Iran and the West: Vicious cycle of distrust

Iran and the surrounding US military bases

By Steve Bell

The current hostility of the Western powers towards the Islamic Republic of Iran is in direct line with the treatment Iran has been subjected to whenever it asserted its sovereignty.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Russia and Britain competed for domination in Iran. The result was a weak state and central government represented by the Qajar dynasty – a dynasty that was forced to allow preferential trading for foreign merchants. Iran’s resources were given over as foreign concessions. Nor did the imperialist powers ‘develop’ the country – as in colonial mythology. The Russian and British governments vetoed railway development in Iran – by the First World War, the only railway in Iran was a six mile track from Tehran to a shrine.

In the 20th century, the imperialist powers, first Britain, and then the US, intervened whenever the Iranian people organised as an independent power. So the first , Constitutional Revolution was blocked and reversed by co-ordinated action from Britain and Czarist Russia, including by military occupation.

After 1918, when popular movements began to re-emerge, British imperialism supported the rise to power of Reza Shah. His government guaranteed the monopoly control of Iranian oil by the British government through its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

In 1941, occupying the country, the British government ousted Reza Shah, and turned the Iranian economy into a support mechanism for the allied war effort. This was a process it had also engaged in during the First World War. On both occasions the result was a major famine with millions of Iranians dying.

After the Second World War the growing assertiveness of the Iranian people fuelled the movement to nationalise Iranian oil. President Mussadeq was elected to carry through this act of national liberation.

The coup against Iranian democracy was begun by the Labour government in 1951 when it froze Iranian assets in London, stopped royalty payments from oil extracted, introduced sanctions against importing or exporting to Iran, and imposed a siege against tankers exporting Iranian oil. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company instructed 2000 expatriate staff to resign, leaving Iran in haste.

This process was continued by the incoming Tory government, and was supported by the US government. The culmination was reached in 1953 with the CIA/MI6 coup that toppled Mussadeq. The usurper, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, integrated the Iranian state into US key strategic alliances for controlling the region. Iranian oil was turned over to an international consortium with US companies now having the prominent stake.

The hostility of successive US governments since 1979 is then continuing this pattern of trying to prevent the rise of an independent Iran. The revolution of 1979 overthrew not just the last Shah, but also the alliances of the Iranian state in support of US hegemony. Under the Shah, Iran had been the twin pillar with Saudi Arabia against Arab nationalism, communism and any genuinely progressive development of the region. Under the Shah, Iran had also been a restraining voice in OPEC.

But what has exacerbated the tension with Iran has been the decline in the US economy’s relative weight in the world.

Average US growth had reached 4.4% in 1969 – by 2002 this had fallen to 3.5% – by 2012 to 2.7% – and by 2019, immediately before Covid, it had fallen to 2%.

Such a long term decline in growth meant that the US’s proportion of world product also fell, from 34.8% in 1971 to 24.7% in 2020.

So average growth in the US has more than halved, while its world share declined from a third to a quarter.

In 1978, as the Iranian Revolution was building to its climax, Deng Xiaoping launched the reform of the Chinese economy. In 1980, China represented 1.27% of the world product. By 2020, China represented 18.33% of the world product.

For the US, its decline in its relative weight means that it is no longer able to fund allies to the degree it did in the long boom after World War Two. Nor can it simply out-produce its rivals – as the EU, Japan and China were all expanding autonomously.

Consequently the US has increasingly relied upon its undisputed military superiority. US diplomacy has taken a back seat in an era of never ending wars and sanctions. Consequently, in its response to the Iranian revolution, the US has promoted regime change, by open and covert means, over dialogue and respect.

From the start, the US sanctuary to the Shah was an affront to the Iranian people’s demand for justice. The hostage crisis arising from the US embassy takeover hardened the stance. However, the long lasting damage to US/Iranian relations was largely a result of US support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980. The US government provided Saddam with intelligence on the location of Iranian forces. Rumsfeld visited Baghdad on behalf of President Reagan to assure Saddam of US support. US allies in the Gulf bankrolled Iraq’s war – $60 billion from Saudi Arabia, and $18 billion from Kuwait.

The US and other western governments did not condemn Iraq’s use of chemical weapons with 63 separate gas attacks recorded between December 1980 and March 1984. Weapons grade chemicals were supplied to Saddam under licence from the US and German governments.

