The article which follows is taken from the new edition of Revolutionary Perspectives (#14) which is just out. It was obviously written before the events which followed the British Navy’s seizure of the Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar, but the substance of the analysis has not changed.
The British seized the tanker nominally complying with EU sanctions on Syria, but actually at the request of the US Government in its increasingly futile attempts to force the Iranians to back off in the Middle East. The Iranian state’s seizure of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero (after a previous attempt was foiled by the British frigate HMS Montrose) is an embarrassment to London which now only has a total fleet of 19 vessels. At the same time both the US and Iran have brought down each others’ drones and the US is sending even more troops to the Gulf. These are to be based in Saudi Arabia for the first time in decades – evidence of a hardening of the anti-Iran alliance of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian imperialist calculation is counting on playing hardball until Trump loses the 2020 election. The US policy is to destroy the Iranian economy before then and bring down the regime. Both though can increase support at home by playing the nationalist card against the working class. It is, at best, a dangerous game in a world gripped by economic stagnation which has given way to trade wars and currency wars. They may see off this series of incidents this time but the dynamic of the system is the drive towards more, not less, conflict. As always the only force which can fight this is the world working class. Here workers in Iran have given us a glimmer of hope. As we wrote in previous articles many Iranian workers, despite torture and repression have not bought the “national interest” argument but continued the fight not only for a better living standard but also for a better system. They are an example for the rest of the world working class to follow.
The Epoch of Imperialism
In his 1909 best-seller, Europe’s Optical Illusion, the British writer, Norman Angell maintained that war between advanced modern economies wouldn’t happen because it was now irrational. He pointed to the growth in the inter-connectedness of world trade and just how ruinous war would be to this. Alas for him, such rationality has never been a hallmark of a system based on capitalist competition spurred on by the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. He seems not to have noticed the tariff wars and attempts by one Great Power after another to exclude others from sources of raw materials and markets that were also going on.
For example, in its attempts to control its one-time lackey Serbia, Austria-Hungary imposed an embargo on Serbia’s pork exports in 1906. In two years the Pig War, as it was known, led the Serbs to seek a new imperialist overlord by obtaining French finance to build processing plants to export elsewhere. Austria-Hungary called off the Pig War in 1908 but took its revenge by annexing Bosnia (over which it already had control), a territory which contained many Serbs. This only further cemented Serbia as a client of the Entente powers (France, Russia and Great Britain). We might never have noted the Pig War at all if it were not for the fact that in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian government, worried about Serbia’s victory in two Balkan Wars, decided to further threaten Serbia militarily by organising army manoeuvres in Bosnia. These were to be reviewed by the heir-apparent to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand, and waiting for him were Serbian conspirators backed by Serbian intelligence. Gloriously incompetent though they were, one of them, Gavrilo Princip managed to assassinate the Archduke and within a month the world was engulfed in its first global imperialist war. The “irrational” happened.
This heralded a new epoch of capitalism, the epoch of imperialism and generalised war. Wars that were no longer about minor adjustments of territory between monarchs but with the far more devastating aim of the destruction of the capital value of the enemy. Capitalist historians call this “total war” as it is visited on entire populations (and not just those unlucky enough to be caught in the path of an army). These are wars to the death, and their particular viciousness and genocidal barbarism is peculiar to the epoch of capitalist imperialism.
The Norman Angells of today of course can point to 73 years of “peace” since 1945. These are the same people who maintained that the post-war boom (itself predicated on the slaughter and devastation of war) meant that capitalism had finally banished the recurrent crises which had dogged it since its inception. That illusion came to an end in the 1970s and “peace” here is only a relative term. Since 1945 the world has seen a series of imperialist proxy wars from Korea and Vietnam to the Congo, Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War and Syria, just to mention the most significant. However, it is true that there has been as yet no generalised war like that of 1939-45. Many commentators doubt that it will ever happen again. The destruction of those years was so barbaric, they argue, that no-one would want to plunge the world into catastrophe, and then again, the prevalence of nuclear weapons make such a war unthinkable.
