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 States.”
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 Isis forces.
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 liberal.
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.