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Is the Bush administration about to commit the fatal imperial error in Iran?
Saber-rattling Neocons are frightening the rest of the US elite.
[Just when the Bush administration seemed to have figured out that invading Iraq was a mistake, they tell us to expect the next act in their Axis of Evil Traveling Roadshow. Iran is the subject of the latest non-diplomatic broadsides, and the media are already buying ringside seats. So what is this thing called "Iran"? Which corporation manufactured it? Or is it one of those pre-American places where people wear funny costumes? These and other questions may or may not be explored in the briefing rooms of the Exceedingly White House. For the rest of us, a closer examination of the history of this ancient and culturally unique regional power may help explain the coming wave of imperial belligerence. FTW's military editor Stan Goff presents a highly useful narrative of Iran's place in modern geopolitics and asks, Is the Bush administration about to commit the fatal imperial error in Iran? -JAH]
The United States on Monday confirmed it had granted protected status to nearly 4,000 members of the People's Mujahadeen, Iran's main armed opposition group, now confined to a military-run camp in Iraq.
However, the State Department stressed that the move, which has drawn a warning from Tehran, had no effect on the US designation of the group -- also known as the Mujahadeen e Khalq (MEK) or National Council of Resistance of Iran -- as a "foreign terrorist organization."
-Agence France Presse, July 26, 2004
Contrary to an increasingly popular belief, imperialism is not new, and it is not being produced by the right-wing clique that runs the present administration. This is easy to believe because of the slightly crazed character of the neocons, but it is deceptive precisely because it is such an easy conclusion to reach.
In the past three weeks, Jimmy Carter's former national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has been making the interview circuit to inaugurate a high level resistance to the apparent intent of the Bush administration to escalate - perhaps even to the point of armed aggression - its demonstrated hostility toward Iran.
The emerging fight between the "realists" and the neocons will only serve to further muddy the waters on the question of what the neocons are up to… and what the realists are up to as well.
The so-called 9/11 Commission report, that has shamelessly identified the wrong scoundrels (the intelligence agencies) for the September 11 attacks (since they are already the goats for Iraq intelligence "failures"), is a mirror image of the obfuscation now being generated by the realist-neocon debate. In every case, these public exchanges are designed to camouflage the real forces behind US policies.
The US already has a track record for regime change in Iran, when the CIA orchestrated a coup d'etat against Mohammed Mossdegh. Most political history buffs know this story, and the American Left is quick to cite it as a kind of passion play to demonstrate official hypocrisy on the question of democracy. But like many anecdotal accounts of history, this ignores a larger process and it obscures the relation of class forces that were the primary actors in many of these dramas.
This essay will try to trace not only the development of a uniquely US imperialism and the danger that system faces in the present conjuncture, amplified and accelerated by its engagement in Southwest Asia, but the interplay of Anglo-American relations throughout the 20th Century that accounts for the Bush-Blair relation we see today.
Iran is former Persia, and it is inhabited primarily by people who consider themselves Persians. This ethno-cultural group is to be specifically contrasted with Arabs, as I will explain. Persian civilization, like all "Old World" societies, underwent a series of often violent transformations that eventually led to a somewhat stable community that shared a language and a culture. Persians had their own religion, Zoroastrianism, which endured as the state religion until the mid 7th Century, when Arab armies swept over Persia and forced the conversion to Islam. Nevertheless, the Persians amalgamated their own distinct beliefs into Islam, creating a heterodox form of the religion as a cultural weapon against the oppressive Arab rulers. That form became Shia. And while the Persians adopted the Arabic script, they reclaimed their own language, an Indo-European tongue (related to a wide range of languages from India to Ireland - including English) which we now call Farsi.
In the 19th Century Great Britain established itself in Iran, when the venal Qajar monarchy parceled Iran out to foreign concessionaires at fire sale prices. The first British interest to gain a foothold there was the British Tobacco Company. The other great nation that coveted Iran was Russia, and it invaded Iran in 1826 seeking a warm water port to its south. In 1856, Great Britain attacked Iran and forced her to surrender what is now Afghanistan. Throughout the second half of the 19th Century, Great Britain and Russia would share Iran.
It was at the turn of the century, in 1900, that a British company would stake its claim on a comparatively minor commodity, the petroleum of Southwest Iran, which would in short order become the most important commodity in the world. That company was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The Russians had begun taking oil from the north, around Baku.
