No war, no sanctions
Hands Off the People of Iran held a successful online meeting on May 31. There is a growing danger of a new round of conflict in the Middle East driven by US imperialism, Zionist expansionism and the general turn to rightwing nationalism. There were three opening speakers
Crisis and need
What we are seeing today is a situation where the United States is lashing out towards Iran and in the Middle East more generally, as well as China and Russia.
Alongside this there is the continual growth and ascendancy of rival nationalisms. As far as I can see, the turn in this direction - towards rival nationalisms and away from neoliberalism proper - is something that has taken place in different countries at different times. The election of Vladimir Putin in Russia in 1999 symbolised this shift. In Poland the Law and Justice Party moved sharply to the right - again away from neoliberalism and towards nationalism - when it was in opposition after 2007. Viktor Orbán in Hungary had been a straight neoliberal, but in the early 2000s became a nationalist. Narendra Modi took office in India in 2014, while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president of Turkey in 2014. Erdoğan, starting as a ‘liberal Islamist’, had adopted a more nationalistic version of Islamism in 2012-13. And so on.
More recently we have had victory for the Brexiteers in the UK referendum on the European Union, followed by the fight in the Tory Party over the terms on which Brexit should happen; the victory of the Trump administration in the United States over the neoliberal, centre-right Democrats; and, of course, in Italy the victory of the Lega and the far right - now the polls are showing that the Lega is a long way ahead. In France Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche, is breaking up (no surprise - it was never more than a structure to support his Bonapartism), making it a real possibility that the next French president could be Marine Le Pen, with the left way down in terms of support.
Where does this general tendency towards rightwing nationalism come from? The short answer is that it comes from the untruths in the claims of neoliberalism, as well as of marginalist economics. There was no ‘great moderation’. The recyclical return of financial crises is endogenous to the regime and in fact the beginning of this shift towards rightwing nationalism was not the crash of 2008: it was the ‘Long-Term Capital Management’ hedge fund collapse, together with the Russian debt crisis of 1998 and the east Asian crisis of the same year, and then the ‘dot.com’ crash of 2001. Among other things, that wiped out the Hungarian economy, which had become desperately enmeshed in borrowing (which had been encouraged by the neoliberals in the 1980s) - acute damage was caused when the 2001 crisis took place.
Orbán was a neoliberal in the 1990s, but became a nationalist-populist. Similarly Law and Justice in Poland emerged from a neoliberal Christian Democratic commitment to the same kind of nationalist-populist politics. So this dynamic predates the immediate past. It is a product of the false perspective offered by neoliberalism and free-market economics from the 1990s and the fact that that perspective was proved to be false through the economic turmoil beginning in 1998.
The first response to the ‘Long-Term Capital Management’/Russian/east Asian crisis of 1998 was to the left, in the shape of anti-globalisation and social forum movements, etc, round about the turn of the century. But they demonstrated no ability to escape from the framework of neoliberalism, or from that of bureaucratic management. That is visible in what happened to the Brazilian Workers Party, to Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and to the general loss of direction and sense of any serious alternative project. It took some time for the consequences of the 2008 crash to feed through, but, although there were street demonstrations (‘Occupy!’), there was nothing even with the minimal organisational strength of the previous anti-globalisation and social forum movements: merely a flash in the pan.
So the dominant response to the failure of neoliberalism could be seen first with the election of Putin in 1999: ie, the shift to the nationalist right. Why should this be the case? I think we are going to see more of this - indeed, probably a sharp escalation of it - in response to the coronavirus crisis, so we need to consider the reasons. In essence what governments have done in response to this crisis is to crash the economy. What they have not done is what is necessary in order to escape from such a crash: ie, to make lenders bear the cost of losses, so that they fall on landlords and creditor interests in general.
The consequence of this - which is most acute in the case of Covid-19, but was already clear with the 2008 crash - is that unavoidably the state plays a bigger role in managing the economy. That results in it building up nationalism around itself. The idea of solidarity is transposed into a state-led chorus of ‘We’re all in it together’: in other words, ‘We Brits are all in it together’ (or perhaps, north of the border, it is ‘We Scots’).
And the consequence of ‘We’re all in it together’ is geopolitical conflict. We can see this very clearly in the European Union. It is quite likely that the EU - or at least the euro zone - will break up in the next year (the British government is, of course, encouraging that idea). It is reasonably clear that, as soon as there is a crash of this sort, the choice has to be made between radical redistribution enacted against creditors and landlords, and radical redistribution in favour of them.
