Trump’s brass-neck pirates versus the Iranian people

US patrol ship in the Persian Gulf

By Sammy Barker

US President Donald Trump is continuing his faltering campaign against the Iranian people. Having pulled back from a direct military attack on 21 June, he clearly feels the need for new tactics. Since that time, three major initiatives have been launched. These are preparing yet another round of sanctions; forming a naval alliance for pressuring Iran; and attempting to punish Iran for breaching the agreement Trump wants to destroy.

What’s left to sanction?

On Wednesday 10 July, Trump tweeted that “Iran had long been ‘enriching’, in total violation of the terrible 150 Billion Dollar deal made by john Kerry and the Obama administration. Remember that deal was to expire in a short number of years. Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!”

Trump blithely ignores the fact that there has been no evidence of Iran breaking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has a rigorous inspection regime of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, and has regularly reported Iran’s adherence to the agreement. As Trump’s administration has introduced unilateral, systematic and secondary sanctions against Iran’s economy, finances, state apparatus and political leaders, it is surprising there’s anything left to sanction.

But things can always be made worse. Reports are circulating that Trump is considering introducing a “Final Rule” to bring Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act into effect. This refers to the authority for the Secretary of the Treasury to define a foreign, jurisdiction, institution, etc. as of a type to be of “primarily money laundering concern”. Once so defined, special measures can be introduced up to a total ban on financial transactions. Thus any trade with Iran, including humanitarian trade, could be excluded.

Before embarking on a course of negotiations leading to the JCPOA, President Obama considered this issue but it was considered excessive, and left in abeyance. If Trump introduces this then the few foreign banks currently maintaining accounts with Iran, for medical and welfare trade, would almost certainly close accounts, to avoid onerous scrutiny and sanctions. It would definitely have an impact upon the EU’s INSTEX vehicle for humanitarian trade with Iran.

Secrets and lies

The suggestion of “secret” moves by Iran is a staple for White House scare stories. A statement from the Press Secretary of the white House dated 1 July reads: “The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment. It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level. There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms. We must restore the long standing non-proliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran. The United States and its allies will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons”.

What hope is there for people who are certain a deal is broken before it existed? And the US government really is forlorn if it believes Iran will abandon all rights to enrichment after these were endorsed by the UN, EU, Russia, China and the previous US government. But then a deal that Iran agreed to which prevents it acquiring nuclear weapons is apparently an aid to Iran acquiring them.

Trump has to muddy issues. In 2003, and again in 2009, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khomeini, issued a fatwa (ruling) banning “the production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, and specifically nuclear arms.” He characterised nuclear weapons as “unIslamic”. Equally, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Major General Hossein Salami, this week told the Tasnim News Agency that the world knows Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon, which has no place in Islam. But the statements and actions of the foremost political and military leaders of Iran carry no weight in the actions of the US government.

Piracy as a tactic

Further stepping up the “maximum pressure” upon Iran, the US administration announced this week that it aims to enlist allies in the next two weeks, for a military coalition to patrol the strategic waters off Iran and Yemen. The US will provide command ships (of course), lead surveillance (of course), while its allies are to patrol waters near the command ships and escort vessels with their nation’s flags (the risky bit).

Major General Joseph Dunford, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of staff, said “We’re engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab.” This then represents an intervention against Iran, and a deepening intervention in the Yemen war. No details of potential allies have been released. One UAE source suggests this could include Japan, despite its constitution which renounces war.

Some obvious candidates have made themselves known. On 30 June, the Egyptian military dictatorship detained a Ukrainian tanker carrying Iranian oil. At the same time it found guilty one Egyptian national and five Iranians (in absentia), for spying for Iran. Sentences delivered were for 15-25 year jail sentences plus fines.

Prime piracy material

On 4 July, the British government seized the Grace1 tanker carrying 2 million barrels of Iranian oil. It was in international waters at the time. The allegation is that it was heading for Syria in breach of EU sanctions. The supreme court of the Government of Gibraltar granted permission to hold the tanker for fourteen days.

The irony of the British government being the best defender of EU interests has been apparently lost on the British media. Of course, it was not on the EU’s behalf that the vessel was seized by British marines. The Spanish Foreign Minister and incoming EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, told reporters that the vessel was detained at the request of the United States. The British government’s denial of US involvement requires a handful of salt, particularly after the UK Ambassador to the US was delivered up to Trump’s vanity.