Apart from sounding like wishful thinking, since what is going on today in Syria (poison gas, barrel bombs) or Yemen (systematic targeting of schools and hospitals) is as bad as anything that non-combatants experienced in the Second World War, it is also based on a false premise. The fact that no major imperialist war between the strongest powers on the planet has yet broken out is not primarily because of nuclear weapons but because the last world war ended in “Pax Americana”. Despite the illusions of many at the time1 there was only one real winner of the Second World War – the United States.
Largely unscathed by a war which had transformed the US economy into the most productive in world history, it was the US which dominated the post-war agenda. All the institutions of the new world order (IMF, World Bank GATT (later WTO), UNO etc.) were established along American lines, and no amendments were to be accepted even from close wartime allies, as Keynes soon discovered when he tried to propose an international currency to replace “the gold standard”. The new gold standard was to be the dollar and this was fixed at Bretton Woods.
This persisted even when the post-war boom ended and the US was forced to abandon the dollar’s peg to gold. On the global stage the Nixon government went to great lengths to ensure that other Western economies revalued their currencies so as not to harm the dollar.2 But the gold standard was to become an oil standard. Tom Stevenson’s review of David Wearing’s book AngloArabia tells us what happened next.
"Until 1971 the Gulf states pegged their currencies to sterling, which competed with the dollar as an international reserve currency. After the loss of its Gulf protectorates, Britain had to concede to the global hegemony of the dollar. [...] in 1974, the US Treasury secretary, William Simon, secretly travelled to Saudi Arabia to secure an agreement that remains to this day the foundation of the dollar’s global dominance. As David Spiro has documented in The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony (1999), the US made its guarantees of Saudi and Arab Gulf security conditional on the use of oil sales to shore up the dollar. Under Simon’s deal, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy massive tranches of US Treasury bonds in secret off-market transactions. In addition, the US compelled Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC countries to set oil prices in dollars, and for many years Gulf oil shipments could be paid for only in dollars. A de facto oil standard replaced gold, assuring the dollar’s value and pre-eminence."3
Maintaining dollar hegemony also had military consequences. Plenty of places around the world have oil (Venezuela’s reserves are said to be larger than those of Saudi Arabia) but the oil from the Middle East is not only easy to extract, it is cheap to refine. Back in 1945 it was the main source of oil for most states and the US recognised this. President Roosevelt dashed from Yalta to meet King Abdul Aziz in 1945 and set up a new strategic partnership.
"In 1945, Gordon Merriam, the head of the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs division, made this clear: the Saudi oilfields, he said, were first and foremost ‘a stupendous source of strategic power’. The assistant secretary of state, Adolf Berle, sketched out what remains US strategy: the US and Britain would provide Saudi Arabia and other key Gulf monarchies with ‘sufficient military supplies to preserve internal security’ and ensure that they were permanently guarded by Western navies."4
Over the decades this strategic significance has not diminished especially as today most Middle East oil and natural gas goes to the industrial and industrialising countries of Asia (headed by China, India, Japan and Korea). Anyone who controls Middle East oil has major strategic stranglehold on Asia.
In this context, since 1945 the US has replaced the UK as the policeman of the Middle East and the Gulf. Not only is the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain to patrol the Gulf but United States Central Command has the largest airforce base in the world in Qatar (a fact which seemed to escape Trump when he went along with Saudi sanctions against Qatar in 2017!). The US also has five thousand troops, two naval bases and an airbase in the United Arab Emirates as well as 4 other bases in Kuwait whilst it still has troops stationed in Iraq at al-Asad airbase.
The one country in the region where the US has no base (at least since 1979) is Iran. As a direct counterweight the US has four airbases and two naval bases right across the Straits of Hormuz in Oman.
The Stakes in the Middle East
The recent escalation in the confrontation with Iran is however predicated on a wider US fear – that its global military and economic dominance is under threat. In previous issues of Revolutionary Perspectives5 we have already analysed the rise of China and the ambitions its ruling class has to become the world’s leading power by the middle of this century. Currently China is no threat to US military hegemony in the immediate term and its currency, which is only partially convertible, is not a threat to the dollar’s dominance. However China’s rapid economic rise, the fact that the economy is still in some aspects closed to US penetration, and its form of state capitalism, give it certain strategic advantages not open to the US. This is enough to spur various US think tanks (mostly, though not all, linked to the Republican Party) to warn of the “threat from China” especially given its increasingly advanced cyber-technology. What is at work here is the same fear factor which in 1914 led the various powers into alliances and then war against the state or states they feared the most. The imperialist imperative drives states to make these calculations sometimes just to deprive their rivals of a resource (as in the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s) or to make a preventive strike before rivals gain military preponderance (as the German General Staff feared in 1914).
