Iran: Diplomatic Maneuvers, Danger of War, and the Interests of Empire

by Larry Everest

On July 19, William Burns, a top State Department official, attended a negotiating session between the European Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. This was the first time in some 30 years that a high U.S. official officially met with Iranian representatives. The same week there were also reports that the U.S. may open a consular office in Tehran.

Previously, the Bush administration refused to meet with Iran until it halted its uranium enrichment program (it hasn’t). The involvement of the U.S. in these negotiations fueled media speculation that the meeting reflected a more fundamental shift in Bush strategy toward Iran—away from “regime change” and possible war. Some concluded that more pragmatic “realists” in the Bush administration are increasingly taking charge from neocons like Vice President Dick Cheney who have reportedly been pressing for war. The implication was that war is less likely, perhaps totally “off the table,” and that the U.S. would now be pursuing a better, less imperialistic policy.

Not so fast.

This isn’t the framework for understanding the complex twists and turns now unfolding.

Negotiations, Bullying and War

There’s nothing good or positive about U.S. moves on the diplomatic front. They’re imperialist efforts to pressure Iran to cave into great power demands and to build support for further sanctions should Iran refuse.

They’re also hypocritical and completely in service of U.S. imperialist domination—not a nuclear free world. The U.S., Israel and other powers claim that Iran’s enrichment program is a cover for getting nuclear weapons, but they’ve produced no serious proof that this is so, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has consistently reported that it has found no conclusive evidence that Iran has had a nuclear weapons program or that it has diverted uranium to weapons production—even as it refuses to close the book on Iran’s nuclear program by demanding that Iran further explain various claims and purported “evidence” supplied by the U.S. and European imperialists, who overall set the IAEA agenda (Iran has the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and says its program is for power generation only).

The U.S. maintains by far the world’s largest and most advanced arsenal of nuclear death and destruction, and in the Middle East, only the U.S.’s key ally—Israel—has 150 or so nuclear weapons. The U.S. is seeking to maintain this U.S.-Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region and military freedom of action, and they fear that even the possibility Iran could develop nuclear weapons could undercut U.S. regional hegemony and provide openings for rivals.

Negotiations can also be critical in preparing for war by creating the illusion that the U.S. has “gone the last mile” for peace, while also attempting to impose U.S. terms on other powers. Barack Obama spelled this out during his trip last week to Israel. According to Haaretz (July 25), “Obama reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Olmert that he is interested in meeting the Iranians in order to issue clear ultimatums.” Obama is quoted as saying, “If after that, they still show no willingness to change their nuclear policy, then any action against them would be legitimate.” Obama’s words were barely different than those used by Bush’s Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice—showing that negotiations are one tool in a thoroughly reactionary arsenal and that they can go hand-in-hand with war. Speaking in Europe, Obama warned Iran to accept the U.S.-European offer, and not to “wait for the next president.”

What’s Just About Sanctions...and U.S. Economic Domination?

The U.S. is pushing for more sanctions on Iran, which reportedly include “targeting everything from gasoline imports to the insurance sector,” and “could include measures to impede Iran’s shipping operations in the Persian Gulf and its banking activities in Asia and the Middle East.” (Wall Street Journal, July 21)

Resolution 362, now before the U.S. House of Representatives, “demands” that the U.S. impose a halt on all Iranian imports of refined petroleum products and impose “stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.” This is a call for a naval blockade that would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Iran.

Rice spelled out the Bush regime’s logic in entering into negotiations, telling the Israeli press we’re “exposing Iran’s weak spots,” and “we are in the strongest possible position to demonstrate that if Iran doesn’t act, then it’s time to get back to that track [of more punitive sanctions].”

Iran is a Third World or oppressed country whose development has been skewed and twisted by imperialism. The U.S. economy is nearly 50 times larger than Iran’s, and it spends nearly 100 times more on its military every year than Iran does. Iran’s people earn, on average, one-fourth as much as people in the U.S. Iran is dependent on imports for many of its basic needs, including 40 percent of its gasoline because it doesn’t have the refining capacity that the imperialist countries do. Any blockade would have severe repercussions on the lives of the Iranian people.

So what’s good or just about the U.S. taking advantage of this legacy of imperialist dominance to once again impose its interests on Iran and the region? We’ve seen that movie for over 60 years, and it’s nothing but a horror show.

