During the last Presidential campaign, the Republican nominee Donald Trump made a variety of statements that suggested a changing focus in US foreign policy. He promised, inter alia, no more attempts at regime change, an effective fight against the terrorist organisation ISIS, and better relationships with Russia. Fine words, but as has been said before, “don’t listen to what we say, watch what we do.”
What they do has remained fundamentally unchanged since at least the end of World War 2. The central geopolitical goal is the retention by the United States of its status as the world’s sole superpower. That status has not been the case for at least the past decade, but it has not prevented the US from acting in such a way as to make others believe that it is still the case.
Challenges to that unipolar status are not tolerated. Countries fall in or out of favour according to their degree of compliance with American demands. That is very clearly demonstrated in the case of Iran.
Iran’s experiment with the concept of a western style democracy existed under the quasi-secular government of Mohammad Mossadegh. In 1952 Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-American (now BP) oil company so that the benefits of its considerable wealth would accrue to the Iranian people.
That was intolerable to the Americans and the British, the latter having controlled Iran’s oil wealth since 1913. A coup organized by Britain’s MI6 and the CIA overthrew the Mossadegh government and reinstated the brutal regime of the Pahlavi dynasty. No longer being a democracy did not enter the equation, a point always to remember when one hears western propaganda about America and Britain’s mission to bring democracy to the world.
For the following 25 years Iran enjoyed a good relationship with the United States. That ended abruptly with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then Iran has been subject to sanctions that crippled important sectors of the economy. It has been subject to terrorist attacks, mainly by the Mujihideen el Khalq (MEK), a terrorist organisation not regarded as such by the United States.
In 1980, when the sanctions and other measures failed to bring Iran into the American line, it was attacked by Iraq and the ensuing eight-year war cost a million Iranian lives. The Iraqis were armed and supported by the United States. It is a measure of the fickleness and expediency of American support that two years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq was itself attacked by the US, having been lured into a misadventure with Kuwait.
Other continuities may be seen in the public statements of prominent officials of the new Trump administration. Secretary of Defence James Mattis, the short-lived National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and Trump himself have all repeated the long-standing American accusation that Iran is the world’s “biggest sponsor of terrorism”.
Putting to one side the irony of such statements being made by officials of a State that has attacked more countries and killed more people in the past 70 years than all other nations in the world combined, it is an accusation that, as Gareth Porter has pointed out, (1) has been leveled against Iran since at least the Clinton administration.
In 1995 Clinton imposed a further wide range of sanctions against Iran. In his state of the Union speech in January 2002, President George Bush nominated Iran as part of an “axis of evil” (along with Russia and North Korea). Some things never change.
Again to quote Porter, this accusation against Iran is not made on the basis of any evidence, but as a settled principle of US foreign policy.
In 2007 the then Vice President Richard Cheney wanted to attack Iran and was only dissuaded from doing so by Defence Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not on any principled basis but because the risks such an attack would pose for US military assets in the region.
In the last presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton threatened to attack Iran if elected, an action that would surely have sparked a much wider war. Her belligerence owed more to America’s close relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia than it did to any legitimate complaint about the conduct of the Islamic Republic.
In January of this year Trump used the excuse of the Iranian ballistic missile tests to impose fresh further sanctions on Iran. He made the patently false claim that the tests were in breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded on 14 July 2015. That plan had been negotiated at the instigation of Russia to head off what looked very likely to be an attack on Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program.
The Security Council in Resolution 2231 unanimously endorsed the JCPOA. Trump denounced the “deal” as “dumb” and threatened to ignore it. It is highly unlikely that Trump has ever read the 108-page resolution, much less understood its detailed provisions that do not prohibit the conduct of missile tests such as Iran carried out.
Even if he had done so it would not have mattered because another continuity of US foreign policy is to simply ignore international law when it perceives it to be in its national security interests to do so.
Despite the sanctions and other obstacles placed in its path, Iran has nonetheless made significant improvements on a number of social indicators since the 1979 revolution. Life expectancy has increased from 55 years to 71 years; infant mortality rates have declined by 70%; paid maternity leave exceeds ILO standards; and 60% of university students are women with no gender bar on the subjects studied.
On all major social indicators, the status of women significantly exceeds that of all other countries in the region. It can be expected that these trends will continue, much to the chagrin of Iran’s two greatest foes in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Although Trump unilaterally imposed further sanctions on Iran these are unlikely to have the same impact as previous attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic for a very significant reason.
Iran now has two very powerful friends in Russia and China, both of whom for a variety of reasons see Iran as an essential component of the world’s greatest infrastructure project, the Chinese-led One Belt One Road (OBOR.) Both nations are also acutely aware of the dangers of Islamic extremism within or abutting their borders. Iran, contrary to much western propaganda, is seen as a counterweight to the largely Sunni nature of the violence that is wracking the Middle East.
