Iran, the Proxy War?

Why does the US continue to prepare for war against Iran, given the increasing internal–and dead-set international–opposition to further US military intervention, and given its failure in Iraq?

In order for the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements to orient our opposition to this threat of aggression against the Iranian people, which should be taken seriously, we need to understand the inter-imperialist tensions that are provoking it. The “Iran dossier” is a microscope for the current geostrategic situation in which the highly developed, capitalist nations can be seen jockeying for status as American hegemony falters and the cold-war consensus is finished. Just as in the war on Iraq, the US interest in Iran has little to do with weapons of mass destruction, nor even immediate access to oil, but rather the long-term need to prevent its rivals from securing a friendly access to the country’s natural resources and from getting a stable foothold in the region. I wrote an analysis of the US-EU tensions, and the EU-Iran relationship, in CounterPunch in early April, 2006, and I believe that the analysis is still accurate and helps clarify the stakes in this unprecedented situation. The international progressive Left needs to recognize the relative weakness of the US, and the aspirations of its rivals, in order to act effectively.

The disagreements (and “molasses-like pace”) in the security council over the past year stem from the fact that the US wants to maintain and reinforce sanctions against Iran, while the rest of the world wants to lift the existing sanctions, no matter what the European countries disingenuously say. Far from being true “allies,” the US and the EU are grinning at one another through their teeth, and signs of their tensions during the year of closed-door negotiations can be read by an attentive observer even in the sparse information given by the international press. The famous “rapprochement” between the two, after the Iraq falling-out of 2002-2003, is only cosmetic. It arises from the fact that the Iraq fiasco forced the US into a stance of “diplomacy” in Bush’s second term, Europe knows it, and is only overwilling to accommodate, from a heightened position of power. It doesn’t annul their deeper divergences. For why do the carrots always come from Europe, and the sticks from the US? Because in their uninterrupted negotiations with Iran since 2003, Europe (that is, the E-3, acting in the name of Europe: Germany, France and Britain) has worked to secure a diplomatic accord which would allow the further opening and above all the guaranteeing of economic relations with Iran. The US, on the other hand, has worked to undermine this process.

Both Europe and the US want “friendly regimes” in the gulf states, in order to have preferential access to their resources”and if possible, regimes that will accept the terms set by their western “friends” under which their markets are opened. The Iraqi insurgency has prevented the US from implanting one of these “friendly” regimes in Iraq, and so beyond Israel, the US lacks a solid foothold in the region. But even if unable to secure Iraq, as long as it keeps the region unstable for investment and trade, either militarily or economically, it freezes out its rivals as well. The last thing the US wants next to its burning colony is a stable and growing Iranian economy whose investment and energy contracts are locked in by the Europeans, Russians and Chinese.

The sanctions imposed on Iran by the US are intended first and foremost to make its economy inaccessible to America’s rivals, and thus to make the US presence necessary as a gate-keeper to its development. If the US cannot succeed in “regime change” and install a friendly government in Iran, willing to privilege it over other countries in the long term, then at least it wants to make it difficult if not impossible for its rivals to establish a secure relationship with Iran. It seems ready to do this even by setting fire to the region, if it can’t get its way through sanctions. When the US talks about “isolating” Iran, its purpose is to keep it away from Europe, Russia and China. The way it can isolate Iran from them is by enforcing multilateral sanctions. The term “isolation” is not one of the ones used by the Europeans in their negotiation process; rather, they repeat that the doors must be left open.

According to the neo-con logic, apparently, financial sanctions such as those used on North Korea would then cripple the economy so much that it might provoke the desired regime change from within. And, in alluding constantly to “the other option” as well as reinforcing its warships in the gulf, the US maintains the pressure necessary to make the effort credible, both to Iran and to its rivals. As Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “What means of enforcement is credible if you start out by saying in the beginning that ‘oh, by the way, we’re not going to do the one thing that you’re most afraid of?’ (Washington Post, November 5 2006). Although this explains the contradictory stance, it should not be assumed that the US will not attack, only that its immediate goal seems to be to isolate Iran economically, pushing its “allies” to implement sanctions beyond the (weakened) measures detailed in the December security council resolution. The American strategy is volatile, like a desperate bully who is losing and threatening irrational violence, and this very volatility keeps its rivals at bay. An attack on Bushehr or Natanz would be accompanied by attacks on Iranian infrastructure, making things very difficult also for European, Chinese and Russian interests. At the very least the schizophrenic strategy effectively postpones their investments, which otherwise would be increasing at a steady pace.

