A no deal or a deal
Yassamine Mather looks at the cyber attacks, assassinations and airstrikes and the danger of an all-out war if the nuclear negotiations finally fail
The cold war between Iran and Israel is getting out of control.
On June 19 people in Jerusalem were disturbed by the sound of sirens alerting them to possible rocket attacks. Actually, it was a cyber attack on local public address systems. Israel’s military Home Front Command confirmed the next day that it was investigating Iran as a possible culprit.
All this was seen as possible retaliation, as the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists and Revolutionary Guards continues apace. On top of that are the low-level confrontations in Syria. Last week Israel managed to shut down Damascus airport, claiming this was necessary in order to stop the continued flow of weapons from Iran. The two countries have been busy recruiting agents and spies in the other’s security apparatus. In May Israel claimed that Iran had tried to use fake accounts on Facebook and WhatsApp to collect data on Israelis. This was linked to claims that four Israeli women had been working for the Iranian intelligence.
After weeks of assassinations in Iran, the Iranian Fars news agency reported on June 20 that a member of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division was killed during a mission. The Shia ‘martyr’ was named as Muhammad Abdul - someone who worked at the Semnan Space Centre, which tests ballistic missiles and the possible launching of satellites. Only a day earlier the Iranian media reported that the Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace expert, Ali Kamani, died in an alleged car accident while on a mission.
All this comes at a time of high tension between Iran and the west over the country’s uranium enrichment programme. By all accounts the Islamic Republic is now closer to weapons-grade uranium than it has ever been before. Of course, there has been no doubt over the last decade or so that Iran has been very close to that stage - it took a step back for the sake of JCPOA nuclear deal signed between Iran and the 5+1 powers in 2015. But, of course, as the US under Donald Trump reneged on the deal, the regime no longer has any reason not to press ahead now.
Then Joe Biden was elected, claiming he would revive the JCPOA deal, which would see Iran limit its nuclear programme in return for US sanctions relief. Although negotiations were restarted, it was clear from the beginning that things were not going well. In March Iran demanded the White House reverse Donald Trump’s April 2019 decision to designate the Iran Revolutionary Guards Command (IRGC) as a foreign ‘terror organisation’, as well as demanding ‘guarantees’ that no future US administration would walk out of the new proposed nuclear deal Trump style. However, I assume that no US administration can guarantee what future presidents will decide and, when it comes to the Revolutionary Guards, the Biden administration has so far rejected the demand to remove it from the list of sanctioned terror groups, describing the suggestion as going “beyond the framework” of the current deal.
In the last three weeks negotiations have been a bit of a roller-coaster. Clearly, given the pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies in the US Congress, there is little optimism about the JCPOA. However, under severe economic sanctions and with internal economic and political protests erupting, it appears that, in the last couple of weeks, the Islamic Republic, helped by EU politicians, has dropped its demand regarding the removal of all sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards - demanding instead their removal only against the Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, which acts as an economic operative of the IRGC.
So far the US does not appear to have responded to this compromise offer. Despite general pessimism about the current negotiations, regional news agencies are reporting that in the last few days Iran and the US are considering an agreement - not to target each other’s officials, in return for the IRGC being removed from the sanctions list.
All eyes are now on Biden’s proposed visit to the Middle East next month, when he is supposed to consolidate the alliance between Israel and the Arab countries that have signed peace deals with the Zionist state, or plan to do so. In the case of some of these countries, mainly considered ‘pro-western’, their lacklustre support for the US line regarding Ukraine has set alarm bells ringing in Washington. If it was not for that, no-one in their right mind - never mind an elderly, not so well US president - would have embarked on a visit to the Middle East in July: the worst time of the year, when temperatures reach over 50 degrees.
The Ukraine war, at a time of increased Chinese economic and political activity in the region, has changed all previous ideas about which Arab countries are ‘pro-western’. Haitham al-Zobaidi, the editor and co-owner of the Arab Weekly website, explains the reasons for the deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and the US in an article entitled ‘From Suez to Neom: FDR’s lessons for Biden’. He rightly divides lobbyists into, on the one side, those, including the ‘pro-democracy’ camp, whose goal had been to undermine the relationship with Saudi Arabia, even before the ‘Khashoggi affair’ and the war in Yemen; and, on the other side, the Qatari lobby, which is mainly anti-Saudi.
