The US, Iran and imperialist rivalries

Nick Rogers takes issue with other Weekly Worker writers in their assessment of international relations and the imperialist drive to war

In this article and a subsequent one I seek to explore a number of areas of ambiguity within the formulations of the Hands off the People of Iran campaign – and some straightforward differences.

I believe that Hopi has played a crucial role in orientating influential sections of the left towards a principled position on the pressing issue of the increasingly strident drums of war being sounded by the United States in the Middle East. The campaign has skilfully balanced two requirements: campaigning against all moves towards war on Iran; and providing solidarity with Iranian workers and oppressed groups defending themselves against the reactionary theocratic regime.

Hopi is also part of a wider project that confronts working class militants: how to maintain the independence of the working class, while navigating the complexities of international geopolitics. In other words, how in a world of competing bourgeois states should communists not only build the fighting organisations of the working class, but seize the political leadership of the whole of society?

It is in this context that the question of ‘third campism’ has been aired in the Weekly Worker. Should communists be defeatist in respect of both the imperialist adventures of the major capitalist powers and reactionary anti-working class regimes that find themselves the latest target of an imperialist offensive – the Iranian theocratic regime being just the latest example? Or should we advocate a variant of defencism when weaker or ‘semi-colonial’ states are attacked?

I am grateful to James Turley for addressing a number of questions I raised on July 5 at the Marxism 2008 fringe meeting on Iran sponsored by the CPGB and Hopi. The discussion at the meeting was led by Yassamine Mather, who in the next issue of the Weekly Worker responded to James’s article. Yassamine’s letter in turn has spurred Alan Davies of the International Bolshevik Tendency to enter the fray.1

In these articles I set out my own position. In the second article I will specifically address the questions raised by the exchanges in the Weekly Worker about working class strategy and tactics. But first I think it is necessary to clarify why we think conflicts occur within the imperialist world order – for it is on this question that I disagree most sharply with leading comrades within Hopi. So in this article I discuss US imperialism and why it is targeting Iran.


Hillel Ticktin and Mike Macnair at different times have rehearsed arguments that US war aims in the current era are driven primarily by the immediate internal dynamics of the US economy. Hillel focuses on the impact of US deficit funding of military spending from the 1980s onwards and the need to fight wars in order to justify arms spending – a form of military Keynesianism.

I tackled comrade Ticktin’s thesis some three or four years ago.2 I believe the points I made are still relevant. First, how does comrade Ticktin explain the severe scaling down of US military expenditure in the 1990s? It appears that the US ruling class seized the opportunity afforded by the end of the cold war and the collapse of its principal post-World War II rival to reduce public expenditure and eliminate the US budget deficit, while maintaining its military predominance – the proportion of the world military expenditure accounted for by the US actually increased, even though US spending sharply fell. It looks suspiciously as if geopolitical considerations influence levels of US military spending.

Second, the constant evolving obsolescence – both real and manufactured – of military technology means that it is possible to have an arms race without using a weapon in anger. Reagan’s star wars initiative was an ideal way to spend billions on a system that never needed to prove its effectiveness. Why fight geopolitically destabilising wars if the sole concern of the US ruling class is to use the military sector to resolve underconsumption and disequilibrium within the US economy?

Comrade Macnair in part backs comrade Ticktin’s thesis, but has an answer to the criticism that wars have political consequences in parts of the world that the US ruling class might be expected to care about. According to comrade Macnair, global destabilisation is precisely what the US is aiming at. The priority for the US is defending the role of the dollar as the international reserve currency. When the US military moves into action, international speculators catch fright and the US economy is the beneficiary.

In a briefing paper for the Hopi launch conference Mike set out his position: “This form of management of US decline requires the periodic creation of insecurity overseas by military operations, in order to (1) stimulate a flow of funds from abroad into the US financial markets, seeking ‘safe havens’ and (2) create direct and indirect demand for the products of the US arms industry.”3

I think both comrades are underplaying the key motivation for US military action: its impact on the geopolitical balance of the world. Wars have international political consequences. The US as the hegemonic world power is affected by the ramifications – particularly when its own military forces are involved. Insecurity in the Middle East may or may not stimulate a flow of international funds to the dollar – and Mike has yet to demonstrate the complex chain of events that will guarantee such an outcome. But it will also disrupt oil flows, threaten the political survival of US client regimes, and leave in its wake long-lasting political effects in a region of vital importance to the world economy.

