The Twentieth Century saw the emergence of “total war”. Wars which are not just between armies but involve entire socio-economic formations and inflicted on the population at large. They are wars to the death with no negotiated outcome — only the “unconditional surrender” of the loser. Revolutionary Marxists call this “imperialist war”.
The aims of each power in these wars are not mere territorial adjustment but the destruction of rival economic powers’ capacity to operate. As a consequence the internal and external policies of states in the imperialist epoch are becoming more and more difficult to separate.
The current classic example of this is the rivalry between the US and Iran in the Middle East. Both Trump and Khameini have repeatedly said this rivalry will not lead to direct open war but always with the unreassuring qualification that “the other side would regret it”. The fact remains that the US is still the most powerful imperialist actor on the planet and has more cards to play in this particular game. The problem they have had for much of the 21st century is that they have played them badly in the Middle East.
After 9/11 Bush’s “war on terror” not only led to the formation of IS, but in destroying the state of Iraq removed the most effective counterweight to Iranian influence in the region. Iran’s arc of influence has continued to extend to Iraq itself with its majority Shia population, to Assad’s Syria where it has propped up the regime and to Lebanon where Hezbollah is a dominant force. Even the Sunnis of Hamas in Gaza are in their camp. Thanks to the ineptitude of Saudi Arabia this now extends to parts of Yemen controlled by Ansar Allah (often referred to by their tribal name of Houthis), a group which received little attention from Iran until they were dubbed Iranian stooges. This has made Iran a more dangerous threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, US’ stalwart allies of the post-Second World War period.
The Troubles of Iranian Imperialism
The Achilles’ heel of Iranian imperialism though remains its economy. Years of corruption and incompetence have been compounded by economic sanctions which remained in force in Obama’s time even though the regime had signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s nuclear programme may have been halted but US and EU sanctions on Iran’s other imperialist adventures remained despite the fact that its successful expansion in the region has mainly come from the incoherence of its enemies. Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA is really a response to this and in increasing sanctions is using the real strength of US imperialism — its economic and financial clout — to increase Iranian isolation. US sanctions means that European firms dare not invest in Iran either.
Despite this, in the summer of 2019 it seemed that Iranian imperialism was on a roll. They had helped Assad retake most of Syria, their Houthi allies were holding their own against a Saudi coalition which was increasingly fractious in Yemen, and Hezbollah was the one real coordinated force in Lebanon.
However, this began to unravel as a wave of popular demonstrations in Lebanon, Iraq and even at home began to challenge Iranian control in the last two months of 2019. In Lebanon the demonstrations are predominately of the petty bourgeois and professional classes, faced with the worst economic crisis in the country’s history which they, not unreasonably, blame on Lebanon’s crony capitalist elite. At first their target was all factions, whatever their religious basis, but when they were joined by young Shia, the leading Shia groups of Amal and Hezbollah organised attacks on the demonstrators who on 17 December had to be protected by the Lebanese Army in Beirut. Hezbollah’s power is now under threat.
The situation in Iraq is even more dire where long term unemployment, shortages of all kinds and the lack of basic services has made life unbearable for millions. The movement here is more cross-class but its ideology has been more nationalist with a desire to get all foreigners out of Iraq. This now includes Iran which dominates the country. After two Iranian consulates were burnt down, pro-Iranian militia, guided by Suleimani’s Revolutionary Guards, killed hundreds in response.
This militia followed up with an attack on the US Embassy. After a couple of days they were called off but this fact was not registered by Trump. The fatal connection between Iran and a US Embassy had been made in his brain. There was to be no new humiliation of the US in the region as in 1979. The man who had ordered both the shooting of Iraqi demonstrators, and the withdrawal of the Iraqi militia outside the US compound, was killed.1
It was a foolish action given that what was already happening in Iraq was the unravelling of Iranian influence. Now the US had given the Iranian regime a martyr — a martyr it badly needed. After all the demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East had also been visited on Iran itself.
We have written many times about the strikes of Iranian workers against the lack of pay, particularly at Haft Tapeh in 2018.2 But in November last year the regime made the mistake of removing subsidies on fuel at a time when inflation stands at 40%. This sparked the most widespread resistance to the regime in a decade. In truth the issues were wider than fuel prices. The demonstrators also cited the rampant corruption of the Islamic Republic as their target.
The Razavi Economic Foundation, which comprises the Revolutionary Guards, and is presided over by Ayatollah Khamenei, pays no taxes nor is subject to any government control. Despite the suffering of the population, Khamenei confirmed the obvious corruption of the regime in September when he issued a decree exempting more of his cronies in the “House of Khameini” from paying taxes.3 This is a country where workers’ pay arrives months late. It is therefore no surprise that workers, including those at Haft Tapeh (despite the imprisonment and torture of their leaders), unemployed youth, wide sections of the professions and the petty bourgeoisie all joined in. Even the bazaar traders, once stalwarts of the regime, shut up shop in protest. The protests took place in 21 cities and 70 provinces across the country.
