Imperialist Diktat Means Hunger, Disease
With a stroke of a pen, on January 2 Barack Obama consigned millions of Iranians to further devastation by strengthening economic sanctions as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The fourth time that Obama has ramped up sanctions since 2010, this current round was coordinated with similar measures adopted by the European Union (EU) two weeks before.
In the name of stopping the Islamic regime’s purported drive to develop nuclear weapons, U.S. imperialism and its allies have unleashed their own weapon of mass destruction by strangling the Iranian economy, in particular through blocking the oil exports that are its lifeblood. Already in 2010, sanctions were crippling Iranian industry by depriving it of replacement parts. As oil revenues dried up, Tehran cut crucial subsidies for food, gasoline and other necessities. With hundreds of thousands thrown onto the streets as factories close their doors, food prices have skyrocketed and life-saving medicine has become increasingly scarce.
Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which Tehran has always insisted is not aimed at producing weapons, is just the most recent pretext for the crippling sanctions that have been imposed on the country by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The first sanctions were issued by President Jimmy Carter as payback for the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 by forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini, whose reactionary “Islamic revolution” had ousted the brutal and despised Shah Pahlavi. In 1995, the Clinton administration issued an executive order barring American companies from investing in Iranian oil and gas and from trading with Iran, followed a year later by a law imposing penalties on foreign firms with substantial investments in that sector. In 2006, the UN adopted sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear development program, with further measures levied over the next few years.
The Obama administration has qualitatively tightened the economic vise on the Iranian population, including by barring companies that trade with Iran from access to the U.S. financial system. In January 2012, the White House slapped sanctions on Iran’s central bank, the country’s main clearinghouse for oil exports. In June, Washington banned the world’s banks from completing oil transactions with Iran. The EU followed suit the next month by banning the import of Iranian oil, going on to prohibit transactions with the country’s banks and declaring an embargo of its natural gas. The latest sanctions point toward a complete trade embargo, closing a loophole that enabled Tehran to barter oil and gas for precious metals. They also bar trade with Iran’s energy, port, shipping and shipbuilding sectors and include penalties for supplying Iran with graphite, aluminum and steel.
Amid the growing threat of mass hunger and untreated disease, Washington spokesmen crow about the “success” of sanctions in weakening the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This course is integral to U.S. imperialist strategy under Obama’s watch. As it begins to shift most of its armed forces to the Asia Pacific—a particular threat to the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state—the White House is steering away from outright military occupations and concentrating instead on more “cost effective” war measures, from attacks by drones and special ops forces to increased use of economic sanctions. John Brennan, Obama’s nominee for CIA chief, is a major architect of the drone program that has wreaked terror on the populations of Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Chuck Hagel, slated to take over the Defense Department, is a champion of sanctions, although he prefers the fig leaf of a United Nations mandate.
Thus, the U.S. imperialists currently deploy sanctions, cyber-warfare attacks on Iran’s nuclear industry, etc., instead of outright military engagement, similarly figuring that they will help topple Syria’s bonapartist Assad regime, an Iranian ally, by enforcing sanctions and aiding the reactionary opposition forces. But make no mistake: Behind sanctions stands the threat of war, which Obama reaffirmed last year when he declared that for Iran “all options are on the table.” A NATO anti-missile radar system and U.S. Patriot missiles have been installed in neighboring Turkey, while Washington has strengthened its military alliance with several Persian Gulf states that are bitterly hostile toward Shi’ite Iran. And, as it has for years, Iran faces the threat of attack from Zionist Israel—the only nuclear power in the Near East.
Whether or not Iran is moving toward developing nuclear weapons, the fact is that in today’s world, possession of nukes is crucial to deterring military attack and resisting imperialist diktat. It is not lost on Tehran that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and last year’s NATO bombing of Libya were made all the easier because Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s governments lacked such weapons. As Bill Keller notes in the New York Times Book Review (13 January):
“The fact that we invaded Afghanistan while paying court to terrorist-breeding (but nuclear) Pakistan taught Iran that weapons of mass destruction command deference. Then, in the Bush axis-of-evil years, our hard-liners convinced their hard-liners that nothing short of regime change would satisfy Washington…. It would be astounding if Iran didn’t at least contemplate acquiring the bomb.”
Yet even the possession of nukes is no guarantee of security from attack by U.S. imperialism, with its massive nuclear arsenal and overwhelming military power.