These considerations must be of concern to US policymakers. If the US invaded Iraq not in order to successfully occupy the country and dictate its political future, but to spread chaos, then we have to assume the US has launched the Iraq war essentially in order to lose it. And that behind any attack on Iran will lie a similar objective – unleashing a fire storm in the Middle East that may leave US regional alliances in tatters, but will boost the dollar and pull the US economy out of recession.

The contradictions between the interests of different factions of the bourgeoisie can lead to outcomes that may initially appear to defy explanation. But comrades Ticktin and Macnair ask us to believe that the US political elite has embarked on a course of action that would appear sharply at odds with its global interests (and the interests of important sections of US capital) and has done this without a whiff of the debate that must have raged within the corridors of power reaching the outside world. Surely this is more conspiracy theory than solid analysis and is but a short hop from the belief that 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the US authorities themselves to justify a hike a military spending.

It is my contention that there are real conflicts of interest between states within the international capitalist state system. Despite the fanfare around the rapid growth of international trade and investments flows over the last 30 years individual capitals remain closely tied to a home state. There are tendencies towards the internationalisation of capital, but for the time being – and probably for as long as there is no decisive breakthrough to an international capitalist state and a truly international capitalist class (both unlikely prospects) – it is correct to speak of national capitals.

It is also a fallacy to maintain that the power of states to influence economic affairs is diminishing. Most states have introduced wide-ranging doses of neoliberalism. Some have done so at the behest of more powerful states and the international economic institutions dominated particularly by the US. In so far as they have been impelled to open up their domestic markets to ‘international competition’ they have paid the price in devastated industries and a weakened international standing. Many bourgeoisies have rushed to embrace neoliberalism as an instrument to rein in the power of their domestic working class – by curbing social spending and weakening trade unions. Privatisations have recalibrated the state’s relationship with industry and opened up new sectors of the economy to profit-making.

What has not been undermined is the dependence of national capital on its state both domestically and on the international stage. Look at our own state’s privatised industries and their dependence on subsidy and regulation. Look at the fastest growing Asian economies and the close links between the state and national companies. It is this interlinking of industrial and financial capital with the state that is the meaning of the imperialism that Lenin discussed – albeit imperfectly – and of the ‘decline of the law of value’ which comrade Ticktin analyses.

The existence of national capitals and their states creates at least the potential for conflict. Increased trade, rapidly rising flows of capital, both speculative and for purposes of productive investment, do strengthen the connections between economies. This was the reason why many bourgeois commentators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thought that major international conflicts along the lines of the wars fought by revolutionary and Napoleonic France 100 years before could not recur. Kautsky speculated along similar lines in his musings on ultra-imperialism. The carnage of the first half of the 20th century proved them wrong.

Those inter-imperialist wars were in the first instance between great powers defending or seeking colonial and continental empires. The US, which emerged the predominant capitalist state from the wars between European powers, has never practised extensive colonisation (its expansion across North America excepted). The wave of national independence that swept across Asia and Africa as the European empires retreated (and the earlier disintegration of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas) was a precondition for the consolidation of US imperial rule – an imperialism based on economic and financial predominance backed up by overwhelming military superiority.

But national independence has opened the door to the rise of new capitalist powers. The relationship of the United States with these is highly contradictory. For most of the last 60 years the economies which have prospered have been those nurtured by the US under the shadow of cold war rivalries: Europe and the Marshall plan; Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, which received large US investments and, crucially, preferential trading terms. All continue to host US military bases.

But the growth of alternative centres of economic dynamism is one definition of US decline. As the decades pass, the US share of global economic production slowly edges down – from approximately half in 1950 to around a fifth now.

The US’s relationships with most states involve impulses to both alliance-building and rivalry. The European Union is tied tightly into a web of military, political and economic relationships with the US. Yet on trade issues deep antagonisms fester. And attempts by European companies to trade with or invest in the likes of Cuba or Iran meet with heavy-handed financial arm-twisting.

China exemplifies the complex and contradictory nature of US relations with other states. China hosts enormous investments by US corporations. It exports huge volumes of manufactured goods to the US (and just as large a volume to the EU). A large proportion of China’s $1.7 trillion foreign exchange reserves is held in US dollars. China therefore funds much of the US trading deficit – a deficit for which its own trading surplus is in part responsible.

Some argue that China is a US semi-colony. Yet there are no US military bases in China. The US has no influence over the make-up of China’s political elite and no possibility of engineering a military coup. China’s role on the UN security council – despite Chinese attempts to avoid outright confrontation – is not that of a US puppet. US resolutions on the likes of Sudan and Iran have to negotiate Chinese vetoes. Conflicts over trade with China as well as India sunk the latest attempt to bring the World Trade Organisation’s long-running Doha trade round to a close.

