Max Ajl

The U.S-Iranian nuclear negotiations—described in polite but dishonest company as the P5+1/Iran negotiations, to conceal the central U.S. role—recently ended in an accord that has cleared the Senate. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has a range of boosters, from the Israeli and U.S. defense intelligentsia and a coterie of retired generals, to John Kerry and the “realist” sector of foreign policy intellectuals and liberal area specialists. Among them are also many liberalish NGOs such as Code Pink and U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, and strangely, a scattering of leading dissidents in the United States.  

Meanwhile, there is still outspoken opposition to the accord from representatives of the most belligerent sectors of U.S. and Israeli capital, including AIPAC and Benyamin Netanyahu. 

What to make of this tableau? Some, seeing the “defeat” of the Israel Lobby, put a plus where the Lobby puts a minus and celebrate the deal as a “historic achievement.” Others call it Obama’s “signature foreign policy achievement.” Oddly, such celebrations are short on descriptions of what has been achieved. Some are more explicit, stating that the deal is a “strong and positive step towards stabilizing the Middle East,” by “making diplomacy and dialogue available for conflict resolution.” Here is an argument: the Iran deal resolved a conflict, through “dialogue.” Is it correct? 

The short answer is no. Those claiming that dialogue has won out over war are dead wrong, for war, at least through tanks and bombs, has not been Washington’s preferred short-term means of coercion. The warfare directly targeting Iran is mostly economic. That outside of its borders targets its allies. Such aggression will continue, and indeed Iran continues to be subject to an invasive inspections regime, with the threat of sanctions “snapping back” at the behest of the U.S. government. All of this means the conflict—“hostage negotiation” is more apt, actually, with the hostages being Iran’s people—is not resolved, and which means there is no reason to expect progressives’ predictions of expanding ripples of dialogue and calm to pan out. 

We know this both from history—the United States has historically chafed at independent nationalism throughout the globe, but especially near that well of black gold, Saudi Arabia—as well as the explicit statements of U.S. statesmen. 
Consider first the former, as some history of U.S. hostility towards Iran illuminates the current policy’s institutional roots. Aggression towards the Islamic Republic cannot be chalked up, as those myopically focused on the Israel lobby would have it, to 1990s-era Zionist influence in Washington. The issue has consistently been the nature of the Iranian state—not the kinds of weapons it does, or does not, possess.

Before the revolution, which a leading historian of Iran, Ervand Abrahamian, characterizes as an “Iranian variant of Third World populism,” the Shah’s police state was a very good friend and customer of the United States.

From 1972 to 1976, Iran purchased fully one-third of U.S. military exports. Between 1972 and 1977, the total for agreed-upon sale was over $16 billion. U.S. weapons manufacturers delivered $9 billion worth of those weapons before the Iranian people overthrew their government. Agreements for trade and services from U.S. corporations totaled more than $10 billion. In late 1976, a U.S. official testified that arms sales “helped us to maintain the viability of the declining [military industrial] base, reduced procurement costs and improved our international balance of payments.”

The issue was not merely flows, but also Iranian insertion in the international arena. During that time Iran was the major regional ally of the United States, and a “pillar” of security policy—more central than either Israel or Saudi Arabia. Such policies, in the words of one memorandum, referred to the understanding that the Shah was “a force for stability and anti-radicalism.” Some examples included support for “Saudi Arabia’s anti-Soviet policy in the Horn of Africa,” while the Shah’s “willingness to commit thousands of troops to Oman in the early 1970s was crucial to ending a Marxist guerrilla war on the Arabian Peninsula.”

In the eyes of U.S. planners, the 1979 revolution was a major defeat. Internal planning documents bemoaned the “fall of Iran as a major regional security contributor at least with respect to U.S. advantage.” The response to what officials stubbornly called “the temporary loss of Iran” would be the “acquisition of bases in the region.” Iran is now literally surrounded by U.S. military installations.

Right after the revolution, Washington slapped sanctions on Iran. Arms deals and commercial arrangements disintegrated in the face of what Zbigniew Brzezinski characterized with clear prescience as the destruction “of the strategic pivot of the U.S.-sponsored shield for the Persian Gulf region.” In 1980, it was clearly understood, in the words of then-Secretary of Defense William Brown, that “Iran probably will still not be at all easy to deal with.”