With the introduction of the automobile, the airplane, and mechanized warfare, by the time World War I broke out, Iran had captured the interest of the all the Great Gamesmen. Russian and British interests converged in a combined struggle against the Ottoman Turks, who also shared a border with Iran and were equally covetous of Iranian oil.
In 1920, an Iranian cavalry officer, Reza Shah, led a rebellion against the Qajar dynasty, and five years later Reza crowned himself. This was troublesome but not critical to the British and the Russians… yet.
Between the two world wars, however, Reza opened up several new trade partnerships. One was with Germany. By the time World War II broke out, over half of Iran's trade was with Germany, now controlled by Hitler's Nazi Party. Reza had embarked on an industrialization program to more effectively exploit Iran's oil, and most of its new machinery was German.
Iran declared itself neutral in WWII, but the reality was that the British needed the oil, and the now-Soviet Union needed the warm water port and a rail line to receive supplies from the Americans and English, and both Stalin and Churchill had strong reasons to doubt the neutrality of Reza, so the British and the Soviets conducted a concurrent military occupation of Iran in 1941, that lasted through all of WWII.
This led to deep consternation in the United States, which, while allied with the Soviets and the British, had designs of its own - not the least of which was the British Empire itself. The US, as the dominant financial partner in the Allied enterprise, prevailed on Britain and the USSR to accept Reza's son (whom the British and Soviets had themselves appointed as a figurehead) as the legitimate post-war ruler of Iran, and secured the promise of both occupiers that they would dismantle their military presence there upon cessation of hostilities.
The British left immediately after the war, and the suspicious Russians (for good reason, as it turned out) hung on until 1946, when they too departed.
The Roosevelt administration that oversaw the entry into World War II was a new government imbued with a new philosophy of capitalist imperial governance. It's important to digress for a moment to describe that philosophy, because it goes to the heart of the tension between the neocons and the realists today.
From 1860 until 1933, the Republican Party dominated American politics. This was a period of the rapid expansion of national capitalism. The Civil War not only broke the political power of the formerly predominant slave-holding South, it engendered a period of rapid technological innovation alongside the concentration of capital into the first big US corporations. Its ideology was laissez faire, and its practice was expansion, economic and territorial.
This resulted in rapid industrialization, which led to inevitable conflicts between capitalists and labor. It was no accident, for example, that the military occupation of the South that was Reconstruction was officially ended in the same year, 1877, that the US saw its first wave of nationwide strikes. This open class antagonism lasted all the way into the first year of the FDR administration.
The Republican Party was the party of labor suppression, but also the party identified with manumission and Reconstruction; they were centralizers, identifying themselves with Hamiltonian federalism; and they tended to support a strong and activist central government. The Democratic Party was avowedly white supremacist, and identified with the more decentralist South, which had associated the struggle to preserve Slavery with "states rights," the more Jeffersonian political tradition.
A challenge to both parties erupted in the 1890s with the Populist movement, which in the South even forged political alliances between Black Republicans and white Populists, the Fusionists. This movement was violently suppressed in the South by the Democrats, including a virtual coup d'etat against a Fusion government in North Carolina in 1898.
This led to the development of an elite political movement of "progressive" federalists who sought to contain the turbulence of grassroots politics, and to co-opt social movements. These "reformers" included Franklin Roosevelt. Their philosophy was, in the words of Loren Goldner, "to transform politics into management by experts." They set about exposing a host of social ills that afflicted the various sectors of their emerging base - poor southern whites, western farmers, and northern industrial workers - and offered federal solutions. This was the policy essence of the New Deal. Its political essence was the control-driven bureaucratization of the Democratic Party in order to protect it from undue grassroots pressure.
In foreign policy, these technocrats preferred this jujitsu to the karate of the gunboat, too. That didn't mean they were averse to military power projection, but they were sensitive to the ebb and flow of international power politics and they understood that sometimes you bend so you don't break.
In today's inescapably international, interdependent world, isolationism is no longer an option. But the predisposition of the federalist technocrats - like Brzezinski - is to move through the room without breaking the China (no pun intended). There is still a strong appreciation of the danger lurking in the grassroots. This is the danger that they believe the neocons - who have adopted Jeffersonian decentralism for their racist domestic agendas - are ignoring. On that account, they may be right.
At any rate, the technocratic tradition was inherited by Harry Truman after the war, where it was combined with the emerging Cold War in Iran.
Shah Pahlavi became the unquestioned autocrat of Iran after the Soviet withdrawal in 1946. He presided over two nations. One was the semi-feudal countryside, where the Majlis - the big landowners - subjected millions of peasants. The other was a growing urban Iran, where the oil business was articulating its own industrial proletariat.
