Coming full circle
Under Donald Trump the Iranian people are facing intensified sanctions and a real threat of war, writes Yassamine Mather
Last week, while Trump’s executive order on visas and a travel ban from seven mainly Muslim countries, including Iran, was dominating the news, the leaders of the Islamic Republic - or at least some factions within the Shia clerical order - decided to launch a missile from Semnan, 140 miles south of Tehran. Neither the Iranian press nor various commentaries on the subject inside and outside the country explain what possessed the Revolutionary Guards and their masters to embark on this foolish exercise in such a dangerous period.
Clearly some of those involved hoped the ballistic missile test would not be noticed, given the focus on Trump’s ban on visas. In fact unusually for Iran, the missile test was not publicised. There was a news blackout on the subject and the first official admission that such a test had taken place came three days after sections of US media had covered the story, on February 1.
It could be that the Iranian leaders were under the false impression that Russia might influence Trump’s reaction to the event and that any penalties they would face would not be that serious. Another explanation is that they believed Trump’s anti-Saudi rhetoric during the presidential campaign. If there is one - and so far there is only one - divergence in Trump’s declared policies from what he said during the election campaign, it is the absence of any criticism of the Saudi kingdom. On the contrary, the president is surrounded by current and former lobbyists for the Saudis (Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton ...) in circumstances when many reports claim he has past and/or current financial ties with Saudi Arabia.1 So maybe the Shia clerical rulers in Iran were unaware of all that and miscalculated the possible reaction to the missile test.
Irrespective of their thinking, the consequences were both predictable and disastrous for the country. The US demanded a meeting of the United Nations security council and its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called for UN “action” in response to the “alarming” test. By February 1, US national security advisor Michael Flynn was claiming that the missile test was “in defiance” of UN security council resolution 2231: “We are officially putting Iran on notice,” he said.
Resolution 2231 - which endorses the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) - notes that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
We do not know if president Hassan Rouhani and his government had any prior knowledge of the test - he definitely plays second fiddle to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. However, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had no option but to defend the country’s military. But he warned of a possible US reaction: “The new administration in the United States, presently facing an unfortunate international situation following the imposition of the visa ban, may capitalise on the issue to provoke new tensions.” He added: “Iran will never use missiles produced in Iran to attack any other country” and repeated the usual claim that “No Iranian missiles have been produced to carry nuclear warheads.”
This was followed by renewed efforts on the part of the Israeli government to establish a new anti-Iran consensus. On the eve of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to London, the Times of Israel quoted Netanyahu as saying that the US, UK and Israel must form a united front to combat Iran’s “extraordinary aggression”. Iran is “trying to test the boundaries” of the new administrations in Washington and London, said Netanyahu.
According to Netanyahu, the Iran nuclear deal “threatens Europe; it threatens the west; it threatens the world”. Which is why “I welcome president Trump’s insistence on new sanctions against Iran. I think other nations should follow soon - certainly responsible nations.” And he hoped to find a new ally in Theresa May. However, a Downing Street spokesperson said that the prime minister had defended the nuclear agreement in her meeting with Netanyahu, arguing that it was stopping Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons.
But the US announced new sanctions against Iran - and, of course, Khamenei has often said that the imposition of any new sanctions would mean the end of the 2015 deal and so Iran would resume its nuclear programme. A position supported by conservative radicals, who have remained diehard opponents of the concessions made by Rouhani and Zarif during the nuclear negotiations.
According to the Persian radio station run by the German news agency, Deutsche Welle, US sources were said to have claimed that the new administration in Washington had formed an alliance with three unnamed countries in the Middle East to prepare for a possible attack on Iran.
On the travel ban itself, Iranian leaders have had a field day. First of all, leaving Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Arab Emirates (countries repeatedly accused by Trump during the election campaign of funding al Qa’eda, Islamic State and Al Nusra) off the list of alleged ‘sponsors’ of terrorism made a mockery of Trump’s accusations that Obama and Clinton had double standards when it came to fighting terrorism. Secondly, as for claims that Iran is sponsoring ‘terrorist activities’, Tehran has responded that, at least since 2004-05, it has been the target of Islamic terrorism and its forces have fought IS and Al Nusra.