If debts and liabilities are not cancelled, many small businesses and some large ones will collapse, and people who are cash-rich or have connections with the government will be able to pick up assets on the cheap, while the middle class and the upper part of the working class are impoverished.
The paradox of this is that it is not true that economic crises are driven in the first place by austerity regimes and underconsumption. Mass underconsumption is common to all class societies and has existed for at least three millennia. Economic crises as a recurrent phenomenon started in the later 18th century, after the 1763 Peace of Paris signalled the decisive victory of capitalism.
On the other hand, it is true that if, once you are in crisis, you try and get out of it by dumping the losses on the relatively poor, and in particular on the working class, while the rate of exploitation is increased, the fact that there is a large debt overhang and a contracting market means that firms are forced to ‘cash’ this increased rate of exploitation by lowering their prices to maintain market share, resulting in a cycle of deflation. Objectively, the only way out of this is through events that will cause a crash of capital asset values. That can happen either by states in general knifing companies that are also the major contributors to political parties, and imposing default on lenders (a ‘haircut’, as it is sometimes called) - that happened in 1720, when the legislation was passed preventing the recovery of any more than two-thirds of any debt contracted in the bubble period. Alternatively, it has to lead to war, and subsequent state defaults.
It was not Keynesian measures that got the world out of the great depression. It was a combination of war and in particular the fact that something between half and two thirds of all public debt was defaulted in the aftermath. The sheer scale of that default in 1946-48 - plus the fact that the UK had to hand over a lot of assets to the United States - cleared away the inflated creditor claims.
In 1914 politicians across Europe were all thinking that it would be a good idea to have a short (victorious) war, to help free themselves of their internal problems, including the threat of an insurgent working class - war is the way out. But that is not what is happening now. Trump is hardly likely to fall at the hands of a powerful workers’ movement.
There is, however, an objective need within the economy for large-scale defaults, which can only be achieved through war. And, as we have already seen, crises and crashes delegitimise the free market. There is an objective need for non-market collective actions. In the absence of a strong workers’ movement and a left which poses a strategic alternative, the collectivism that is needed necessarily takes the form of rightwing statism and nationalism. As a result of that, there is a drive towards war.
There are some in the US who have been advocating a US war on Iran - as revenge for 1979-81 and also because it looks like a soft target - but largely it will not be a war of pure voluntary choice. The underlying drive towards it is one which is created by the dynamics of the capitalist economy itself. If it does not occur in the Middle East, then it will be somewhere else.
Another glorious chapter
On May 17, following the third general election - all instigated as part of his attempt to keep out of jail for bribery and corruption - Binyamin Netanyahu said in the Israeli parliament that on July 1 Israel would annex a fairly large part of the West Bank, consisting of Israeli settlements and a big area along the Jordan Valley. According to Netanyahu, this is going to be “another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism”.
Leaving aside “glorious”, the claim is accurate - it is another “chapter in the history of Zionism”. The Zionist project is about the colonisation of Palestine and this is just the next stage in the process. However, whether he is actually going to enact annexation in the full sense of the word is a moot point. Some people say that this will just be a kind of ‘enabling act’ - ratifying the so-called ‘deal of the century’ proclaimed by Donald Trump.
In this sense, what I am saying now is a continuation of what I previously said shortly after the publication of Trump’s proposal, which was characterised by an Israeli establishment figure as an expression of “contempt and scorn for the Palestinian people, oozing colonialist supremacy” - 180 pages of it.
How far Netanyahu is going to go right now depends on many factors, but mainly the short-term requirements of Trump, who is facing his own election this year, of course - not to mention Netanyahu’s own continuing battle to keep out of jail. On May 24, whe presented himself before the Jerusalem district court, when finally his trial on several charges of corruption, bribery and so on began. The picture below shows him, accompanied by Likud members of the cabinet, before the first hearing of the court. Standing in the lobby of the Jerusalem district court, he made a speech condemning those in charge of the legal process as being politically motivated - a main target being Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney general (his own appointee and former protégé), who brought the indictment against him. (In fact, Mandelblit had dragged his feet for years, but finally had no choice, as the evidence against Netanyahu mounted.)
Anyway, whether we will see a fully-fledged annexation depends on the immediate needs of both Netanyahu and Trump. By the way, a few days before the July 1 enactment there will be a major conference organised by Christians United For Israel (Cufi) - a large evangelical organisation in the United States and by far the largest component of the US pro-Israel lobby. In order to please Cufi, Trump may provide the necessary green light for annexation. It is estimated that evangelicals account for around a quarter of the US electorate, which makes Cufi a highly influential body - Trump’s success in the upcoming election depends on pleasing the evangelicals to a very large extent. In other words, this is not a minor consideration.