It is the duty of the U.S. proletariat to oppose sanctions and all other means by which “its own” ruling class seeks to impose its diktat around the world. This includes standing for the defense of Iran against any military attack by the U.S. or its ally Israel. As Marxists, our defense of Iran in the military sense does not imply the least political support to the bourgeois Islamic regime, which enforces the fierce oppression of women, gays and national minorities and brutally represses labor struggle. But what must be understood is that it is U.S. imperialism that is the greatest danger to the working people and downtrodden of the planet, as it has demonstrated repeatedly: e.g., the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and its later counterrevolutionary wars in Korea and Vietnam. Nothing short of the overthrow of the capitalist-imperialist system through workers revolution will rid the world of this menace and open the road to a socialist future.
Murder by Sanctions
The cruel effectiveness of the sanctions is based on the domination of world banking, industry and trade by the handful of advanced capitalist countries that constitute the imperialist powers, chiefly the U.S., which acts through its own banks and through its leading role in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. That domination is enforced through sheer military might, of which the U.S. has had the overwhelming preponderance ever since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92.
UN sanctions against Hussein’s Iraq led to the deaths of some 1.5 million people while hollowing out the country in the lead-up to the imperialist war and occupation. Most of the sanctions’ toll was taken on children and the elderly, the most vulnerable to malnourishment and lack of medicine. Speaking of the mass murder by sanctions, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright infamously declared that this “is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” This cold-blooded calculation was echoed by California Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman in 2010 concerning sanctions against Iran. Dispensing with diplomatic artifice, Sherman offered that “critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”
While Iran is more populous and powerful than was Iraq and has not experienced the same degree of mortality, it is still a dependent country, with a population that is increasingly suffering under the weight of sanctions. Last year, oil production in Iraq surpassed that in Iran, which had been the world’s third-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia and Russia. The choking off of Iran’s oil exports has spelled catastrophe for a country that normally imports much of its food, machinery and refined oil products. Between late September and early October last year, the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, plummeted some 40 percent as inflation spiraled. According to one analysis of Iran’s black-market currency exchanges, prices were doubling every 40 days.
The most dramatic impact of the sanctions has been on drugs and medical supplies. Western governments point to waivers in the sanctions that supposedly allow the import of essential medicines. Belying this “humanitarian” claim is the fact that there is no banking channel by which payments can be transmitted to pharmaceutical suppliers abroad. Iranian drug manufacturers, who are dependent on imports for more than half of their raw materials, have to pay with a greatly depreciated currency, when they can pay at all. Meanwhile, hospital equipment is breaking down due to lack of spare parts. The Washington Post (4 September 2012) wrote that the effect of sanctions “is being felt by cancer patients and those being treated for complex disorders such as hemophilia, multiple sclerosis and thalassemia, as well as transplant and kidney dialysis patients, none of whom can afford interruptions or delays in medical supplies.”
Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan report in the London Guardian (13 January) that “85,000 new cancer patients are diagnosed each year, requiring chemotherapy and radiotherapy which are now scarce.” While more than 8,000 hemophiliacs are finding it harder to get blood clotting agents, some 23,000 Iranians with HIV/AIDS have had their access to vital drugs severely restricted. With outside supplies blocked, the drug market is being swamped with smuggled products of dubious value, much of which arrives on donkeys from Turkey. In the words of the head of the Iranian Hemophilia Society, it all amounts to “blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights.”
From the oil fields to the assembly lines and small shops, sanctions have taken an enormous toll on the proletariat. Placing the burden on the backs of workers and the poor, the Ahmadinejad government slashed subsidies for food, gas, electricity and other necessities in 2010. Last year, according to Iran Labor Report (10 October 2012), a petition signed by some 10,000 people protesting this economic austerity stated that slim wage increases have been far outpaced by price rises, and that “millions of workers cannot afford their monthly housing costs.” As the Wall Street Journal (3 January) wrote, “Poor families now go months without eating meat or poultry, which have seen some of the biggest price hikes.”
Reporting on the industrial area of Delijan, the Journal article also noted that the 2012 sanctions caused many small factories to shut down due to lack of parts for maintaining aging machinery, with many larger plants struggling to avoid bankruptcy. Iran’s car industry, the largest in the Near East, posted a 60 to 80 percent decline in production last year, with hundreds of thousands losing their jobs. France’s Peugeot carmaker, for example, was forced to suspend sales of assembly kits to Iran because of tighter sanctions.
Iran’s Chamber of Commerce now reports that 67 percent of the country’s industry has been shut down (Financial Times, 16 January). It should not be lost on anyone that U.S. imperialism and its cohorts have, through conscious policy, qualitatively worsened the plight of Iranian workers in the midst of the five-year-long world recession. Brought on by the speculative binges of the finance capitalists of the imperialist centers, that crisis has meant ruin for millions upon millions of workers in the U.S. and around the world. In Iran, cascading unemployment is undermining the ability of the working class to wield its social power, based on its role in production, in its own defense. This underscores the need for the proletariat internationally to oppose the sanctions in support of its Iranian class brothers and sisters.
