An American war against Iran has appeared imminent on previous occasions. Eleven years ago we saw similar military and political preparations for a US attack on that country. Fortunately, it never came. Now Iran is again in the crosshairs. War may again be avoided. However, even establishment analysts acknowledge that the confrontation in and around the Persian Gulf could easily cross the line into war as a result of misunderstanding or miscalculation (for instance: vox.com, May 20).
President Trump says that he does not want war. But even if he does not want war there are men in his entourage who do – above all, his national security adviser John Bolton. The proximity of these hawks to the president is dangerous because, as former insiders have revealed, Trump is much influenced by the last person with whom he happens to have spoken. Simon Tisdall, foreign affairs commentator for the British Guardian, exaggerates only slightly when he writes that the hawks ‘run foreign policy while the president tweets and plays golf’ (May 9).
One highly provocative move was the deployment to the Gulf in early May of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. This enormous vessel, in its current location close to the Iranian coast, is very vulnerable: a single Iranian missile could sink it. Once Iranian leaders conclude that an American attack can no longer be averted, they will surely prefer to sink it before rather than after its planes take off to bomb targets in Iran. Perhaps it is even the intention of the hawks in the Trump Administration to have the USS Abraham Lincoln play the role of sitting duck in order to furnish a suitably impressive casus belli (justification for war).
What are the underlying causes of the conflict between the United States and Iran? What is it really about? But first – a few things that it is not about.
What It Is Not About
In the past the most prominent source of tension between Iran and the United States was the possibility of Iran producing nuclear weapons. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement of 2015, under which Iran accepted constraints on its nuclear power program that would have barred nuclear weapons development, suggests that this is no longer the crucial concern for the US (if indeed it ever was).
Nor does the conflict with Iran have anything to do with terrorism. The main source of support for Islamist terrorism is Saudi Arabia. The operations on 9/11 were conducted mainly by Saudi nationals under the direct supervision of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the US. And yet Saudi Arabia is still regarded as a US ally. Counter-terrorism is a lower-order priority for US foreign policy.
Nor does the conflict with Iran have anything to do with human rights violations or persecution of religious minorities or the defense of ‘Western values.’ Again, the human rights situation is at least as bad in Saudi Arabia as it is in Iran.
What It Is About
One thing that the conflict is about is control over regional resources. The US seeks to restore and maintain control over the hydrocarbon resources of the Middle East, a region that contains 55% of the world’s oil and 40% of its natural gas.
The occupation of Iraq was a big step toward this goal. The petroleum law that the US imposed on Iraq gave foreign companies direct control of its oilfields through ‘production sharing agreements.’ Iran, with 10% of world oil and 16% of world gas, is the main remaining obstacle to US control over the resources of the Middle East.
Control over oil has various aspects. One is control over price – gaining leverage to ensure the continued flow of cheap oil to the American economy. Another is control over who buys the oil. The country that buys the most oil from Iran is now China – a fact that upsets American strategists for whom China is a rival for world power and a potential adversary.
Arguably, however, the most important issue is which currency is used to price and sell oil. As the position of the dollar in relation to other currencies weakens, the dollar is ceasing to function as the world’s main reserve currency. Countries are shifting their foreign exchange reserves away from dollar assets toward assets denominated in other currencies, especially the euro.
Similarly, oil producers increasingly prefer not to be paid in dollars for their oil. In late 2006 China began paying for Iranian oil in euros, while in September 2007 Japan’s Nippon Oil agreed to pay for Iranian oil in yen. Continuation of this trend will flood the US economy with petrodollars, fueling inflation and further weakening the dollar. It is feared that the result will be a deep recession.
Occupying oil-producing countries may seem like an obvious way to buck the trend, although the effect can only be temporary. In 2000 Iraq began selling oil for euros; subsequently it converted its reserves to euros. Since the US invasion it has gone back to using dollars. This too may be a motive for attacking Iran.
US concern with Iran also arises from the shifting geopolitical map.
The collapse of the Soviet Union enabled the US to establish a temporary global predominance, though at the cost of huge military expenditures that exceed those of all other countries combined. Like the dominant position of the dollar, this cannot last much longer in view of the progressive economic decline of the US.
The geopolitical map of the world has begun to shift, and Iran occupies a central place in this process. The framework of a potential anti-US axis exists in the shape of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China, and post-Soviet Central Asia. American strategists fear further consolidation and militarization of the SCO and its expansion to draw in other major Asian states – first of all, Iran, which already has close ties with both Russia and China. Attacking Iran may be seen as a way to avert a threat to US predominance.
Above all, American strategists seek to deprive Iran of its status as a regional power in West Asia. That means halting Iran’s development of ballistic (i.e., long-range) missiles, even armed with conventional warheads. It also means ending Iran’s support for political and military forces in other countries of the region – the Syrian government, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, etc. Here the US is fully in synch with its allies in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.
Nothing To Do With Working People
All these economic and geostrategic interests are the interests of competing groups of capitalists and of the states under their control. Working people have no stake in the game. Should matters come to war they have nothing to gain and everything to lose. As socialists we ask working people on both sides of the conflict, including those who happen to be enlisted in the armed forces, to reflect upon this and act accordingly.