Europe’s position, then, as the party that drafted the security council resolution of December 23 that allowed for minor sanctions, might seem to be more contradictory than America’s, but it is anything but irrational. Although it has publicly advocated sanctions, it knew that Russia would never allow “sanctions with teeth.” Russia effectively declawed the sanctions resolution (and even walked away with the US agreeing to support its entrance into the WTO). This is why the US is now insisting on sanctions that go beyond the resolution and pressuring its “allies” to adopt them as well. U.S. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns made the US point clear: “We don’t want to put all our eggs in the U.N. basket”; the vote “would open the way for further action outside the Security Council.” According to the New York Times on January 29, ”We are telling the Europeans that they need to go way beyond what they’ve done to maximize pressure on Iran,” said a senior administration official. ”The European response on the economic side has been pretty weak.” The US is taking steps to make its sanction laws extraterritorial, or binding in other countries. “European countries have opposed moves by the United States to apply the principle of extraterritoriality, a term referring to cases when American law can affect dealings entirely within another country. But the Bush administration recently has stepped up its use of various laws and directives to press forward with the concept,” wrote the Times on January 10. Exactly what the US wants is to make its crippling sanctions laws binding in rival countries, to put the teeth back into them. European foreign ministers met on February 12 in Brussels and decided to make effective only the light sanctions voted by the security council, despite US pressure to go beyond them. And in a document obtained by the AFP on February 13, the 27 EU member countries were asked “to consider how best to entice Iran back to the negotiating table, following the collapse of talks last year over the Islamic republic’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. They assert that the EU must continue with its current approach; dangling the carrot of political and trade incentives in negotiations while pushing ahead with the UN measures.” European and Iranian representatives met again for talks on February 11 in Munich.

To understand more deeply the apparent contradictions in Europe’s stance, advocating sanctions it doesn’t want, it’s necessary to delve into the depths of its disingenuity and look at its process of negotiations with Iran. At the moment of the US invasion of Iraq, and Iraq’s loss to French and other investors as well as its loss to Europe as a source of future energy resources, the EU made an aggressive move to bring Iran into a privileged economic, political and possibly military cooperation. This diplomatic endeavor, undertaken in the context of offering Iran the “incentives” to give up its nuclear program, was intended to give Europe preferential access to its market, its labor, and especially its oil and gas. The final offer of August 2005, rejected as “insulting” by Iran (which according to European officials was “very generous”), had been negotiated during the months of Iran’s voluntary suspension of uranium. In my previous article in Counterpunch, I described this overture to Iran in detail.

Iran made it clear to the E-3 when it rejected its first offer that any deal ultimately hinges on getting its needed “security guarantees” from the US. In other words, it wants an official promise that the US will not invade Iran, will acknowledge and leave in peace the current regime, and will not try to mess with its borders. If these fears were not justified, given its location between Iraq and Afghanistan, the E-3 might have gotten further with its original offer. This fact in itself goes a long way to explaining why the US cannot afford to take the military option off the table. It needs to make these fears justified, wanting at all costs to sabotage the European attempt at rapprochement with Iran.

Because US participation in any real negotiations was clearly necessary, the E-3 then entered into a process of corralling the US to the negotiating table, which it succeeded in doing in late May, 2006. This allowed the EU to show Iran that it was able to get results, and therefore the Europeans seemed sincerely to hope that Iran would accept their second official offer of “incentives” brought in person by Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to Teheran on June 5. The “U-turn” on May 29th that Condoleeza Rice was given credit or blame for, overturning the long-standing US policy of refusing any negotiations with the country, was entirely disingenuous since the US knew that at this point Iran’s regime would never accept its precondition to negotiations, the suspension of uranium enrichment. This is especially true since the text omitted any promises on the part of the US that if Iran did so, it would get the security guarantees it needs. Iran rejected the offer for the same reasons as the last: it involved their quasi-indefinite suspension of enrichment, and it didn’t include any security promises. The contents of this second offer were kept much more secret than the first, but one thing that we can deduce that it contained was some form of effort to get around the US economic sanctions”as well as the “economic and political cooperation” that had been offered a year before.

Although the US sabotaged this European effort as well, its own weakness is apparent in the fact that this document contained no concrete “sticks” to apply if the deadline to suspend enrichment passed, and that when it inevitably did on August 31, the Europeans were able to continue to negotiate with Iran for another 5 weeks. During this time, Solana met at least 4 times and for over 20 hours with Ali Larijani, Iran’s national security secretary, while at the same time the US was impatient to get sanctions approved by the security council. ”Larijani and Solana have been engaged in this minuet,” a senior Bush administration official said. ”The U.S. view is that those talks are worthwhile, but not sufficient. We will be moving early in the week to move forward on a sanctions resolution” (New York Times, Sept. 17). During this time Chirac even suggested that negotiations might begin without first suspending enrichment, in direct contradiction with the US stance. Iran proposed that a “consortium” of countries (and, reportedly, specifically France) could oversee its nuclear facilities in order to verify their peaceful nature, as a way to break the impasse of the US’s insistence on suspension as a precondition for talks.