Prior to Biden’s visit, all the talk was that establishing a Nato-style regional ‘defence alliance’ against Iran might backfire and that they could end up instead with minor gains, such as the ‘integration of Israel’ in the region as a continuation of the Abraham accords. To quote the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
We are not convinced that the visit will produce a new Middle East or strategic military alliance that will include Israel or even some of the Arab countries, especially when every one of these countries has a separate agenda and sometimes conflicting interests - not just with the United States, but also between themselves. But joint declarations also have value, especially when you are conducting a political battle before the midterm elections.
Then, to complicate matters further, Israel is set to hold its fifth general election in under four years. It is now obvious to everyone that the current coalition government cannot survive, and who knows what will happen after the elections in late October. In the meantime, everything is in the balance.
It is difficult to talk about all this and not deal with Iran’s nuclear programme itself. From the start, back in the days of the shah, it was a cause for concern. Engineers and scientists recruited in the first years of the programme regularly complained about the lack of basic safety measures, when it came to protection against exposure to radiation. The situation deteriorated further under the Islamic Republic, when the irresponsible ways of disposing of nuclear waste were revealed - fish in the rivers close to the plant seemed to be illuminated by radiation.
Obtaining nuclear technology is expensive at the best of times. However, if you are considered to be a ‘pariah’ state by the western world, and are not a natural ally of China either, the costs are even more astronomical. But for the Islamic Republic those costs are not only monetary, but political and human too.
First the political costs: regional opponents - such as Israel, which conceals its own vast nuclear programme by refusing to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (a path currently being considered in Tehran); and Saudi Arabia, which has its own aspirations of becoming a nuclear power - have used Iran’s nuclear programme to advance their own agenda both in America and in Europe.
The punitive sanctions imposed by the US, UN and the EU have impoverished ordinary Iranians, but at the same time created a flourishing black market for senior clerics and Revolutionary Guards leaders, who have been able to circumvent the sanctions when it came to imports and exports. The result has been unprecedented wealth for the rich and dire poverty for the majority of the population.
Has it been all worth it? I doubt it. For all the rhetoric and anti-US slogans, the Islamic Republic has paved the way for some of the most reactionary movements of the region. Uneducated young people in Iran have serious illusions in ‘western democracy’. In their justified hatred of the ‘enemy within’, they have allied themselves with their ‘enemy’s enemy’ - the US and its various western alliances. The responsibility for revival of pro-imperialist, including pro‑shah (!) alternatives lies squarely with the regime and its shallow, anti-US rhetoric, while at the same time it continues its programme of pro-capitalist, neoliberal economic policies.
Fortunately the educated youth (we cannot deny the unprecedented growth in the number of universities established in the last two decades in Iran) seem to be immune to this superficial, reactionary propaganda, blasted day and night by pro-US, pro-Israeli and Saudi satellite TVs.
The Iranian postgraduate and postdoctoral students I meet regularly in the UK often seem like our only hope. They are as cynical about the regime’s rhetoric as they are of all the western propaganda about concern for ‘human rights’ in Iran. Unlike former Revolutionary Guards paid to become pro-Israel and even become spies, this section of the Iranian youth is as much against the religious capitalist state as it is against US-led global capital.
I only wish sections of the Iranian left in exile were as principled as some of these students. As I have said before, one can only despair at the overwhelming majority of the exile Iranian left, who in their eagerness to overthrow the Islamic Republic do not seem to be aware of how rightwing they have become - reducing their slogans to what can only be described as Islamophobic nonsense. Iran’s Islamic Republic is not one of the most corrupt, reactionary countries because it is not pro-western (many pro-US states in the third world would overtake Iran on that score). It is in this terrifying position because it has never been anti-capitalist (and therefore not anti-imperialist).
The watering down by the Iranian ‘left’ of its opposition to capitalism or imperialism for the sake of illusory ‘united fronts’ with rightwing groups will only lead to defeat.