A look at the map shows the obvious strategic position of Iran. It is the logical fulcrum for the great Eurasian development projects that are a central component of OBOR.
One of the high-speed rail links from China to Europe will transit Iran. A further high-speed rail line will link Iran to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that terminates at Gwador on the Persian Gulf.
A separate development, the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a 5600km route will run from Mumbai in India via Iran and then through Azerbaijan to Russia. Test runs were conducted in 2014.
INSTC in turn links to the maritime component of OBOR, and the Ashgabat Agreement signed by India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Oman, Turkistan and Uzbekistan in 2015. The object of this agreement is to facilitate trade between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf States.
The OBOR developments are built around a number of trade and finance structures, one of the most important of which is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SC0), the membership of which extends from China through Central Asia to Russia. Iran is an associate member of the SCO and its full membership is strongly supported by Russia.
Russia is also the key member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Armenia, another member of the EEU recently made a statement supporting a free trade agreement between Iran and the EEU. On 21 February 2017 Russia’s first Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov visited Iran to discuss such a free trade agreement.
None of these developments are welcome in Washington which is mounting a counter-strategy, the core objective of which is to break up the increasingly strong relationship between Russia and China, with Iran being used as a pawn in the geopolitical manoeuvring.
That geopolitical US objective accounts for much of the tentative noises from the Trump administration (with many contradictory voices) about a normalization of relations with Russia.
There is nothing subtle or altruistic about these moves. Trump’s comments probably reflect the advice he is receiving from Henry Kissinger who sees American rapprochement with Russia as a wedge to be used against China. Russia would be expected to sacrifice its relationship with Iran in exchange for concessions on its European borders, especially in Ukraine.
Russia’s President Putin is far too astute to fall for such blandishments. Although the western media largely ignored it at the time, Putin spelt out his version of a very different world in a speech to the Munich Security conference ten years ago in February 2007.
Putin referred to the “pernicious” nature of the unipolar world. Such a system ultimately destroys itself from within. Putin said that the “unipolar model is not only unacceptable, but also impossible in today’s world.” The model itself “is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization.”
“Today”, he said, “we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.”
“We are seeing,” Putin went on, “a greater disdain for the basic principles of international law…One State, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well who likes this?”
Putin’s prescient comments fell on deaf western ears. If they had listened, and paid heed, then the remarks made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the same conference ten years later in February 2017 would not have created such a shock.
Mr Lavrov called for a “post-West order” which is how the Russian government perceives the future. Lavrov’s speech confirmed that Russia was not interested in returning to the pro-Western path pursued by Boris Yeltsin during the disastrous 1990s. He was telling the West, in effect, if you think you can use Russia to “contain” China, or drive a wedge between those two other great poles of the new multi-polar world, then they haven’t been paying attention.
The same applied to western hopes to use concessions to Russia (insofar as they can be trusted) to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran.
Far from indulging in what Putin has described as “a mad persons dream” of Russia attacking NATO states or anyone else, Russia had more important priorities. These included assisting and safeguarding the sovereign interests of its friends, as with the Syrian intervention at the request of the Syrian government.
Another manifestation of this reorientation was developing trade, communication and defence links with Iran. This included providing the S-300 anti- missile system to Iran and the possible upgrading of the Iranian air force with Sukhoi 35 fighters. A possible return of Russian forces to the Hamdan air base in Iran is also being discussed.
Most importantly, as noted above, Russia is joining with China in President Xi’s “win-win” strategy of peaceful development in Eurasia that has the potential to transform the geopolitical structure of the world. Ironically, the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder first voiced this great vision in 1904, but it is the Chinese, in cooperation with their partners in the SCO and allied financial structures that is giving effect to Mackinder’s vision.
It would be naïve to assume that the Americans will peaceably accept their dethronement as the world’s sole hegemon. They will undoubtedly engage in what Andrew Korybko describes as “hybrid wars”, (2) and one can expect Iran to be a prime target for precisely the reasons that make it a key component of the OBOR and related developments.
The SCO already has a counter-strategy with its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. That is a rapid reaction force designed to counter threats posed by the US’s hybrid warfare strategies of terrorism, colour revolutions and economic warfare to bring about regime change.
The progressive elimination of the US dollar as the main medium of international trade, already well advanced with the BRICS, SCO, and OBOR developments will further provide defence mechanisms to complement the military strategies being put in place. The world being created around the China – Iran – Russia triangle offers a very different prospect from perpetual war that is the default position of the Anglo-American world order. The future of the world depends upon it succeeding.
- Gareth Porter More Bluff and Bluster on Iran Consortium News 14 February 2017
- Andrew Korybko Iranian Media. In Oriental Review 30 January 2017.
James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law and Geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at email@example.com