But despite certain “progress,” these talks broke down in early October over the same issue: the US didn’t accept this progress. Larijani explained this collapse in an interview on November 8, reported by BBC: “But you might wonder what happened next and why there was a change of opinion later? Well, we said in the beginning that some parties should be involved in the talks which could take the ultimate decision over this issue. This is because we did not wish to hold superficial negotiations. However the gentleman said that he [Solana] was their plenipotentiary envoy. But apparently they later decided not to accept our agreement system. I heard that the Americans exerted a lot of pressure on him over this issue. He was not happy with the final outcome either. At any rate, the development shows that they were not committed to the talks. That is, their envoy admitted that we had made progress and had come closer to reaching a conclusion, but they chose another direction.” Iran learned its lesson after the first round of “incentives” given by the Europeans to get Iran to give up its nuclear program: not only are the Europeans weak militarily and unable themselves to provide the needed security guarantees (and obviously unwilling to provoke the US so starkly) but also the carrot and stick strategy is entirely disingenuous and condescending. The EU wants a privileged relationship with Iran, but has been relying for leverage in its negotiations on the possibility of punitive measures that itself it doesn’t want. Larijani continued: “We would like to have long-term cooperation. However, it is very bad when they say that they wish to conduct some sort of negotiations whose outcome is known from the start. Such an approach means everything is totally superficial from the start. On the basis of their talks with us, they wish to play a greater role in the Middle East. They say that they do not wish to remain as passive as in the past. Moreover, they say that they would like to benefit from Iran’s spiritual influence – be it in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon or Palestine. However such aspirations would not be possible if they continue to yell at us. On the one hand they say that they wish to cooperate with Iran, but on the other hand, they raise their voice. A person, who is asking for cooperation, should utter logical words.”

The European interest in Iran, again, has nothing to do with helping the country, but with keeping the US out, along the same imperialist logic as the US. Europe and especially Germany has major interests in Iran that it needs to protect from economic or military punishments, and especially Europe needs a friendly and secure access to energetic resources. The EU has insisted on “unity” in the security council since as long as the US stays at the negotiating table, it cannot so easily justify spinning off into unilateral actions. The superpower “consensus” bringing Iran to the security council may be an international compromise that is as much about getting the US to play by international rules as it is about Iran. The neocons are entirely aware of this and are furious, because they can’t refuse to participate after the failed unilateralism in Iraq. The US’s interest in the “unity” of the security council, then, is in forcing Europe, when its minuet is through, toward stronger punitive measures against the country. After these got “watered down” in December, the neocons seem ready now to start acting unilaterally again, if only so far by stepping up the sanctions and pressuring Europe to adopt them as well. This will play out in the next few weeks since the next deadline for Iran to quit enriching uranium is on February 21, and since it will pass, the fighting parties will have to meet again to decide whether they will go further in the sanctions or not. The neocons may be expecting this to work in their favor, for they will feel more justified in insisting on stronger sanctions, but nothing says that Europe, Russia and China will agree to them. Eventually, if Iran doesn’t back down, we will see more and more tension becoming apparent in the superficial “unity” and it may break down. Europe may be faced soon with a decision as to whether it wants to give up the disingenuity and refuse outright to step up the sanctions, but this would mean the open admittance of that which all parties have been hiding: the real divergent interests of the major powers. Chirac has been much less discreet about this than, for example, Merkel, with his aborted attempt in mid-January to send his foreign minister to Iran purportedly to talk about Lebanon, and his “gaffe” (which many Europeans are saying wasn’t a gaffe) 2 weeks ago when he said that it wouldn’t be so terrible if Iran had a military nuclear capability.

There is a call among American “realists” for a “grand bargain” with Iran: not only direct talks but an entire reopening of relations, which would involve security guarantees, normalizing economic relations and possibly Iran’s cessation of enrichment. But such a grand bargain wouldn’t serve America’s purpose in the middle east, which is not just to establish a relationship with the country, but to establish a privileged relationship to the exclusion of its rivals. Ultimately the US needs regime change, because the regime of the mullahs is probably not disposed at this point to privileging the US under any circumstance. They would probably not privilege the US in the according of contracts. The hydrocarbons would remain carefully controlled. If they want investment, they would get that elsewhere. The situation in Iraq would not seriously improve as long as the occupation lasts. Of course, how would such a direct talk about Iran’s meddling in Iraq play out? US: stop meddling outside your borders. Iran: look at yourself. Iran would love this opportunity. Robert Gates admitted that talks would yield nothing for the US in January when he said, “‘Frankly, right at this moment there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us, and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant.”

The only “bargain” the US wants with Iran (or with any of its colonies) is a bargain-basement bargain, where it can dictate investment and other economic policy. And this is not out of simple imperialism, but rather out of the logic of inter-imperialist rivalry: it is the only way it can shut out its rivals. Any other bargain would help its rivals to normalize and improve relations. Therefore the US won’t provide the security guarantees that are the sine qua non for Iran, since it’s simply not in its interest to give them. It’s much more in its interest to be irrationally threatening and keep the region insecure. It may provoke Iran into a conflict, allowing the US to “retaliate” with Lebanon-style bombing, justifying its action by the slowness of the security council. A way to say to the world: we may be weakened in Iraq, etc, but we still rule it with force; you cannot enter where we say don’t enter.

MICHELE BRAND is an independent journalist and reseacher based in Paris, and can be contacted at michele.brand


Michèle Brand is an independent journalist based in Paris. She can be reached at michbrand [at]