Squeezing Iran: Part 1, Trump’s project in the Middle East
Interview with Ardeshir Mehrdad.
Mehdi Kia: The last few weeks has seen an escalation of US pressures on an Iran already reeling under economic and political crisis and rising discontent. The political project crystallised in the person of Trump has from the very beginning targeted the Islamic Republic in Iran as a major foe in the Middle East. How do you see this fitting in the overall US strategy under the Trump administration? Is Iran the main target or are the attacks part of the bigger global strategy?
Ardeshir Mehrdad: As I have argued previously, the overall US strategy under the Trump administration is guided by the conjuncture of two negative processes at the global level:
- Acceleration of capitalism’s structural crisis, centred around the global economic crisis that began in 2008;
- The shift in the balance of power on a world scale and the decline of US global hegemony since 2000.
These developments exacerbated the gaps and fault lines within the capitalist system and replaced agreements and alliances between its various components by conflict and competition.
Trump’s strategy is to continue the strategy of his predecessors in order to halt and reverse the passage from a uni-polar world with the US as the sole hegemonic power to a multi-polar world with several groupings of capitalist states competing on the global stage. However, Trump has pursued this strategy using different tactics and tools, adopting a more unilateralist approach, withdrawing from earlier treaties and agreements, increasingly relying on military superiority, and using stronger political and economic pressures to achieve his aims. These have resulted in changes in US relations with the European Union, Russia, China and many other players on the international field alongside tearing up and attempting to redraw much of the global structures set up over the last half a century.
More than anywhere else in the world, the US has lost its uncontested hegemonic role it had in the Middle East after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time all the regional powers were in one way or another under its influence and it enjoyed control over the entire region. Even after the occupation of Iraq it continued to maintain that control. Even the Islamic Republic (IR) cooperated with the US in some ways in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. The IR was at the time not an immediate threat to US hegemony. In other words, the US had evolved into the sole global and regional hegemonic power. Such dominance no longer holds. Resistance to occupation in Iraq and inability to create a stable government in Afghanistan have contributed to the creation of a power vacuum that has been filled by regional players.
Consequently the US was forced more than ever to draw closer to some of its regional allies and give greater weight to their views and interests in order to create a new power balance in the region. For the new alliance to have real bite the US would have to include its closest allies into the making of its regional policies. That was why Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states not only began to play a greater role in the practical application of US strategy in the region, but their individual interests were also given greater weight. This was imposed on the US by the power vacuum in the region.
Obama tried to resist such a policy and attempted to slowly bring the IR into its orbit by offering concessions and reducing tensions. The policy failed because in practice the IR was able to extend its influence in the region and effectively the shifting the balance of power in its favour. In a decade or so the IR had extended its political influence in Iraq and in parts of Afghanistan, while in Syria Obama’s policies allowed the IR to use the weakness of the Assad’s regime to increase its influence, making the latter, in many ways, dependent on Iranian assistance. The umbrella of the IR now extended to the Mediterranean. The reality on the ground was a clear defeat for Israeli and Saudi Arabian policies in the region overturning the balance of power. The US was faced with the overall weakening of its sphere of control.
It was this weakness that impelled the US into adopt a different policy, in order to regain and retain its strategic objective of maintaining overall control of the energy rich, strategically vital, Middle East. In practice this meant giving greater weight to the individual aims of its closest allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, aims that are not necessarily identical to those of the US.
The tearing up of the nuclear agreement with Iran by the US is best understood through this new alliance. The IR has to be weakened, its zone of influence reduced so that Israel and Saudi Arabia can resume their previous status. Both countries felt deeply threatened by the IR. The Trump policy is therefore to push back the balance of power to what it was ten, fifteen years ago.
The overall policy of the US in the Middle East is a combination of efforts to regain US hegemony in the context of a chronic global economic crisis that since 2008 has fuelled the rise in competition among the main global capitalist players, replacing the earlier co-operation among them. Yet all this is taking shape at a time when the position of the US in the region is weaker than it has been since the end of WWII. This weakness is, of necessity, compensated by relying more than ever on its regional allies and thereby to take into account the individual interests of its three main allies: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Their joint interests have converged on the tearing up of the nuclear deal and increasing economic and political pressures on Iran. The Islamic regime has either to be overthrown or at the very least its regional reach and influence drastically curtailed. The entire US policy regarding Iran, whether we are talking of pressures on the EU and China and other counties can be seen in this framework.
The practical steps are part of the response of the US to its strategic aims in the region – overall control over the energy-rich and geopolitically strategic region of the Middle East, with Iran standing at the epicentre, straddling as it does the energy rich Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Today the US is forced to consult with its main regional allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, if it wants to take any steps. Circumstances have imposed different practical solutions. The overall strategy stays the same.