In 1949, Mao Zedong stunned the world when his People's War succeeded in seizing state power over the most populous nation in the world, even in the face of massive US assistance to Mao's nemesis, Chiang Kai-shek. Truman's advisors noted that the system and conditions that engendered the Chinese Revolution were similar in many respects to the situation in Iran, and that Iranian industrial workers were filling the ranks of the Tudeh, the new Iranian communist party. They advised - being veteran technocrat federalists - assistance for modernization and land reform. But Truman was so spellbound by the phenomenon in China that he staggered into a proxy war with the Chinese on the Korean peninsula only a year later.
The Iranians were in fact watching China, and the resistance to the Shah accelerated. There were two powerful sectors who opposed him: the Majdi, who controlled the parliament, and who weren't keen on the land reform program being suggested by the United States, and the industrial workers, who also saw Pahlavi as an Anglo-American puppet. It was this theme, that Pahlavi was a puppet of the US, which resonated with both sectors, and so the resistance developed - as had the Chinese Revolution - as a struggle for national independence.
The National Front that developed was led by the Majdi, Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1951, under great grassroots pressure, the Shah appointed Mossadegh prime minister. Mossadegh was a good choice from the perspective of the peasants as well, because like the rest of the xenophobic Majdi he opposed US influence. And he supported land reform, which he said could be financed with oil revenues, much of which would go to paying off the Majdi for the land they would cede.
For the Americans and for the British, this raised the specter of nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They were right. Mossadegh signed the expropriation order in March, 1951. This action - wildly popular in Iran - ignited a prairie fire of grassroots activity that threatened to become revolutionary.
When the next US president, Dwight Eisenhower, managed to cut free the Korean anchor around the US neck, it was 1953, and his CIA Director, the infamous Allen Dulles, told him, "If Iran succumbs to the Communists, there is little doubt that in short order the other areas of the Middle East, with some 60% of the world's oil reserves, will fall under Communist control."
This fear was "confirmed" in its own self-fulfilling way, when the US engineered a trade embargo against Iran, forcing Mossadegh to sign a trade agreement that same year with the only nation that had the inclination or ability to violate the embargo - the Soviet Union.
A month later, the Shah abdicated.
By August, with substantial aid and direction from the CIA, monarchists in the Iranian army staged a coup, and the Shah was restored.
Dulles - himself a crafty technocrat - was running policy in Iran by then, and he badgered Eisenhower to push Pahlavi into social reforms as soon as possible to preclude another build-up of grassroots resistance. But Eisenhower dithered with studies and policy pronouncements, kept the money flowing to Pahlavi, and then turned the whole mess over to John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy was aggressive to the point of pissing off Pahlavi, but by 1963 he prevailed on Pahlavi to begin a process of modernization and reform. This was a top-down program of reform called the White (as opposed to Red) Revolution. Land reform was implemented, and there was massive improvement in health and (secular, male/female) universal education. This led to ten years of relative stability, that blunted the nationalist charges of "US puppet" that continued to come from the Tudeh on the left, and from the anti-modernization clerics on the right, one of whom was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Richard Nixon took office in 1968, inheriting the hair-raising collapse of the US Treasury Department's gold reserves and the unwinnable war in Vietnam that had caused it.
In 1969, the Nixon administration started hinting to key allies that US oil production was about to peak and then go into irreversible decline. This and the destruction of the gold pool had everyone's thinking caps on, and the one weapon that the US had in its economic arsenal was the-dollar-as-international-currency.
There is strong circumstantial evidence that suggests the Nixon administration then colluded with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the so-called Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.
The Nixon administration had completed is abandonment of gold and fixed exchange rates, allowing a 20% devaluation of the dollar that hammered European and Japanese creditors. They were also facing the growing threat of autarkic national liberation movements in Latin America (Chile was overthrown that same year by the Nixon administration.) and Africa. Since oil payments were denominated in dollars, the jump in the price of oil from the embargo was a destabilizing jump in the price for Europe, Japan, Africa, and Latin America. The US, on the other hand, owned the printing press for dollars. By recycling the oil crisis, via petrodollars, through these regions, the US effectively killed several birds with one stone.
By all accounts, Nixon's relationship with Pahlavi was very warm. They had been personal friends since Nixon was Eisenhower's vice president. William Safire, Nixon's former speech-writer, once stated that Pahlavi was Nixon's favorite head of state. Nixon offered to sell Pahlavi's regime any weapon they needed, short of nuclear. That offer was not rescinded during the ostensibly hostile oil embargo in 1973-4, and Iran continued to make outlandish weapons procurements from the US.
