Is Iran Next?

Washington’s sabre-rattling toward Iran is part of the U.S. drive not just to dominate the Persian Gulf, but to prevent the emergence of any rival at a global level. The U.S. government claims that Iran supports terrorism and is developing nuclear weapons. But this is a cover for Washington’s main aim–disrupting Iran’s growing economic and political ties with Western Europe, Russia, China and India.

That’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Iran’s nuclear program during George W. Bush’s visit last week. Washington twisted Putin’s arm–and promised that Russian oil companies will get a piece of the action in reconstructing Iraq. In fact, under its reformist President Mohammed Khatami, Iran has repeatedly sought accommodation with Washington by curbing support for groups that the U.S. views as “terrorist.”

At the same time, Khatami has tried to open the state-dominated Iranian economy to the world market. A major obstacle to this has been the U.S. Congress’ Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which put a $20 million limit on any U.S. oil company’s dealings with Iran. The law forced the U.S. company Conoco to cancel a big Iranian contract.

Meanwhile, a French oil company, now known as TotalElfFina, teamed up with Malaysia’s Petronas company for a $2 billion gas pipeline deal. Other European oil companies have defied U.S. sanctions to develop Iranian oilfields in exchange for cash payments on the proceeds.

The Clinton administration bowed to demands from the U.S. oil industry–including Halliburton, then run by CEO Dick Cheney–and granted waivers to the sanctions. Today, more than 30 U.S. companies or their subsidiaries operate in Iran. Nevertheless, Congress voted to renew the sanctions on Iran in 2001.

Washington pressured U.S. oil companies into building a pipeline from the oil-and-gas rich inland Caspian Sea through Turkey to the port of Ceyhan–rather than through Iran, which would have been the cheapest and most logical route. For the U.S., the pipeline has the added benefit of avoiding Russian soil, while still pulling the former USSR republics in Central Asia into the Western orbit.

Iran tried to appease Washington by providing assistance in the U.S. war on Afghanistan–but ended up on the “axis of evil” list anyway. Now, U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq effectively surround Iran. And with Washington in control of Iraq’s oil, U.S. officials believe that they can more effectively isolate Iran economically as well.

Iran has tried to avoid confrontation by offering to hand over suspected al-Qaeda members. And on a recent trip to Lebanon, Iranian President Khatami privately urged leaders of the Shiite Hezbollah party to show restraint, according to press reports. Nevertheless, Washington’s squeeze has compelled Iran to step up its economic and military relationships.

Iran has made a series of oil-swap agreements with Russia, in which Russian oil is used to supply the needs of northern Iran, while an equivalent amount of Iranian oil is exported through the Persian Gulf in the south. A Chinese company helped Iran build a domestic pipeline to further such efforts.

These arrangements give Russia and Iran a leg up on the Ceyhan pipeline, which won’t be completed until 2005 at the earliest. “Not only will the [swap deals] help the Russians expand their share of international oil markets significantly, they will enable Iran to turn itself into a major player in Caspian oil exports,” analyst Hooman Peimani wrote on the Asian Times Web site in February.

The oil swap deal followed an economic cooperation agreement signed by Russia and Iran in March 2001. A year later, Russia, India and Iran signed the North-South Corridor Agreement to integrate their land, sea and air transportation networks that can provide a lower-cost alternative to the Suez Canal.

Iran also recently agreed to construct a $3.2 billion undersea gas pipeline to India, to be built by Gazprom, the huge Russian gas monopoly. And Iran and India also signed a military agreement that gives Indian armed forces access to Iranian territory and facilities during any war between India and Pakistan. In return, the Indian military will provide training and technical assistance to Iranian forces.

Such regional economic and political alliances could someday constitute a “strategic competitor” to Washington–something the Bush Doctrine, spelled out in last year’s National Security Strategy document, is designed to stop. Washington’s drive toward world domination, not Tehran’s supposed threats, is the real reason for Bush’s campaign against Iran.