This same fear has unleashed Trump’s trade war (and not just against China but also erstwhile “allies”) to “Make America Great Again”. Using the dollar’s continuing supremacy the Trump administration believes (with some justice up to now) that it can bully the entire world into bowing to US pressure through sanctions. Past US regimes also used sanctions extensively but sanction designations have tripled since 2015. This has caused a backlash but efforts by various states, led by Russia, to gradually replace the dollar as either a store of value, medium of exchange or unit of account have so far hardly made a dent in the dollar’s dominance.6
In the Middle East Iran is the one state which has managed to thwart US hegemony. With its Shia Islamic imperialist ideology and its stated refusal to recognise the state of Israel, the other US ally in the region, it has been the main adversary since 1979. US humiliation by the seizure of its Embassy staff in Tehran when the ex-Shah of Iran was allowed to enter the US for medical treatment has remained seared in US policy towards the country.
Perversely US policy has largely only contributed to increase the power and influence of the Iranian bourgeoisie in the region. Ever condemned as part of an “axis of evil” by past US regimes, the Iranians did offer to assist the US in the wake of 9/11 (which was mainly carried out by Salafists from Saudi Arabia) but this was rebuffed by the Bush Administration.
The US had incited Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980 which led to a decade long war where at least a million were killed. Throughout it Saddam used poison gas against Iranian conscripts (and the Kurds) with hardly a word of criticism in the West. But when Saddam misread the runes, and tried to compensate for his failure against Iran by annexing Kuwait, the US was obliged to slap down their former ally. However they did not remove him from power in the first Gulf War since that would only have created a power vacuum in Iraq. It was only when Saddam tried to undermine the dollar by selling in other currencies that the fake story about his possession of weapons of mass destruction was concocted to overthrow him. Significantly the same fate later befell Gaddafi when he too tried to undermine the dollar’s supremacy as the currency of world trade in oil. However the fall of Saddam not only gave birth to IS7 it also gave power to the politicians and wheeler-dealers of the majority Shia Muslims in Iraq, who were later to enjoy the support they got from Iran. From there, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Shia militia in Iraq were able to launch a counter-offensive against the Daesh/IS forces which took them into Syria, and support for the Assad regime. Iran’s fertile military crescent has taken them to the borders of Lebanon where they can link up with their protégés of Hezbollah and thus threaten the other “great Satan”, Israel.
Such success has not only alarmed Israel and panicked the Saudi regime it has also led the US to unilaterally pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by which Iran would abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for an easing of sanctions. This could be the biggest blunder of the Trump Administration. The JCPOA was hated by Republicans as a piece of Obama appeasement but the fact is that it had stopped the Iranian nuclear programme without Iran getting much out of it, since the lifting of UN sanctions might have formally taken place but the US itself maintained its own sanctions related to ballistic missiles, conventional weapons, human rights and support for terrorism. As a consequence European and US firms are too worried about the possible repercussions if they did invest in Iran. The aim is of course to put “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime.
In Iran the failure of the accord to benefit the economy has brought the split in its ruling elite to a head. President Rouhani and the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who had brokered the deal are now under attack from the hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard leadership for the failure of the JCPOA to bring the promised results. The Revolutionary Guards have long argued that no deal is possible with the USA in any circumstances, and they now appear to have the backing of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. When Rouhani and Zarif deny all knowledge of the recent attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman8 , they are probably telling the truth, but that does not rule out the distinct possibility that the Revolutionary Guards are laying down their own “red lines” to let the US know that there will be no capitulation by Iran (as the 12 preconditions for negotiation outlined by US Secretary of State, Pompeo, demand). Instead Iran is putting pressure on the Europeans to break US sanctions and honour their obligations under the JCPOA. To this end they have announced that they will begin enriching uranium beyond the levels in the agreement but still not high enough to be used in anything but electricity generation. The Europeans for their part have announced Instex, “a non-dollar financial initiative” to aid Iran. However it will not help Iran sell its oil given US threats against any company which cooperates with it. In short, the situation is one of impasse. Both the US and Iran declare that they are not aiming at war but then that can also be part of war preparations since the best way to mobilise for war is to get “your side” to believe that they are the victims of aggression.
