Four steps forward, four steps back,
Right foot forward, left foot back,
Two steps sideways, one step back.
It is a remarkable feat to witness the inexplicable and sudden disappearance of the legions of leftist doom and gloom as regards the Iran-US relations. Indeed some readers may not even remember such legions at all. It is excusable to forget that for some years we were audience to regular warnings of “imminent military attacks” to be unleashed by the US against the Iranian regime. Likewise, you might not remember that some commentators made a lucrative living going around forewarning, “Imminent attacks coming! Imminent attacks coming!” Stirring up hysteria, the legalistically oriented lobbied the US Congress Quixotic style to avoid such eventuality; in leftist publications, the literarily oriented filled columns quoting previous write-ups of warnings as evidence that imminent attacks were forthcoming any time, very soon and inevitably. All the while throwing a thick cover over the internal oppressions committed against, and the rights denied, the Iranian people.
For some time now, however, those commentators have been uncharacteristically silent about imminent attacks. What happened? If the Iranian and the US governments were such enemies and if the US had been planning for years to launch a military attack, what changed then? Or is the situation still the same? Those commentators should not be so quiet. In fact, they owe everybody a detailed explanation of how it came to be that such imminent attacks never took place.
Well, as it has turned out, no such attacks were forthcoming. Everybody can now breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever deity they are deferential to (personally I’ll be thanking JD while playing James Brown’s Say It Loud).
Some Iranian socialists were however explaining for all those same years that no such attacks would materialize. They were likewise advising to pay more attention to the miseries and injustices meted out daily to the Iranian people not just by imperialist outsiders (be it the US-imposed sanctions for example, or the Russians extracting ransom from a regime under pressure), but by the internal theocracy choking the Iranian people: a theocracy that is in fact the embodiment of imperialism in Iran. The point is seldom acknowledged that this regime is actually not disliked by imperialist powers. Ask IMF. Iran gets decent grades from that international institution epitomizing finance capital, the quintessential imperialist institution of record if ever there was one.
Imperialist countries house a long list of definitely eager corporations willing to stand in line to get to do business with this regime: no regime-changes here, they agree, no thank you please! The multinationals and international finance institutions also know best how effectively Iranian state has privatized state assets, and how much more privatizing can still happen; they have observed in detail the cutting of subsidies of all kinds, which actually started with Ahmadinejad’s administration and continues under the current administration of Rouhani; they know, in other words, how willing the regime is in sticking it to the poor. Multinational corporations are as well the biggest promoters of anti-labor laws, which Iranian government is prolific at legislating. In Iran, international companies get the additional bonus of a robust legal system promoting anti-women, puritanically anti-communist, anti-dissent and just plain anti-everything-normal-human-beings-may-enjoy laws. Just for one item, Iranian authorities recently issued an order for imprisonment and lashing for a bunch of kids dancing to a song! You realize how many coups imperialists and their local cohorts have had to organize in some other countries just to get to this level of social repression written into law? So, why would the US militarily destroy such a golden goose?
And that’s just the start; more importantly, the same doom-n-gloomers need to provide some serious explanation as to how it did come about that in today’s Iraq, Iran and the US are on the same side of the barricades, fighting alongside each other, acting internally like shy, shame-ridden allies who still have to snipe at each other once in a while just to keep the locals happy; yet together fighting against the Islamic State terrorists, as they both characterize the IS, to keep the puppet Iraqi regime in place. Most anti-imperialist analysts have, in the past, identified the Iraqi government as a US puppet regime, which is mostly true, but consistently and conveniently have overlooked the fact that the same Iraqi regime is a most-favored government for the Iranian mullahs. ‘Mere coincidence’ is not an explanation.