China is seeking to diversify its foreign exchange earnings away from the dollar. Chinese investments in Africa could soon overhaul those of the more established imperialist powers. Chinese companies are even expanding their interests on the doorstep of the US in Latin America. US policymakers in their turn have blocked attempts by China to buy US companies, Chinese exports to the US are a major theme of the US presidential election and the US treasury has been pressuring the Chinese to revalue the renminbi.

China has no prospect in the foreseeable future of competing on an equal footing with US imperialism. Even if China were to achieve rough parity with the US in total economic output, say, 25 years from now – as the most optimistic prognoses suggest – the US would still possess a huge productivity advantage – a much higher output per head. That would continue to translate into a US advantage in the high-tech industries that are most crucial, for instance, for fighting wars. Besides, economic crystal ball-gazing – especially when it involves extrapolating probably unsustainable growth rates decades into the future – is a foolish exercise. Japan, the economic poster child of the 1980s, hit the buffers and has stagnated for the last 15 years. A warning to all who would prematurely assign the 21st century to any US rival.

The nature of the imperialist world order is that states play a defining role in determining economic and geopolitical outcomes. The future of that world order, therefore, will be decided in a contest between competing states, in which the most successful long-term political strategy will triumph. In the era of state monopoly capitalism politics trumps economics. Of course, the most significant political struggles in the coming decades will be those contested by the working class – the only social force capable of emancipating the whole of humanity and initiating a wholly new course of history.

Continuing US dominance of the capitalist international system rests on three pillars: its predominance in certain key industrial sectors, such as IT and aeronautics (including space technology); the role of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, which allows the US treasury to manipulate the global economy in the interests of the domestic US economy; and its enormous military resources (the US spends more on its military than all of the other key players put together). If any of those pillars collapses, the hegemonic position of the US will probably topple.

If that happens, no single power is likely to replace the US in the short or medium term. What is in prospect initially is a ‘multipolar’ balance of forces with a number of competing imperialist/capitalist powers – closer to the imperialist order prior to World War I. The current fad in financial journals of promoting the importance of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies and the investment opportunities they offer will no doubt go the way of similar hot tips of the past. Nevertheless, the international economic balance is shifting. The question is whether the growth of new centres of economic power represents a geopolitical challenge to US hegemony. It is clear that Medvedev and Putin – on the back of high energy and commodity prices – would wish that to be the case and in Georgia are challenging US encirclement.

It is that prospect that the US ruling class is desperate to forestall and is the source of the conflicts between neo-cons and ‘multilateralists’ within the US ruling class. This is the context within which we need to understand US strategies in the Middle East. The US is intervening in the region precisely because of its significance for the global economy. And the Middle East is significant for one reason. Oil.

That is not to say that the US invades a single country primarily in order to hand over its oil resources to US oil majors – although the latest Iraqi oil legislation will do no harm to these corporations. The vision is more strategic than that. The objective is the creation of a political order in the region that favours regimes friendly to the US. And not only to guarantee US supplies (which in the future may well come mainly from the Americas and west Africa), but to place a ‘protective’ grip on supplies to the rest of the world – the example of Russia’s manipulation of its gas supplies to the rest of Europe is instructive here.

In part we should be prepared to take the neo-cons at their word. Rebuilding America’s defenses, the September 2000 defence blueprint of the now defunct Project for a New American Century, spelt out the objectives: “Today the [US military’s] task is to secure and expand the ‘zones of democratic peace’; to deter the rise of a new great power competitor; to defend key regions of Europe, east Asia and the Middle East; and to preserve American pre-eminence through the coming transformation of war made possible by new technologies.” Hubris quite possibly, but a strategic vision that does not suffer from a lack of coherence.


Why then the antagonism between the United States and Iran? If you accept a variant of the economic reductionism proposed by comrades Ticktin and Macnair, you might suggest that either the US ruling class is seeking excuses to expand its military spending in order to get the US economy out of the current economic downturn, or to cause political turmoil in the Middle East so as to strengthen the US dollar, or some combination of the two. The US has alighted on Iran and its nuclear programme as a convenient opportunity to launch a war that one way or another will reflate the domestic US economy.