Former Swedish Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, Carl Bildt tweeted: “The legalities of the UK seizure of a tanker heading for Syria intrigues me. One refers to EU sanctions against Syria, but Iran is not a member of the EU. And the EU as a principle doesn’t impose its sanctions on others. That’s what the US does.” The EU has barred oil shipments to Syria since 2011, yet during that time it has never seized a tanker at sea. Unlike the US, the EU does not have broad sanctions against Iran. As Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javid Zarif pointed out “Iran is neither a member of the EU, nor subject to any European oil embargo. Last I checked, the EU is against extra territoriality”. He added this act of “piracy” set a “dangerous precedent”.

Certainly in the context of the tension in the Gulf, the arbitrary action of the British government threatens to undermine EU diplomatic efforts and encourage the most hawkish sections of the US administration. In June, Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, made it clear that the Tories will go along with Trump risking another war in the region. He stated that “we will stand by the United States as our strongest ally”. And the government would look at “any requests for military support on a case by case basis”.

Both he and, fellow Tory contender for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson are determined to follow Trump’s lead. Already there has been a potential clash between the frigate HMS Montrose and Iranian vessels.

The first precedent – blockade and coup

The role of Britain and the US is policing the Persian Gulf has two serious precedents. Unfortunately, these are not going to be remembered while the current conflict with Iran is being engineered by the US.

Firstly, at the start of the 1950’s, the popular movement in Iran was focused on removing Britain’s monopoly control of Iranian oil. Iran’s popular, and elected President Mossadeq told the UN that the British owned Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) received annual profits of more than £62 million, out of which Iran received a measly sum of £9 million. The Iranian Majles (parliament) had carried his proposal to nationalise Iran’s oil. This was fiercely rejected by the AIOC, the international cartel of oil companies, and by the British and US governments.

As Ervand Abrahamian outlines, in his wonderful work “The Coup”: “Nationalization initiated a zero-sum struggle. For Mossadeq, and Iran, nationalization meant national sovereignty, and national sovereignty meant control over the exploration, extraction, and exportation of oil. For Britain and the AIOC, nationalization meant the exact opposite. It meant loss of control over the exploration, extraction, and exportation of the same oil. Political conflicts usually leave some room for compromise; this left little such room. Either control had to be in the hands of Iran – as Mossadeq insisted. Or, as Britain equally adamantly insisted, control should remain in its own hands – or, at least, not in the hands of Iran.” (Page 81)

After carriage in the Majles, oil nationalization was implemented on June 10 1951. Immediately afterwards, the AIOC instructed staff to resign, telling them anyone transferring to work for the National Iranian Oil Company would be unable to convert their salary to sterling. Within six weeks, the entire British staff of over 2000 had left.

The British government then froze Iranian assets in London, and stopped royalty payments to Iran. Other acts included sanctions against importing or exporting to Iran. Most significantly, the British government said it would impound any tanker leaving Iranian ports. Britain also got Italy, Japan and Germany to refuse any licences for Iranian oil. These actions by Clem Attlee’s Labour government are undoubtedly among the most shameful parts of labour movement history.

Iran, as the International Bank (later World Bank) reported in 1952, was able to keep the oil installations in excellent order and produced enough oil to more than satisfy Iran’s domestic needs. But the blockade of Iranian oil and the covert CIA/MI6 operations inside Iran laid the basis for a successful coup against the elected President. As a result oil was denationalized, although the British monopoly was replaced by a consortium of international oil companies. And further, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was installed to reign over the Iranian people, one of the cruellest dictatorships of the twentieth century.

The second precedent – piracy in the service of Saddam Hussein

The second example is not so dramatic, but no less represented an assault upon Iranian sovereignty. In September 1980, Saddam Hussein launched Iraq into an invasion of Iran. The war was to become the longest conventional war in the world since Korea, lasting until 20 August 1988. Exact casualties are unclear, but at least 500,000 lives were lost, and 1 million were severely injured.

