New returns to a failed old
Yassamine Mather assesses the likely effects of a Biden presidency on a region that has suffered from repeated US acts of subversion and aggression
Twenty-four hours after US voting had ended, Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted:
What a spectacle! One says this is the most fraudulent election in US history. Who says that? The president who is currently in office. His rival says Trump intends to rig the election! This is how US elections and US democracy are.
And on November 7 there was a tweet on his official account which read: “Regardless of the outcome, one thing is absolutely clear: the definite political, civil and moral decline of the US regime.”
For me, the significant part of this statement is the fact that, as always, Iran’s most senior cleric fails to mention the economy. Our supreme leader almost certainly reads books on the decline of the United States, as he often refers to this subject. However, as a staunch defender of private property and capitalism - a man who for the last 30 years has presided over one of the most neoliberal capitalist economies of the region - he cannot see this is really about finance capital. Decline has less to do with morality and a lot more to do with economics.
When 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, it is wrong to dismiss them all as stupid, racist or misogynistic. Many are ordinary working class or middle class people who have lost their jobs and have seen a dramatic fall in their income. They see them and their like getting poorer and poorer and the rich getting richer and richer, but without their own political party, without a sense of history, they accept simplistic Trumpist ideas, blaming ‘the establishment’ - which includes the bulk of the Democratic Party and liberals in the Republican Party - for their plight. Whatever we think of him, Trump has managed to present himself as someone who is against the established globalised economic order, against the corporate-owned mass media.
Of course, all of this is a big lie, but that does not affect how his supporters see him. We are still living under the impact of the 2008-09 economic crisis and more broadly, without wanting to fetishise the concept of decline, those who argue within that tradition are able to convincingly present the underlying fundamentals. In this context Hillel Ticktin writes:
Decline occurs when it becomes increasingly difficult for capitalism to deal with its contradictions. Its solutions become increasingly counterproductive and transformative of the system itself. Decline is decline of the law of value and this shows itself in the replacement of value by organised forms such as ‘monopoly’, nationalised entities, bureaucratisation and the domination of finance capital. One result is the growth of a gap between what could be produced for human needs and what is produced; another is the disintegration of the system and, in parts of the world, of the society itself.1
The signs of systemic crises were more than apparent in the latter years of the Obama administration and, for all the claims of Gordon Brown that he and Joe Biden saved the world economy after the 2008 crisis,2 the aftershocks are still affecting the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Lower wages, precarious employment, unemployment and chronic poverty have created an ocean of discontent. For populist nationalist politicians such as Donald Trump, Marie Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini and Boris Johnson, this is fertile ground to increase xenophobia, blame foreigners, the European Union, the ‘establishment’ and ‘their media’ for the loss of income, loss of hope …
There is also a cultural-political element to all this. Global capital has in the last three or so decades tried to present itself as modern, non-sexist and colour-blind and to some extent it is true if you are talking about the elite and the upper layers of the middle class. However, for all the media hype, things have not changed much for working class women, or for non-whites amongst the poorer sections of society. Yet the political correctness of the globalised elite has also been a gift to Trump and his allies to attract sections of the white population - not just in the working class, but also amongst the middle class - on the basis of xenophobia.
The problem is, like many other populist nationalists, after four years in power Trump has actually made the situation worse than when he came to office and, of course, a return to the standard politics of global capital with four years of the Joe Biden presidency represents a return to the kind of world order that paved the way for Trumpism in the first place. So, unless a miracle happens, we will see a return of Trumpism in 2024. In other words, while it would be silly to say there will be no difference between a Biden and a Trump administration, we need to understand the historical dynamic.
However, the perception of what is legitimate and acceptable in the White House does affect the behaviour and practices of dictators throughout the world. When a US president not only fails to condemn the brutal murder of a Saudi critic and journalist in Istanbul, but is also happy to be seen shaking hands with the man who ordered the butchery, Mohammed bin Salman, that sends a clear message. When a US president brags about ordering the assassination of an Iranian general in another country - a man who was, until a few weeks before his death, praised in the western media as the architect of defeat of Islamic State - it sends a message to Binyamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that there is no problem with the assassination of prominent Palestinians world-wide or the torture and murder of political opponents in Egyptian jails.
Mike Pompeo, who is in denial about the US election results, claiming on November 10 that “there will be a smooth transition to our second Trump administration”, remains in charge of ‘regime change from above’ for Iran. He promises left and right groups in his pay, that he will bring about ‘democracy’ in Iran and thereby the prospect of enormous, corrupt, wealth for the suitably connected few.
Biden has, by contrast, promised a return to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and many Iranians hope the terrible economic conditions they currently face will improve. Of course, those economic conditions have as much to with the regime’s incompetence and systematic corruption, but US sanctions have made a bad situation far worse. So it is no surprise that, when the US election results were announced, most Iranians who are not supporters of the ex-Shah’s son and regime-change Trump-style, celebrated.