There are however many other factors that have been ignored by those same commentators. Here are some pieces of historical knowledge necessary to understand the dynamics controlling the Iran-US relations; background knowledge that is currently not incorporated into, and therefore does not inform, the analysis provided by a host of anti-imperialist commentators:
The Nature of the Iranian state
It is painful for Iranian socialists to have to read large amounts of confused and part-true-yet-mostly-false literature coming out of the Western left, particularly the US left, purporting to provide insightful analysis about our society. Too many times we have had to suffer poorly constructed analysis by people who have very little acquaintance with Iran’s modern history, especially the social forces operating in our country, or know close to nothing about the thousand threads that bind Iranian ruling classes to institutions of international finance capital (ergo, it is exactly because the Iranian regime is so dependent on, and interconnected with, international financial institutions that such institutions’ financial blockade has been effective in limiting parts of its operations and finances).
To prevent early-onset heart failure, far too often we have had to cool our rage one way or another when reading descriptions of the reactionary nature of, say, the Saudi state (which it is) while in the same passage or even the same line reading praises of the progressive nature of the Iranian state (which it certainly is not).
It is necessary to remind the reader that the Iranian state by its own constitution is a theocracy, meaning the ruling sects proudly claim to be the embodiment of God’s will on earth, meaning the absolute rule of the clergy and the high ranking religious folk who attended a seminary type of school very zealously. In this system, again by its own laws, those who believe, or act like they believe that the ruling clerics are God’s representatives on earth get to have more rights than non-believers. It is a two-tier legal system, but be ware of getting caught pretending. The non-believers (or those caught pretending) can be and regularly are subjected to any number of violent punishments, ranging from public lashing to public hanging, most definitely including torture and what the security forces categorize as “corrective rape”, or threat thereof, or whatever else deemed necessary by the religious authorities.
The possibilities for what is considered an offense in Iran range from what somebody wears to what somebody thinks.
In the wake of the millions-strong uprising of the Iranian people across the country after the sham elections of 2009, senior clerics would explicitly remind people in their Friday prayer sermons that the Iranian regime receives its legitimacy not from the people but from God and from the absent twelfth Imam of Shiite religion, Imam Mahdi. Elections, in this scenario, are merely a way to find out whether or not the people are in line with God’s will. When the people are not so aligned and when they express that misalignment too loudly, publicly and too massively, as was the case in 2009, divine punishment is to be meted out on a mass scale.
It is doubtful that, for example, a theocratic state, run by a sect of religious fanatics led by Pat Robertson or the Catholic establishment, would be considered a progressive development in the US. So, how can anybody consider the same development as progress for the Iranian people? This error needs to be addressed, and our hope is that Iranian socialists can provide a more complex picture to enable the reader to see the errors presented in any analysis that finds Iranian state formation as something desirable.
As Antonio Gramsci has observed insightfully, a revolutionary situation simultaneously creates counter-revolutionary conditions. The current Iranian state and its true nature can only be understood in the context of the democratic mass movement and the uprising that overthrew the Shah’s regime in February 1979, and the counter-revolutionary backlash which that historical event precipitated: A counter-revolution that brought out the most organized (the mosque, a de facto political organization) and simultaneously the most reactionary forces of our society into open class warfare against the people and the working classes, a counter-revolution that ultimately crushed the revolutionary demands of the people and their organizations, and which continues to rule Iran to this day.
For this counter-revolution to succeed, it was in part necessary for the reactionary forces to expropriate some of the revolution’s slogans regarding foreign policy, an issue that could easily be dressed in right-wing garb and exploited to excite the xenophobic (in this case, anti-western) sentiments of the lumpen classes, who the reactionary forces needed as foot soldiers. Hence, for example, the anti-American populist propaganda for the internal consumption of the their loyal masses, while in reality secretly negotiating for arms with Americans and Israelis and providing money to the CIA to be funneled to the Nicaraguan Contras, back in early 1980s; the reader may remember that. At the same time, internally the counter-revolution kept intact the reactionary system of a rentier capitalist state.
The 1953 Coup
To gain a deeper understanding of the true nature of the mullah’s regime in Iran, it is instructive to go back to the US-British coup in 1953, which overthrew our democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. It is customary for leftist writers to refer to this coup to demonstrate that the writer/analyst knows something about Iranian modern history, and the history of western intervention in our country.