MK: Can we dissect further the specific ways in which the IR has been able to change the balance of power in the Middle East?
AM: Perhaps its most important tool has been the creation of numerous of what you might call the shia’ version of the Taliban. Not just in Iraq, but in Syria and in Yemen. Militias that answer predominantly to commanders linked with the IR. The political vacuum created by the defeats inflicted on US forces and the diminution of US influence were the perfect grounds for the creation and spread of such grass-root organisations, funded and organised by the IR and its local allies. It is difficult, if not impossible to defeat such forces in conventional warfare. In Syria, these have joined the Lebanese Hezbollah in creating a network of militias friendly to the IR. In many parts of Iraq and Syria the writ of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Ghasem Soleimani goes further than the central government or the most senior US general in that country. Similarly in Yemen. This is totally new development compared to a decade or so ago.
MK: These new circumstances have forced the US to put increasing pressure on its old allies in Europe. As for Turkey it is moving more and more towards Russia….
AM: The US no longer sees Europe as an ally but rather as a rival. Or, rather, it’s now both. Trump has begun a serious economic battle with the EU. Similarly Europe is beginning to look again at many things, such as whether to keep Nato or create a new military alliance – a new European army – without US interference. Or use Switzerland, outside the EU but in the Schengen, to create a different global financial order. Even more significant are Europe’s is considering replacing the dollar as a global currency with the euro or a basket of currencies. All these are going ahead away from the limelight. Look at the last meeting of the G7 to see the deep rift between Europe (and especially Germany) and the US. Trump was totally isolated.
One of the reasons the US wants to control the Middle East is to use it as a lever to pressure Europe (and China). Both are its main rivals, the difference being that China is growing faster than Europe. Moreover, China follows a single policy, making it more difficult for the US to put pressure on it while in the EU, with 27 countries not all with the same interests, the US has numerous levers of influence. Success in Brexit is one. Similarly the US can leverage countries like Poland to its advantage. For that reason China is a more immediate danger. But in the long term it is the Bonn-Paris axis, and in particular Germany (with Frankfurt daily becoming stronger, most EU countries being financially in debt to Germany) that is a growing rival for American capital. It is not surprising that the first thing Trump did in his presidency is to pour vast amount of money and remove restrictions on the US auto industry and increase duties on German cars. German economy is dependent on the auto and the steel industry both of which have been targeted by Trump.
MK: Iran’s main ally in the Middle East is Russia, which has made huge strides in reasserting its influence in the region, especially Syria. What are Russia’s aims in the Middle East?
AM: In Putin’s Russia we are witnessing a growth and spread of Russian capital, trying to improve its share in the global capitalist market. It is hoping to return to its previous economic power, this time in its private form. Behind this capital lies a huge country with enormous natural resources, intellectual capital, and a store of technological knowhow that, in parts, was of a high quality during the Soviet times. Abundant availability of scientists, academic and cultural institutions is a huge potential resource and an infrastructure for wealth creation.
Today nuclear and space technology are being put in the service of private Russian capital. Add to these huge resources of energy – the greatest deposits of natural energy in the world are in northern Russia. Yet despite this potential, Russia finds itself in a disadvantaged position in the world market, paying a toll to other capitals. It is trying to claim its share of the world markets. Putin presents the political face of this objective. He uses military and political means to achieve this. The role of the state here is to open the road for private Russian capital outside its borders.
The policies of the US and EU are clear – to counter this penetration. Despite previous agreements Nato was extended to the borders of Russia, recruiting countries of Eastern Europe. Nato’s ballistic missiles were installed in Poland, again against previous accords with the US. The US increased its nuclear arsenal, mobilised its second fleet (which Obama had planned to abolish) and massively increased its military budget. Meanwhile Europe effectively organised a coup d’état in the shape of a velvet revolution in the Ukraine. Political and economic pressures were ratcheted up under various pretexts, and here the role of Britain is noteworthy.
Putin, who symbolises the demand of Russian capital for its share, uses deep-rooted Russian nationalist sentiments to mobilise the people. First the attack on Abkhazia in Georgia, then the occupation of Crimea, using some dubious historical arguments boosted national pride. Success in Syria and its naval bases defined Russia as a Mediterranean power at home. Among outside forces in the Middle East, Russia was a major winner. It was able to reassert its influence in Syria, the only country in which it had military bases. Rapidly moving into the power vacuum created by the defeat of the US and its allies, Russia achieved an undoubted victory in alliance with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the IR. All these fed the domestic nationalist audience.
However, Russia is also a major oil producer. Its economy is heavily reliant on oil prices remaining high. This requires that it maintains good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pursuing a complicated diplomatic path, alongside military intervention, it needed to keep relations with Israel in a neutral format. In Syria this meant a policy where Israel, in return for guarantees to keep its borders with Syria secure, accepts Russian policy to keep Assad in power. This was a highly successful diplomacy for Putin.
