coup in the same year – a Soviet client. In 1979 the US lost a client in Iran and gained one in Iraq, until changing US needs led to the Gulf War of 1990-91 and all that has followed.
The fall of the USSR immediately seemed to create a ‘unipolar world’ round the US, and the 1991 Gulf War – a display of US military power for its own sake, and of US leadership in the ‘international community’ through the UN – seemed to emphasise the point. But the underlying relative decline of the US has meant that there was still room for manoeuvre for local states, albeit on a smaller scale than was possible with the USSR. Thus both the Iraqi regime under sanctions and the Iranian clerical regime have been able to manoeuvre to some extent with European countries and with China.
The Carter doctrine provides the context for continued US support for Israel, and for America’s successive wars and manoeuvres in the Middle East since 1979. What the US seeks in the region is the sort of degree of political control of the local states which the US had, in the high period of its dominance, in Latin America.
There is a sense in which the project of maintaining US global dominance through military-political control of the Persian Gulf region is a utopian delusion. All dominant powers sooner or later decline, and the US is most unlikely to be an exception. Moreover, there is some evidence in recent wars of a tendency towards exhaustion of the US oil-based military model as a means of imposing order (as opposed to its capacity to merely inflict destruction). An actual failure of the US military model would, in turn, imply that control of the Middle East would lose its geopolitical significance.
There is also a considerably stronger sense in which the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an irrational means of pursuing US interests in the region. This irrationality is an indirect effect of the deepening destabilisation of global capitalism, which tends to bring to the fore irrational trends in politics – and also strengthens the direct capitalist interest in war spending as a form of economic stimulus.
None of this, however, means that the US does not have an objective interest in control of the Middle East and in particular of the Persian Gulf region. This implies an interest in (preferably) obtaining a political regime in Iran which is directly politically subordinate to the US state. Or, if this is not feasible, an interest in destroying Iran’s capacity to act in the wider region through massive destruction of its infrastructure and military capability.
If anything, the Iraqi fiasco strengthens the US interest in ‘dealing with’ Iran. Having invaded Iraq, the US attempted to impose the sort of political order the neocons believed could be created – and failed. It fell back on the traditional method of imperialism: backing whichever local group was willing to take US support. In Iraq, that has meant mainly the Shia Islamist parties, who are clients of the Iranian regime. The overall effect was therefore to strengthen the regional position and autonomy of the Iranian regime.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the withdrawal of US troops from urban bases and routine patrolling in Iraq (June 30) actually strengthens the US military position in the case of an attack on Iran. Instead of troops spread thinly over wide areas, vulnerable to guerrilla attack or a sudden change of sides by the ‘Iraqi security forces’, there are a relatively small number of large fortified bases, backed by air power.
The Iranian presidential election took place in this context. The mass movement which erupted as the fraud became apparent was not a ‘colour revolution’ orchestrated by mass media and backed by a powerful US NGO/diplomatic/media presence and by a section of the local state apparatus, like Ukraine, Georgia or Lebanon. It was a real mass movement of outrage at the electoral fraud, backed by a section of the elite of the clerical regime who saw the fraud – correctly – as a coup by the Revolutionary Guard and associated factions.
The US and British political leaderships and media struck a studied pose of ‘neutrality’ until the immediate outcome – the repression of the movement – had become clear. This in itself is evidence that the US and British states did hope for a ‘colour revolution’, but merely lacked the means to create one. Once the outcome was clear, the US and British leaderships and media turned at once to condemning the repression.
The ITUC is part of this state operation. It came out of a merger in 2006 of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which originated in the cold war as a CIA-sponsored operation in the labour movement (funny how the US is so keen on free trade unions outside its own borders, while within they are subject to elaborate legal controls), with the Catholic – Christian Democrat-sponsored – World Confederation of Labour. The ICFTU’s policy for the 47 years of its life has dutifully tracked US foreign policy.
In terms of politics outside Iran, the outcome is win-win for US imperialism and its British sidekick. If the mass movement had led to the fall of the regime or even to a ‘reformist’ incumbency, the US could have offered the new Iranian administration deals on sanctions, etc, which could bring it into closer subordination to the US. The electoral fraud and the repression of the movement, on the other hand, will inevitably strengthen the hand of advocates of ‘tougher sanctions’ and – from Tel Aviv and from sections of the US state – of military action against Iran in the short term.
We should therefore expect to see at the very least new proposals for sanctions, and an increasing amount of Ahmadinejad = Hitler rhetoric in the mass media. The advocates of an attack on Iran will attempt to exploit the political advantage in ‘western’ opinion which they can expect to gain – at least for a time – as a result of the election fraud, the mass movement and the repression. It is therefore not impossible (though it is hard to assess the likelihood) that there will be a rapid escalation of tensions round the nuclear issue preparatory to air strikes in the short term.
Anti-war and solidarity movement
The danger in this situation is that the imperialist powers will move towards – at least – more sanctions, and – at most – war in the short term; yet the anti-war movement will be unable to respond effectively because it has committed itself to prettifying the Iranian regime in ways which cut it off from broad masses. Meanwhile, the advocates of solidarity with the Iranian masses against the regime are seriously at risk of simply becoming a tail for US and British foreign policy.
We need to fight on two fronts, as Hopi has argued: both against the imperialist sanctions and war threats and for solidarity with workers’ and democratic movements in Iran. This is not just a matter of moral principle.
In order to oppose the sanctions and war threats effectively, we need to do so with eyes fully open to the tyrannical and corrupt character of the Iranian regime and the fact that its ‘anti-imperialism’ is no more than rhetoric. Otherwise, we will cut ourselves off from broad masses who do recognise the character of the Iranian regime and are tempted – in spite of Iraq! – to imagine that ‘the international community’ or our own state can play some sort of progressive role by getting rid of it.
But equally, in order to build real solidarity with workers’ and democratic movements in Iran, we need to oppose the sanctions and war threats. In the case of the sanctions, the point is obvious. The sanctions at the end of the day penalise the Iranian working class and the poor, and provide opportunities for lucrative money-laundering and smuggling operations for sections of the Iranian elite. If they fall, the bombs, too, would inevitably fall not only on the hardened target of Iranian nuclear operations, but – as they fell in Serbia and in Iraq – on any part of the Iranian infrastructure which could be claimed in some way to have ‘military value’.
The elections, the fraud and the mass movement all make this struggle more urgent. The majority of the organised British left took a step forward by being on the side of the mass movement against the regime. It now needs to take the next step further forward: to recognise the need to fight on two fronts continuously, not merely episodically.