The problem is that, in most cases where this coup is mentioned by western leftists, this remembrance is done in a disjointed manner that loses the true relevance of that coup, how it was organized, as well as its links to today’s political situation. More specifically, it must be noted that during that 1953 coup, the clerical classes sided with the coup and against the democratically elected Mossadegh. The clerics, under the leadership of Ayatollah Kashani (mentor to Ayatollah Khomeini) sided with, aided and abetted, sang the praises of, carried water for and cheered the project of the US imperialists as they all together, hand in hand destroyed a democratic system, for which many of our best minds had given their lives and for which hundreds of thousands had fought so hard: shedding blood, sweat and tears, minds along with lives.
Historical materialism does matter; it helps us arrive at more complex and more accurate analysis, and it helps us move away from simplistic, one-dimensional analyses that inevitably lead to incorrect political positions and actions. But to apply historical materialism, the actual history in all its multifaceted dimensions must be taken into account, most importantly all the social forces involved. A coup could not have been orchestrated by some foreign powers if there were no internal social forces to carry it forward, and the clerical knew that their interests placed them on the side of the imperialists and not the socialists, progressive nationalists, true liberals and democrats who supported Mossadegh’s party, and who paid a heavy price for that support.
The Iran-Iraq War
It is a common refrain by the Iranian theocrats and their leftist supporters in the west to use the example of the Iran-Iraq war to illustrate the support Americans and Europeans gave to Saddam Hussain during that bloody war. A war that lasted far longer than it had to. Customarily, they point to the more than one million killed in that war to show that the US had it in for the Iranian regime from the start. The Western left, however, has not yet digested the full truth of that historical catastrophe.
Here is a slightly fuller version of that war. By 1982 Iranian military and volunteer Basij forces had beaten back Iraq’s military forces to the internationally recognized Iran-Iraq border, and the war could have ended at that point. However, the Iranian regime had just tapped into a perfect system of using the war as an excuse for crushing internal dissent of the social forces not willing to give up on the demands of the revolution. The expansionist nature of the regime was also just blossoming, with the Hezbollah militia forces just brought online in Lebanon. The war was also a perfect vehicle for unifying the religiously oriented social forces.
And so it was that the war dragged on for another six murderous years, completely unnecessarily in a futile attempt to expand Iranian mullahs’ theocracy to Iraq and beyond. It is a well-known statement by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who said (paraphrasing), “The road to Jerusalem is paved through Najaf and Karbala.” And it is exactly this expansionist tendency that was defeated in implementing its plans to occupy Iraq and hold onto Iraqi land. When it became clear that the military progress into Iraq was not possible, Ayatollah Khomeini’s advisors persuaded him to drink from the “poisoned chalice” of peace and announce Iranian regime’s acceptance of a UN ceasefire. So, if you’re looking for a place to lay blame, you may more justifiably say the blood of the hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed during the extra six years of that war is mostly on the hands of the Iranian regime’s expansionist desires.
The US Invasion of Iraq in 2003
Millions of people around the world participated in massive anti-war demonstrations in the months leading to the US invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, one day before the Iranian New Year. Millions of people came out in London, across Europe, New York, Boston, Washington DC, the West Coast and other major cities across the US; even Tokyo, where I attended, came close to matching a historical record for mass street protests previously set in the 1960s, the biggest of which has not yet been surpassed: the mass protests and street occupations in June of 1960, when hundreds of thousands of Japanese people opposed to the bilateral military security agreement between Japan and the US (pushed by the Japanese right wing) occupied the streets surrounding the Diet (parliament) to express their outrage at a security treaty that could drag them into any war the US wished to unleash. By the time the Japanese people were protesting the coming Iraq war in 2003, that fear had come true: Japanese government was made to ignore its own pacifist constitution and participate in illegal wars of aggression by providing free fuel for the US battleships parked in the Indian ocean off the coast of Pakistan participating in the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq; open partners to an international daylight heist.