War Drums—Still Beating

And, the drums of war are still beating. Benny Morris’ blood-curdling oped (see box) was one indication of that. If Iran’s initial rejection of the U.S.-European demand that it halt its enrichment program holds, such calls could intensify. (The U.S. and its allies gave Iran a two-week deadline to respond.)

The Russian press reports that both the U.S. and Iran will be conducting large military exercises in the near future. On July 13, the Times of London reported that Bush had given the Israelis an “amber light” for an attack on Iran. One official explained, “Amber means get on with your preparations, stand by for immediate attack and tell us when you’re ready.”

As top Israeli officials were threatening war, both British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French Premier Nicholas Sarkozy traveled to Israel to declare their support for the Zionist state and to condemn Iran (even while calling for diplomacy). Brown’s was the first ever address by a British premier to the Israeli parliament.

Israel’s Institute of Strategic Studies concludes that official statements “indicate that a conviction is crystallizing in Israel that an attack on Iran is inevitable, the only dispute being about the timing—whether to wait until Iran crosses some red line, or to hurry and attack while President Bush is still in office.”

The Imperialist Interests and Necessities Driving U.S. Strategy

All these new developments have to be understood in light of the many complex developments unfolding today in the Middle East, the world, and the U.S. itself—including changes in the regional and global political and economic terrain. What is going on includes political, economic, and military maneuvering and signaling by the U.S. and Israel; by rival powers; and by Iran’s rulers pursuing their own reactionary interests. And current developments reflect debates within the U.S. ruling class itself. As the Wall Street Journal (July 21) put it, “The talks are part of a complex diplomatic game being played out in the region, the outcome of which is impossible to predict.”

Everything the U.S. rulers are doing are about preserving their control of the Middle East, which has been a pillar of their global superpower status for over six decades and is more pivotal today than ever, including in contending with rival powers who rely on Mideast oil. All the main “players” charged with running the empire—and both Presidential candidates—are coming from this perspective, whatever their particular tactical or even strategic differences. They all agree that Iran is biggest threat to U.S. unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East, and one of its biggest challenges globally.

Iran is seen as a threat, but not because it has nuclear weapons, is bent on Israel’s destruction, is directly attacking U.S. soldiers in Iraq, or is even unwilling to deal with the U.S. In 2003 it offered to come to terms with the U.S. on all these issues—an offer the U.S. refused to even discuss.

It’s seen as a threat because it’s a theocratic state which champions Islamic fundamentalism, and as such, plays a certain “wild card” role, and poses a challenge, to the U.S. agenda in the region of imposing regimes that are more directly controlled by the U.S. And this is happening in a world where the U.S. is increasingly contending with other powers—a situation that Iran’s rulers perceive as an opening to seek maneuvering room to advance their own interests. Iran sits on the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas and third largest oil reserves at a time of growing competition for energy resources. It’s located at the crossroads of two key energy routes—the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea—and two key regions—Central Asia and the Middle East. And in the aftermath of the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iran has been gaining strength—economically, politically across the region, including in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and by making connections with other powers globally.

So all this is a problem for the U.S. imperialists—not because they’re trying to liberate the Iranian people—but because they’re seeking to deepen their control by defeating Islamic fundamentalism, strengthening their control of this strategic region vis-à-vis rivals, and transforming the whole region politically, economically and militarily.

This is why the U.S. has been engaging in an intensifying, full-court press against Iran—on the diplomatic, economic, political and military fronts and why overall there’s been an escalating trajectory toward confrontation and possible war with Iran—including in the wake of the U.S.’s May 2006 agreement to negotiate with Iran if the Iranians suspended enrichment, a development that was also hailed as a step away from war at the time. Instead, since then, U.S. hostility toward and focus on Iran has increased—as has the danger of war.

So there is nothing just about any U.S. attempts to bully, weaken, or attack Iran. All are in service of maintaining imperialism’s ability to exploit and control this region of hundreds of millions of people. And Iran’s reactionary Islamic theocrats are no answer for the people either. A different—revolutionary, liberatory, communist—way is called for. We have an enormous responsibility to help bring that alternative forward while joining with many others to resist any and all U.S., European or Israeli aggression against Iran, whatever form it comes in.