Revolution #108, November 11, 2007

Background to Confrontation:

The U.S. & Iran: A History of Imperialist Domination, Intrigue and Intervention

Part 9: 2005 to Today: Surging Toward Confrontation

For over 100 years, the domination of Iran has been deeply woven into the fabric of global imperialism, enforced through covert intrigues, economic bullying, military assaults, and invasions. This history provides the backdrop for U.S. hostility toward Iran today—including the real threat of war. Part 9 concludes this series by examining why the U.S. has increasingly targeted Iran as the main obstacle to its plans to remake the Middle East.


September 11, 2001, and then 2005-2007 marked unprecedented turning points in the history of U.S. imperialist aggression against Iran. First, Iran was made a prime target in the U.S. “war on terror.” Then, in 2005-2007, things took a further leap as the U.S. ratcheted up its political, military, economic, and diplomatic assault and began serious preparations for a possible military attack.

The U.S. rulers have unleashed a propaganda offensive claiming Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, deliberately supplying Iraqi militias with weapons to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and supporting “terrorism” across the region. These charges are a mixture of lies, half-truths, speculation, and spin. Iran may well be pursuing nuclear weapons, but repeated, intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have found no evidence to support this charge. Iran does have links with Shi’ite militias in Iraq, but there’s no proof that it’s arming and directing them to attack U.S. troops.

Iran’s Islamic Republic IS a big problem for the U.S., but not exactly for the reasons Bush, Cheney and company publicly claim. Their problem with Iran is that it is increasingly standing in the way of their imperialist need to, as they put it, “drain the swamp” of Islamic fundamentalism and restructure the Middle East in order to solidify and deepen U.S. hegemony.

This is why Iran was made a target in the U.S. “war on terror,” not because it had anything to do with the attacks of September 11. The U.S.’s imperial concerns about Iranian influence have only increased since then—in large part because of the unintended consequences of the Bush regime’s invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. These actions have weakened Iran’s enemies, strengthened its influence, and further fueled Islamic fundamentalism overall.

Rising Nuclear Tensions

The June 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new president was something of a turning point in the sharpening conflict between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and regional posture. Iran had been negotiating with the U.S.’s European allies—Britain, France and Germany—for several years. But the negotiations went nowhere because the Europeans were unwilling to allow Iran to enrich uranium for energy, and were unable to provide the security guarantees (against regime change) that Iran’s rulers wanted.

Ahmadinejad’s election seemed to reflect the Iranian leadership’s view that they had little to gain by continued negotiations and that their survival depends instead on resisting U.S. demands, and strengthening their hand in the region as well as their ties with other world powers (Russia in particular)—even as they remain open to cutting a deal with the U.S.

In August 2005, two months after Ahmadinejad’s election, Iran announced it was resuming efforts to enrich uranium, and in January 2006, it restarted work at its Natanz nuclear research facility. The next month the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to report Iran to the UN Security Council for its pursuit of uranium enrichment. In April, Iran claimed it had succeeded in enriching uranium.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to enrich uranium for nuclear power, but enrichment technology is also essential to developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. has declared it won’t tolerate Iran having even the know-how to make nukes, let alone possess them. The concern of U.S. imperialism is that Iran having even one or two nuclear weapons could give it more “leverage” and perhaps enable it to be even more of a force in this strategically crucial region.

In the UN Security Council the Bush administration sought a resolution demanding that Iran end its enrichment program, which included language that could be used to justify “action” against Iran. This was opposed by Russia and China, who feared such a resolution could be used by the U.S. to justify war.

By May 31, 2006 the U.S. was forced to accept a draft resolution omitting the use of force and agreed to direct talks with Iran (along with Britain, France, and Germany) for the first time in over 25 years—if Iran first suspended its uranium enrichment efforts. This move by the U.S. was driven at least in part by the necessity to hold its anti-Iran coalition together, which the New York Times (6/4/06) reported was “at risk of falling apart.” This didn’t signal that the Bush administration had ruled out war. Rather, it was keeping an anti-Iran alliance intact to ratchet up pressure and prepare the ground for possible military action later. One BBC analyst put it (6/2/06): “The hawks in Washington have gone along with the move in the belief that an offer of direct talks now will improve their arguments for military action later.”

This was an offer Iran’s rulers felt they had to refuse. It didn’t address their main concern—halting U.S. threats of war. Second, as Seymour Hersh noted, “Iran...was being asked to concede the main point of the negotiations [its right to enrich uranium] before they started...” Iran’s rulers apparently calculated that accepting U.S. terms would be a fatal show of weakness. “Bush might as well have offered the Iranian regime a chance to lick his boots in public and commit political suicide,” the A World to Win News Service pointed out.

Global Rivalries in the Mix

The U.S. confrontation with Iran is mainly being driven by the ways in which Iran concentrates—and fuels—the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But global rivalries—particularly between the U.S. and Russia, are also part of the mix. While Russia and China aren’t able to directly challenge the U.S. for regional, much less global, pre-eminence, both are moving in various ways to build their strength and extend their reach. And U.S. efforts to gain a firmer grip on the Middle East and Central Asia are aimed, in part, at preventing them (or others) from doing so.

Iran has been one focal point of this contention. Flynt Leverett, a former U.S. official, writes, “few are paying attention to a broader strategic competition that has started between the United States, Russia and China. Ultimately, this competition will decide not only the direction of Iran’s nuclear activities but also its economic, political and military role in the Middle East and beyond.” (NYT 6/20/06).

