The US administration pulled back from direct confrontation with Iran three evenings ago and decided not to retaliate directly against what was claimed to be the destruction by Iran of a surveillance drone over international waters. Iran counterclaims to have destroyed the drone when it was flying over its coastal waters (within the twelve nautical miles considered national territory by international treatises). The US seems to have painted itself into a corner. It did so by unilaterally pulling back from the 2015 nuclear agreement signed by the US under Obama (not Congress, however), GB, France, Germany, Russia, and China. It compounded the problem by issuing crushing sanctions and forcing other nations, including the co-signatories above, to follow along. The goal(s) of these sanctions is (are) not clear: regime change, return to the negotiating table for a more radical denuclearization of Iran, defanging of Iran’s support for war parties in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, or simply chaos? The third aspect, little discussed in the media—at least those I read—is that the Persian Gulf and especially the Strait of Hormuz are a vital sea passage. According to my readings again, a third of sea-transported oil and gas—from the UAE, Iraq, Qatar, Iran—goes through that region, Given the economic blockade of Iran, which is a war, the pusillanimity of the Europeans, and the separate fight between the US and China over economic matters, it would not be surprising that Iran began to test both the responses of the pact’s signatories to US pressure, and especially the willingness of the US to respond militarily. No one in top political positions, in the US at least, seems to have the courage to propose a solution in which the enmity of Iran would be recognized as well earned by the USA and GB since 1953 and especially 1978–79. Of course, this would demand that the US rejoin the 2015 agreement, which is impossible now, given the weight of the far right in shaping the war mongering. House Speaker Pelosi and many other Democrats are so scared to look weak that they only offered anemic answers and effectively accepted the administration’s framing of Iran as the aggressor. The subtext is the coming elections of 2020 and the perceived need to look strong and decisive.
The above paragraph, I feel, only scratches the surface of things and simply adds to the burden felt by the vast majority of people. We need to analyze and confront structures that are not all that hidden but do look now like monstrous forces imbued with a logic of their own. To change them and move towards a peaceful resolution requires skill, clarity of mind, courage, and a lot of patience. The first ominous force is the huge development of the military in the US, including the industrial and engineering aspects of defense that are entrusted to profit-driven private companies and contractors. This part of the US economy is simply overwhelming and to switch this destructive enterprise from its advertised objective (“defense” rather than “war”) by transforming the goals of most of the human energies developed to it—education, health, care of the young and the aged, new technologies, climate challenges—will require a fundamental political change, not simply the election of Democrats to the House, the Senate, and the White House. The second structure is related to the first. It is the control of vast natural resources that are necessary to the lives of the world population: energy sources, ores (including uranium), water, forests and lands, etc. The history of hydrocarbon extraction is closely linked to the imperial and colonial rise of a few European nations and the US, all of it hardened after WW II and since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political means, financial structure, and war, have been systematically and thoughtlessly used to impose the will of advanced industrial nations, a will that reflects to some degree the expanding desires for comfort and for expansion of the self of modern people.
By political means, I understand the design of artificial nations on the nineteenth century mode in an area where the separation of state and religion, though wished by a minority (often Christian), could only be done by terror, as in Iraq, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich kingdoms. I’m also thinking of war as an extension of politics: the assassination of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, the war against the Houthis in Yemen—clearly supported by the US today, pace the Senate’s tepid efforts to hold sales of arms to Saudi Arabia—, or the present attempt to force Iran to do the chaotic will of the US and its followers or de facto allies (including France or GB that sell weaponry to Saudi Arabia, while wishing to get market shares in Teheran). In regard to this extended will-by-default, one wonders on what side Russia really is. It seems to be an ally of Iran, probably by default rather than choice, as the religious leadership of Iran is probably not fond of Russian ways and culture. But yesterday’s visit by Bolton to Israel and his meeting there with Israeli and Russian leadership, purportedly to prepare possible strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, points to the complex role Russia plays in the area. Russia’s interests are not firmly anchored in the capitalist world and its oligarchy presumably would like to see an increase in the prize of oil—even thanks to tensions in the Persian Gulf—but not to the point of threatening the “world order.”
As for financial aspects, the main one is the denomination of energy contracts (including insurance?) in US dollars, especially since 1973. Instead of a basket of currencies, the trading of oil is done in dollars. But as the sanctions against Iran show time and again, it’s not the denomination in dollars that only counts but more importantly the chokehold that the US treasury, bolstered by US military power, has on the world’s financial settlement system, via SWIFT arrangements and the structuring of securities and investments by foreigh sovereign funds.
Finally the war capability of the US and its allies—even though the latter now are rather weakened and not in a position to try significant moves of their own—means that decisions on the distribution network of energy that should obey the logic of markets and engineering, in practice follow the logic of war and narrow financial advantage. Perhaps it was understandable, even years after the end of the Cold War, that oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea and its region would go through northern Turkey and compete with the Russian project north of the Black Sea. But it was rather surprising a few years ago to read that a project of gas pipeline from Iran to India was nixed by the US, when it seemed to make complete engineering, financial, and geographical sense. The events of 1979 in Iran turned it into an enemy that was to be destroyed.
In a NYT opinion piece today, Susan Rice, who was the national security adviser under Obama from 2013 to 2017, invites the WH to do a climb down, which is unlikely to happen. More chaos is to be expected, inasmuch as the five interlocking steps she advises the WH to take require dexterity and firm control of administrative and military matters, not to mention self-control. The five steps that she recommends are first to fire Pompeo and Bolton (translation of her phrase, “to sideline”). Second, to define a few red lines: no attacks on US personnel by Iran, no highly refined fissile material for bombs, no direct attacks on Israel, and in counterpart no assimilation of Iran to Al Qaeda, a move that allows war without Congressional authorization. Third, open channel(s) with Iran regarding these red lines, through experienced diplomatic personnel. Fourth, lay out a list of reciprocal steps, for instance allow Iranians to export low-enriched uranium, stop the US military buildup in the Gulf, and in counterpart stop the targetting of international shipping or foreign aircraft. Fifth, “suspend” the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and also suspend sanctions temporarily if US prisoners are released, and the principle of direct talks is accepted. Then, expand relief from sanctions if the initial talks are promising.
Rice is playing good cop versus the unhinged bad cop. The latter behaves like an alcoholic abusive parent who threatens violence and occasionally backs off though not without threatening delayed punishment later. The sadistic pleasure of making millions of people anxious in the spreading chaos may be its own reward. Iran’s position has been clear all along. It has little to lose in confronting the agression. Its demands are that the US reintegrate the nuclear pact and that sanctions be lifted. At the other extreme, the “maximal pressure” that the present US government imposed and that effectively forces the whole world to follow looks like a recepe for self-defeating chaos.