There is more to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal than meets the eye – in terms of the long term world relations, in terms of the world economy, and (what must be emphasized) in terms of coming shocks to the US working class and how those shocks may transform the mood here at home.
Make America Great Again
Trump’s withdrawal will tend to be seen as simply another stupid blunder of an ego-maniacal, eccentric lunatic. But the very fact that such a lunatic is president says a lot: He was elected based on his promise to restore the American Dream at home and, at least as important, restore the domination of US capitalism around the world (“make America respected”). But the decline in US domination is a long term process that cannot be reversed. Even the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute has recognized that. (See this article.) No male lion gives up its dominance without a vicious battle and no dominant world capitalist power gives up its dominance without an equally vicious and massively destructive battle (as in WW’s I and II). Along the path towards such an open military battle, that imperialist power will swing wildly between overt aggression and attempts to appease, disguised as “diplomacy”. That is what the main US capitalists have done – swinging from the neocon adventurism of Bush to the diplomacy of Obama (who mixed the two approaches). Despite the fact that most of them weren’t ready to abandon the diplomacy approach, they were stuck with Trump, exactly in part because “diplomacy” wasn’t working; the weakening of US imperialist domination had continued. They were bound to return to the neocon “bombs away and the hell with the longer term consequences” approach. Trump’s election means it happened sooner than most of the US capitalist class was ready for, but it was bound to happen sooner or later.
North Africa/Western Asia
Nowhere has the weakening of US capitalism been greater than in North Africa/Western Asia.
With its celebration of the collapse of the Soviet Union came the hubris that led to the US regime’s invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, placing hundreds of thousands of US troops on the borders of Iran. The subsequent weakening of US imperialism’s grip created the space for regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to try to assert themselves. Among other things, even after the ending of the economic sanctions against Iran, the rivals (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others) increased their military spending.
All of this led to the Iranian regime seeking to protect itself. On the one hand, it boosted its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Through them and through an increased role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian regime increased its role in Syria (with disastrous consequences for the Syrian people). It also furthered its long-range missile program to produce a protective shield over its country.
These steps furthered the breakdown of US domination in that region and the breakdown of the old capitalist order there – the order that was first arranged through the Sykes-Picot Accord after WW I. The prime US imperialist think tank, The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), explains that the US regime’s invasion of Iraq helped accelerate that break-down. They write “Gone is the Arab order on which Washington relied for decades to manage regional affairs and limit Iran’s room for maneuver. A chain of events, starting with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, culminated in the implosion of the Arab world, as social unrest toppled rulers, broke down state institutions, and triggered ethnic and sectarian strife that in some cases escalated into full-fledged civil war.” The CFR also writes, “Russia has emerged as the main arbiter of Syria’s fate, and as its role has grown beyond Syria, it has become the only power broker in the Middle East that everyone talks to.”
US “World leadership”
Bush’s invasion of Iraq not only weakened US domination in that region; it also weakened its influence in the advanced capitalist
world by creating increased stresses with some of the main allies of US capitalism, especially in Western Europe. The Trump presidency has greatly increased those strains. These allies will see this step of Trump’s in light of his backing out of the Paris Climate Accord, his threat to tear up Nafta, and his backing out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). They will also see it in light of his bombast, all of which means that he cannot build a base of support among the people’s of the rest of the world. This base of support is needed by the regimes of the respective countries for them to follow the US lead. Now that is in tatters. As the NY Times editorial board puts it, Trump’s decision “will allow Iran to resume a robust nuclear program, sour relations with close European allies, erode America’s credibility, lay conditions for a possible wider war in the Middle East and make it harder to reach a sound agreement with North Korea…”
Will the Trump administration succeed in reinstating economic sanctions against Iran that really bite? And what are the possible outcomes?
It took nearly a decade (from 2006-2015) for the Bush and Obama administrations to institute the previous sanctions. And those were done with the willing participation of almost all the major capitalist powers, ultimately even including China and Russia. The CFR, in the same article, predicts that “the Trump administration would not find a similar spirit of cooperation from governments alienated by a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.” The resulting weakening of US imperialism’s ability to impose these sanctions would be compounded by the fact that individual national governments are increasingly unable to even keep track of, no less control international finance capital. It seems likely, though, that most capitalist institutions, including banks and other financiers, in Western Europe would reluctantly comply at least somewhat, since they are closely tied with US capitalism.
So are the Chinese capitalists, but they are increasingly coming into conflict with the Trump administration over Trump’s anti-China tariffs. And they are closely linked with Indian capitalism. At close to 750 thousand barrels per day, China is by far and away the largest importer of Iranian oil, Turkey (whose regime is close to the Russian and Iranian regimes) is number two, and India ranks number six. If China doesn’t comply with the sanctions, and Trump retaliates, it’s not like the Chinese regime would be exactly powerless. In fact, they would have the power to crash the dollar, or at least severely weaken it.
