The apparent last minute cancellation by Donald Trump of US military retaliation – after Iran shot down an unmanned surveillance drone – has not significantly lessened the chances of new military clashes given the continuing tensions in that region. This is particular true as the drone incident followed explosions on four oil tankers in the Gulf region, earlier in June.
Given that the Middle East remains a cockpit of competing world and regional powers each with their own agendas, new clashes – possibility turning into a wider conflict – cannot be ruled out. The claims that instead of missile strikes etc. the US carried out a cyber-attack on Iran illustrate the tensions that still remain.
At the same time, Trump’s claimed personal U-turn of calling off direct military action actually graphically illustrated the conflicts both within and between the US state machine and the cabal around Trump.
Trump’s decision, last year, to break with the other main imperialist powers and withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal opened a new stage. However, while opposed by sections of the US ruling class, this move was not simply Trump’s personal decision.
For a wing of the US ruling class, it was both aimed at rebuilding US imperialism’s position in the region, especially after its failure at regime in Syria. And, linked to that, an attempt to work with the US’s closest allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel – to reverse the increase in regional power and influence the Iranian regime has recently enjoyed.
Following the 1979 overthrow of the regime of their ally, the Shah, Iran’s then autocratic ruler, the western powers have worked to limit Iranian influence. This was because the new Iranian regime was seen as a threat to their remaining Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Thus Saddam Hussein had the support of most western powers in the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
But then the western powers fell-out with Saddam after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. When this was followed by the second Gulf war – in which, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam, causing the disintegration of the old Iraqi state – the Iranian regime was able to significantly expand its regional reach.
Alongside this development there are divisions and rivalries amongst the imperialist powers. Some like China and Russia clearly leaned towards supporting Iran, as part of their strategic competition with the western imperialists.
The complexities of the situation helped produce divisions within the US ruling class with some, especially former president, Obama, sharing a similar position to that of most European ruling classes of trying to “engage” with and try to work with the Iranian regime. Others in the US, particularly Republicans like John Bolton, currently Trump’s National Security Advisor, rejected this, calling for the military overthrow of the Tehran regime. However large sections of the US military leadership are currently reluctant to undertake a new military adventure which, in their minds, would not lead to a quick, if any, military victory.
While Trump’s repeated emphasis that Iran “can’t have a nuclear weapon” will have support within the US and some neighbouring countries, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, it is not clear whether that would at this time outweigh opposition to military strikes, let alone a new war.
But such military action would not simply have huge implications in the region; it would also have worldwide economic repercussions as the oil price would probably, at least for a time, sharply rise.
Trump’s contradictory statements in recent days reflect these divisions in civilian and military US ruling circles. On the one hand, Trump has warned Iran, a country of nearly 83 million, of “obliteration like you’ve never seen before” while also talking of wanting to help to “make Iran great again”. Partly this is Trump’s negotiating strategy, including a clumsy attempt to take advantage of divisions within the Iranian regime.
Within Iran, the failure of the 2015 deal to open the door to sustained economic development has weakened Iranian president, Rouhani. The US-imposed brutal sanctions have deepened the economic crisis.
In the year to March 2019, Iran’s GDP fell by 4.9%. Inflation is currently officially running at just over 50%, a year, at a time when wages are often not being paid on time.
Significantly this is taking placed against background of an important revival of workers’ struggles and oppositional activities since the end of 2017. Workers in both the private and public sectors have taken to the streets in their thousands and gone on strike on different issues, including regular payment of wages, skyrocketing living costs and poor working conditions.
But these movements have not simply on immediate economic issues. The Haft-Tapeh sugar cane agro-industry workers have become known for having formed an independent workers’ council. They call for workers’ control of their privatised workplace, all of which have been met with arrests and repression.
It is not just the Haft-Tapeh workers who have suffered these measures. The regime has regularly responded to protests with repression and arrests, not just of workers but also last year of left wing students. Since May Day 2018, Amnesty International recorded the arrests of hundreds of workers and other activists. Courts have handed down prison sentences to dozens of workers, in at least 38 cases those convicted have sentenced to flogging, as well. Around 45 workers have been imprisoned since May Day 2019.
These are very significant developments, as they pose the possibility that the coming period, despite the regime’s repression, could see important progress being made in the building of an independent workers’ movement. Such a development would strike fear not just in the Iranian regime but also in neighbouring countries.
Currently the Iranian working class is, probably alongside its Turkish brothers and sisters, potentially one of the strongest in the region. If it became a politically independent factor it could begin to inspire challenges not just to the various dictatorial regimes but also to capitalism.
Clearly this is one factor in Trump’s ‘offer’ to “make Iran great again”. This is an attempt to try to exploit opposition against the regime and also to try to head it in a pro-capitalist direction. However, Trump’s appeal will probably have limited appeal.
While there may be some illusions in the US showing there is a possible ‘better life’, there is also the historical legacy of the nationalist anger in Iran at its history of imperialist domination. The US and Britain opened the way to the Shah’s dictatorship by their 1953 overthrow of the liberal, nationalist Mossadeq-led government.
After the bitter experience of the 2003 Gulf War, opposition to any new imperialist attacks on Iran will be widespread. But it will need to be linked to solidarity and support to those working to build the workers’ movements in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.
Only through the creation of independent workers’ organisations, armed with socialist policies, can the working class and the poor organise themselves to put to an end the rule of the feudal oligarchs and capitalists. Without this, the region will be faced with the continuation of the wars and oppression that torment working class people and the poor.