At around the same time as those mass anti-war demonstrations around the world, and on the other side of the political fence, some of the people who were giddy with tantalizing anticipation of the rewards to be had were preparing for action in the central command centers of the military and security establishments … in Iran. A New Year gift indeed!
How so, you may ask? The Badr brigades, a Shiite militia opposed to Saddam Hussain, due to his barbaric treatment of the Shiite community in southern Iraq, hosted by the Iranian government, housed, well fed and trained aplenty, were ready and could not wait for the day to see the back of Saddam Hussain, the butcher of Iraqi Shiite’s. The Badr brigades were involved in the initial land invasion, giving Saddam’s forces an extra push from the east, if any were needed, while the Americans moved north from the south. To paint this picture in alternate words, the US military high commands must have, nay, needed to have, coordinated with the Iranian military high commands to coordinate not shooting at each other. They had to coordinate as to who is where, how best to confuse the common enemy, how best to demoralize them, how to instill terror, who gets to protect which oil wells, who secures passage for whom, where to bring in the injured and how, and what determines the jurisdictional lines. The reader gets the picture. This is also a matter of recorded facts.
Strategic Confluence of Interests
The word ‘coordination’ may be the correct operational category for the particular type of relationship between the two states during the invasion of Iraq, but it does not fully explain the strategic confluence of interests between the two states over Iraq. For years, both states had lusted after getting rid of not just Saddam Hussain but a strong unified Arab country, with a respectable infrastructure, a good basic education and healthcare system, a reasonably developed level of professional classes and basic industries. For the Iranians, Saddam Hussain was additionally too progressive looking, and residing right next door at that. He made the Iranian clerical regime look like medieval reactionaries. Compared to the obscurantist ideological state apparatuses in Iran, Saddam’s dictatorship actually looked like progress. Now, that’s entertainment!
As for the Americans, even though Saddam had done well for a while, he had committed the reckless mistake of disobeying the rules of the one-n-only international bully in a key region, by invading Kuwait. He simply could not be allowed to stay, just as no local thug of any mob boss would be allowed to stay (no matter how good a foot soldier) if he, not just disrespected, but bled the boss’s pocket.
So, both regimes had for years wanted nothing to do with Saddam except encase him in cement body suit and bury him at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, so they could destroy Iraq. That is what you categorize as strategic confluence of interests. Both states had a long term interest in the destruction of Iraq, and its refashioning according to their own blueprints, which were not that far apart on details. A fragmented weak state ruled by sectarian Shiite politicians was the outcome both Iran and the US were reasonably happy to live with, all other discord be damned. As long as this weak and unstable regime rules Iraq, it provides endless opportunities for both Iran and the US to intervene at will, to send in military advisors and ‘humanitarian’ assistance, to push their respective political agendas for economic gain, for spheres of influence, and whatever else deemed desirable. Who knows; maybe they are both conducting secret studies, in secret locations, on uranium-enriched munitions’ effects on internal organs.
It is a blessing in disguise of sorts, I guess, that it took an even more violently reactionary movement such as the Islamic State to bring to the surface the implicit alliance that existed between the US and the Iranian regimes in Iraq. And so we come full circle; eleven years on, and they still can stand the sight of each other in Iraq. That’s progress. For the lobbyists of the Iranian regime.
For years, Iranian socialists have argued that the so-called nuclear issue is only the tip of a much more substantive iceberg that constitutes the actual Iran-US relational issues at the center of their conflict and disagreements. The real negotiation between the western powers and Iran is not, strictly speaking, over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program; it is over the terms and conditions of the status quo to be established (and tolerated) in the region.
By now, it should be clear that as far as the US is concerned, the theocratic regime of Iran is an acceptable part of that status quo; the Iranian mullahs need only adjust their manners accordingly. So, the question is: Will the Iranian regime be able to change its behavior while still maintaining a facade of anti-imperialism? Or will they continue the faux-tango with the US?
Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org