Monday, April 12, 2010

From ‘smart sanctions’ to sanctions with ‘bite’

From ‘smart sanctions’ to sanctions with ‘bite’

It is the Iranian people who lose and the regime that gains from imperialist threats, writes Yassamine Mather

For the last few months, every day - and at times more than once a day - media presentation of world news has been dominated by US attempts to impose sanctions on Iran. Sometimes it is the visit of a foreign head of state to Washington that is the occasion for the latest call; at other times it is Hillary Clinton’s world tour, or a phone call from Barack Obama to a Chinese leader.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the US (the world military hegemon) is guarding against the danger posed by a hugely powerful state acquiring nuclear weapons. This could not be further from reality. Iran is a country where mass protests for over nine months have not only weakened the state, but also divided the ruling circles to such an extent that a resolution of the internal dispute is unlikely; where neoliberal policies and current levels of sanctions have created a serious economic crisis, with projections of inflation soon reaching 50% and youth unemployment now estimated at 70%. So what is the problem? Why are the US and, for that matter, the world media obsessed with the ‘threat posed by Iran’? A threat that has to be curtailed through the imposition of “severe” sanctions?

As we in Hands Off the People of Iran have stated time and again, the threat has clearly little to do with nuclear issues. Spies and physicists are unanimous that Iran is years away from achieving nuclear weapons capability. ‘Irresponsible’ countries - some with direct and clear connections to terrorist organisations, such as Pakistan, or with dangerous, trigger-happy ‘security’ forces, such as Israel - not only possess nuclear weapons, but refuse to sign up to the non-proliferation treaty, yet the US and its allies have no concern about the nuclear danger they present.

Could it be, as BBC Persian services commentators claimed last week, that the continuing conflict between the United States and Iran and the protraction of the mutual animosity has just become an aadat (habit)?[1] Clearly this cannot be considered a serious comment.

So why is the US obsessed with Iran? There are four main reasons.

1. The revolution of February 1979 deprived the US of one of its most important allies in the region, and the world hegemon power cannot be seen to be losing control in such a strategic area. Iran’s territorial waters include the Strait of Hormuz, which accounts for 40% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments and 20% of all shipments.

2. At a time of world economic crisis the US and its allies need to reassert their authority - not to mention the threat of conflict to boost military expenditure - and, with very few ‘rogue’ states left to choose from, Iran remains prominent in the foreign policy agenda.

3. One should not underestimate the humiliation the US suffered during the 1979-81 crisis, when its Tehran embassy staff were held hostage, and the need, felt by both Democrat and Republican administrations, for revenge.

4. Since the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the US and its allies have inadvertently increased the influence and strength of Iran’s Islamic Republic in the region. There is no other significant power remaining. The US strategy of curbing Shia dominance and maintaining control of the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan necessitates confrontation with Iran.

As far as Iran is concerned, it clearly needs crises and foreign enemies to survive. How else could it explain its failure to achieve any of the basic demands of the February uprising after 31 years in power? The ‘external’ enemy is also essential for continued repression, and sanctions and a state of war are necessary to excuse economic hardship, low wages, unemployment and spiralling prices.

It is now clear that the US and its European allies as well as Russia have reached agreement on new sanctions. That is why recent efforts have been directed at China and, of course, the aim is to obtain a UN resolution - as a basis for a ‘legal war’ on Iran - which does require China’s vote or at least abstention on the security council. In addition China is Iran’s second biggest trading partner (after Germany) and any ‘comprehensive’ sanctions (or, according to the Obama administration, “sanctions with bite”) must include China. All the signs are that a Chinese abstention - or even a vote in favour - is now likely. According to Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, China has now officially agreed to enter talks with western powers about such a resolution.[2]

Although trade with Iran is important for China, clearly this has limited value, compared to issues more vital to its interests, such as a nuclear deal with the US, the postponement of a decision on exchange-rate policy (last week the US treasury held back from branding China a “currency manipulator” for refusing to float the yuan) and Taiwan (especially in view of the recent US arms sales).

The latest draft proposals agreed by the US, Britain, France and Germany include restrictions on new Iranian banks established abroad and on the insurance of cargo shipments to and from Iran. Commenting on potential restrictions on Iran’s petroleum imports, Iran’s oil minister, Masoud Mir-Kazemi, said the country had sufficient refining capacity. Yet there was panic buying on previous occasions when such threats became headline news. Iranian leaders are also claiming that any sanctions which disrupt the supply of crude oil would, in the words of one Iranian official, “lead to the intensification and prolongation of the economic recession in consumer countries.”[3]

If a UN resolution is not passed, chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested that Germany and other countries might impose their own sanctions. Obama and French president Nicolas Sarkozy discussed similar plans last week in the White House and Gordon Brown would be expected to push among European partners for measures above and beyond what is likely to be permitted by the security council. These include sanctions to deny Iran access to international banking services and capital markets, permission for Iran’s national airlines and air cargo carriers to use the airspace of the US and its allies, and restrictions on Iran’s shipping firms operating in waters controlled by them.

Sanctions legislation has now passed through both houses of Congress. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would penalise foreign companies helping Iran to import gasoline and other refined petroleum products by denying them access to US markets, is now law. Two bills proposing sanctions on leading officials of the Iran regime and the tightening of export controls now await action by a committee and could come into effect later this month.

We in Hopi oppose all imperialist sanctions - whether “smart” or “with bite” - not because we support the Tehran regime in any way: we most certainly do not. We oppose sanctions because they hit ordinary Iranians first and foremost. After three decades of such measures, no-one knows better how to make money out of sanctions-busting than Iran’s clerics and their bazaari allies. Some of them rightly claim to be experts in the operation of the black market, having made their fortunes during the UN embargo against Iraq.

Further sanctions will give the regime yet more excuses to increase repression, placing all the blame for the devastating situation inside Iran on the external enemy. Far from helping the anti-dictatorship movement, sanctions disable the Iranian working class, which faces unpaid wages and further unemployment. The only Iranian supporters of sanctions are, on the one side, the hard-line Islamists in the regime, who hope for an increase in nationalist feelings to save themselves from being overthrown; and, on the other side, their rightwing opponents in the royalist camp, who want to see the defeat of the mass democratic movement and are counting on ‘regime change from above’ to bring them to power. They view themselves as Iranian Chalabis or Karzais - at the head of a pro-US government that can continue Iran’s nuclear programme with the blessing of the ‘international community’.

Unlike the ‘reformists’, royalists and other bourgeois opposition forces, the Iranian working class has stated its position on nuclear development loud and clear, and we in Hopi support that position. We oppose the nuclear programme because it endangers its workforce and threatens the environment, because Iran’s nuclear plants are located in an earthquake zone, and because we believe in a non-nuclear Middle East in a non-nuclear world.

But, most of all, we oppose all measures, from sanctions to a full-blown military assault, that the imperialists threaten against Iran.


  1., March 19.
  2. The Guardian April 1.
  3. Reuters, April 5.Free Jafar Panahi and all political prisoners in Iran