The conflict’s background
The base of the antagonism between the West and Iran remains the revolution of 1979 which had a strong anti-imperialist momentum and remains until now one of the most important popular revolutions of the regions or even the world. The Islamic Republic is, however, not a direct, linear, immediate expression of the popular and anti-imperialist tendencies but rather its mediation broken by clerical rule.
We just have to remember the Iraq-Iran war. With its approach of dual containment Washington carefully balanced its proxy support to both sides. The war served the Mullahs as a formidable tool to bend the power of the popular movement having emerged during the revolution.
Take as further evidence the unequal couple of Rafsanjani and Khatami during the 1990ies. They reflected the interests of the new elite stuck between the popular classes, the clerics and the global oligarchy spectacularly failing in rebalancing them.
American Empire’s intransigency
After 1989/91, when US hegemony reached its peak, Washington was in the position to accept nothing less than total subordination. Khatami’s advances towards a compromise did not prompt any echo. Bush’s and the neo-cons’ American Empire resulted in a further escalation. Its hubris bore already the germs of its fall.
Iran’s nuclear programme had a clear and legitimate rationale of self-defence against a highly aggressive US-Israeli axis keeping the monopoly on nuclear armament. At a certain point an imperialist military aggression was possible and even probable given the expansion of Iranian power across the region represented by the constitution of the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis. Ahmadinejad was a kind of logical reciprocation to Bush.
Obama did by no means end US imperialism, as the then raging Obamania suggested, but acknowledged the altered relationship of forces after the semi-defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan in the very interest of the US ruling elite. A military attack on Iran became increasingly unthinkable as the Obama group understood that it would hardly produce a favourable outcome for the US. On the other hand Israel kept pressing for it.
When the Syrian quagmire started to unfold, the US tested many approaches with one imperative: not to be dragged into yet another military adventure which in a final instance it cannot win. Washington is now convinced that a political agreement is necessary partially considering the Iranian and Russian interests. The costs for continuing and escalating the Syrian conflict seem too high. In this sense the détente with Iran is a central precondition for the Geneva II talks. Between Bush and Obama there is actually a qualitative change with regard to Iran. It is the difference between direct and indirect rule. But it is to be expected that the US-Israeli hawks will do whatever possible to obstruct the détente.
The Iranian side
It is important to understand Ahmadinejad as a reaction to the total failure of Rafasanjani and Khatami (who by themselves represent not one line but a coalition). Their contradictory attempt for normalisation eventually proved impossible. They tried to re-integrate Iran into the capitalist-imperialist world order. This was incompatible with the Neocon Empire when insisting on the national independence gained for the first time since the period of Western colonialism. But there was also the attempt to find a way of partial democratisation and cultural relaxation while in substance maintaining the exclusive rule of the clerics (vilayat-e faqih) – impossible as well.
Ahmadinejad is certainly a kind of anti-imperialist reaction to the massive imperialist aggression. Iran had been for at least one decade the main state target, the head of the axis of evil. But Ahmadinejad also played the anti-clerical popular fiddle against the openly capitalist clerics and their liberal clerical allies who proved unable to deliver on their promises. He was able to revive the popular masses instincts. In their crisis of hegemony the top clerics used Ahmadinejad to recycle themselves. But with the years passing this experiment proved a failure as well.
In 2009 a democratic mass movement arose asking for reforms but however tending in consequence to put in question the Islamic Republic all together. Their demands formally were similar to the Arab spring two years later. But sociologically speaking they were mainly based on the urban middle classes. Different to the later Arab popular movements the poor masses kept quiet or even sided with Ahmadinejad who could still play the anti-imperialist card. In a certain sense it came too early also as the changes in Washington were not yet manifest.
But today Ahmadinejad is totally finished and eventually also lost the support of the supreme leader. The newly elected president Rouhani is confronted with a task similar to the one of Khatami nearly two decades ago but with much more favourable international condition given the Obama line.
The costs for the nuclear programme have become irrationally high not only in political terms. The peaceful use of nuclear power cannot be justified by purely economic considerations in a country gifted with one of the largest hydro-carbon resources in the world. The ongoing sanctions have been devastating given the incapacity if the Islamic Republic to devise a model of development independent of world capitalism. Their reliance on oil and gas has been remaining total until date – a model which in Latin America is pejoratively called “extractivism”.
The deal being arranged these days is a reasonable trade reflecting the current relationship of forces. The US maintains its total military superiority being the sole power allowed to give and take nuclear weapons. That leaves Israel as the only nuclear power in the region. In exchange the Islamic Republic receives a guarantee against regime change and a partial acknowledgement of its interests as a regional power. It is a classical compromise. Neither side capitulates but partially cedes. Historically seen it is a further curbing of US power helping however the US to redesign and rebuild its global system of dominance.