At first the demonstrations were peaceful but when the Revolutionary Guard attacked them with live fire from the air and on the ground, anger erupted. Unemployed youths attacked police cars, banks (owned by the Revolutionary Guards), religious and government buildings, many of them disdaining to even hide their faces, in show of defiance born of desperation. The number of dead was at least 300 but since the Revolutionary Guards gathered up the bodies to hide the extent of those deaths (and shutting down the internet stopped photos of the massacres being relayed) it may be more. Relatives who asked for the bodies were arrested and cemeteries where funerals were being held were also attacked by the regime’s thugs. Thousands more were arrested and are now facing daily torture in prisons throughout Iran.
Order, or at least sullen acquiescence, was restored before the US killing of Suleimani offered the regime a gift. A gift they quickly squandered. After his body’s martyrs’ tour of the country had whipped up a nationalist frenzy, his funeral ended in the chaotic deaths of over 50 people. The incompetence of this performance though, was as nothing compared to the shooting down of the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752.
The Iranian response to the killing of Suleimani had been minimal. They informed the Iraqi government that they intended to attack an American base in Iraq. This allowed the Iraqis to warn the Americans and, as a result, no deaths occurred (indeed it was initially claimed that there were no casualties).
However, back in Iran, the Revolutionary Guards were on high alert, expecting a further US response. Bizarrely no-one thought to halt all civilian flights in this situation. We now know what was all along suspected. The airliner had been brought down by two missiles fired from a mobile unit of the Revolutionary Guards. The commander had twice tried to get hold of the Revolutionary Guards high command before launching the missiles but when he got no response, in the heightened tension of the hour, fired. The tragedy became a crime the minute the Revolutionary Guards started to try to cover up the error, even from their nominally elected government of President Rouhani. For nearly 72 hours they maintained the Boeing 737-800 had crashed due to a technical fault. According to the New York Times it took Rouhani’s threat to resign that forced them, and Khamenei, to admit to the real cause of the disaster.4
Rouhani, who had not spoken for a week throughout the whole crisis, now announced what had really happened, and called the action “unforgivable”. This did not deter the Revolutionary Guards from compounding their crime by preventing funerals of the dead (the majority of whom were either Iranian citizens or had dual passports). Quiet vigils for the dead soon turned into open defiance of the regime which lasted for nearly a week. The movement this time though seems to have been largely that of students rather than the multi-class movement of 2019.5 The slogans appearing in all these movements since last November are increasingly worrying for the regime, with calls for the Khameini and and the mullahs to pack up and go, alongside some calls for a return of the Shah.
Forty years on from the so-called Iranian revolution it should not be forgotten that two thirds of the population were not alive when Iran exchanged one bloodthirsty regime for another. They have no real memory of the activities of the Shah’s secret police SAVAK which introduced many of the torture techniques adopted by the Islamic regime (who then added a few more of their own). Indeed, many SAVAK agents (3,000) managed to avoid arrest and death by by the Ayatollah’s decision to retain their services. They became the backbone of the new secret police of the Islamic Republic, and is now known as SAVAMA.6 They have a long record of murder including possibly as many as 7,000 in the single year of 1988.7
Politically and economically the regime totters on the edge of bankruptcy. It has used up all its options in terms of allowing the possibility that this or that candidate might actually bring about “reforms”. The Khatamis and the Rouhanis, who are after all creatures of the regime, have consistently failed any expectations those who voted for them had.8 Only physical force is now holding the regime together in the face of a worsening economic situation. The official unemployment rate is said to be only just above 10% but among young Iranians it has reached 27% and over 40% among university graduates, according to the Iranian Statistical Center.9 16 million Iranians now live below the official poverty line although only about a quarter receive charity from the Imam Khomeini foundation.10 The regime’s claim of defending the poor is at the heart of its ideology looks extremely hollow after 40 years.