Then, as now, such planning documents must be translated out of the jargon of state bureaucrats. The “shield” was not from the Soviet Union, or to protect U.S. oil supplies. It was against “subversion”—a favorite euphemism of diplomatic memoranda—which might upset the U.S. regional system. As scholar of the Gulf Adam Hanieh notes, the “U.S. wants to ensure that the oil supplies remain outside of the democratic control of the people of the region.” 

In order to avoid the threat of democracy, U.S. foreign policy requires that states’ internal policies conform to U.S. interests and not the interests of their people. Sovereignty is a precondition for popular control of national resources. It is for this reason, having nothing to do with Shi’ism or Communism, that many of the regional non-state armed movements threaten the U.S. financial and political architecture in the area. In a context wherein certain states reserve the right to violate borders at will, any force that defends sovereignty acquires an at least temporary anti-systemic character. 

The Iranian “bourgeoisie revolution,” in Abrahamian’s words, combined with what economist Kaveh Ehsani calls the “nationalist” and “developmentalist slant” of Khomeini’s positions, exemplified the threats of national-popular sovereignty. The new government reoriented its oil income away from U.S. weapons systems and towards popular provision. 

In the aftermath of the revolution, according to Ehsani, “Public sector employment more than doubled…from 1.7 million in 1976 to 3.5 million in 1986. According to one estimate, within three years of the revolution, one in six Iranians above the age of fifteen belonged to one state and revolutionary body or another.” 

The point is not to lurch into the libertarian hallucination equating public employment with Full Communism. But one ought not, as do too many “third camp” leftists, dismiss such programs as just another confused and corrupt state-capitalism. The welter of state and para-state programs reflected, represented, and incorporated the social bases of the revolution. They also embraced the mélange of populism, gestures to Marxism, and mass mobilization which marked both the activities, rhetoric, and limits of that uprising. 

All of this occurred amidst what sociologist Kevan Harris calls the “postrevolutionary formation of a new and broader welfare system.” As Harris continues, that social compact passed through an array of phases, as leftist elements gradually dropped out of both rhetoric and policy, or as conservative elements progressively blocked them. At the same time, the Iran-Iraq War was raging with considerable U.S. support, as the U.S. encouraged Iraq in its attack on Iran and then fed weapons to both sides in order to bolster each countries’ capacity to damage the other. In its aftermath much of Iran was damaged and much of a generation lost. 

Despite this attempt to reverse the revolution, the state retained a central role in social reproduction. Even amidst the privatization program, which started in 2005 under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one saw the “legacy of a decaying, war-forged social compact that promised a wide array of welfare benefits to citizens in various social classes and status groups.” Because of those groups’ continued social weight, privatization during the Ahmadinejad government did not end this arrangement. 

Indeed, if privatization is understood in its day-to-day meaning of transferring ownership of the public commonwealth to private monopoly capital, there was barely any privatization at all. Only thirteen percent of the value of state companies was ultimately made available on the Tehran bourse. Instead, they were effectively placed into the hands of the citizenry through “justice shares,” or sold to parastatal institutions and foundations. 

The government has also continued to protect important social needs. As UNICEF notes in describing healthcare and nutrition programs, “the Islamic Republic of Iran has adopted a policy aimed at more strongly addressing the needs of its population, and substantial progress has been achieved both in the social and economic sectors.” A study made available by the World Bank agrees, noting that the “major achievement of public policy in Iran over the past 20 years has been the improvement of rural health and the near elimination of health disparities between higher-income urban populations and the rural poor,” with Iran making “good progress toward the Millennium Development Goals.”

It does not beggar belief that the United States would prefer that the Iranian government spend its money on Lockheed Martin weapons systems than rural health care for its citizens. This does not make Iran a Communist Utopia. It does paint a target on it, however.

Iranian policy towards regional armed movements has been equally upsetting to Washington. The Department of State notes that Iran had been “Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984 [and has] continued its terrorist-related activity in 2014, including support for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, Lebanese Hizballah, and various groups in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.”

The Iran deal does not mention these more fundamental areas of conflict, while mainstream and liberal chatter obscures them with ink-clouds of rhetoric about “dialogue” and “averting war.” Such analyses are misguided, for the question of Iranian weaponry has been raised precisely to provide a pretext for the targeting of Iran with economic weapons of mass destruction. As the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, made clear in 2012, “we don’t believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.” The Mossad agrees, noting in a leaked memo that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.” The truth is that Iran has shelved its nuclear weapons program since at least 2003. 