Be that as it may, annexation - whether it happens immediately or a little later - now seems inevitable, as part of the process of Zionist colonisation. It can only be stopped by a revolution across the whole of the Middle East - that or the overthrow of capitalism by the working class across the globe. A large section of land just to the west of the River Jordan is going to be annexed.
It is true that some on the left dismiss this annexation as of no real consequence - Israel is already in control of the West Bank, after all. In my view that is a very big mistake: it is going to make a huge difference. The immediate effect will be a major robbery of land. The area along the Jordan Valley is one of the most fertile parts of the West Bank and that is why the settlers are salivating at the prospect. So, although as a rural part of the West Bank the newly annexed territory will not be densely populated, this is one of the reasons why Israel is so keen to annex it - it is a large area of land without too many people. The estimated number of Palestinians here is only around 50,000 - compared to some 2.8 million in the entire West Bank - yet Netanyahu has made it clear that these people are not going to be granted Israeli citizenship.
Israel is going to apply its own legal system to determine land ownership. Until now, in the West Bank Israel has to some extent abided by international law, particularly when it comes to land ownership. This has been self-limiting in terms of what it has been able to take over - mostly state-owned rather than privately owned land. But now all this will change. Since the 1950s, Israel has elaborated a whole system, whereby land has been systematically taken away from the Palestinians via various legal devices. This will also apply in the Jordan Valley.
Moreover, the Palestinian population in the densely populated urban centres in the West Bank will now be completely surrounded by official Israeli territory, where the main north-south highway will also be situated. So, in order for Palestinians to move from one part of the West Bank to another, they will have to cross Israeli territory, which will make such a journey much more difficult. And Jericho, the only urban centre in the Jordan Valley, will now be an enclave that is not considered part of annexable territory under Trump’s ‘deal of the century’; it will be surrounded by Israeli territory. In other words, it is not just a question of formalising the current situation.
The fact that these 50,000 Palestinians are not going to be granted Israeli citizenship is ominous, because it implies that the ultimate intention is to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, which would be much more difficult if they were Israeli citizens, as this would blatantly contravene international law.
Clearly Israel intends to implement ethnic cleansing following this and future annexations. However, in order to enforce it over the urban centres, Israel will attempt to make use of any regional war in the Middle East, from which it will benefit hugely in this demographic respect. There is a long-standing Israeli plan to turn such conflict to its advantage.
But where will the Palestinians be expelled to? Obviously, across the river Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan is getting very worried, because Jordan could well end up being destroyed as a result of Israel’s plans. No doubt Israel will find support from the leading Sunni power in the Arab world - that is, Saudi Arabia. I would speculate that the reward for Saudi support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank would be custodianship of the Muslim holy place in Jerusalem. The Hashemite dynasty, now headed by the king of Jordan, used to be the custodian of the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina; but in the 1920s the house of Saud displaced the Hashemites from there. However, they remained custodians of the third holy place, Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). Even under the Israeli occupation, the Jordanian king appointed the clergy, etc to Temple Mount.
That arrangement will, of course, be terminated, once Jordan is designated as the ‘new Palestine’. This is part of the so-called ‘Sharon plan’, whereby Palestinians will be ethnically cleansed from the West Bank across the River Jordan and what is now Jordanian territory will be declared the new Palestinian state. The land to the west of the river will be totally colonised - Zionised. Israel might win Saudi support for its plan by granting the Saudis custodianship of Haram al-Sharif.
This is one of the reasons why Netanyahu has been so keen to provoke war against Iran. Of course, Israel would not launch a major war against Iran on its own, but a US attack would undoubtedly be used by Israel as a smokescreen to perpetrate a new Nakba.
Danger of a horrendous war
I want to start by talking about Iran’s foreign policy, because the Islamic Republic is one party to the escalation of the conflict in the region. However, it is certainly a much weaker force, compared to the United States and Israel. This is a country on its knees because of years of sanctions, especially the last three years under Donald Trump. It has also faced a lot of problems because it was one of the first countries affected by the coronavirus - it has asked for a relaxation of sanctions during the current period, but that has not happened.
As a result it has become even more vulnerable. However, a lot of the so-called Iranian opposition - those that are not for regime change - argue that Iran should take a more reasonable position. What they mean is that the Islamic Republic should try to moderate its polices in the region regarding the Palestinian question, Israel and so on.
