Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2007

Iran on the Brink, part two

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Part two of Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War” is titled “Iran in the World.” It takes up the issues that have put Iran on the front page of the newspapers for the past several years, including nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the “war on terror”, holocaust denial and the strategic importance of oil. Their approach is a model for the left. While maintaining the necessary distance from the Iranian government, they display rock-solid solidarity with the Iranian people. Furthermore, one can only conclude that one of the greatest obstacles to the defense of the Iranian nation is the government itself, which is pursuing policies that are self-defeating in the final analysis.

“Iran on the Brink” puts the drive to build nuclear power plants into historical context. Under the Shah, American companies including General Electric and Westinghouse invested heavily in nuclear power in Iran, with the solid support of the American government.

What might not be so well known is Ayatollah Khomeini’s views on the matter. In contrast to the Shah and to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khomeini viewed atomic weapons as the work of the infidels and suspended all work on nuclear power. After he died, the program was revived since it was understood that nuclear energy was necessary for capital accumulation in Iran. Since Iran is virtually floating in oil and natural gas, it might seem like a paradox that nuclear power is necessary. The authors supply an explanation that is grounded in Marxist economics and common sense.

Based on its import substitution/self-sufficiency development model, it is imperative that Iran export oil–every drop of it. This is the only commodity that can generate foreign currency, such as Euros, that can be used to buy desperately needed capital equipment. However, the government is caught in a bind. Oil is also used for subsidized domestic consumption, such as home heating fuel and gas for automobiles. Given the acute social tensions that already exist in the country, it would be very risky to reduce the subsidies for petroleum products, hence the need for nuclear power.

While Iran very likely has no immediate plans for nuclear arms, the authors make the case that it would make sense for them to acquire the technology to produce them. Given the open hostility of the U.S. and Israel, Iran needs such weapons to avoid the same fate as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Malm and Esmailian state:

It is up to encircled Iran to defend itself. No other power will come to its protection.31 Thus the rationality of the pursuit for a “break-out” option – a nuclear infrastructure with latent military potential – is not a product of the paranoid fantasies on the part of the millionaire mullahs. Other rulers of Iran finding themselves in the same situation might well come to similar conclusions. As the US State Department declared in a rare moment of insight in October 2003: “any government – even a secular Western-oriented one – would probably continue the quest for nuclear weapons.”

“Iran on the Brink” presents a compelling case for the inevitable clash between the West and Iran that has already occurred in the country on its Eastern border. That clash can be summarized in the words, “It’s the oil stupid”. While there have been some fairly credible cases made that the invasion of Iraq and the one that threatens Iran today might have other causes (the Zionist lobby, the profits of munitions companies, the need to intimidate Muslims, etc.), it is difficult to take them quite so seriously after reading chapter 13, titled “Who Commands the Waterfall”–a reference to V. 3 of Capital, where Marx describes the waterfall as being less expensive than the steam engine:

It is by no means within the power of capital to call into existence this natural premise for a greater productivity of labour in the same manner as any capital may transform water into steam. It is found only locally in Nature and, wherever it does not exist, it cannot be established by a definite investment of capital. It is not bound to goods which labour can produce, such as machines and coal, but to specific natural conditions prevailing in certain portions of the land. Those manufacturers who own waterfalls exclude those who do not from using this natural force, because land, and particularly land endowed with water-power, is scarce.

Those “who own waterfalls” today are obviously the countries in OPEC that through the accident of natural history sit upon vast oil reserves. Marx points out that the owners of waterfalls (and oil reserves) can prevent their exploitation by capital but, by the same token, “a waterfall cannot be created by capital out of itself.”

The fact that these modern equivalents of waterfalls are in countries ruled by anti-imperialists, or threatened by local anti-imperialist movements, supports the interpretation offered by “peak oil” theorists. Peak oil is not so much about the absolute disappearance of oil, but that it is increasingly limited to countries deemed as “unstable”–in other words, countries that refuse to be picked apart by vultures like Exxon or British Petroleum. This tendency has been described by The Economist as “resource nationalism.”

While the imperialists are in desperate need of Iranian oil, the country cannot fully exploit the resource because the infrastructure is dilapidated. In order to modernize, Iran must gain access to foreign investments. But the West makes it difficult for Iran to sell oil as long as the government is considered inimical to its interests. This is what Marxists call a contradiction. In the fevered imaginations of the neoconservatives (and the liberals like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who insist that Iran is the world’s greatest threat to peace), a lightning strike into the country would result in the toppling of the regime. Looking at the resentful mood of Iran’s secular-minded students and intellectuals, they assume once again that they would be greeted with flowers. There is about as much basis for this in fact as there was in Iraq, probably less so.

