By Sammy Barker
In recent weeks US President Trump has deepened his administration’s policy of applying “maximum pressure” upon the Iranian government and Iranian people. Having withdrawn from the internationally negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018, he has compounded this by removing waivers on oil purchases and nuclear power collaboration. This now prevents other countries from buying Iranian oil, or working with the Iranian nuclear industry, under the threat of sanctions being extended to those countries.
The initial sanctions imposed by the US were unilateral, without authorisation from the UN, thus lack legitimacy in international law. However, given the power of the US economy, few countries can afford to defy these sanctions at the cost of losing their market with the US.
Sanctioning the people
New sanctions have now been imposed on the industrial metals industry. These will have direct effect upon the 600,000 Iranian workers in the metals and mining industries. The sanctions will also hit the 1 million Iranian workers in the automotive sectors. Taken together, these workers represent 6 per cent of the current Iranian workforce.
There is no doubt that sanctions are having a negative effect upon the Iranian economy, and the mass of Iranian people. The IMF has reported on the clear changes to Iranian GDP. Immediately after the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015, the Iranian economy surged to 12.3 per cent growth in 2016. Undoubtedly this represented a leap in energy sales (oil and gas). 2017 saw a less exceptional growth of 3.7 per cent. But the impact of US sanctions imposed in 2018 was immediate as that year registered a loss of 3.9 per cent. IMF estimates are that it will fall further in 2019 by 6 per cent. The budget deficit is projected to reach $14billion this year.
Inflation is spiking, the money supply of Iranian rials has grown by 20 per cent. Consumption of meat is falling, and essential medical supplies are becoming unobtainable for many. The recent floods are estimated to have cost $2.5 billion. The Iranian Red Crescent Society reported that financial support from other countries was not possible because of sanctions. Some countries, such as China, were able to provide in-kind support; others were unable to because of sanctions.
The whole policy of US imperialism is an assault upon the national sovereignty of the Iranian people. Judging from its history, the Iranian people will not be cowed by such bullying.
EU wavering on agreement
The response of the Iranian government has been to hold onto the nuclear agreement with the other main signatories, the EU, Russia and China. A special vehicle has been set up by the EU, INSTEX, which will allow firms to trade with Iran whilst avoiding dollar trade and US controlled financial institutions. But this has proved to have a limited potential, initially only covering trades already directly exempted by the US government.
While the EU, and particularly the E3 group (Britain, France and Germany), have dawdled European firms have been withdrawing from trading with Iran. In the past year EU exports to Iran have fallen by 53 per cent, whilst imports to the EU from Iran have fallen by 93 per cent. Iranian impatience is entirely understandable. Particularly as during this year some EU governments, led by France, have imposed sanctions in response to an alleged “assassination” campaign by Iran in Europe.
Trump tightens the siege
Perhaps the Iranian government had hoped that it could manage the US blockade until the US Presidential election in 2020. Recent developments raise doubts about the viability of that. In particular, the decision of Trump to proscribe part of the Iranian state, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, as a “terrorist organization” could hardly be more provocative.
Alongside this, the US government has sent the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf, along with a squadron of nuclear capable B52’s to Qatar. This was in response to Israeli intelligence reports claiming increased threats to US personnel in the region. According to the US government these deployments were made “to send a clear and immediate message to the Iranian regime”.
Reports suggest that the moving force behind the deployment was National Security Adviser, John Bolton. The administration’s most hawkish member, Bolton has been campaigning for war upon Iran for the past twenty years. Democrat Congressman Thielmann characterised the deployment as “an obvious attempt to provoke an attack by the Iranians”.
This week the US government has increased the tension by evacuating non-essential personnel from its Embassy in Iraq. Such a move is normally a prelude to an expected attack on the Embassy, or because of a US decision to launch an attack. Both the German and Netherlands governments have now withdrawn missions in Iraq due to supposed security concerns.
Iranian government presses EU
With the growing tension, the Iranian government has been unable to continue to wait out the US President. It has informed its EU partners, in line with the provisions of the nuclear agreement, they now have sixty days in which to demonstrate how the Iranian economy can receive the benefits it is entitled to under the agreement, and despite the US sanctions. The initial response from the EU, and particularly the E3 powers, has not been encouraging, defining the legitimate demands of the Iranians as an “ultimatum”. Iranian President Rouhani announced that Iran will stop exporting enriched uranium, and increase enrichment levels should the EU fail to uphold their side of the agreement.
Despite this concern about the EU’s delivering upon its commitments, it is evident that the riskiness of the US administration is creating conflicts amongst NATO members in the EU. Spain has withdrawn from the US strike group heading for the Gulf. There has been a public row about the US intelligence on the supposed increase in the Iranian threat. Major-General Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US led coalition in Syria/Iraq stated that there was no increased threat from Iranian forces in those countries. US Central Command publicly contradicted him. The Ministry of Defence in Britain then published a statement endorsing Ghika’s assessment.
Growing opposition in US
In US domestic politics there has been a serious push back against the increasing war danger. A number of nominees for the Democrats Presidential candidate in 2020 have opposed the moves towards war. Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have all stated their opposition. Another potential candidate, Seth Moulton, has endorsed the British intelligence assessment against that of US intelligence. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi has stated that the US must avoid war with Iran.
Such animation follows not just from the steps already taken. Alarm followed reports from the briefing presented to the White House on 9 May. At that event Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East should “Iran attack American forces, or accelerate work on nuclear weapons”. As there is no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and US intelligence, then “accelerate” is an obvious misnomer.
Responding to the alarm, Trump insisted that reports on this were “fake news”. He added that “And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that”. Whilst it was obvious that the briefing did take place, it is true that a land invasion of Iran would take considerably more than 120,000 troops. Shanahan’s report was explicit that such a number was not an invasion force.
For its initial invasion of Iran, the Iraqi government had to utilize 200,000 troops by 1981. It was forced to increase this up to 500,000 by 1985 in order to prevent complete defeat. The Iraqi government was supported by the US and allies at the time. Yet the Iraqi government suffered half a million casualties. It’s previously dynamic economy was devastated. Daily oil production fell from 3.4 million barrels per day in April 1980 to 800,000 by August 1981. At the start of the war, Iraq had over $35 billion in foreign reserves; by 1988 it had foreign debts of over $108 billion.
The Iranian people equally suffered. But they demonstrated complete intransigence in the face of potential national humiliation. Any war by the US would dwarf the wars that have taken place in the region since 1948.
Take action against the threat of war
Tension continues to mount. On 12 May four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, were subject to explosions whilst anchored on the coast of the UAE. At the request of the UAE, an American military team investigated and made an initial assessment that Iranian or Iranian backed proxies used explosives to blow large holes in the ships. No evidence or report was published. The Iranian government denied any involvement, and demanded that further information be made available.
Whilst it seems unlikely that Trump wants a war upon Iran, he is allowing Bolton to set the pace for policy towards Iran. Whatever the US President’s intentions, the increasing US presence, and strangling the Iranian economy, is creating the basis for incidents which can escape the control of politicians.
In this situation, the growing preparedness of the anti-war movement in the US, Britain and elsewhere is entirely appropriate. When Trump visits Britain in June, the national demonstration on 4 June is a major focus to ensure that our own “maximum pressure” is exercised on the British government to oppose any US led war upon the people of Iran.