The US supported the Iraqis in the so called “tanker war” from 1986, attacking Iranian warships and patrol boats. And on 3rd July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down a civilian air flight, Iran Air 655. All 290 on board were killed, including 66 children. There was no apology – although the US government laterpaid compensation. The Vincennes crew received medals.

Throughout the subsequent years, the US did little to change its hostility to the Iranian people. Sanctions were the primary weapon of pressure, but the constant refrain was the lack of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and the hope for a pro-imperialist regime.

Any hope of improvement after the horror of 9/11 quickly disappeared. At the start of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the Iranian government provided the US with valuable intelligence on the disposition of the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. Yet within weeks of this friendly gesture, President Bush made his “axis of evil” speech, including Iran as a potential target for US power.

Successive US governments have offered Iran isolation, subversion, sanctions, threats and lessons in morality. None of which has included any respect for Iran’s sovereignty and independence.

Yet despite this, the Iranian people have been able to use their national resources, including complete control of their oil, for their own benefit. Since 1979 there has been substantial economic and social progress.

In 1980, life expectancy in Iran was 51.1 years, by 2018 this had reached 76.2 years. Much of this was because of a notable decline in infant and maternal mortality, thanks to the extension of public health provision. In 1983, less than 30% of the rural population had access to primary healthcare. By 2010, nearly 100% healthcare coverage had been achieved in the countryside.

In 1976, female literacy stood at 42.3% – by 2012, female literacy stood at 97.7%. The improvement in women’s position was also reflected in the fact that in 1979 there was an average of seven children per household – by the end of the 1990’s the average was two children per household.

Despite the attempts to isolate Iran, the work of successive governments resulted in economic growth despite terrible difficulties. In 1985 the Iranian economy was performing at 56% of the average in the Middle East and North Africa. By 2014, the Iranian economy was performing at 126% of the average. In less than 20 years – Iran went from around half the regional average to become a regional powerhouse in the economy.

Of course, I am not saying Iran has solved all its problems – just that the Iranian people have demonstrated they can use their independence to advance their living conditions and standards.

There is no doubt that the signing of the JCPOA (the nuclear agreement) represented a turn in US diplomacy. Obama’s administration recognised, firstly, that the Iranian state was surviving and relatively stable despite sanctions. And secondly, that as Iran would not be intimidated out of its development, Obama’s administration agreed that Iran had the right to develop a nuclear industry for peaceful purposes – and that it had a right to enrich uranium for its own use.

Obama told Congress: “There really are only two alternatives here : either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through negotiations, or it’s resolved through force, through war. Those are the options”.

The experience of sanctions since 1979, including the experience of Trump’s “maximum pressure”, confirm that the Iranian people will not yield to this method of punishing Civil society. Consequently, we see the real chance of a return to the deal.

But really there is nothing new in this. In his “Memoirs”, Mussadeq explains how under the siege and sanctions imposed by Britain, the Iranian people were able to survive. He demonstrates how through state support, Iranian industry had continued to operate, and was even able to create a surplus in the balance of trade. This was while it was impossible to export oil, which had previously funded government expenditure. And this included having to cover the oil company liabilities after the withdrawal of expatriate labour. This was the first clear lesson in Iran’s use of “resilience economics”.

The “maximum pressure” campaign has had a big impact. After the US withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed sanctions, the Iranian economy contracted by 9.5% in 2019. Oil exports fell from 2.8 million barrels per day, to an average of 300,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. In 2012, government annual revenues from oil amounted to $210 billion – by 2020 this revenue had fallen to less than $10 billion.

In such circumstances, the government’s ability to fund industry and social programmes is gravely constrained. And, sanctions have seriously interfered with the Iranian government’s ability to respond to the pandemic.

So the needs of the Iranian people are clearly served by an agreement which reduces and ends sanctions. This is true even if the JCPOA now has a limited life span up to 2025. After all, currently there are $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen abroad.

Further, one estimate is that the damage to the Iranian economy caused by sanctions is around $250 billion. This is probably an underestimate. But in context, Iran’s gross Domestic Product in 2020 was $203 billion. The effect of sanctions is then to remove a year and a quarter’s total product.

To finish, the signs from the Vienna negotiations are encouraging. But we must continue to press for an end to all sanctions, and for the unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad. Stop the War has long opposed sanctions, and threats of war against Iran. We believe that it is to show the Iranian people the respect and justice they deserve.

The above article is based on a speech Steve Bell made to a Gulf Cultural Club discussion on 8 February.