This is not to say that imperialism has not already begun to cultivate a fifth column in Iran that would operate against the government. Two areas have been singled out as potential allies for an invasion, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. These are where two oppressed nationalities have resisted the Islamic Republic for decades now. One of the unfulfilled expectations of the 1979 revolution was that the Kurds and the Arab nationality in Khuzestan would be given full rights in an autonomous region. That was too much to expect from the mullah millionaires who simply view such peoples as an obstacle to their own plans for capital accumulation–alongside the burgeoning labor movement. The antagonism of Tehran to the oppressed nationalities endangers the Iranian nation in the long run. That is one of the reasons the country needs to have a revolution that will fulfill such promises, just as the October 1917 revolution in Russia did.

In the summer of 2005, a previously unknown Kurdish guerrilla group called Pejak (Kurdistan Free Life Party) began to launch attacks against army and Pasdaran outposts. Unlike the KDPI and Komele, Kurdish revolutionary groups that emerged from the Iranian left, this new group emerged out of PKK camps in Iraq, where western intelligence has a heavy presence. At the time of the writing of “Iran on the Brink,” there was no evidence that Pejak was actually collaborating with the CIA, but a communiqué that appeared on its website amounted to a thinly-veiled threat:

As you know, the US and the West have begun to connect with the Iranian opposition, and as everyone knows, oppressed people will use any road to reach freedom. So ask yourself why the opposition is searching for solutions in the US and the West … Sirs, use your reason and start giving us our rights before others do it … If you want to evade the destiny of Yugoslavia and Iraq, and show that you really do care about the country, then give the minorities their rights and gather them behind you, without any trickery.

The same kind of ominous developments were taking place in Khuzestan. In 2005 and 2006, bomb attacks took place against state banks and governmental headquarters for natural resources. The government assumed that the attacks were related to the conflict in Iraq, since they had all the earmarks of Sunni Jihadist attacks on Shiites.

However, the Iranian government was partly to blame for this development since it had adopted a collaborationist relationship in with the very forces bent on destroying it. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamic Republic has concluded alliances with imperialism despite the torrent of anti-imperialist rhetoric coming out of Tehran.

For the US, however, the autonomy of the Iranian state is part of a malaise that stretches far beyond the borders of historic Palestine. In the two countries under US occupation, that is, Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran has emerged as the prime alternative locus of power. This has not been achieved through anti-imperialism, or any other principled policy: the Islamic Republic has reached its position through insidious Machiavellian plots, immolating the local populations whenever it served its interests. In Afghanistan, Iran was instrumental in the US campaign against the Taliban. Deeply provoked by the Wahhabi madrasa-students’ hatred of Shia Muslims, Iran had been a foe of the Taliban regime all through its existence, financing, equipping and training its would-be gravediggers in the Northern Alliance. As the US opted for invasion, Tehran recommended that the Alliance coordinate its operations with the US troops, even assisting it on the ground through special forces. Were it not for Iran, the ground component of Operation Enduring Freedom would not have existed. Ten days after the flight of the Taliban from Kabul, Iran became the first country to reopen its embassy. But for this, in a first change of tune, the US was not happy.

The same pattern occurred in Iraq:

In Iraq, a much longer story not to be told in detail here, Iran has similarly supplied crucial sponsorship to the US occupation and undermined the Americans’ hold over the country.29 The backbone of the “Iraqi forces” deployed by the US against the Sunni insurgency is the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. Founded by Iraqi Khomeinists in Iranian exile, having battled in the war against Saddam, Sciri reentered Iraq under the wings of the US occupation with discipline, combat experience, and absolute allegiance to Tehran. This is the force responsible for the mass mutilations of Sunni civilians uncovered in innumerable ditches, backyards and river banks in central Iraq in 2005 and 2006.

Against such dismal, opportunist policies, the only hope for Iran is the growth of class politics and radical democracy. With the emergence of a new working class movement in Iran, as documented in part one of “Iran on the Brink,” we see hope for a genuine anti-imperialism as opposed to what exists now, the anti-imperialism of fools.

Let me conclude by stating that “Iran on the Brink” is must reading for anybody trying to understand Iran today and who hopes to prevent a terrible war from taking place. Although the White House is on the defensive today, there is little assurance that George W. Bush will not risk everything on an insane “double or nothing” gamble. There are increased dangers from a Democratic Party that has been even more bellicose on Iran than the Republican Party. To be effective opponents of a new war, it is imperative to be armed with the truth. That would begin with a reading of “Iran on the Brink,” an instant classic.


  1. Hi there–something out of context: just wanted to announce our Institute to you. The program is listed under “Day 90” on my blog. Thought you might be interested.

    Comment by cerebraljetsam — May 11, 2007 @ 3:47 am

  2. Malm and Esmalian are part of Soros’ “prodemocracies” network; I’d pay a lot of attention on what they’re saying.

    Comment by andrew — June 3, 2007 @ 12:06 pm

  3. […] Louis Proyect del 1, Louis Proyect del 2, DN, Socialism Today, In Defence of Marxism, […]

    Pingback by Iran on the Brink « Shora Esmailian — February 16, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

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