My argument is that over the last 40 years the Iranian government has done everything it can to ingratiate itself with the United States, but it is precisely the United States that does not want this. Here there is an element of revenge, and of teaching other countries that you cannot even pretend to be independent if you rely on international finance.
That brings me to Iran’s foreign policy, which, I would say, has three main aspects. Firstly, there are what I would call the rituals, which are only believed by very few people - mainly the bolder ayatollahs, such as the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei himself, and those around him, who still claim to support the Palestinians. They regularly lead chants of ‘Death to the US’ and ‘Death to Israel’. In practice what that this has meant for Palestine is very limited in my opinion. The help for Hezbollah has been more clear, whereas for the Palestinian movement it has been directed sporadically to very particular groups.
The sons and daughters of these very same clerics are actually very much westernised. Many now live in the west, sometimes flaunting their wealth, and they have no time for anti-Israel or, more importantly, anti-US slogans. There are very few amongst them who still believe the rhetoric of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Secondly, there is the question of necessity, including in relation to Lebanon and Syria, and that is because Iran does face threats from a very clear US-Saudi-Israeli alliance. That alliance is very dangerous, in that Saudi Arabia and some of the other Persian Gulf countries have been supporting and financing various Jihadi organisations, such as Islamic State, which favour the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic Republic. So, although the Iranian regime might be paranoid, there are very good reasons for that paranoia. In that sense you could say that it is necessary for Iran to get involved in Lebanon and Syria, as a way to stop attacks against itself.
Thirdly, there is something that is constantly picked up by what I would call social-imperialist organisations, and that is Iran’s expansionism. However, I would say that this is more rhetoric than anything else. Given its economic problems - and the fact that it cannot even afford to buy fuel for its airplanes abroad - this is not a country that is able to translate its Islamic expansionist rhetoric into practice.
Iran’s economy is in a terrible state, of course. This predates coronavirus, but more recently the president and other regime figures have been warning - as has happened in just about every other country - that the economy will take a very long time to recover. For Iranians in particular this is a joke, because even before Covid-19 the majority lived below the official poverty line declared by the state.
Iran’s economy is so much hit by sanctions that last week, for example, it had to send five tankers full of oil to Venezuela, to be paid for in gold. This was done to bypass sanctions and it really exemplifies the kind of problem the country is facing: this results partially from the collapse in the price of oil, but also from ongoing economic sanctions.
There are many protests taking place and many Iranians will tell you that their own government is as much of an enemy as the United States. The problem is that the two notions are actually interlinked: the regime takes advantage of threats of war made against Iran as a way of distracting attention from basic demands and overcoming workers’ protests against privatisation, the closure of factories and the abolition of subsidies. We still do not know how many people died at the hands of state forces during the mass protests in November 2019. The regime last week claimed that the figure was around 200 - why it took so many months to count the number of victims is another matter.
By the way, as with every other country that has followed the diktats of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the abolition of subsidies was part of an agreement that Iran had signed with those organisations. Not that the current regime is in favour of subsidies: some of them could be traced back to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, when the government was relying on popular support for its very survival.
Now the estimate is that 6.4 million Iranians will become unemployed as a result of the coronavirus crisis and, at a time when many people have two or three - mostly very low-paid - jobs just to survive, the government, as I have said, needs to make use of external crises, although it does not want war.
And that is why we constantly see various skirmishes, and not just in Syria. The Israelis are very keen to make sure that any place where Iran has influence, or has military forces or equipment, is targeted, and all Iranian resources destroyed if possible. This is also reflected in the way the Iranian government employs anti-Israel slogans, even though they have tended to have the opposite effect, because the younger generation in particular just does not believe a word the government says. But this has also meant that, as a result, the majority of the population do not support the Palestinian movement - something that those of my generation who consider themselves anti-imperialist or leftwing believe is a major part of our identity.
At the same time, the threat of war has not subsided. There are many reasons for this. Although Saudi Arabia and Israel consider that Iran is more a rival than an enemy, they believe that its destruction would aid their own economic and political wellbeing. That is why we often see them taking steps which lead to increased levels of conflict. In Saudi Arabia such steps have manifested themselves not just in terms of political propaganda, but also in financing jihadist and salafi groups. In terms of Israel, it is more direct, including the hacking of Iranian facilities.
It is in Israel’s interest for the conflict between Iran and the US to continue in order to weaken Iran. Similarly continued sanctions and small-scale conflict in the Persian Gulf and Syria are regarded as ways of weakening the power of the Iranian state. That is why another horrendous war remains very much a possibility.