By Paul Mason
18 January 2016
‘This is a good day,” said Barack Obama,
announcing the end of nuclear sanctions against Iran, “Because, once again,
we’re seeing what’s possible with strong American diplomacy.” The deal,
accompanied by a prisoner swap and the release of frozen Iranian funds, signals
the end of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But it is not a triumph of “strong American
diplomacy”. It is testimony to America’s weakness and incoherence, in the very
region where it has concentrated its military and diplomatic force for decades.
As for Iran, with the nuclear programme gone, and its iconic American prisoners
released, normal levels of barbarity can now be resumed.
First, there is the ordinary repression:
convicts – two-thirds of them drug dealers or drug users according to the UN –
were being executed at the rate of three per day last year, the highest
per-capita execution rate in the world. Then there’s the suppression of trade
unions. Iran arrested 233 labour activists in the year to May 2015. All strikes
and labour agitation are treated as threats to national security by the
Revolutionary Guards, the hard-line military force that enforces Islamic
discipline at home while spearheading military operations abroad. Finally,
there is the outright political repression that has left two presidential
candidates from the “green” protests of 2009 – Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein
Mousavi – under house arrest, and hundreds of other human rights activists,
lawyers, journalists and scientists detained.
As western businesses rub their hands at
the prospect of renewed access to this market of 78 million consumers, it’s
worth remembering what the purpose of all this repression is. Industry is
militarised: huge swathes of the economy are owned by the Revolutionary Guards
themselves. With their front companies de-listed and given new access to the
international bank clearing system, many of the Guards’ leaders will now get
very rich. The workforce, deprived of all basic rights to organise, their jobs
totally precarious, and with 70% earning less than the official poverty level,
will get the chance to be exploited by global capital, not just the Guards, the
mullahs and their cronies.
You could lament all of the repression, yet
still celebrate the Iran deal as a diplomatic achievement and de-escalation of
conflict, if Washington was demonstrating any sign of a coherent regional
policy. But it is not.
On the same day Obama lifted nuclear
sanctions; he imposed a whole new set of sanctions on Iran for testing a
long-range missile. At the same moment, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, was
fighting alongside its ally President Assad in Syria – against both Islamic
State and the moderate opposition backed by America. Soldiers from Iran’s Quds
force continue to prop up the Shia dominated government in Iraq. And the west’s
regional ally, Saudi Arabia, continues to escalate its standoff with Iran after
failing to scupper the nuclear deal by executing a Shia cleric.
If your brain is struggling to impose
coherence on this picture of half-alliances, provocations and incessant death,
that is no accident. Even those with intricate knowledge of the region cannot
fathom what the Obama administration is trying to achieve. With Bush, for eight
years, we at least understood the deranged intent: destroy Saddam Hussein’s
regime and let market forces rule. When market forces failed to rule, and
al-Qaida filled the gap, Bush imposed order in the Sunni heartlands using the
twin weapons of dollars and Special Forces. With resistance suppressed, the
plan was to entrust power to a Shia clique in Baghdad, tacitly acknowledging
Iran’s influence, while keeping Tehran surrounded by military bases and
crippled by sanctions.
Bush’s eight-year adventure in the Gulf
could be described as a spectacular unravelling, but at least there was an
illusion to unravel. And an underlying motive: oil.
As Obama’s eight years of misadventure in
the region draw to a close, it is worth trying to understand what really threw
America’s gyroscope off, in a region that haunts its popular imagination via
Hollywood and HBO.
It was the Spring – both the Arab and
Persian ones. Iranians took to the streets in 2009 in the first of the
new-style networked protests. The movement that began in Tunisia in December
2010, swept Mubarak from office in Egypt a month later, set Bahrain on fire,
deposed Gaddafi and provoked Assad into a murderous onslaught on his own
people, was not in the US State Department’s script – no matter how many times
supporters of these dictatorships claim it.
It was, fundamentally, the entry of the
educated and networked youth into the politics of the Middle East that
disoriented Obama. How do we know? By re-reading the remarkable speech he
delivered in the State Department in May 2011: a paean to the mass democratic
movements, which Obama recognised would alter the region forever, taking
decades to play out. As with all revolutions, the Arab Spring induced lucidity
of thought among the powerful. Obama called time on dictatorships – from Egypt
to Bahrain and Syria – allying American power with the mass democratic
aspirations of the youth. “Our message is simple,” he said. “If you take the
risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United
Nearly five years on, the US has cemented
its support for the military regime in Egypt; stood by as Bahrain repressed its
opposition; stood aloof from the Syrian conflict; watched as a vast cache of
American arms and equipment were abandoned by the Iraqi army to the advancing
The problem is it leaves the world in
chaos. The Obama of 2011 was right to say: “There are times in the course of
history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change
because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for
years”. Few young in the Middle East will lament America’s long-term military
withdrawal and de-obsession. But the manner of the exit matters. When Britain
and France staged their own chaotic retreats from Empire there was, at least,
the US prepared to impose its own version of a global order.
Now we’re in uncharted territory. If we
want order, and not chaos, we must task our diplomats with de-escalating conflicts,
at the same time as fostering the forces of rationality, legality and
compassion in regions the West is disengaging from. If the 21st-century order
is to be multi-polar, then the idea expressed in that now-forgotten Obama
speech would not be a bad starting point for the pole that is western and
It means that, even as you deal with
dictators, and watch a shabby regional order emerge, you must support democracy
and human rights everywhere – above all in Iran, whose young, educated population
is still crying out for them.
What a clap trap of analyses! The only thing said of any value is: “we at least understood the
deranged intent” of the US Administration. Administration of all shades!
barbarity of playing favorites against each other will continue. Nothing has
and nothing will change my friend, rest assured.
Why have we left out Israel?