But we are only at a very early stage not allowing a final judgement. History is open. Geo-political approaches always are prone to neglecting internal conflicts and socio-political relationship of forces which at the end are the driving forces of global tectonic shifts. It is a big mistake to underestimate the power of the democratic and social popular movements which are at work not only in the Arab world but also in Iran. The Assad-Ahmadinejad authoritarian imposition at the end is not tenable. Any relaxation in Iran will evoke forces which want to go far beyond Rouhani and tend to become uncontrollable.
There will be no automatic or immediate impact on the Syrian situation. We should not fall into the trap that the Syrian war is entirely a proxy war. The warring forces within Syria are no puppets though their movements are heavily conditioned by outside support. So any agreement ending the war will need strong internal players aboard. But the international pre-conditions for a success of the Geneva II talks have substantially cleared up with the agreement concluded between the West and Iran.
Possibly Saudi-Arabia will emerge as the main loser of the game. Four decades of US-Iran antagonism has been building – together with the formidable oil wealth – the base of the Saudis’ rise as a regional power. But three new momentums increasingly trouble the monarchy: a) The Arab spring despite their counter-revolutionary intervention. b) The aforementioned US-Iran détente. c) The US shale revolution significantly curbing their predominance on the oil markets.
We should take into account also the internal troubles as they cannot continue to drown their rapidly growing population of nearly 30 million in money. The Saudi-Wahhabi coalition regime is increasingly dysfunctional and no more sustainable also given the troubles export Salafism is causing to the US ally. A certain dose of sectarian was readily accepted by Washington and even employed by them especially under the Neocon creative chaos line. But that definitely got out of hand. The US wants to extinct the fire they contributed to ignite. Nevertheless, in Saudi-Arabia there is no reasonable redesign neither from within nor from outside in sight. Huge troubles lie ahead constituting a big question mark for the entire region.
Still the US does not want to lose this important ally and vice versa though a certain downgrading will occur. On the other hand they will try to offer compensation. a) Stronger US support for Egypt’s junta will not fail to please the oil kingdom. b) In Lebanon they might foment a compromise somewhat re-instating the Hariri group. (But also there Hezbollah is not a puppet of Iran even if Washington will ask Tehran to exert their influence in the frame of a regional re-configuration. Nobody can disarm Hezbollah for the time being.) c) The Gordian knot will remain in any case Syria. Washington will not be able to calm the Saudis’ fury without considering their interests or at least compensating them – which remains difficult to imagine how given the ongoing Riyadh-Tehran antagonism.
One thing, however, all players whether regional or global, do indeed share: the neglect, the mistrust, the contempt for the popular masses and their ability to act upon history. They believe to be able to wage war and arrange peace according to their elites’ interests and along necessary compromises. This is what they are doing right now in Syria. The democratic and social interest of the popular masses for those all the trouble started is of lest interest for them. Maybe there is for the time being no other possibility. We need to endorse a Geneva II settlement as the continuation of the war will go even more to the detriment of the popular masses. But sooner or later the struggle for the democratic and social demands will continue, hopefully finding more suited forms.
Since 1989/91 we have been predicting that the capitalist-imperialist order imposed on the Middle East with its centre Israel will not hold and is doomed to explode due to the momentum developed by the popular masses. The continuous wars shaking the region can only have a positive outcome for the popular interests if they are transformed into popular wars for popular power. This is what partially happened in Lebanon in 2006 against the Israeli aggression which was defeated. We insisted that (sections of) political Islam will be one of the forms in which such a tendency will come to the fore.
But what we underestimated was the power of sectarianism-communalism (Sunni, Shia, French-type secularism) being able to split the movement, pit it against each other and thus subordinating itself to the interests of regional players. That does help also the global rule-and-divide approach. This is what is happening in Syria right now. And this is what is helping the old elites’ attempts for counter-revolution.
Therefore we paradoxically have to support any agreement which can lead to a ceasefire stopping a war which can no more have a positive outcome in regard to the original demands of the popular movement. At the same time we know that the wolves of the world and the region will share the cake among themselves.
First the problem of sectarianism and the connected conflict between political Islam and secularism must be solved by de-escalation. At the core is a necessary arrangement on an anti-imperialist base between the components of the popular movement, the Islamist one, the leftist-secularist one as well as between Shia and Sunni on the very base of the democratic and social interests of the popular masses.
Only once this stage has been accomplished a new revolutionary onslaught will be possible including in the form of popular war imposed by imperialist intervention. For the time being, however, de-escalation is necessary.