Four years ago, soon after Trump was declared president with the promise that the US would withdraw from Obama’s “bad nuclear deal”, the Iranian currency started to fall; and over the last four years, every time he has announced new sanctions, the currency has dropped still further - from around 3,700 tomans to the dollar to 35,000 tomans in early November 2020. Iran imports most of its food and medicine, so every drop in the currency has coincided with price hikes. This year we have reached a situation where most Iranians cannot afford fresh food, many have no access to medicine, patients cannot get insulin ... and, of course, we are in the midst of a major pandemic. Iranians feared that the additional sanctions promised by Trump would lead to a situation where the rate of exchange would rise to 50,000 tomans, so the fact that the currency has bounced back (currently 26,000 tomans) in the immediate aftermath of the US presidential election has served as a justification for investing hopes in a Biden victory.
Of course, few have illusions about the likelihood of the resumption of the Iran nuclear deal: there is little appetite for negotiations in Tehran and, although the country’s economy is in free fall, the ruling circles seem to be thriving financially, as they continue to benefit from black-market deals as part of their organised sanction-busting. It is also true that, when it comes to negotiations, the Islamic Republic has historically favoured deals with Republican presidents: ‘Irangate’ with Reagan, negotiations and cooperation before the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq during George W Bush presidency …
What is different this time is the assassination of major-general Qasem Soleimani. No faction in the regime could afford to be seen holding talks with Trump while he was boasting about US responsibility for his death. That is why Iranian leaders have been quick to welcome Trump’s defeat. On November 9, president Hassan Rouhani said: “We hope that the experience of these three years has been a lesson to them that will make the next US administration follow the law and return to all its commitments.”3
There are reports that Trump has already taken steps in the direction of additional pressure on Iran over the remaining months and weeks of his presidency, with talk of new sanctions kicking in as part of a concerted attempt to undermine any possible deal between Rouhani and Biden.
Over the last three years Iran’s Islamic Republic has increased internal repression - partly because it feels vulnerable and partly because the US administration was not even pretending to be interested in ‘human rights’ anymore. So it is one thing to say the Democratic president-elect will follow an imperialist agenda with more interventions globally; it is another to underestimate the horrors that occurred in the Middle East during Trump’s presidency. If you are a prisoner under torture in Iran and you hear Islamic Republic leaders citing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul to show the pornocracy of the west, I can assure you it does make a difference. Exposing the pro-imperialist, pro-interventionist policies of the Democratic Party is one thing; claiming there is no difference between a Trump and Biden presidency is quite another.
It is also known that Biden has a cooler approach when it comes to other states in the region, including Trump’s main allies. Let us look at a few of them.
We should not forget that general Sisi came to power during Obama’s presidency and the Democratic establishment will have no qualms in defending him and his horribly repressive government. However, as soon as it became clear that Trump was unlikely to win this election, Sisi released hundreds of political prisoners. The Egyptian government is under the impression that Biden advisors believe Sisi’s heavy-handed approach is counterproductive because it encourages radicalisation.
Biden has the option of reducing or suspending the USA’s huge economic and military assistance to Egypt.
The mood in Riyadh could not have been more different to that in Tehran. Bin Salman had to cancel a Trump victory celebration party. The crown prince has over the last few years modelled himself on Trump’s rhetoric with slogans such as “making Saudi Arabia great again”.
Of course, Mohammed bin Salman’s problems did not start with the Biden victory: many of his economic and political policies have met with failure - partly because of the fall in the price of oil, but also because of the country’s war in Yemen. Internal repression has resulted in an unprecedented brain drain and, worst of all, the country’s economy is in trouble and there are high levels of youth unemployment. I am sure the Saudi royals will not be interested in what I say, but if I was in their position I would do what they keep telling Iran to do: cut back on expensive foreign interventions, stop paying for grand mosques across the world, stop financing trashy Persian-language TV stations and concentrate on improving the welfare of the country’s people.
Biden has also made it clear that he is against the war in Yemen. A pre-election statement on his site claims:
Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the [Saudi Arabian] kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.4
The Trump administration recently sold drones worth $3 billion to Saudi Arabia and Biden will be in a position to reverse this sale. It will be interesting to see if he does.
In the Middle East Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his supporters were hoping for a Trump victory. Apparently this section of Turkish capital admires “strong leaders”! So initially relations with Turkey will be cool and there will be some tension. There is also the issue of a Nato embargo following Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. While Biden is unlikely to impose sanctions on Turkey, fearing it will alienate an important Nato ally, he will try and make sure this type of deal is never repeated.
Both Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris have repeatedly confirmed their support for the state of Israel.
They will continue to ignore the plight of millions of Palestinians and like previous administrations their efforts to find a peace deal will only bring more misery to the Palestinians. However, differences in policy regarding the excesses of the Trump administration will possibly make some practical differences.
In 2018 the Trump administration ended the funding for Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon, etc. This move had a devastating impact for five million Palestinians, who rely on the UN’s programme for schools, healthcare and social services. Biden is likely to reverse this decision.
The Democratic president-elect is also promising a US consul or even embassy within the occupied territories and apparently there is already an invitation to the Palestinian Authority leadership to visit Washington. All this will be seen as a demotion for Netanyahu. Nabil Shaath, the special representative of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said: “The Palestinian leadership does not expect a strategic change in US policy towards the Palestinians, but getting rid of the era of Trump is an advantage.”
Most European governments believe the Biden administration will return to the traditional two-state position, even though this is now untenable. However, Biden will be aware that he has to tread carefully. Israel’s settlements minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, is said to have warned the US president-elect that if there is a return to the Iran deal, Israel will go to war with Iran.
Today BBC Radio 4 November 9.↩︎