Saddam was supported by the major imperialist powers. As well as political and diplomatic support, the US government provided Saddam with intelligence on the location of Iranian forces. Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad on behalf of President Reagan, to assure Saddam of US support. US allies in the Gulf bankrolled Iraq’s war effort – $60 billion in loans and grants from Saudi Arabia, and $18 billion from Kuwait.

Western support was not dented by Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. 63 separate gas attacks were recorded between December 1980 and March 1984. Weapons grade chemicals were supplied under licence from the US government and the German government. Gas was again used in 1988 against Iran and the Kurds. There was no US condemnation of these attacks until March 1984. The Iranians took the principled stance and refused to respond with chemical weapons.

US and British involvement became more direct in the so-called “Tanker War”. Saddam began military action against seaborne vessels in 1981. By 1984, Iraq had attacked 43 vessels. The Iranian had refused to be drawn into attacking vessels until 1984 when a further 53 attacks by Iraq result in 18 attacks by the Iranians.

In November 1986, the Kuwaiti governmentappealed for protection by reflagging shipping under military escort by naval powers. The USSR responded first, but Reagan insisted that the US should lead the effort. Convoys were organised whilst Iraq was allowed to continue its attack on vessels. On 17 May 1987, USS Stark was attacked; a missile strike resulted in 37 sailors being killed. Reagan was convinced Iran was responsible, even though it was later confirmed it was an Iraqi missile. In April 1988, USS Samuel B Roberts hit a mine, ten soldiers were killed. The US then destroyed 2 Iranian warships and a number of patrol boats. No military action was taken against Saddam’s navy.

On the 3 July 1988, while patrolling Gulf waters, the USS Vincennes shot down civilian airline flight Iran Air 655. All 290 on board were killed, including 66 children. The US government later gave medals to the Vincennes crew. Later is also paid compensation for the deaths.

Throughout this time, the British navy supported the US efforts. British and French crews took part in an operation called Aramilla Patrol. Convoys included non-national ships. Such action was aimed at promoting normal commerce whilst allowing Iraq to continue its unprovoked assault upon Iran.

With these precedents, any suggestion that the British navy will be used in a disinterested manner must be dismissed. British participation in the new US coalition will aid trump’s blockade of Iran, and further the Saudi led war against the people of Yemen.

Competing for the biggest brass neck

Of the new tactics being tried by Trump surely the most laughable is the attempts to align international support against Iran’s alleged breach of the JCPOA. Due to the failure of other parties, particularly the EU, to meet their obligations under the agreement that protect Iran’s economic interest from the US government’s unilateral sanctions, the Iranian government has stated that it will successively breach the limits on enrichment imposed in the agreement. It is no longer able to export nuclear material. It refuses to let the US force it to drop its right to enrichment by default.

The E3 Group (Britain, France and Germany) were given sixty days to meet their commitments to protect Iran’s position, or Iran would be forced to breach the limits. The Iranian government claimed under the terms of the agreement, paragraph 36, it could exceed the limits when other parties failed in their obligations. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif stated “As soon as E3 abides by their obligations we’ll reverse”.

However this became the trigger for the Trump administration to insist that Iran now adheres to the agreement that the US had unilaterally broken from a year previously. There was no pretence or concealment about Iran breaching the limits. The IAEA confirmed that Iran had started enriching above the maximum allowed limit. Brazenly, the US government now called for the IAEA Board of Governors to hold an emergency meeting to discuss Iran’s breach of an agreement that the US is campaigning to end.

The meeting took place on 10 July. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be an unsuccessful event for Trump. Russian ambassador to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the US “was practically isolated on this issue”, and that it was an “oddity” that the meeting had been called by the US, “the country that declared the JCPOA to be a terrible deal”. Iran’s Zarif said it was ironic the meeting was called by the US given that it “punishes all who observe” the terms of the deal.

Trump’s brass neck was perhaps matched by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. On 1 July, he urged the EU to impose “automatic sanctions “on Iran. He said “On this day I also call on all European countries to stand behind their commitments. You committed to acting the moment Iran violates the nuclear agreement, you committed to activating the mechanism for automatic sanctions that was set in the (UN) Security Council”. He did not call upon the EU to honour the commitments it had made to ensure that Iran gets the economic benefits of its adherence to the agreement. Netanyahu had campaigned against every stage of the negotiations of the JCPOA, against its ratification, and its implementation. He had previously characterised the JCPOA as an “historic mistake” and a “sure path to nuclear weapons”. This really was running Trump close for the brassiest neck.