This is indeed the line of reasoning that Yassamine Mather takes up in a recent article: “… the current threats … have everything to do with the decline of the US empire and the economic crisis it faces. ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ – you don’t even need to be a Marxist to understand this. If Iran stopped its nuclear development today, the reasons why US imperialism and its allies in the world capitalist order would need a war in the forthcoming period would still be in place – Iran is currently the best target for such an adventure.”4

But surely the sources of rivalry between the US and Iran are genuine enough? These are two states that for 30 years have been involved in a fairly open contest for power and influence in the region. Do not forget that the islamic republic replaced one of the US’s most important allies in the Middle East. In one fell swoop the ‘policeman of the gulf’, one of the largest purchasers of US armaments, a major destination for US investments and the second largest exporter of oil to the US had turned to condemning the US as the “Great Satan”. US companies nationalised, trade reduced to a trickle. Rather than providing ‘an island of stability’ for US interests, Iran was committed to exporting its brand of islamic revolution and to the destruction of Israel – now the US’s most reliable client in the region.

What was the basis for this shift? Certainly not a turn towards a ‘non-capitalist’ path of development – as ideologues of the Soviet Union had it at the time. Comrade Torab Saleth in a paper last year addressing the nature of the Iranian regime correctly identifies the post-revolution ruling class based on the merchants (bazaari) and shia clergy (ulama) as bourgeois.5 He usefully describes the role these two sectors have long played in Iranian politics and the close symbiotic relationship they have with each other and how the shah’s ‘white revolution’ threatened them with a loss of economic and social power.

The 1963 revolt which they led was prompted by the shah’s proposed land reforms, new local government structures and the granting of the vote to women. Its defeat sent Khomeini into exile. By the 1970s domestic industrialisation by Iranian capitalists, in close alliance with US multinationals, and import of foreign consumer goods were directly undermining the economic foundations of the bazaari as a class: “With the import of the Pepsi Cola factory, all lemonade workshops disappeared; with the growth of factories engaged in the production of household goods, the furniture and other workshops closed down; with the setting up of shoemaking factories, shoemakers went out of business.”6 When the shah imposed price-fixing and attempted to shift the blame for inflation onto the merchants and then aired proposals to flatten the bazaar of Tehran, relations turned toxic.

Comrade Saleth characterises the seizure of power by Khomeini’s theocratic regime as a counterrevolution against the working class forces that were at the heart of the revolution of 1978-79. What is more, the US facilitated this political turn of events: “… in the middle of 1979, at the top level of international and Iranian bourgeois circles, the powers that mattered had already reached a simple compromise and began to implement a change of regime from above. The compromise was simply this: you (Khomeini) get rid of the revolution; we (USA) will get rid of the shah!”

Within the mobilisation of the mass of the Iranian people that was the Iranian revolution, the role of the working class was crucial in toppling the shah. The working class threw up its own institutions – factory committees (shoras), street committees and independent trade unions. Combined with a massive outpouring of support for left parties and organisations, there was clearly potential for the working class to establish itself as the leading social and political force in Iran. The ultimate victory of the islamist forces on the social basis of the bazaari and ulama involved the bitter suppression of the organisations of the working class and the imprisonment and physical elimination of thousands of left political leaders and militants. A ruthless repression that bears comparison with those carried out by fascism in the 1920s and 30s and the South American juntas in the 1970s.

Yet there are two problems with comrade Saleth’s analysis. First, the organisations of the left failed to assert clear and unambiguously independent political leadership. Consequently the working class never took power. From its earliest stages the bazaari and the ulama played an important role in the uprising against the shah. In standard accounts of the revolution the vilification of Khomeini in the state media in January 1978 is identified as the spark that set the uprising in train. Theological students were massacred in Qom. Over the next year regular closures of the bazaar served as a tactic of struggle. As comrade Saleth points out, the bazaari-ulama alliance won its own mass base: a “rent-a-mob mass base inside the shanty towns, rural areas and the traditional bazaar”.

Perhaps a more accurate narrative of the revolutionary process of 1978-79 would discuss how the petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces of the bazaar and ulama took control of it for their own reactionary ends. An outcome made much more likely by the capitulation of some of the leading organisations of the left – principally, Tudeh and Fedayeen Majority – to the concept of an alliance with national ‘anti-imperialist’ forces. In effect, much of left served as loyal foot soldiers for a revolution lead by some of the most reactionary forces in Iranian society.

Second, it is stretching credulity to suggest that the leaders of the Iranian regime are in some sense creatures of US imperialism. Comrade Saleth considers the theocratic regime to have been placed in power by George Bush senior (when director of the CIA) and goes close to alleging a mutual conspiracy between US and Iranian governing elites to reinforce their respective grips on power: “There is such a tight match between the latest threats from Bush and the latest wave of suppression of all opposition inside Iran that you could well imagine that they are going over the plans together over the phone.”

