Dance of death

The US and its UK junior partner have proved unable to rebuild Iraq into a 'normal' society. But what happens now that the US-UK is staring defeat in the face? Will it mean peace? A massive airborne strike against Iran is becoming more and more likely, warns Jim Moody

British parliamentary and press interest has centred recently on secretary of defence Des Browne and his degree of culpability in the affair of the 15 captured naval personnel. Clearly, a desperate government public relations offensive enabled two of them to sell their stories for a tidy sum. This was intended to fulfil the government's aim of swinging public opinion away from anti-war pacifism and at least lessening opposition to an air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and military infrastructure.

Obviously the whole thing backfired. Government PR is now in something of a soggy mess. The top brass certainly fear that the morale of the armed forces in Iraq will disintegrate if there are any more articles for cash.

At present, the British state is not gung-ho for an attack on Iran, seeing it as premature. That is why a more softly-softly approach to the hostage crisis was taken, why British ministers declined US offers of upping the military ante.

Browne's light grilling in the House of Commons last Monday saw him hardly break sweat, it was so polite. Nonetheless, he did give us sight of what lies beneath the velvet glove of diplomacy and British good manners toward the end of his time at the dispatch box. After admitting that the two hostages were permitted to tell their tales (to the Daily Mirror and ITV's Tonight) because he and the admiralty were afraid of "stories being told in an uncontrolled environment", Browne went on to give his and the Labour government's view: Iran represents "a strategic threat" due to its "interference in Iraq" and its support for "insurgent forces in Palestine". Its leaders must be "made to face up to their responsibilities". Incidentally, in true 'sweep it under the carpet' fashion, lieutenant general Sir Rob Fulton has been appointed to head a military enquiry into the whole affair.

We all know that the 15 service personnel collaborated with their captors, going onto Iranian television within days and parroting whatever was put in front of them. For the ruling class and all true patriots that was national humiliation. Of course, the reason the 15 collaborated was obvious. They were kept isolated and terrified. Putting what happened to them in perspective, however, we noted last week, whatever maltreatment the 15 suffered was incomparably milder than what has been meted out over the years to the islamic regime's left opponents ('Double standards in London and Tehran' Weekly Worker April 12).

Nevertheless, the almost instant collaboration of the 15 speaks volumes about the low level of politics in the navy - these were not highly motivated people; and, of course, they wanted to tell their side of things on their return. But the right note has not been struck for British state purposes. There has been no shift in public opinion toward pounding Iran along the lines of 'They deserve it - look what they did to our sailors and marines'.

What happens in the military following the sale of these ex-captives' stories? After the fact, Des Browne issued a blanket ban and apologised for his cock-up (still supported by Blair, he refused to resign). Several days before Browne did his about-turn, the chief of the general staff, general Sir Richard Dannatt, had already acted promptly in declaring that, whatever the navy decides, army personnel are not permitted to sell their stories to the media. The British army is under tremendous strain already, and Dannatt would strain it no further.

Leaving aside the question of preparing public opinion for an attack on Iran, what has hardly been discussed over the last week or so are the restrictions faced by service personnel in speaking their minds. Many servicemen and servicewomen have critical views on the Iraq war, in which they are literally forced to put their bodies on the line. Communists demand that members of the armed forces should have the right to democratic expression and organisation in order to defend their interests. At the moment, the staff officers and high command hold all the cards, in the form of queen's regulations, which give them the whip hand in restricting what other ranks in uniform can say in public. We say that this must end and that members of the armed forces should have no restrictions on their democratic rights just because they join up.

The Browne media and public relations effort, failed though it has, should not lead us to imagine that an attack on Iran is now less likely. The US wants to be seen by friend and foe alike as just itching to have a go at Iran. It is pretty obvious that if the 15 captured sailors and marines had been American, there would have been strong retaliation that might easily have built rapidly into all-out confrontation. US commentators, military and civilian, have openly stated as much.

