On 11 April a huge explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran caused a power cut. When the power suddenly stops, this causes the rotors of the giant machines used to enrich uranium to stop spinning which, according to Iranian officials, caused 60-70% of them to be destroyed. They were quick to blame “countries” which were aiming to ruin renewed efforts to save the nuclear deal through “nuclear terrorism”. This was a clear implication that Israel was the culprit. Not long later, Israeli press confirmed this was indeed the case.
The explosion didn’t come completely out of the blue. For some time, there has been what a former Mossad official calls a “secret war” taking place between the two countries. In July last year, there was a prior attack on the Natanz facility. In November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior official in Iran’s nuclear programme, was assassinated in an attack involving multiple assailants riding motorbikes and armed with machine guns. There have also been tit-for-tat attacks on container ships over the recent period.
These skirmishes come in the context of the resumption of mediated talks between the US and Iran over a revival of the Iran nuclear deal. This deal, which had been scrapped by Trump, promised an end to US sanctions on Iran in exchange for a curb on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator, pointed out that a revival of the Iran nuclear deal would “obviously hurt” Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. Iran is viewed as an existential threat by the Israeli establishment and Netanyahu is reported to believe that Israel’s own (undeclared) nuclear weapons programme does not represent a sufficient deterrent.
Israel is used to being the only nuclear power in the region. Under Trump, they have also had what Robert Maller, the Middle East Director under Obama, called the “virtually blind endorsement” of the US. Now, however, there is a shift in US foreign policy.
As we have explained previously, after the fall of the USSR, US imperialism was completely unmatched on a world scale. However, the US suffered two defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan and then went through the 2008 global crisis. These all combined to lead to mass opposition to war in the country. US imperialism has met its limit, and while it is still the strongest imperialist power on the planet, it is not able to maneuver as it used to in the past. Additionally, the wiping out of the Iraqi army, which had been used to balance against Iran for two decades, led to a power vacuum in the region. This has been filled to a large extent by Iran, which is now the strongest force on the ground in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. All this means that, in order to secure stability in the region, the US must rely on Iran. The previous Iran nuclear deal was essentially a recognition of this fact.
However, as Biden moves to rely more on Iran, this only alienates the US’ traditional allies in the region: Israel and Saudi Arabia. This change of policy is forcing a reaction on the part of Israel, who are desperate to prevent the rise of Iran. As one Iranian hardliner pointed out:
“Israel has a record of destroying Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programmes and has the self-defined mission to do the same with Iran’s… It’s sending a message to the Americans that they don’t need to contain Iran through talks and hence no need to lift the sanctions.”
The same article quotes Eldad Shavit, an Israeli former intelligence officer, who said that:
“Israel wants to make the position [over nuclear talks] harder for the American administration and send the message to the Iranians that we’re stronger and we don’t need to hide when we’re doing something.”
What we have here then is a desperate attempt by Israel to disrupt these negotiations by any means necessary.
Netanyahu’s corruption charge
There is another factor to consider. After three back-to-back elections, in May 2020, a government was formed as a coalition between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. The two had agreed that, after 18 months, Gantz would take over the role of Prime Minister from the former. However, late last year, Netanyahu brought this government down by refusing to pass a budget, forcing the fourth election in two years. This has resulted in a complete deadlock. Parliament is essentially divided into pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocks. With the former holding 52 seats and the latter 45, both sides seem unable to reach the 61 needed to form a majority.
Netanyahu has himself been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from three corruption charges. He is therefore clinging to power in an attempt to avoid being locked up. This brings about the need to distract from the chaos at home by attempting to whip up jingoist hysteria. There is no better target for this than the “greatest enemy”, Iran.
Out of his own self-interest, Netanyahu is acting like a loose cannon, deliberately attempting to make any deal between the US and Iran impossible. This whole situation is therefore a very stark demonstration of the crisis of US imperialism. Not only are they forced into making concessions to their enemies in the region, but they are also unable to control their friends. Whilst the attack took place when Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defence, was in Israel, as the New York Times reported, the US was only given a cursory warning about the attack, with not enough time to intervene.
Changing policy of the US
For decades, the US relied on the flow of oil from the Gulf and used Israel in order to control the region. However, last year the US became a net exporter of both oil and natural gas, which means it is less reliant on Saudi Arabia. Equally, five years of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” approach, which involved punitive sanctions on Iran, have done nothing to stop it. Indeed, this policy saw Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile increase from 102kg to 2.5 tonnes. Iran’s growing strength in the region therefore required a change of approach for the US ruling class. From “maximum pressure”, one US National Security official now reports that the US and Iran have a “common objective” of reviving the nuclear deal.
This change of approach may come with some bumps in the road for Biden. A section of the US establishment, including both Republicans and Democrats, is somewhat wary of making concessions to Iran precisely because this is an admission of defeat. In March, 43 senators, from both the Republican and Democrat parties, sent Biden a letter calling for the nuclear deal to be more stringent than before in order to deal with Iran’s “destabilising activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile programme”. As Foreign Policy reports, since the Senate is so finely balanced, angering this many Senators could throw a spanner in Biden’s domestic plans.
Nevertheless, the main wing of the US ruling class wants and needs this deal. If they want to try and bring about stability in the Middle East, they have to rely on Iran. There is no other option given its strength in the region. This means that pressure in the US from a minority wing of the establishment will not be able to stop the deal. All it will mean is that, as Ali Vaez has put it, there needs to be a careful ‘sequencing’ of measures in order to allow both Iran and the US to “save face”. This sequencing may well be enough. Out of these 43 senators, who do not, in any case, represent a majority of the Senate, it is not clear that all of them would vote against a deal; for many, this is probably mere posturing. So long as Biden and Iran sequence some concessions in words and in the right order, it will probably be enough for some of these senators to change their tune.