Unease in the Trump camp

As is evident, although Trump is continuing to increase the tension and potential dangers, little progress is being made in bringing Iran to surrender. Even inside his administration there is a visible shift underway. The most aggressive hawk on Iran, National Security Adviser, John Bolton was side-lined in Trump’s diplomatic visit to Korea. Trump had Bolton attend a conference in Mongolia. Meanwhile accompanying Trump in the summit with Kim Jong-un was Tucker Carlson, Fox News commentator, who is credited with convincing Trump to stop the proposed military strike against Iran on 21 June.

Certainly even his closest allies are concerned about the constant threat to the region. UAE representatives have become uneasy, given their proximity to potential action. UAE Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, said on 23 June, “Tension in the Gulf can only be addressed politically. Crisis long in the making requires collective attention; primarily to deescalate and to find political solutions through dialogue and negotiations. Regional voices are important to achieve substantial solutions”. Another UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, said on 26 June that no country could be held responsible for the earlier attacks on tankers in the Gulf. The Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehnood Qureshi said “Pakistan wants a negotiated solution to these tensions. I do not think increasing tension in the region will help either the US, Iran or the entire region.” One particular point of concern for Pakistan is that currently the negotiations with the Taliban appear to be making substantial progress towards ending war in Afghanistan. Such a delicate development can be easily upturned.

It is also notable that French President Macron sent his top diplomatic advisor, Emmanuel Bonne, to Iran on 9 and 10 July to try to de-escalate tensions. Trump had spoken to Macron twice in the week beforehand. Ahead of the G20 summit in Japan on 27 June, Macron said “I want to convince Trump that it’s in his interest to reopen a window on the negotiations process – maybe to reconsider some of the sanctions decisions”. Macron has agreed with Iranian President Rouhani to explore, until 15 July, the conditions that might enable the reopening of a dialogue of all parties.

Iran holding firm

Trump’s wobbling around is certainly in part a product of Iranian resistance. Sanctions are having a major effect upon Iran. But Iran has lived under sanctions for most of the last forty years. Its closest allies are not all buckling. The Russian government has said that it will continue to trade with Iran, without resorting to special mechanisms, and whilst ignoring US sanctions.

The Chinese government appears to be increasing its support. Recently China took its 2nd Iranian cargo of crude oil. A National Iranian Tanker Company ship discharged oil at the Tianjin port in northern China. The tanker has a capacity of 2.12 million barrels. The Chinese state owned nuclear company, CNNC, signed a contract, at the end of May, for the modernisation and redesign of Iran’s Arak nuclear facility. This is despite the US removing the waiver on Arak from the start of May.

Nor is the Iranian economy without some points of progress. Oil exports have been badly hit; June exports were 515,000 barrels per day, although Reuters reported only 300,000. This compares to 980,000 in May. Yet, if China continues to buy, the July figure will rise. The Indian government is still examining the proposal for renewing purchases.

Government and civil action inside Iran seems to be helping. The currency unit, the rial, has lost 70 per cent of its value against the dollar in the last 18 months. But since the first week of May the rial has strengthened by 13 per cent. The Central Bank has made several interventions.

In his “Tyranny of Numbers” blog, Djaved Salehi Isfahani writes: “…after experiencing the huge shock of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which caused the US dollar and local prices spike, inflation is slowing down. Consumer prices rose by about 40 percent last year, and as late as March were rising at 60 percent annual rate, in the last two months have declined to 19 and 10 percent annual rates. As a result the dollar has stabilized at around 130,000 rials for USD, which is 20 percent below its peak a few months ago. Fears of “Venezuelaization” of the Iranian economy (collapse) have subsided, allowing the government to revive its long neglected public investment program, which could boost employment and production.”

An example of such a program is the announcement by the Iranian government of its intention to increase the social housing program by a further 400,000 small and medium units, over two years, and on top of the anticipated 600,000 due to be built in that period. Demand remains substantially higher, and many shocks are still possible to the economy.

One thing is certain, whatever the difficulties the Iranian people will continue to resist the US’ impositions. It is vital that the anti-war movement in Britain and the US remain on high alert against the continuing threat of a war upon Iran.