The flipside is that the United States has not thus far intended a military attack against Iran. The former CIA director under George W. Bush, Mike Hayden, said that “When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent—an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon.” Sanctions were not, then, an “alternative to war,” since military action was never a serious short-run strategy. They were, and are, war by other means. 

In this choreography, a good cop-bad cop routine prevailed. AIPAC and Netanyahu played the bad cop, convincing sober-minded liberal citizens of the United States that war was imminent, sanctions the only way to avoid it. The “good cop,” also known as the Democratic Party, secured support for sanctions. Meanwhile, blame-the-Lobby rhetoric, a standard analysis of NGOs and other liberals reluctant to criticize the Democratic Party, offloads responsibility for state policy to a convenient scapegoat.

But sanctions are imperfect weapons. One weakness is their vulnerability to countermeasures. The Cuban move towards partial self-subsistence in food through agro-ecology is a good example. Iranian asymmetric armed capacity is another. Sanctions are also potentially costly to the United States, and can indirectly reduce global support for U.S. policies. They are unpopular even among many of the Arab countries, despite the Saudi campaign of sectarian incitement, intended to sap Sunni support for Iran and Hezbollah.

Furthermore, as a Brookings Institution analysis notes, “Tehran’s countermeasures, or its capacity for mitigation, retaliation, and avoidance; and…the apparent resistance of Iranian security policy to economic pressures” blunted their impact. Indeed, “external pressure tends to encourage regime coalescence and even consolidation of its public support.”

It is a safe assumption that U.S. planners are not stupid. They are aware that sanctions do not generally work to overthrow governments. What they do, instead, is effectively erode local productive capacity. They can also reduce self-defense capacities, since such capabilities necessarily rely on the state’s fiscal health, which in turn relies on the size of the local productive base from which the state extracts resources. Iraq is the best example—a decade of sanctions disintegrated the country’s infrastructure and made it vulnerable to the 2003 invasion.

Due to Iranian resilience, the United States has opted for a different approach: containment coupled with preparation for an orchestrated war, alongside a parallel track consisting of the mode of imperialism called “economic reform.” Concerning the first track, senior retired military staff have called in an open letter for

intelligence cooperation for monitoring the fulfilment of the Agreement by Iran and an early detection of any breach; preparation for relevant action - political, economic, and military - to be taken in the event of a breach of the agreement by Iran; intelligence coordination in order to detect Iran's subversive actions in the region, and preparation for counter-actions to restrain and negate them; furnishing special military assistance to Israel in order to guarantee its qualitative advantage, without ignoring quantitative aspects of the conventional arms race that is expected following the Agreement.

In other words, they publicly recommend the U.S. government use inspections much as it used them against Iraq, while making clear that Iranian regional policy is intolerable. In the words of former inspector Scott Ritter, “in Iraq, the inspection process became a vehicle for creating confrontations that undermined international confidence in Baghdad’s willingness to abide by its disarmament obligation.” 

The generals then admit that war is a possibility: “If at some point it becomes necessary to consider military action against Iran, gathering sufficient international support for such an effort would only be possible if we have first given the diplomatic path a chance.” That the generals’ letter advocates further taxpayer gifts to the U.S. defense-industrial complex in the form of additional “aid” to Israel, most of which goes directly to the U.S. defense corporations, almost goes without saying. I note it only because this point is typically concealed by rhetoric about the United States bribing Israel—an odd bribe, if that’s the case, which actually takes the form of a gift to Boeing. 

Two questions remain. One concerns the necessity of continuing to consider military action or economic warfare against Iran. The answer to that question turns on a second question: namely, whether Iran will submit to broader U.S. pressures concerning its support for armed groups or the dismantling of its welfare state without war or economic coercion. The answer seems to be no. As Ayatollah Khamenei recently stated

America has certain polices and viewpoints in the region. One of them is that the resistance forces of the region should completely disappear and be destroyed. Another is that the U.S. government should have complete domination over Iraq, Syria and other such countries. These are the viewpoints that they have. The measures that they want to adopt will lead to such results. They expect our officials, our administration and our politicians to move in the direction of these policies, but such a thing will not happen…We have announced that we will not negotiate with the Americans on any issue other than the nuclear issue. We have said to both our officials of foreign affairs and other officials that we do not negotiate with them on any other issue. The reason is that their orientations are the exact opposite of ours.