Similarly Russia has recently worked with OPEC and in particular Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices up, something both countries desperately need. Russia, who in the past maintained a more or less independent policy from OPEC is now closely working with that cartel. Perhaps we can add here that Russia, despite spending relatively low amounts on defence compared with the US, had been able to significantly improve its military technology. Russia just completed one of the greatest military manoeuvres in its history involving both land air and sea forces. It was an open challenge to Nato of Russian preparedness for battle. Oil and its price are central to Russian economy and its military power.
Russia and Iran
Maintaining close relations with Iran, while trying to reign back some of its ambitions, is also central to Russia’s strategic interest in the Region. Iran is seen from Moscow as a strategic ally and will remain so for years to come, just like its relations with China (it is worth noting that Chinese and Mongolian troops took part in the military exercises I mentioned). Pressures placed on Iran by the west have opened up excellent possibilities for Russia to show itself as a reliable ally. Obviously their interests are not identical. Both Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as Qatar are potential huge markets for Russian arms. Neither are their views the same over Kurdistan or Syria. In the case of Syria, Putin’s overtures to Israel and the US have not been welcomed by the IR. On the other hand in Afghanistan both governments are drawing closer to the Taliban at the expense of the central government. Similarly in some ways they are perhaps in agreement in Yemen.
MK: What about the triangle of Russia, Turkey and Iran. These three appear to be drawing closer into a more defined alliance.
AM: Turkey is the other major player in the region that we have not talked about. The same power vacuum created by the defeats in US policy and the ejection of European influence in the Middle East, encouraged Turkey to extend its zone of influence, in parts through military means. First in northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, and later in northern Syria (while also investing in other anti-Assad Islamist opposition forces fighting in other parts of the country). The dream of the Ottoman Empire was being revived.
The Turks have differences of interest both with Russia and Iran. But they also have shared interests with both. In the case of Iran, it is denying Kurds their national self-determination. In Syria they have claims to different zones of influence. But when it comes to the US, all three need to show some flexibility in regards to the other two.
The tripartite meetings regularly held have resulted in agreements on some points, reducing their differences step by step. Putin, Rowhani and Erdogan are due to meet in a few days in Iran.[i] Other aspects that are not being sufficiently commented on include the question of bartered deals bypassing the dollar, and the formation of a new common market. It is likely that they will come to some agreement on the latter, seeing that all three countries are under economic pressure by the US.
MK: This part of the discussion would be incomplete without some evaluation of the recent agreement made over the Caspian Sea by the neighbouring countries. Despite the hoo-hah of the Iranian opposition abroad, the IR seems to have obtained some important concession from its neighbours.
AM: I think the key aim of the IR was stopping the US policy of encircling Iran from succeeding. By prohibiting military involvement in the Caspian by all but the five states bordering it, Iran obtained an assurance that the northern borders of the country will not be threatened by the US and Nato. In past sanctions the US had used all the literal countries of the Caspian in ways to put pressure on Iran. The current agreement prevents a repeat of that experience. This is a major victory for the IR, which has been strengthening its Caspian military presence enormously over the last few years. Meanwhile Russia has greatly extended its naval base in the Caspian.
The IR has been under pressure in the south on the Persian Gulf. Even more neutral countries such as Qatar and Oman cannot be relied upon. Neither is the future of Iraq or Afghanistan certain. Iraq has already declared that it will avoid any dollar-related deals with Iran. The two are counties in flux. Iran has been able to neutralise Turkey, and has hopes to do the same with the new government of Pakistan, where the US government has recently cut £300 m in aid. The IR may continue to be able to use Afghanistan as a route for buying and selling dollars but the country is not really a way out to the outside world. The northern border, therefore, acquires particular importance for the security of the IR and securing it was a major victory by blocking access by Nato to the three countries Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and reducing potential tensions with the first two.
Moreover Russia has given unlimited access to the Volga-Don waterway to shipping from all four Caspian countries allowing direct access to the sea of Azov and the Black sea and thence to the Mediterranean. This too is vital for the IR in case of any potential interruption to the Gulf passageway.
The second part of this interview will deal with the effects of the US sanctions on the country, both above and below, and the ways the IR has been seeking to counter them and finally the potential outcomes of this conflict with the US and its allies.
[i] This interview took place on August 30, 2018.
Feature image: Donald Trump’s announcement rejecting Iran nuclear deal [Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters] Aljazera.
Ardeshir Mehrdad is a scholar and veteran political activist. A former editor of iran bulletin-Middle East Forum, he has written extensively, in Farsi and English, on the nature of political Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.