Iranian Prison House
A big reason for Washington’s gloating over the “success” of the sanctions are signs that increased social turmoil is posing a challenge to the Iranian government, which is due to hold presidential elections in June, when Ahmadinejad’s term expires. In early October, the Majlis (parliament) struck a political blow against Ahmadinejad by voting to consider halting a second round of subsidy cuts. The vote took place several days after a protest against the government, precipitated by the sharp fall in the rial, shook Tehran’s main bazaar. This marked the first time in three decades that the bazaar merchants—a highly conservative layer that formed a principal social support for the 1979 “Islamic revolution”—publicly turned against the regime. (The merchants had already been alienated by government policies favoring the business interests of the Revolutionary Guards and others.) The tens of thousands of protesters included many workers, but the protest was firmly under the leadership of the shopkeepers and traders.
The harsh fact is that the Iranian proletariat has never recovered from the historic defeat it suffered with the rise to power of Khomeini and his mullah regime in 1979. What followed was a reign of terror in which trade unionists and any and all forces of the left were simply smashed. Vicious repression continues to this day, with Kurds and many others charged with moharebeh (waging war against God) subject to execution. Amid rising crime brought on by austerity, on January 20 the regime staged the public hanging of two unemployed men from poor families who had robbed a man of the equivalent of $20 and wounded him with a knife. The New York Times (20 January) reports that many in the crowd shouted in protest.
The defeat of the Iranian working class in 1979 was not preordained. Militant struggles by oil workers and other sectors of the proletariat against the Shah’s hated U.S.-backed dictatorship had posed the possibility of a fight for workers power. But those struggles were betrayed by the workers’ putative leaders, centrally the Stalinist Tudeh (Masses) party, which led its proletarian base into a bloc with the reactionary Islamists in the name of “anti-imperialism.” That treacherous path was followed by almost the entire left internationally, from the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat of Ernest Mandel to the Stalinophobic followers of Tony Cliff. In sharp contrast, the international Spartacist tendency, forerunner of the International Communist League, declared: Down with the Shah! Don’t bow to Khomeini! For workers revolution!
To this day, the opportunists of the Cliffite school, who grooved on not only Khomeini’s “revolution” but also the war by CIA-backed mujahedin cutthroats against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, have continued to support the forces of political Islam—and/or more-liberal bourgeois nationalists, depending on which way the winds are blowing. (For more on Afghanistan, see article on page 3.) Meanwhile, the reformists of the Workers World Party hail Iran’s theocratic regime for supporting such Islamist “liberation movements” as Hamas and Hezbollah. The utter phoniness of Tehran’s anti-imperialist credentials can be seen in the fact that as NATO troops occupied Afghanistan early last decade, Iran armed the Northern Alliance forces that fought alongside U.S. troops.
There is and has long been enormous discontent in Iranian society: workers struggling to survive on pitifully low wages; peasants and the unemployed eking out an existence under conditions of intense austerity; women and youth yearning for freedom from deeply oppressive Islamist strictures; Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis and Arabs groaning under Persian chauvinism. However, with the workers movement severely repressed, the most visible opposition to the government comes from reactionaries like the bazaaris or pro-imperialist forces adopting the guise of “reformers.” The latter describes the “Green Movement” that led mass protests in 2009 during the rigged presidential elections pitting Mir Hussein Moussavi against Ahmadinejad. A “reform” cleric, Moussavi served as prime minister under Khomeini for eight years in the 1980s, when thousands of leftists, women’s rights activists and Kurds were slaughtered in the prisons and buried in mass graves.
As the only class with the social power to sweep away capitalist rule, the proletariat in Iran must begin to emerge as a class fighting for itself and for the liberation of all the oppressed masses. The central lesson of the disaster it suffered more than 30 years ago is that it can do so only by maintaining strict independence from and opposition to all bourgeois political formations, all forms of religious reaction and all imperialist forces. The remnants of the Tudeh party operating in exile continue to trample on this fundamental Marxist principle. In 2009, Tudeh called for support to Moussavi, whose hands are covered with the blood of their own comrades.
In Iran as elsewhere, the key to mobilizing the class power of the proletariat is the leadership of a revolutionary workers party modeled on the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, which led the workers to power in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917. The ICL is dedicated to building such parties internationally, not least in the belly of the U.S. imperialist beast, to lead the fight for new October Revolutions.