Trouble in Iran
Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” was a complete failure. Not only was it ineffective in trying to stop Iran’s nuclear programme but, politically, it actually strengthened the regime as a whole, and the hardline elements in particular. Whilst the regime is hated, imperialism is hated even more, and in the face of imperialist aggression, the regime can to a certain extent rally the masses behind it. Indeed, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister, was quoted as saying the US “do not have any leverage over Iran.” The ‘hardliner’ wing, who tend to be more sceptical about making deals with the US, are even more confident, with one saying that the election of Trump was “good luck” for them. When the US appears as an enemy, this enables the Iranian ruling class to pose as defenders of ‘the whole nation’.
However, the whipping up of a jingoistic mood does have its limits. In total, it is estimated that the sanctions have cost the Iranian economy $200bn. This has almost entirely been borne by the working class and poor of the country. As the Financial Times reports, the number of Iranians experiencing extreme poverty has risen by 500% to 20 million people, with official inflation figures increasing from 8.2% in May 2018 to 48.7% now. The sanctions thus have a dual impact. Whilst they can bolster the government politically for a time, they are also leading to huge pressure on the living standards of the masses. This has to, at some stage, provoke a reaction, which we have seen in the many strikes and protests over the recent period.
The bulk of the Iranian leadership recognise this situation and are therefore pushing for a deal with the US in order to end the sanctions. Saeed Laylaz, a reform-minded economist, has said that if Iran “can’t curb poverty, it could face political and social instability” and he calls for the government to “compensate… for the huge pressure on people over the past three years.”
There are those such as the Revolutionary Guard who viewed the previous deal with the US as a “slippery slope” to regime change. They are of course right to be suspicious. Indeed, the New York Times admit that the tactic of Obama was to reduce sanctions for this very reason. Any such regime change would not be carried out in the interests of the Iranian people. If ‘humanitarian concerns’ were at the forefront of the minds of these imperialists, then why impose the sanctions in the first place? After all, the only people punished by them have been the working class and poor of Iran. Instead, the only aim would be to ensure the creation of another puppet state that can maintain order in the region in the interests of US imperialism.
The Iranian ruling class is split. One side is afraid of losing the bogeyman of the US, which can be used to rally people around the flag, and the other is afraid of the increasing social tensions caused by the sanctions.
Despite the reservations amongst a section of the regime, the need to agree some sort of a deal to end the sanctions will win out in the end for the Iranians. As we have previously explained, in the past, the regime would switch between more hardline conservative governments and more liberal reformist governments. When one wing was discredited, popular anger could be directed to supporting the other wing. Now, however, both sides are increasingly discredited. The Financial Times quotes Homeyra, a fifty-year-old housewife, who says: “Even if [former reformist president] Khatami runs for president, I will not vote for him… It makes no difference to us as they are all the same and we become poorer every day.”
Alongside the discrediting of both the ‘moderates’ and the hardliners, a recent poll of 50,000 Iranians, 90% of whom live in Iran, found that around half of respondents had lost or changed religion and less than one-third identified as Shia. All the main pillars of Iranian society are being shaken. All of this means that some relief from sanctions in order to bolster the economy is a necessity. What hesitancy there is that exists on the part of the hardliners is more due to the fact that they want to claim credit for any deal instead of the liberals.
Generalised instability is capitalism’s ‘new normal’
What we have in the Middle East is a complicated web of competing interests, with the balance of power shifting towards Iran, and the US unable to keep control over the situation due to its general crisis. This allows regional powers to flex their muscles and demand a larger slice of the pie, which is itself a recipe for increased instability.
Israel is intent on stopping Iran’s nuclear programme by periodic attacks and sabotage, but just like the maximum pressure campaign, that will not work. Iran’s nuclear facilities are well underground and shrouded in secrecy and cannot be hampered continuously. In the long run, it could even propell Iran to actually produce a nuclear bomb - something the Iranian regime has refrained from until now. Far from pushing Iran to stop its nuclear programme, all the actions of the US and Israel show that this is a necessary measure to counter imperialist aggression. The Iranian regime can take a look at North Korea and see that the only way to avoid being bullied on the world stage is by possessing a nuclear deterrent.
There are those who say that, should the talks fail, the only way to stop Iran would be war. However, a war between the US and Iran is ruled out for the foreseeable future. The US was unable to gain a victory in Afghanistan even when at the height of its power. Indeed, Biden has now promised to remove all troops from the country by 11 September with no conditions placed on the Taliban. This places even more importance on a deal with Iran, which would be a key force for the stabilisation of Afghanistan in the future. Victory in Iran, against a far more modern and powerful army than those of Afghanistan and Iraq, would be impossible. As we have pointed out, even airstrikes would pose a real danger for the US since all military bases within 2,000 miles of Iran would be in danger. Also, for Joe Biden, who has dressed himself in ‘progressive’ clothes in a desperate attempt to mollify the class struggle in America, launching a war against Iran would be suicide.
Thus a deal between Iran and the US is inevitable, and there is nothing Israel can do to stop it. What the Israeli regime is doing now then, amounts to nothing but bluff and bluster. Nonetheless, this certainly does not mean a return to stability. The relative decline of the US on a world stage emboldens its enemies such as Iran, Russia and China, which can flex their muscles more than before. It also means they are less able to control their friends, who can, for their own interests, destabilise the situation. This is the new normal of capitalism in its senile decay: increased instability and localised wars.