The best hope that the regime has is that the opposition is itself very fragmented by both class and political affiliation, and, of course, it takes courage or utter desperation to oppose the regime. There is a lot of that across all classes. One protestor told a Financial Times reporter
"Under the Islamic republic only 10 per cent of the population who are children of politicians and the rich can enjoy life. Our share is high debt and misery."11
The middle class and petty bourgeoisie which once put its faith in the “reformist’ candidates are politically leaderless with some turning to the monarchists. They are in any case despised by many of the more working class protestors. Commenting on the November demonstrations to the same reporter, one 43 year old in Tehran said
"“The middle class live in a bubble while worried about losing the small pleasures they have,” said Zahra, who did not want her real name to be published. “Their bigger concern during protests was their internet connection.”"12
The best hope, despite all the repression, remains the working class which rejects not only all the “principlists” (hardline conservatives who support the regime) but also the “reformists” and any idea that the system can be changed from within. The working class strikes of Haft Tapeh in 2018, with their call for a revival of the shuras or councils, which appeared in 197913 struck an echo with other workers ranging from bus drivers to teachers. They also stood for a movement independent of all capitalist factions.14 The regime, of course, spotted the danger and the leaders were arrested and tortured, but the air of resistance has not completely gone away — and nor has the economic crisis of the regime.
What does Anti-Imperialism mean?
All this will be music to the ears of US imperialism. Using their economic clout they have Iran cornered. Even its allies in China and Russia are not offering free gifts to bail it out (they have, after all, their own interests to look after) even if they are prepared to do what they can to avoid a US triumph.
It is quite clear that Trump does not want a fighting war. Dead US bodies in useless Middle East wars were something he criticised his predecessors for. He sacked Bolton (a supporter of regime change via violence if necessary) and is well aware of the economic power the USA holds. This was why he tweeted in relief when the Iranians missile attack response to the death of Suleimani was simply a token response (although he lied about US casualties it was hardly on the same scale as his opponents over the downing of the airliner). Objectively the US can afford to sit and wait.
But to get “a deal” Trump will have to abandon Pompeo’s 12 demands15 on Iran which are something akin to Austria’s demands on Serbia in 1914. They are simply a demand for capitulation and would mean the end of Iranian influence anywhere in the Middle East. And, of course, the more resistance there is at home, the more the regime is likely to push its imperialist ambitions in order to play the nationalist card to suppress rebellion16 and portray any who don’t buy into their agenda as agents of Israel or the USA. The scene is thus set for yet more conflict, turmoil and suffering, the precise consequences of which are unpredictable.
Both the USA and Iran are imperialist powers even if one is global and the other regional. It is an asymmetric imperialism but workers and revolutionaries identify with neither. What sense does it make to call for “Hands off Iran” (even if you throw in “the people of”) when the biggest exploiter and oppressor of the Iranian working class is their “own” government. Our solidarity is not with regimes but with the international working class. Our tasks are to build up the resistance to our own rulers wherever we are. Our aim has to be to create an international political movement (a party) which supports and gives a compass for the independent struggle of the world working class. Our solidarity is thus with the Iranian workers calling for councils, and the only war we support is the class war against capitalism in its imperialist decadent stage.
A condensed version of this article can be found in the current edition (No. 50) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.
- 1For our previous analysis of this event see The US Attack on Baghdad
- 2See leftcom.org and many others before it.
- 3Each of the faction leaders in the Islamic Republic is surrounded by their own clique known as their “house”. This includes the “Supreme Leader”.
- 7Though according to some accounts (from known enemies of the regime like the Mujahedin, this may have been 30,000) see: en.wikipedia.org
- 8For our article on the election of Rouhani and the early promise of an accord with the USA see leftcom.org. The article points out that Rouhani was a top member of the Security Council of the regime at the time of the 1988 massacre of leftists and People’s Mujahedin.
- 10“According to the deputy director of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation Hossein Samsami, the number of families that receive financial aid is much higher than 2.1 million.“The foundation is helping 4 million families,” Mr. Samsami was quoted by the Iranian Students News Agency as saying on November 14. “The foundation would be $2.6 billion in deficit if it provided food to all 16 million families that live under the poverty line.” kayhanlife.com
- 11Najmeh Bozorgmehr in the Financial Times reporting from Tehran on December 6, 2019
- 12loc. cit.
- 13“… it was Iranian workers, headed by the oil workers who began the strike wave of 1977-8, who finished off the Shah. In the course of these strikes the workers set up strike committees which in the wake of the fall of the Shah were often transformed into “shuras”, or councils. These councils were to spread to almost every factory and workplace in Iran. They demanded workers’ control of production, the forty hour week, the sacking of management, reinstatement of sacked workers, new labour laws which did not criminalise workers who struck, the disbandment of SAVAK, the Shah’s notorious secret police, equal rights for women, and more. Some shuras actually took over the factory, checked the bosses’ books and increased the workers’ wages.” leftcom.org
- 16Those on the communist left who still insist that the working class is holding back war have never understood this dialectic. Yes, a decisive class movement can end a war but a rising class movement can force a regime into war as in the case of Russia in both 1905 and 1914 and Great Britain in 1914 (see the War Memoirs of Lloyd George who feared the rise of syndicalism).