And what would be the consequences, either way?
If the sanctions don’t bite, that seems likely to give added impulse to the military hawks in the Trump administration, meaning a military attack on Iran. If they do bite, then it’s likely that Iran would withdraw from the accord and resume its drive towards becoming a nuclear power. That, too, would likely mean a US military assault on Iran.
Nor is it likely that a US bombing of Iranian nuclear and military facilities would stop there. Every analyst has said that such a bombing would probably result in the Iranian regime’s shutting down of the Straits of Hormuz, which would be fairly easily accomplished. How could the Trump administration respond to that other than a massively increased bombing campaign, likely followed by a ground invasion.
Effect within Iran
Meanwhile, what would be the effect of all this – starting with the sanctions – within Iran? Trump and his fellow simpletons (note: this word is simply used as a description, not a derogatory expression) think that the Iranian people will increase their opposition to the regime there. The right wing columnist Bret Stephens wrote in the NY Times, “Ordinary Iranians are already furious that their government has squandered the proceeds of the nuclear deal on propping up the Assad regime. The conditions that led to the so-called Green movement of 2009 are there once again.” But it’s just as likely – maybe even more so – that as the majority of Iranians perceive “their country” coming under assault that they will drop their protests and actually move to defend the regime. Even if not, these attacks – both economic and possibly military – will give the Iranian regime an added excuse to crack down on whatever protests persist.
Inside the US
The majority of people in the US were already moving towards the “MAGA” mentality before Trump even ran for president. That was shown in the fact that Obama never even tried to get the Iran deal through congress. According to Stephens, at the time polls showed that only 21% of the US population supported the deal while 49% opposed it. They correctly saw the deal as reflecting the weakening of US imperialism, since in the past US imperialism would have simply engineered a coup, exactly as they did against Mossadegh in 1953, after all.
Trump’s true believers will be wildly supportive of this latest step of their super-hero. But what will happen if the sanctions bite? Among other things, it will mean a sharp increase in gas prices. And if Trump sends the bombers and/or US troops to Iran, then those prices will shoot through the roof. Further, if this leads to a more open conflict with China, then China could act to drive down the dollar, meaning even greater price increases at home. And if the US regime invades Iran, then all bets are off.
In fact, withdrawal from the accord might be the first step in a conscious plan for a military attack. As long ago as 2015, Joshua Muravchik – whom the Wall St. Journal calls “maybe one of the most cogent and careful neoconservative writers on foreign policy” commented that “war with Iran is probably our best option.” Muravchik is linked with John Bolton by Newsweek.
The use of “tactical” nuclear weapons is also possible. If that happens, then the entire region would likely face massive anti-American
protests and any regime that is seen as friendly to US imperialism would be destabilized. (As for suffering of millions due to such an attack: When has human suffering ever mattered in the history of capitalism?)
Inside the US, it seems that the great bulk of the US working class is almost being held in thrall by the situation. Some – a minority but a significant minority – support Trump, never mind his demagoguery, lies and blunders. Much of that support is based on the relatively good US economy, since it’s traditional that whoever happens to be president is given the credit or blame for whatever happens in the economy. Other sectors, which don’t support Trump, mainly feel that there is little they can do, and anyway things aren’t all that bad so why go out on a limb?
But the developments with Iran threaten to act as a shock to the US working class. It is exactly such a shock that is likely to revive a new movement within the class. Some – maybe a major sector – could turn to increased chauvinism, but others would be forced to seriously think about the world situation and start to be open to actually organizing and taking action. And while the majority were opposed to the deal when it was first made, now 63% think the US should stay in it. So if a war were started, the tendency would be to blame Trump from the outset.
Trump will face a popular opposition in a weakened position since almost nobody believes him already. Even his own supporters don’t; it’s just that they don’t really care at this point.
Also the increased divisions of the US capitalist class will tend to drive workers and youth into action, including around this very issue. And Trump is increasingly isolated even within his own administration; he relies for advice almost exclusively on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton… plus one other: Fox’s very own Sean Hannity (!), with whom he spends hours talking every week.
Consider recent revelation that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is fronting for a shell company that, among other things, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. It also seems that that that company, Essential Consultants L.L.C, was a means of bribing the president. Possibly this will be used to oust Trump before he goes to war, but given the political line up in Washington, that seems unlikely. And even if it were, that in itself would create political turmoil.
To sum up: The old world capitalist order is broken. Like Humpty Dumpty, it cannot be put back together. Any new world order can only be accomplished by a new world war. Already we are seeing the tendencies towards such a war. This is developing despite the resistance of the capitalist class itself, which knows that such a war would not only be destructive to their own wealth, but also would threaten a new outbreak of global anticapitalist revolution. As for the world’s working class, it is fragmented, divided and confused. However, objectively it is potentially more powerful than ever before. Hopefully, it can make the necessary strides to unite and clear up the confusions before capitalism destroys the planet.