Crucial pivot point in international politics

AS THE biggest and most populous country on the Persian Gulf, a key land bridge between Asia and Europe, and the world’s fourth-largest producer of oil, Iran is a strategic pivot point in international politics. That’s why Washington engineered a bloody coup in 1953 that installed a repressive pro-U.S. monarchy led by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.

The coup followed the nationalization of the British-dominated Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mosadeq. The U.S. dispatched Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr.–the father of the 1991 Gulf War commander–to meet the Shah and plot a military coup, financed and orchestrated by the CIA.

Details of the U.S. role in this “regime change” came to light in December 2000, when the New York Times published the CIA’s official history of its intervention. According to this document, U.S. officials decided that the “operation must, if possible, be made to appear legal or quasi-legal instead of an outright coup; that public opinion must be fanned to fever pitch against Mossadeq in the period just preceding the execution of the overthrow operation”; and that “immediate precautions must be taken by the new government to meet a strong reaction by the Tudeh [Communist] Party.”

After the coup, the Shah converted the country from a constitutional monarchy into a dictatorship under control of his Pahlavi family and their cronies. The U.S. saw Iran, which bordered the old USSR, as a key ally in the Cold War and provided the Shah with the latest military weaponry. Meanwhile, the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, were notorious worldwide for their savage repression and torture of oppositionists.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that brought the Shiite Islamist government to power, the U.S. has tried to contain Iran’s influence. This included backing Saddam Hussein’s invasion, which triggered the horrific eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

In the mid-1980s, however, the U.S. secretly provided Iran with weapons in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon–and used the money to finance U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary forces in Nicaragua. Now, with their conquest of Iraq, Washington’s hawks have concluded that the time is right once more for a more aggressive policy against Iran.

Iran at the crossroads

THE U.S. threats against Iran come as a political battle between reformists and conservatives in that country is coming to a head. Since his election as president in 1997, Mohammed Khatami has sought to carry out a series of political reforms to allow greater freedom of expression–as well as an economic program of privatizing state-owned companies and encouraging Western investment.

Both efforts are threatening the hard-liners in Iran’s Shiite clergy, who claim their legitimacy to rule from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s leadership of the 1979 revolution. In reality, Khomeini established himself as a leader only by putting himself at the head of–and then repressing–a revolutionary upsurge by workers and crushing the left. Since his death in 1989, competing factions have clashed more and more openly.

Despite his landslide re-election in 2001, Khatami’s efforts at reforms have been repeatedly blocked by councils of clergy that constitute a parallel–and more powerful–government. Iran’s economic impasse has only raised the stakes.

Though still growing, the economy doesn’t produce enough jobs to absorb the 800,000 who enter the workforce each year. The depth of the crisis explains why Khatami has hesitated to follow his free-market plan to cut subsidies to the poor–for fear of sparking a revolt from below. Although independent unions are illegal, strikes over low pay and poor working conditions are commonplace.

Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamanei, who succeeded Khomeini as the country’s supreme leader, backs the right on most decisive questions. But he has had to concede political and social reforms in the face of the mounting reform movement from below. Sometimes, the clashes have spilled over into big street protests, such as mass student demonstrations last November after a reformist intellectual who criticized the clergy was given a death sentence.

A counterdemonstration of 10,000 people led by the basij–the goon squad of the religious conservatives–forced Khatami into a retreat. Bitterness over Khatami’s failure to deliver reforms has led to widespread apathy. Just 12 percent bothered to vote in local elections in the capital city of Tehran in February.

Khatami’s reforms are bound to fail because his popular political initiatives are undercut by an economic program that requires sacrifice by the working class. Washington ultimately hopes to use this crisis to restore the exiled Iranian right to power. But the legacy of U.S. support for the Shah means that Washington won’t be able to repeat its fast military victory over Iraq in neighboring Iran.

The hawks will press for a war anyway–no matter how horrific the cost. We have to oppose their drive to a new slaughter.

LEE SUSTAR writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:


LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker