[From the symposium on the Iran-Iraq war, organized by The Committee for the Defence of the Democratic Rights of the Iranian People (CDDRIP) and held in New York on 8 September 1984.]
My talk today will focus on the international dimensions of the Iran-Iraq war and particularly the posture that the West and the United States have taken towards this war. I will also remark on what I see as some of the most likely effects that the war will have on the social, economic and political development of both Iran and Iraq.
The importance of the Gulf
In the last four years, the American and European press have emphasized one issue in connection with the war in the Gulf: the imminent danger of the closing of the Strait of Hormuz and the ‘devastating’ repercussions of such a move for the Western countries. Interestingly enough, they basically agreed with the analysis presented by the ruling mullahs in Iran, who based their threats against the West on precisely this ‘vulnerability’. Hojatt al-Islam Rafsanjani’s melodramatic orations are a case in point, although he has recently backed off, perhaps from fear of provoking a real response! Nevertheless, throughout 1983, the American and European media played up the ‘danger’ of the closing of the Strait and gave full support to the Western military build-up in the Gulf area. The mullahs in turn fueled the hysteria by continuing to threaten the West during their Friday sermons.
I would like to begin by pointing out the fallacy of such a threat. By promoting this illusion, the United States and Europe have sought to legitimize their massive military build-up in the area. I suggest that the significance of the Gulf for the West no longer lies in the Strait of Hormuz, per se, but rather in the geopolitical importance of the area in US long-term strategy.
Why has the Strait of Hormuz relinquished its importance? For the West, the desire to keep the Strait open has always been rooted in the need to ensure the steady flow of oil from the Gulf. The economic reality of the world today, however, is such that Gulf oil itself, or at least that part which passes through the Strait, has lost its former value. In the world market, there is now clearly an over-production of oil.
The factors behind this over-production, as well as a corresponding under-consumption, are many. The economic crisis of 1980-82 (the deepest crisis to have hit the capitalist world since World War II) is undoubtedly the main factor behind the recent decrease in Western oil consumption. This crisis has meant a decrease in energy consumption overall, and particularly in oil consumption. More long-term factors to be considered are the various energy conservation programmes of the West. Added to these is the increased use of Mexican, Alaskan and North Sea oil reserves. It is estimated that if the Strait of Hormuz were blocked today, the West would still have a supply of four to eight months of oil in reserve… four to eight months to function without any threat of paralysis.
And what about Iran, from whom the threat originates? Neither Iran nor any Gulf country can withstand the closing of the Strait for even a month. The Strait is not only one of the principal routes for these states’ imports; without the export of oil, these countries would be helpless, particularly Iran, which has a chronic exchange problem and lacks international credit. Indeed, the cost of closing the Strait of Hormuz would fall most heavily on Rafsanjani’s and his cohorts’ own shoulders.
Any analysis of American policy in the Gulf must begin by looking at strategic concerns and not simply the question of the accessibility of oil. One of these many concerns, of course, is oil and the other natural resources of the region. The fact that today, due to the present economic situation, the West does not need to monopolize the Gulf’s oil potential does not mean that these resources are not valuable. The West views oil, as well as other Gulf resources, as extremely important. From the US perspective, any Soviet access to these resources, even if the US does not need them for its own consumption, is still troubling. America actively strives to keep these resources, as well as the economic potential of the region and its market of seventy million people within its sphere of influence.
Added to all this is the role of the Gulf in overall US Middle East policy. The 1984 Israeli elections and the strengthening of ties between Israel and the US have paved the way for an Israeli-US ‘peace plan’ for the region that probably includes some compromise with Syria over Lebanon. All of these plans, however, could easily be sabotaged were the PLO able to establish a base in the Gulf. Indeed, the political importance of the Gulf for the entire area is much greater than simply that of the Strait of Hormuz. Were the Gulf to fall out of the US sphere of influence, it would mean a total disruption of the stability that the US has been trying to impose since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Turning to another dimension of the strategic importance of the Gulf, we must examine the military situation. The Western military presence here is intimately tied to the fact that developments in the area are totally unpredictable. Afghanistan is under Soviet control. Iran today is, in effect, an independent political power. The state in Iran is reactionary, but it is not politically dependent. The present regime is the puppet of neither of the US nor of the Soviets. It moves according to what it perceives to be its day-to-day interests and thus its policies and actions may be in the interests of this or that world power. As a result, the Western nations, and particularly the US, have very limited means of controlling events in Iran. Nor is there any regional power that can determine Iran’s movements. This, coupled with the fact that in terms of military, economic and human potential Iran is the most important country in the region, explains why there are American and European military vessels in the Gulf and why the West is extending massive aid to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, this aid has included international credit for the pipeline to Egypt.
It is against this background that the effects of the war on American policy can be assessed. Ultimately, I believe, there is no question that this war, and its long-term effects on both Iran and Iraq, will benefit the US. In the short term, Iranian behaviour, as for example in connection with the attacks against US personnel in Lebanon and elsewhere, is doubtless harmful to US interests. The long-term rewards that the war will bring for the US, however, will outweigh any short-term setbacks.
The war and Iraq
Until 1975, Iraq was basically a Third World country with close economic, military and political ties to the Soviet Union. To a large extent, it moved within the Soviet sphere of influence. In 1975, after the signing of the Algiers Agreement, Iraq began to show signs of moving towards the West. These were primarily manifested in economic relations but there were political indicators as well. All this was not a complete surprise. There have been other countries like Iraq in which the petty bourgeoisie established its power, moved close to the Soviet and Eastern bloc and initially took on radical postures, but then slowly developed economic relations with the West and little by little was pulled into the Western sphere of influence. A coup d’etat, war or other crisis usually marked the transfer of all power into the hands of overtly pro-Western capitalists. One example is Egypt, where Sadat was born from the womb of the Nasserist regime.
After 1975, and despite maintaining relations with the Soviets, Iraq moved closer to Europe, particularly France, and slowly took on more and more Western attitudes and values. The present war has intensified this trend. It has erased the possibility, at least in the near future, of Iraq returning to the Soviet sphere. In terms of Iraq’s regional policies, the war has diminished the likelihood of any more radical gestures, for example towards Israel and the Palestinians. Finally, the $16-20 billion worth of aid Iraq has received from the Saudis and the Kuwaitis to build a war economy has created certain inescapable consequences for Iraq’s sixteen million people. What will these be?
First, the importance of the war for the present Iraqi regime and the priority assumed by the war economy mean that the bureaucratic and bourgeois forces – relying on a vast financial power which is in turn directed towards imports from abroad – will consolidate their social power.
Second, this consolidation of political and organizational power will take shape in the context of increasing military and economic ties with the West. Naturally, this will bring in its wake increased political and economic dependency. The incredible amounts of Arab capital being poured into Iraq will make it one of the most important capitalist footholds in the Gulf region.
Finally, as mentioned before, Iraq’s political stance will change dramatically. The economic, military and political co-operation now developing between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (countries which Iraq always referred to as rightist and conciliatory) will force Iraq to disengage from the radicalism which it found so useful in the past. The Iraq which was a mortal enemy of Egypt after Camp David and which led the Rejection Front is not only silent today on the question of Palestine and has established relations with the US, but has even received a promise from Israel that it will not attack Iraq’s pipelines to Egypt and Jordan.
This is, of course, a recognition – a friendly recognition – of Israel. My point is not that Iraq should or should not be Israel’s friend, but simply that Iraq is no longer able or willing to maintain its radical image, and has in effect been ‘tamed’. In short, as a result of this war, whether Saddam stays or goes, and whether there is a coup d’etat or not, the conditions for Iraq’s gradual and complete pacification and Westernization have been sown. Because of the war, the process which took more than twenty years in Egypt will take a much shorter time in Iraq.