Given this state of affairs, what can one expect from U.S. policy? It’s not clear. However, there is no reason to expect that U.S. hostility towards Iran will abate in the short-term. As the New York Times notes, “Obama has repeatedly promised he would not let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon and is prepared to use force if needed,” adding that “America has a responsibility to help ensure the security of Israel and the gulf allies.” Meanwhile, some analysts point out that a milder “economic war” against Iran continues. 

What’s the feasible strategy? One track relies on cultivating Iranian accomplices. As economic journalist Soheil Asafi warns, the Rouhani government and its upper-class backers may attempt to reform Iranian foreign and domestic policy: the former into accommodation with U.S. goals, the latter to neoliberalism. This may in fact be, from their perspective, the goal of the deal—to ease Iran into an accommodation with the U.S.-dominated global system.

If that is to happen, Iran must become a very different country than it is now—one that does not contest Israeli interests, one that does not use its oil riches for human-centered development, and finally one that does not represent the threat of a good example for the people of Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the broader region. 

One constituency that is hoping for such a counter-revolution lies within and even more so outside of Iran. It includes a certain swathe (although by no means all) of the Green Movement. In particular, that swathe includes those who reject an independent foreign policy, and who share the views of Ali Abdi—those whose politics have no place for the anti-imperialism of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez—or from a slightly different perspective, those who scream “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon.” 

Then there are those whom Asafi identifies as the consumers of “Rouhani's and Rafsanjani's gabble, and that of the horde of their like-minded supporters within both Iran and the diaspora, on the societal need for capitalists as emergency job creators,” reminding us that this “is a discourse of and for power.” And then, finally, there are also those whom Iranian dissident Nasser Zarafshan refers to as having a “naive opinion,” and,” and “are waiting for America to determine their destiny,” and who as a result “foolishly desire foreign interference,” an interference which is still going.

Such groups overlap in some ways but not in others, in terms of their social origins and their goals. Both those who still desire immediate intervention and those who see the possibility for a peaceful counter-revolution against the material gains of the Iranian Revolution open up possibilities for U.S. power, but in distinct ways. The former provide a cover, at all times, for forceful intervention. The latter have similar goals, but seek to engineer them through social and institutional restructuring. Yet the latter group can work alongside the former. For any progress in neo-liberalizing Iran can end up weakening it enough that war against Iran can succeed—the Iraqi and Libyan option. 

Indeed, as Obama has made clear, war is not off the table. The nuclear threat is only a pretext, and the economic attacks continue. Preventing U.S. economic or kinetic warfare is only possible by heading it off or contesting it at home. That requires, first, clarity concerning the enduring interests of the U.S. government. It also forces us to look more closely at those who are celebrating the Iran Deal in the United States, as well as how, exactly, they are celebrating it. For the removal of even part of the brutal sanctions is not a measure anyone should oppose. 

The celebrants include those who Asafi identifies as the “fortune-seekers” among the Iranian diaspora. More worryingly, it also includes those speaking for purportedly oppositional liberal NGOs who falsely claim that “peace and diplomacy won,” and still others who urge that “If the U.S. can have the courage and resolution to change course on Iran, it can do the same in support of Palestinian freedom.” 

Those making such claims, unintentionally or not, sow confusion about the nature of U.S. goals in the region. In that way, they demobilize and disorient the U.S. public by suggesting that U.S. policy has changed—when it has not, while the economic attack continues, and while other plans for subversion surely continue. 

As the United States projects power from North Africa to Southwest Asia, with drones, wars, and contras creating a shatter-zone ranging now from eastern Tunisia all the way to the mountains of Western Pakistan, any claim that the United States has changed course or is in retreat from its global ambitions must be rejected. 

NATO, US regional clients—including the Gulf States and Turkey—and a segment of the Iranian elite represent three pillars for the end of the Iranian experiment in independent nationalism, whether by neoliberalism or by war. Its end would also mean setbacks in all the struggles to which Iran is tied, most immediately the still-vibrant struggle of the Iranian people for a life of freedom and dignity, and, yes, more and more expansive democracy, one that, whatever imperfections exist in the Islamic Republic, would be dealt a blow beyond measure by the erasure of that Republic’s gifts to its people. Gifts which are in fact the victories of the partially successful revolt of the Iranian people themselves.

The U.S. peace movement must not allow ourselves to be the fourth pillar for such a mission.

Max Ajl is an editor at Jacobin and Jadaliyya and is on Twitter @maxajl.