But this is a dance of death involving two. Ahmadinejad and his faction in Iran need the US, Britain and Israel as enemies, if they are going to survive in power. That means the nuclear programme, support for shia militias in Iraq and provocations such as the capturing of the 15 British service personnel. How else can Iran's working class be distracted from the depravities inflicted upon it by the clerical reactionaries?

This is why there is a half-diplomatic, half-military game being played out. Under these circumstances war could easily be triggered accidentally. The immediate results would certainly be horrific. While a US attack on Iran is not planned to involve a land invasion, there would be a massive aerial and missile bombardment, probably lasting an initial three or four days. Up to 30,000 sites have been targeted. What weapons would be used - battlefield nuclear devices, high-impulse thermobaric bombs or conventional high explosives - will be determined by politico-military considerations at the time. But without doubt George Bush would expect Britain to participate, in however minor a role: not for military reasons, but for political ones. There is every indication that British support will be forthcoming "¦ as usual.

Already around 650,000 Iraqis have died thanks to the invasion of their country. Bodies of dead military personnel continue to arrive home in the US and the UK. And still the insurgency and the rate of descent of Iraqi society into chaos and warlordism persist. Well within the heavily fortified Green Zone, the bombing of the Iraqi puppet parliament on April 12 shook the US; after all, it was one of the few places in Iraq that its diplomats could visit in relative safety. During the morning rush hour on the same day, a truck bomb spectacularly demolished much of the crucial Sarafiya Bridge over the Tigris river in Baghdad; later that day, another bridge outside the capital was destroyed. Such events show most clearly that the vaunted US 'surge' has failed. While deaths in Baghdad, where US forces are concentrated, have allegedly been halved, those elsewhere in the country have doubled.

As time goes by and US-UK lack of success becomes even more obvious, the threat of unleashing hell on Iran must rise. The US, being the world hegemon, cannot permit itself to be humiliated. No-one should imagine that defeat for the USA in Iraq will see it accept such a fate gracefully. Quite the contrary - a defeated USA is more than capable of lashing out.

Not even the most pro-war commentator now pretends that the Iraqi masses favour the occupation. US-UK forces are blamed for the chaos that is daily life in central and southern Iraq. Once neoconservative thinkers imagined that it was possible to quickly settle matters in Iraq and then proceed to do the same in Iran, Syria and over the whole Middle East. They dreamt of installing pliant, stable, quasi-democratic and pro-US regimes throughout the region. That has now been ruled out by the bloody impasse that Iraq has become.

Obviously, as US imperialism faces defeat in Iraq, there is no unproblematic way of delivering regime change from above in Iran. What the USA can do, however, is threaten to bomb the country back to the Stone Age. A terrible rain of US bombs and missiles, nuclear or not, will take out Iran's nuclear facilities, and everything else that presents the possibility of conventional Iranian military resistance. Such a US move would carry the unmistakable message: anyone else who tries it on with the US will get the same treatment and no-one in the world can do anything about it.

A very great deal depends upon US global hegemony: the dollar as the leading reserve currency, growing US private, corporate and state debt in return for trade with the rest of the world, but especially China, the future of US bases, indeed the whole post-World War II order. Given such stakes, a US decision to use its military might to smash Iran into the dust becomes a terrible possibility.

Certainly, if hell is unleashed by the USA, Iran will try to hit back. While the sending of terror squads to the US itself is not totally implausible, the main target would be the US army: it is, after all, sitting right next door in Iraq. Iran would add to and unleash the full frenzy of its allies, the shia militias.

In such a conflagration should we take the side of the little criminal against the big criminal? Of course not. Instead, we should take the side of the working class - in Iran, Britain, and the USA. High on the agenda is the overthrow of the Iranian islamic regime from below. By the country's own working class: that is certainly the best outcome.

The position of most of the left, including the Socialist Workers Party, could hardly be more dissimilar. They insist that, since the Iranian regime is against US imperialism, it is therefore worthy of support - a position that is bankrupt to the core. While we are in no doubt that our main enemy is imperialism - in particular, our 'own', British, imperialism - we communists want to sweep away those who oppress and exploit us, wherever they are.