Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly called for regime change in Iran for its human rights abuses (though he’s said nothing about the indiscriminate bombing and slaughter in Yemen by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia). Trump has vowed to bail out of the Iran nuclear deal in May and reintroduce sanctions unless the multilateral agreement is renegotiated (independent.co.uk, 1/12). In a recent Op-Ed column in the New York Times, Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned that unless Iran’s export of non-nuclear ballistic missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels is stopped, “then someday soon … the chance for peace will be lost” (2/17). At the Munich Security Conference, National Security Advisor H.R McMaster appealed to U.S. allies to halt trade with Iran to stem Iran’s funding of proxy armies and militias in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq: “So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran” (Reuters.com, 2/17).
The U.S. bosses have yet to galvanize popular support at home for another ground war in the Middle East, much less a global conflict with Russia and/or China. But their accelerating strategic weakness and the unpredictability of external events could push them to move before they are ready.
Scramble for Syria
Following the attack, the U.S. condemned Syria and affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. Even so, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ceased the air barrage after Russian President Vladimir Putin called and warned him “to avoid a course of action that could have ‘dangerous consequences for the region’” (Daily Mail, 2/12). For now, Russia, not the U.S., is calling the shots in Syria.
Since 2011, Syria’s civil war has widened into a proxy war for the superpowers vying for control over the oil-rich Middle East. The latest Israeli attacks are part of a protracted regional conflict dating back to 1967, when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War. Over the past five years, Israel has launched over 100 air strikes inside Syria, often attacking Iranian forces (Washington Post, 9/7/17). As Iran further entrenches itself in Syria and along the Israeli border, escalation toward global conflict is ever more likely. Russia is standing squarely behind Iran, the second most populous country and third biggest oil producer in the Middle East. The U.S. will stop at nothing to protect its interests in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer and Iran’s main regional rival.
More than a century ago, Lenin argued that the world had entered the age of imperialism. With no new colonies to “discover” and subjugate, the imperialist powers could only re-divide territory and resources through war. In the current inter-imperialist scramble, Syria is at the epicenter of a re-division of the Middle East.
Now that ISIS is largely defeated in Syria, the conflict there has devolved into a free-for-all of imperialists competing to expand their influence in the region. With the Iran-leaning Syrian president Bashar al-Assad once again entrenched in power, and Russian and Chinese bosses positioning themselves to exploit the Syrian nightmare, the U.S. bosses seem more and more likely to find themselves on the losing side.
Insecure rulers debate Iran tactics
For the U.S. capitalist ruling class, the threats posed by a crisis with Iran are potentially catastrophic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a ruling-class think tank, pointed out:
Iran has the ability to trigger a major war in the region, and to threaten the world’s main source of oil and gas exports—the 17 million barrels of oil a day that flow through the Strait of Hormuz. Any such Iranian action threatens the stability of the entire global economy, the global (and U.S. domestic) price of oil and of transportation fuels, and the import and export capabilities of America’s key trading partners in Asia—more than a third of U.S. manufactured imports (CSIS, 1/10).
The U.S. bosses’ main concern in Syria is the growing sway of Iranian and Russian imperialism in the region. Despite spending trillions on two wars in Iraq and an ongoing war in Afghanistan that has led thousands of U.S. workers to their deaths and killed millions in the Middle East, U.S. bosses have seen their influence in the region continue to wane. James F. Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, highlighted the rulers’ dilemma: “We told the Turks that the Kurds were temporary…to defeat ISIS. Now we need them to contain Iran. The whole purpose of this is to split the Russians from the Syrians by saying we’re going to stay on to force a political solution in Syria” (New York Times, 1/22).
The U.S. rulers’ concern is that a unilateral U.S. military confrontation with Iran would require a massive infusion of U.S. troops and further destabilize the region. Some main-wing ruling-class voices inside the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institute, notably author Vali Nasr, are pushing for an inclusive, U.S.-led regional order—including Iran—to counter Russia:
Rather than…contain Iran, the United States…should convince Tehran that it would be better off working with Washington and its allies than investing its hopes in a Russian-backed regional order…the United States should do what the Obama administration failed to: lead an international diplomatic effort to broker a regional deal that would end conflicts and create a framework for peace and stability (Foreign Affairs, March/April issue).