The current situation is not too different from that of US-Japanese relations between 1937 (when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China) and 1941 (Pearl Harbor). In 1937 Roosevelt imposed an embargo on oil to Japan to cripple its war machine. As the screws tightened the Japanese military came up with the desperate plan to disable the US Pacific Fleet thus allowing them to sweep through Asia and take the oil of the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Today the embargo on Iran is the other way around – the US is threatening any power who buys Iranian oil with sanctions and Iran looks increasingly to be running out of room for manoeuvre. They have abandoned hope that the Europeans will challenge the US over its breaking of the nuclear agreement. This is why they have responded to US threats by stepping up uranium enrichment, but it is a dangerous game.
The main difference with 1941 is that Iran is a regional imperialist power and not vying for world domination with the US. However, in an ominous development, the Chinese state, which has made no secret of its future ambitions, and already in the middle of a trade war with the US, has defiantly announced it will continue to purchase (no doubt at a bargain price!) Iranian oil.9 At the same time the sources of further conflict in the Middle East continue to multiply. In attempting to regain its control of the Middle East, which it lost through the Iraq war, the US has intervened in Syria in an extremely short-sighted and incompetent way; first by supporting the Islamist opposition and then the Kurds: both previously considered terrorist organisations. This has alienated its NATO ally Turkey to the point of driving it into a temporary alliance with Russian imperialism. The last has resulted in Turkey (a NATO member!) buying the Russian anti-aircraft S400 system against all the threats of the US. The chaos created in Syria has also allowed Russia to re-establish itself as an imperialist force in the region. The US sees knocking Iran out of the balance of power as the first step towards recovering its domination. Israel is, of course, assisting in this. It is constantly bombarding Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions in Syria (mainly around Homs) and there are signs that it is contemplating another incursion into Lebanon to curb the growing power of Hezbollah.
And for a warning of the disastrous humanitarian consequences of war, we need look no further than the murderous campaign in Yemen. The population of Yemen are suffering indiscriminate bombing and famine as a result of a war which latest estimates put at close to 100,000 deaths.10 It is currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. They are also the victims of the long standing pact between the US, UK and the Saudi government. The key element here is that, whilst the West guarded Saudi oil interests, the Saudis played their part in boosting Western economies (mainly the US, but also Britain and France) by buying their weapons in vast quantities. And no agreement was more lucrative for the British than the 1980 al-Yamamah deal which basically contracts out the running much of the Saudi air defence capability to the UK’s BAE. This has been expanded many times but most dramatically in 2015 when British military exports to Riyadh leapt from £83 million in the previous year to £2.9 billion. For decades the US has benefited from huge contracts for its planes and other weapons but the biggest of them all came in May 2017 when the Saudis signed up to a $110 billion deal, with projected purchases of a further $250 billion over the following years. Questions about the British and US role in actually running the Saudi war in Yemen are fobbed off by both governments but their direct complicity in the massacre in Yemen is beyond dispute.11
And of course the justification is that the Houthis are rebels against a “legitimate” Saudi-backed government as well as being a proxy of Iran. It is a narrative which the Saudis and all their coalition allied repeat ad nauseam. In fact there is actually little evidence that Iran gave any direct support to the Houthis (who as Zaidis follow a different form of Shia Islam to Iran) until the war was over two years old. Now the Saudis have turned an internal conflict in Yemen into an inter-imperialist war with the aim of rolling back whatever influence Iran has gained in the region, and it feeds very well into the Trump Presidency’s conflict with the Islamic regime there. Whilst the vast bulk of the dead and injured are due to the Saudi coalitions raids, the Houthis (or Ansar Allah, “supporters of God”) for their part are not innocent of atrocities either. According to Human Rights Watch they have persecuted religious minorities, shelled civilian areas, used human shields and hostage taking as well as prevented the distribution of food aid to those who don’t support them.