The war and Iran
The other speakers have already stated why the war has brought temporary relief for the present regime in terms of its attempts to maintain stability and establish its dominance. I will not repeat. The mullahs have been able to mobilize the population and compensate for their own shortcomings by means of the war. The regime’s continued stability is in itself beneficial to the US. This does not mean that the US sees Iran as a friend or an ally. As stated before, this kind of deductive reasoning is incorrect. Rather, the point is that, considering the vacuum created by the 1979 revolution and all the possible outcomes; considering the character and form of the present regime in Iran; and considering, most recently, the chilling of relations with the Soviets and the repression of the Tudeh, this regime is the best possible alternative for the US.
If the US had an open hand, it would no doubt sponsor a regime similar to that of the Shah. Its hands are tied, however, and it simply cannot do so. Amongst all the possible alternatives, the present regime is undoubtedly the best. In a recent interview, William O. Sullivan correctly stated that US interests were not opposed to friendly relations with Iran in the long-term. Indeed, the memory of the hostages and the bombings can be erased.
One must also keep in mind that the strengthening of the present regime during the war years has been accompanied by the smashing of the left and the Mojahedeen, in general, and the obliteration of the democratic gains eked out of the revolution. All this has been in the interests of the US. In political terms, society has become so passive that people from all classes infinitely prefer the past to the present. They associate the US with the past and thus welcome it. America, which was cursed after the revolution, is now looked on with a favourable eye by important segments of the population and thought to have been right all along.
Economically, the war has brought devastation to Iran, particularly in the south. Added to this are the millions of dollars wasted on armaments. Today estimates of human losses are in the hundreds of thousands. Iranian society must carry this burden for many years to come. Another consequence of this war, stemming from the stability it has brought for the regime in the past five years, is the widespread chaos, waste and destruction, not necessarily even connected to the war but to the regime’s policies. The list of economic and social disasters that this regime and its war policy has incurred is endless.
The important question, however, is what consequences these disasters hold for the future, and particularly for future regimes that might follow this one. Suppose that this regime were overthrown, or perhaps underwent fundamental change from within, and the war were to come to an end. Any government that came to power would be faced with the reconstruction of the devastated areas and would have to make economic revival its central political concern.
What would this reconstruction entail for a country like Iran, a country which has had an immense proportion of its productive capacity destroyed, a country which is, in terms of technology, backward and stagnant? Can it mean anything other than a turn to the West, particularly when this reconstruction must take place at a time when the oil market is a buyer’s market?
Clearly, it has been possible to keep Iran alive by means of its oil income. It is possible today to exchange oil for arms and food and this is precisely what the economic policy of the mullahs has been. But if the goal be one of economic growth, this income will not suffice. Iran’s income from oil today is approximately $18 billion – somewhat less than the income of the years 1976-77. The only difference is that from 1977 to today, inflation in the world market has more than doubled the prices. Iran’s oil income today cannot under any circumstances support economic growth.
Iran’s future allies will naturally be found in the West and such allies will be desperately needed to supply technology, credit and aid. Along with this assistance will also come political and economic influence.
Today Iran imports commodities from the West and generally pays for them in cash or short-term credit. Economic development, however, cannot be paid for in this manner. It will require long-term credit and political stability. There is no question that these will bring about the conditions for political dependency.
This is the legacy that the Iran-Iraq war will leave for the peoples of the two countries. With it have come new realities and responsibilities that must be faced by the left and democratic forces in the area. The Iranian monarchists propagandize today that if they were to gain power, they would be able to reconstruct the country in a few years. In short, they paint a very rosy picture of the future. It is easy to dismiss the monarchists, but do we, on the left, have the courage to tell the truth?
After this war, after passing through this present hell, the future – the reconstruction of Iran – will take a very long time and entail many difficulties. People’s standard of living today will not be much better tomorrow, and this economic burden will naturally have to be shared if there is to be any social justice.