But others in the CFR, including Iran hardliner Elliot Abrams, are emphasizing the limits of diplomacy and the need for war. Abrams urged the Donald Trump administration to consider that Israel “could be a decade away from a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and has bases in Syria—and could logically therefore even place nuclear weapons in Syria, just miles from Israel’s border” (CFR blog, 10/8/17).
Given the ruthless competition created by capitalism, a future world war is inevitable. While the political divisions surrounding Trump’s election has hindered any mobilization of U.S workers for wider war, there remains significant patriotic sentiment within the U.S.—both in Trump’s base and in the liberal opposition. In any case, global events like the recent crisis between Israel and Syria may soon force the hand of the U.S. rulers to act. However these tensions play out, one thing is for sure: workers can expect more fascism as the bosses prepare for all-out war.
The Iran-Russia alliance is strengthening by the day. Looking to amplify its role as a regional power, Iran is rapidly expanding its infrastructure, positioning itself as a hub of trans-European trade and plugging into China’s One Belt, One Road initiative (Forbes 8/1/17). In August 2017, with both nations facing U.S. sanctions, Russia and Iran signed a $2.5 billion deal for the manufacturing of cargo and passenger wagons in Iran. In 2016, overall trade between Iran and Russia doubled, most of it in military contracts.
U.S. attempts to control Iran through sanctions have reduced opportunities for European companies like Total of France, which must obtain U.S. approval before investing. As a result, the sanctions have driven Iran even closer to Russia. Meanwhile, China has upped its military training and assistance to Syria’s army. Along with Russia and Iran, it has scooped up the lion’s share of Syria reconstruction contracts. China and Russia are leading members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which focuses on economic and counter-terrorism issues; Iran is an SCO partner. “Michael Maloof, a former Pentagon official, noted that China has actually been in Syria ‘for quite some time’…. The latest developments indicate that the U.S. is ‘being basically left out’” (rt.com, 8/17/16).
Workers fight back
As the threat of wider war looms, the imperialist dogfight over Syria has proven a disaster for the region’s working class. After seven years of conflict, the current death toll stands at over 500,000, with nearly 13 million Syrians displaced. As the bosses fight over the spoils of Syria, our working-class brothers and sisters in the Middle East are paying the price.
In the midst of this chaos, the working class is fighting back. Last December, after going four months without pay, workers at the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation and mill complex in Shush, Iran, went on strike. In the Iranian city of Arak, hundreds of workers at Hepco, a private industrial complex, recently demanded months of back pay and better living conditions by forming a human chain around the city’s main square (Riyadh Daily, 2/7).
As Iran continues to develop its infrastructure with Russian investments, transit and construction workers in Iran will be essential in fighting back against the rulers’ move toward World War III. We must follow the lead of these workers as their strikes threaten to shut down the bosses’ infrastructure. Armed with the analysis of Progressive Labor Party, they can turn these strikes into a larger class struggle against capitalism and inter-imperialist war.
In the years following World War II, at the height of U.S. imperialist dominance, the U.S. could exert its influence through a combination of financial pressure, military might, and CIA espionage and assassinations. In 1953, the U.S. backed a coup in Iran that brought the murderous Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi into power, a move made possible in part by a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil instigated by Britain. At the time, Iranian oil could easily be replaced by oil from other places.
Through much of the Cold War, Iran and Israel were the two pillars of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. But in the 1970s, with the growing power of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), once a reliable U.S. ally, Iran began exercising greater independence of U.S. dictates. Now Iranian oil was no longer so easily replaceable, and the 1973 oil crisis revealed that the old equation for U.S. imperialist dominance in the Middle East was no longer reliable. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 replaced the Shah with an Islamic Republic, Iran switched from U.S. ally to adversary—and eventually opened the door to Russia and China. Meanwhile, as the US continues to lose ground in the region, Israel has increasingly been left to fend for itself.