Accusations and threats
A US attack on Iran is once again a real possibility, warns Yassamine Mather.
Defence accounts for by far the biggest expenditure in the budget of Saudi Arabia. In 2018 the country spent nearly $69 billion on armaments - or 8.7% of its GDP. The Royal Saudi Air Defence Forces boasts ownership of a huge range of the most up-to-date weaponry, including fighter jets and missile defence systems. Yet all that was to no avail when on September 15 the oilfields at Abqaiq and Khurais were targeted.
The drone and cruise-missile attacks have had the effect of cutting the country’s short-term oil exports by 50% and the price of Brent crude jumped by 10% to $71 a barrel. According to oil analysts at Bloomberg, this was the biggest single-day surge in oil prices since 1988, forcing the United States to release some of its oil reserves in an attempt to steady prices.
The Saudis claim that its air defences had been protecting other parts of the kingdom. However, it is likely that, for all the expensive hardware bought from the US, UK and other countries, Saudi expertise in the use of such equipment leaves a lot to be desired.
Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks immediately, by September 16 US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was blaming Iran. Tehran responded by accusing the United States of “deceit”. The same day Donald Trump tweeted that the US knew who the culprit was and was “locked and loaded”, ready to respond. However, he wanted to hear from the Saudis about how they wanted to proceed. Incredibly, the administration compared the attacks with 9/11. Even though, as far we know, there were no casualties.
Unnamed US military officials were giving more details as ‘proof’ that Iran was behind the attacks. According to one source, there were 19 different points of impact and the attacks had come from the west and north-west - in other words, not the Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, which lies to the south-west of the Saudi oil facilities, but launch sites in the northern Gulf, Iran or Iraq. A close-up image of damaged refinery tanks at the Abqaiq processing plant appeared to show impact points on the western side.
Responding to Trump’s threat of military action, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned they were ready to respond, saying its missiles could hit US bases and ships within 2,000 kilometres. Brigadier-general Amir Ali Hajizadeh said: “Neither us nor the Americans want a war”, adding: “When these contacts come too close, when forces come into contact with one another, it is possible a conflict happens because of a misunderstanding,” However, “We are ready for a counterattack” if the US responds militarily - he named the Al Udeid air base in Qatar and al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as immediate targets, as well as navy ships in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
Yet while the US press and media were forecasting imminent military attacks on Iran, the US administration were adopting a more cautious tone. Trump told reporters: “I’m not looking to get into new conflict, but sometimes you have to.” Asked whether Iran was behind the attack, Trump said: “It’s looking that way.” Yet only a few moments later, he rebuked a reporter who sought clarification, saying: “I didn’t say that.”
On the same afternoon the US president denied he had ever called for meetings with Iranian leaders. Given dozens of tweets to the contrary, Trump is either suffering from dementia or he believes the entire population of the world are suffering from amnesia.
In the United States itself, talk of imminent conflict with Iran has not gone down well. An unusually large number of those interviewed by the press and media - from an ex-CIA chief to Democratic congressmen and women - blamed Trump’s insistence on leaving the Iran nuclear deal for the escalation of conflict in the region.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, talking to CNN, summarised what others had said: “This administration reneged on the Iran nuclear deal, put in place crippling sanctions and is now openly threatening war. We must hold this president accountable to avoid another war.” And in fact former CIA chief John O Brennan tweeted a very similar message: “@realDonalTrump precipitated this crisis by reneging on nuclear deal and declaring economic war on Iran. We now face a major national and international challenge because of Trump’s reckless incompetence.”
All this less than a week after John Bolton’s unceremonious sacking by Trump, just when speculation was rife that Trump would meet with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, expected in New York on September 24 or 25 for the United Nations general assembly. No wonder conspiracy theorists are blaming Israel and hawks in the US administration for the attack on Saudi oilfields. Of course, one cannot rule out such possibilities, but it is more likely that it was either the Houthis (with Iran’s help) or the Islamic Republic itself who were responsible. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is currently arguing against any talks with Trump and it seems clear that neither Rouhani nor foreign minister Mohammad Zarif want to fall into the trap of a meaningless photo-opportunity with the US president à la Kim Jong-un. Such an event would have no political significance, but would cost them dearly as far as their future political ambitions are concerned in Iran.
So once again the chance of military conflict has increased. However, we should not think that this has destroyed French president Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to deliver $15 billion in sanctions relief to Iran - or indeed ended the long-term prospects of a deal in the last year of the current Trump administration: one he can hail as a major achievement.
The problem for the US administration is that, on the one hand, it has declared there will be no knee-jerk reaction to the bombing. But, on the other hand, the administration is under pressure from hawks, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who is calling for a military strike on Iran.
On September 17 he tweeted: “The measured response by president @dealDonaldTrump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.”
Meanwhile, Khamenei reiterated his opposition to any negotiations when the country is under “maximum pressure” (a reference to the severe sanctions), as this could only lead to major concessions and the acceptance of the political conditions set by the United States. In the meantime, according to Mirwan Bishara of Al Jazeera, Trump seems to be enjoying himself: Bishara wondered how far he would go in blackmailing Saudi Arabia’s inexperienced crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Very far, was the conclusion, both financially and politically.
By the beginning of this week everyone was assuming that the US would wait for next week’s UN meeting to rally international support for any military retaliation against Iran. However, on September 18 Trump announced new punitive sanctions against Iran via his Twitter account, stating that the penalties against Iran would “substantially increase”. It is now thought that the Iranian president’s trip to New York is in doubt, as the US has not yet issued visas for Rouhani and his entourage.
Given so much pressure from outside, one would have thought that the Islamic Republic would try and rally its own citizens by reducing its internal repression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Worker activists arrested because of their involvement in protests against the privatisation of the Haft Tapeh sugar plant were on trial last week and most of them were given long prison sentences, as well as medieval punishments in the form of flogging. Merely for participating in protests to save their jobs.
This week security forces attacked workers employed by Hepko, which produces industrial equipment. Not having received any wages for months, on September 15 they protested in the city of Arak. The regime’s response was predictable. Security forces were dispatched and they launched a brutal attack against the workers, injuring many and arresting many others.
And here lies one of the regime’s main weaknesses. On the one hand, it wants to portray itself as an opponent of “world oppression” (implying opposition to the United States), But, on the other hand, it follows the requirements of global capital in terms of privatisation, job insecurity, the institutional non-payment of wages … and when workers protest they face brutal repression.
Nowadays accusations of workers collaborating with US war policies is added to justify long sentences. Any intelligent person would ask, why would workers anywhere in the world, never mind Iran, support the global hegemon responsible for originating the privatisation drive? Such fabricated accusations are used to disguise the corrupt, capitalist nature of the regime.
But Khamenei will not rally support for his vision of an “independent Iran” and his “resistance economy” as long as he remains - whether he accepts it or not - a true ally of global capital in terms of his economic policies. The more his regime represses the working class, the more he becomes the kind of third-world dictator who in the long run is sure to lose power. Not just because of the foreign enemy, but because they cannot maintain the support of their own population.