Those procurements coincided with the jump in oil prices, and the combination completely destabilized Pahlavi's Iran. Lightning inflation ensued, and with it mass migration into the cities, followed by housing shortages (compounded by inadequate urban infrastructure) and a re-expanding chasm between the richest and the poorest. Grassroots agitation, from almost every sector now, resumed.
Then in 1978, in neighboring Afghanistan, the Washington-approved strong man Mohammed Daoud Khan began arresting the leaders of the influential People's Democratic Party, a pro-Soviet political formation that had substantial support within the Afghan army. As it turns out, this was an action that Washington was fomenting in order to provoke a Soviet response - hoping to trap the Russians in a guerrilla struggle in Afghanistan. The author of this plot was none other than arch-realist/technocrat Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor. It worked.
The leftist officers organized a coup against Daoud and shot him, establishing a secular socialist government. The CIA began funneling support to right-wing clerical opponents of the regime inside and outside Afghanistan, and the Soviets were eventually drawn into a protracted and destructive military occupation of Afghanistan.
As part of this fight against the left, the Shah in neighboring Iran increased his repression of left secular forces inside Iran, driving them back into a tactical alliance with Iran's own clerical right-wing, and this alliance poured into the streets in 1978. That security crisis exacerbated the existing economic and political crisis that broke Pahlavi's power. Carter's Ambassador in Tehran, William Sullivan, tried to warn the administration of the impending revolution. A contingency plan was even organized for a US military takeover of Iran that was later rejected as unlikely to succeed.
In 1979 the Shah was overthrown; the clerical forces had suppressed the secular left; and fifty-two Americans were taken hostage inside the US Embassy in Tehran. For the US, this was an utter debacle, and it led to Jimmy Carter's defeat in the 1980 election.
When Reagan's people took power, they turned to the one leader in the region who might be able to confront Persian-clerical Iran: Iraq's Arab secular nationalist, Saddam Hussein, even as the administration was colluding behind the scenes with Iran to finance its illegal war in Nicaragua.
Massively supported by the US, Saddam's Iraq inaugurated a grueling eight-year, high-attrition border war with Iran that chewed up around a million human beings. On the other side of Iran, in Afghanistan, the US was providing massive materiel and training support to the Sunni jihadists who would eventually constitute the Taliban government of Afghanistan and the network associated with Osama bin Laden. This element operated out of Pakistan for more than a decade, and came to exert a tremendous social and political influence on large sectors of Pakistan, including its intelligence service and military.
This foreign policy kept at least one partner stable within the region, tacking back and forth between the tides and currents. It developed a partnership with Zionist Israel as a surrogate US military in the region, and the result has been a relatively stable American hegemony over the area for the last sixty years. But such a policy causes pressurized violence in the imperial periphery, the kind that eventually burst into the imperial center on September 11th, 2001. It came not from Iran, and not from Iraq, but from Saudi Arabia and tangentially from Pakistan in response to the basing of military troops in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam.
The general outcry in reaction to 9/11 was for retaliation, with very little understanding of the provocations and machinations that led to the attacks, and less notice still that the US actually withdrew its troops from Saudi Arabia shortly after 9/11, clearly recognizing that the Wahabbist grievance, as stated, was the provocation, and not some generalized "hatred of freedom and democracy."
It was this recognition - that there was a real threat growing in the streets of places like Riyadh, as political Islam had come to give voice to mass grievances in the place of the very nationalism that Islamism had been deployed to crush - that gave the sense of urgency to the entire US ruling class to re-establish control over this key strategic region. The only argument was over the method, which does not speak to the issue of whether it was or is possible to contain the social crisis in Southwest Asia.
The Bush doctrine in the region is certainly powered by immense hubris and the apparent belief that the US can simply impose its will directly, and thereby restructure the global economy by dint of arms.
This is, in the eyes of the realist-technocrats, a grave miscalculation. Whether the technocrats have an alternative solution to the underlying crisis that is driving the neocons' assault on Southwest Asia is an open question. But their fears may be very well founded.
Under the largest trade deficit in world history, the dollar is propped up by dollar-denominated Saudi oil sales on one side and by American bullets on the other. That system of monetary-military imperialism is tottering with contradictions, and the only question is where and when the catalyst will come that tips it over. If the military failure in Iraq caused consternation, talk of attacking Iran is setting off alarm bells… for some.
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