The Iranian government is certainly terrorising its own population - that is why many Iranians leave the country if they can. However, its only ally labelled ‘terrorist’ by some in the United States - Hezbollah - has actually been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. Of course, Hezbollah and Iran have been fighting Sunni fundamentalist groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, but Trump had claimed that his main priority was defeating IS and Al Nusra. Clearly in this respect his policies have changed. As for the choice of countries covered by the travel ban, here we are seeing a return to the traditional policies of neo-conservative Republicans and the Bush era of the early 2000s.
Rouhani has condemned the ban as a measure directed against the Iranian people, as opposed to the government, and this, he says, has exposed claims by US officials that they felt no animosity towards the Iranian people themselves. However, while banning Americans from entering Iran would be a “symmetrical response”, it was “not a very attractive idea”. Although Iran’s reaction to the US ban would be “clear” and “decisive”, it would be “asymmetrical”.
Another response came from Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, who said that Trump’s three main qualities were “money worship”, “vulgarism” and “racism”. Larijani argued: “We should provide special funding for the scientific and research centres [in Iran] to accept and welcome the Iranian scientists who are working in the United States, but can’t go there any more due to the visa ban.” He added: “American scientists are vehemently opposed to Trump’s decision; they are very interested in coming to Iran and speaking with our scientists.” Larijani said Iran would also offer “special funding” to “the scientists and students of other Islamic countries” that Trump has targeted.
As for Khamenei himself, he did not hold back on the sarcasm:
We are thankful to this gentleman … he has shown the real face of America … What we have been saying for more than 30 years about the political, economic, moral and social corruption in the US ruling system - this person arose during the election campaign and ... has confirmed it.
Khamenei also referred to the young boy who had been held for several hours at a US airport last week, following the announcement of the ban: “By what he does - handcuffing a five-year-old child - he shows the true meaning of American human rights.”
So Iran’s leaders are in one sense pleased with Trump - his policy announcements and tweets make Iran’s leaders appear sane and moderate. However, no-one should be fooled: the rulers of Iran’s Islamic Republic remain authoritarian, misogynist dictators, who, 38 years after coming to power, preside over a corrupt, capitalist economy, more dependent on international capital than the day they came to power; a country where the gap between the rich and poor is far worse than under the shah; a country where corruption encompasses every aspect of political, economic and social life.
We seem to have come full circle, back to the pre-2015 Obama position on sanctions. And once more the Iranian people face the threat of foreign aggression, at a time when their own rulers have no intention of ending their repression and when the overwhelming majority of the country face even more serious economic hardship - they already have to put up with non-payment of wages and a constant drop in their standard of living, courtesy of the devaluation of the Iranian currency, combined with the effects of previous sanctions.
All this brings me to Hands Off the People of Iran, the campaigning anti-war organisation. Hopi was founded in 2007 and quickly established itself as a principled focus for activists in the movement who understood it was possible and necessary to oppose the threat of imperialist war against Iran without dressing up the country’s rulers as ‘anti-imperialist’ or maintaining a diplomatic silence on their repressive crimes against the working people of the country.
After the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal we assumed there was no longer an immediate threat of war. However, the situation following the election of Donald Trump, and the continued obsession of Israel and Saudi Arabia with Iran’s perceived domination in the region, have convinced us there is a need to step up our efforts. In the next few weeks Hopi will be contacting trade unionists, political organisations and activists of the left to join our campaign against the threat of war and sanctions and in support of the struggles of the Iranian people
1. See, for instance, http://fortune.com/2017/01/27/donald-trump-muslim-immigration-ban-conflict.
In the final article in this series I will discuss the remaining three problems that I believe we need to address in relation to Marx’s essentialism and his concept of the human.1