The truth is that the US and Iran are rivals for hegemony in the Middle East. The shah also sought a leading role in the region, but was prepared to do so as a junior partner of US imperialism – although even the shah was prepared to express a degree of independence from time to time. The new bourgeoisie of Iran has its origins in the expropriation of Iran’s previous capitalist class and US interests and therefore has antagonism with the US built into its DNA.

It was in the period from 1979 that the bazaar and ulama acquired the leadership of the nation – with the ulama highly suited to playing the role of political leadership. The nationalisations that began in July 1979 “reflected not so much the new regime’s ideological commitment to common ownership and public enterprise as a series of pragmatic and ad hoc responses emerging from the reality of one ruling class coalition taking over power from another”.7 Control of the state – and of religious institutions such as the bonyad mostazafin (foundation of the oppressed) that appropriated all the assets linked to the shah’s family – gave the social classes that took power in 1979 access to economic resources immensely greater that they had previously known. And opportunities for personal enrichment which the likes of former president and ‘millionaire mullah’ Hashemi Rafsanjani have not been backward in seizing.

With the ministry of commerce regulating all imports, the bazaari have prospered. Now that privatisation is on Iran’s agenda, the clerical-merchant-state ruling class is poised to transform itself into a traditional individual-property-owning bourgeoisie. Membership of the IMF does not represent supplication to the US, but an attempt to gain access to normal sources of funding. IMF loans have been substantially repaid, giving the organisation little leverage over Iran. The theocratic regime has insisted that foreign direct investment in sectors such as the car industry involve the transfer of foreign technology to Iranian partners.

The relationship between the theocratic regime and the US was inevitably antagonistic from the start, but, like all relations between bourgeois states, exhibits its share of contradictions. The Iran-contra affair might lend weight to those who detect a clandestine relationship of mutual support between the global hegemon and the would-be regional hegemon. And after the death of Khomeini Iranian governments did make attempts to engage with the US and gain access to the main circuits of international capital.

However, all have done so on the basis of maintaining oversight of the prospective economic exchanges and continuing to extend Iranian influence in the Middle East. Hence Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Hence also Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme. The US has not been prepared to cooperate with Iranian overtures. Currently, it is stepping up the pressure on Iran. The US threat of unilateral sanctions against potential investors has successfully blocked Iran’s attempts to find international partners with the technological wherewithal to develop its oil and gas fields.

Iran certainly assisted with the overthrow of the Taliban and shed no tears when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Understandable enough, given that both regimes were mortal enemies of the theocracy. Now Iran has extended its influence into the mainly shia province of the Herat in Afghanistan, and dominates the politics and economics of southern Iraq. It has important allies in the governments of both neighbours. However, far from the theocratic regime – in the words of the ambiguous formulation in Hopi’s founding statement8 – providing “indirect support for the occupation government in Iraq” in the sense of strengthening the US occupation, the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence represents the US’s worst nightmare.

Two military interventions designed to create US client regimes, impose a Pax Americana and serve as a lesson to other recalcitrant rivals have given a new lease of life to one of the most explicitly anti-US regimes in the world. Do we need to search any further for an explanation for the US’s current moves to ratchet up the tension with Iran and possibly launch a crippling aerial assault?

Hopi’s founding statement is correct to state that “The Iranian regime does not represent a progressive or consistent anti-imperialist force”. I intend to discuss in the next article various meanings of ‘anti-imperialism’. In one objective, however, Iran’s theocratic regime has demonstrated a degree of consistency. That is in its determination to expand Iran’s regional influence and thereby reduce the space available to US domination. This is the fundamental cause of the conflict between the US and Iran. The bulk of the Iranian left in 1979 was not wrong to make the judgement that the new ruling coalition in Iran was basically anti-US, but to draw the conclusion that replacing US imperialism with any other imperialist power or, for that matter, a multilateral alliance of bourgeois states was at the heart of any working class project.

We do not have to make the case that Khomeini was a closet US client to justify opposition to the murderously anti-working class theocracy. It is the original anti-imperialist formulations of the left that need to be rewritten – not the history of the last 30 years.


1. J Turley, ‘Third campism is a stinking corpse’ Weekly Worker July 17; Y Mather, Letters, July 24; A Davis, Letters, July 31.
2. ‘US decline and the drive to war’ Weekly Worker December 9 2004; and ‘Neoliberalism and decline’, January 6 2005.
3. M Macnair, ‘Imperialism and the threat of war’:
4. Y Mather, ‘Sons of Imam Matgamna’ Weekly Worker July 31.
5. T Saleth, ‘Class nature of the Iranian regime’ Critique December 2007.
6. An observer quoted in A Malim and S Esmailian Iran on the brink London 2007, p29.
7. Ibid p33.

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