How Should Revolutionaries Respond?
All of which demonstrates that “anti-imperialism” is not about taking one side or another in these conflicts. We live in an imperialist epoch and all national capitals are obliged to fight for their existence within it. There are no “national” struggles that have progressive meaning today. Those popular front organisations like the “Stop the War Coalition”, and others, who campaign under the slogan “Hands Off Iran” (sometimes “radically” inserting “the people of” into the title) are actually defending the same Iranian state which is locking up and torturing workers as we write. These were the teachers and factory workers who led a campaign against unpaid wages and runaway inflation, against the corruption of the Revolutionary Guards and the mullahs. They have even called for workers’ councils to be set up as a first step in challenging state rule. We have analysed their struggles elsewhere12 , but the significance of them in this context is that they are showing the way forward for the rest of the world’s working class. It is they and not their government that need support. In fact the Iranian state is using the military and financial threats of the US to mobilise against the working class in defence of the “nation”. Underdog imperialism is still imperialism and our solidarity is with the working class victims of these states. “Workers have no country” (Marx) but we do have a shared social position as the creators of the world’s wealth. It is upon this that we have to build resistance to the system, not on spurious alliances with supporters of this or that capitalist faction.
The best solidarity of all would be for workers, all over the world, to recognise that we are in the presence of a system which is in a prolonged death agony; a system which has not only reduced the living standards of the majority of workers the past 4 decades but also confronts us with more war and environmental destruction. The alternative is for us to organise – not just to fight for crumbs from the bosses’ table, but to overturn the whole system. This means to organise politically and internationally and this is what the Internationalist Communist Tendency is trying to do, by bringing together working class militants from around the world who recognise the increasingly urgent need for capitalism to be overturned before it destroys us all. Past history shows that unless the centres of world imperialism are quickly paralysed by working class action within them, then the ruling class still has the freedom to crush any movement in any one place. We therefore need a new International13 to coordinate the political struggle of the working class on a world-wide scale. This is critical to our success. The appearance of this International as a real force regrouping thousands is still some way off but, as we wrote at the end of 2017,
"Unless the world working class forges this political tool as part of the rise of its revolutionary consciousness we will be facing yet more defeats in the future. Our earnest hope is to engage with those new forces which do come to a consciousness of the need to overthrow the system, to give them a political compass, something to rally around, whilst at the same time, we seek dialogue with those forces which already exist to actively cooperate where possible, agree to disagree where necessary, and ultimately to unite as history inexorably moves on and a real class movement develops."
A real class movement cannot come about too soon. As capitalism continues its drive towards war, however “irrational” some of its defenders maintain this would be, our slogan remains “No war but the class war”.
10 July 2019
- 1Despite the idea that the Cold War was between two “super-powers” the CWO always maintained that the USSR was so much economically weaker than the US that its only success as a rival was in arming its proxies in their so-called “wars of national liberation”. The USSR, far from being socialist was equally dominated by the law of value as well as an irrational centralised planning mechanism hence when the post-war boom came to an end in the West it also had a similar impact in the USSR. In the face of a crippling arms race the KGB understood by 1982 that the USSR could not match the USA either economically or militarily and its attempt at reform via their chosen candidates Andropov and Gorbachev was thwarted by the opposition of the nomenklatura. The struggle between them led to the paralysis which brought about the collapse of the USSR.
- 2See: leftcom.org for the full explanation.
- 3“What are we there for?” Tom Stevenson London Review of Books 20 May 2019
- 4Stevenson op. cit.
- 5See: leftcom.org, leftcom.org and leftcom.org
- 6See Sam Fleming “The currency warrior” in the Financial Times 2 July 2019
- 8For details and our response see leftcom.org and leftcom.org
- 10See: theguardian.com
- 11See Arron Merat’s article at theguardian.com. On June 20 the Court of Appeal decided that the British government had violated the law in supplying arms to Saudi Arabia for use against civilians in Yemen (implying that at least four government ministers, Hunt, Johnson, Javid and Hammond all lied). It is a blow to the arms industry in the UK as 40% of its arms exports go to Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly the government has announced it will appeal.
- 12See leftcom.org, leftcom.org and leftcom.org