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s October 2007 trip to Iran (the first by a Russian head of state in over 60 years) and his denunciation of U.S. threats against Iran, followed by President Bush’s warning of “World War III” if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, highlighted how sharp U.S.-Russian contention has become. This too has added to the Bush regime’s need to deal with Iran, one way or another.

Invading Iraq, Strengthening Iran

The U.S. “war on terror” aims to transform the entire Middle East, not just preserve the regional status quo. U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israeli aggression in Palestine and Lebanon, have indeed shaken the region—but also strengthened the pole of Islamic fundamentalism and Jihadism, including Iranian influence in particular.

By 2005-2006, the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban were regrouping in Afghanistan. Israel’s July 2006 assault on Lebanon—designed to crush Iran’s ally Hezbollah and weaken Iran’s regional influence—instead strengthened both and unleashed a wave of support for anti-U.S. Islamism. U.S. neocons helped Israel plan the attack, and some reportedly saw it as a dry run—or even a trigger—for a bombing campaign against Iran. Islamist movements were also gaining ground in Palestine, Turkey, and Pakistan.

This dynamic has been especially problematic for the U.S. in Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s secular rule unleashed a wave of fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shi’ite. It sparked a violent Sunni-based opposition, strengthened the Shi’ite religious parties with close links to Iran, and sparked sectarian civil war. All have threatened to derail the U.S. mission, while giving Iran an unprecedented opportunity (and need) to expand its influence in Iraq. And Iran has been working to do just that.

In sum, the geopolitical “playing field” in the Middle East has been tilting in ways unfavorable to U.S. goals, with Iran standing to be the beneficiary—whether or not it’s directly involved in any particular development.

2007: Surging in Iraq, Escalating Toward Iran

By the end of 2006, a sharp debate had broken out at the top levels of the U.S. political establishment over strategy in Iraq and the region. In December, the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group called the situation in Iraq “grave and deteriorating” and warned of a potential “slide towards chaos.” Baker-Hamilton called for scaling back the U.S. military mission in Iraq, and engaging in aggressive diplomacy to stabilize Iraq—with Iran and Syria in particular. While committed to maintaining U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Baker-Hamilton represented a different approach to accomplish those aims than Bush-Cheney’s two-generation war for regional transformation.

In January 2007, Bush rejected the Baker approach and went in the opposite direction—a “surge” of over 30,000 more troops in Iraq and a multi-pronged offensive against Iran. Since then, Bush spokespeople regularly threaten Iran and blame it for attacks on U.S. forces.

In the summer of 2007, the Democrat-controlled House and Senate followed Bush’s lead, passing resolutions labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a “terrorist organization”—potentially a resolution Bush could cite as Congressional authorization for war.

In October 2007, the Bush administration announced its most sweeping sanctions on Iran since they were first put in place nearly 30 years ago.

According to Seymour Hersh, in 2006, the Pentagon was actively planning for a massive bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities and military and leadership facilities. In October 2007, Hersh reported that the focus of U.S. attack plans has shifted from “a broad bombing attack” to “surgical” strikes on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and “There has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning.” For much of 2007, nearly half the U.S.’s warships have been stationed near Iran.

Bush’s escalation flowed from the realization that the U.S. had staked its imperial future on victory in its “war on terror,” and to back down now could gravely weaken its regional and global positions, derail the war effort, and embolden U.S. adversaries. Iran had become the main obstacle to victory in this war for greater empire. A new National Security Strategy released in September 2006 mentioned Iran 16 times and stated: “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.”

Overall, these developments reinforced the Bush team’s view that the “swamp” of anti-U.S. states, mass anger, and Islamic fundamentalism must be “drained” and the region reordered. And they increasingly argue that overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran is key to these strategic goals.

The Democrats share the goal of preserving America’s Middle East hegemony and global power, and realize how much is now on the line for their system. This is why they cannot and will not act decisively to stop the Bush juggernaut in the Middle East, whether or not they have differences over how to best strengthen the empire.

Careening Toward Confrontation

There is still reportedly sharp debate at the top levels of the Bush administration (Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Gates versus Vice President Cheney) over whether—at least for now—to continue to deal with Iran through diplomatic and economic pressure, or to more immediately use military means. According to Hersh, the order to attack Iran has not yet been given, although Britain’s Telegraph reports (9/16), “Pentagon and CIA officers say they believe that the White House has begun a carefully calibrated programme of escalation that could lead to a military showdown with Iran.”

In any case, the U.S. is stepping up a multi-pronged assault on Iran. In so doing, it’s creating a tinderbox that could be ignited by any number of “sparks.”

Their latest moves are a continuation of the sordid and reactionary history of intervention by the U.S. and its allies documented in this series. This history has included supporting one tyrant after another; plundering Iran’s oil wealth for over 70 years and exploiting it to this day; turning Iran into a battlefield in two World Wars; overthrowing a popular government and putting the fascist Shah on the throne; turning the Shah’s Iran into a military outpost and feeding ground for Western capital; and during the revolution of 1979 seeing possible advantage in the seizure of power by reactionary Islamic theocrats (who the U.S. has decided must now be crushed or subordinated to its interests). This history shows that nothing good can or will come of any new U.S. intervention or attack—no matter what pretexts it offers.

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