Did the Iran-US deal quietly unravel in a Supreme Court decision in April?
In Bank Merkazi v. Peterson, the Court determined that private claimants, especially survivors of U.S. citizens who died in acts of “state-sponsored terror,” could make claims on $2 billion worth of Iranian assets. Tehran was understandably annoyed at the decision. The president called it “theft, pure and simple,” while the director of the central bank called it “highway robbery.”
So perhaps. But most likely not, for such state-sponsored slights by the U.S. against Iran contradict neither the letter nor the spirit of the Iran deal. Quite the opposite – they are its guiding framework.
The Iran deal was never what many had imagined or hoped it would be. Many, particularly from the NGO sector, which often sets the tone of U.S. activism, had understood the Iran deal as a give-up-nukes, give-up-sanctions exchange. But ceasing all sanctions was never the substance of the Iran deal. Iran was to remain under a U.S. trade embargo, with a variety of other sanctions remaining in place.
The text of the treaty document called for mild sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian divestment of its full legal rights to enrich uranium according to the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Suzanne Maloney explains in the U.S. establishment think-tank Brookings the U.S.’s basic goals.
“Tehran was never promised a rose garden,” Maloney said. “If Iranians want wholesale economic rehabilitation, their leadership needs to embrace the kind of policies that would yield that—in other words, meaningful political, economic, and foreign policy reform.”
She added that only this would fulfill the “prospect of a durable Thermidor for the revolutionary state.”
It is easy to forget that modern Iran is the product of a complex, multi-stage, broad anti-imperialist revolution. Marxists participated in that revolution, but did not dominate it, and ultimately were its martyrs. It was socially-oriented but not socialist, and the clerics who took power did so by deploying what Iranian sociologist Val Moghadam calls a “radical–populist Islamic discourse.” Amid the Iraqi invasion, the government set up an array of social programs to incorporate the poor into a wider post-1979 social compact and nationalized many industries. It expanded its industrial base in the 1980s and 1990s through a state-led industrial strategy.
Since then, U.S. policy has sought to roll back the revolution – what Maloney terms “Thermidor.”
Rolling back the revolution means integrating the Iranian productive base into Western-led investment, exchange, and foreign policy circuits. Currently, Iran has an “inflexible labor market, unattractive contract terms for energy investments,” alongside “the traditional dominance of the public sector.”
Unattractive contract terms mean foreign multinational oil firms do not get a cut which they consider adequate from Iranian oil revenues.
“Dominance of the public sector” means that much of the productive base cannot be chopped up into units whose ownership titles can be converted into shares, floated on stock markets, and then sold off to foreign investors.
What does Maloney’s confession reveal? Simply this: Iran remains the target of a multi-pronged U.S. assault, which will continue until Iran is safely folded back into the U.S.-dominated global system, with both its domestic and foreign policies smoothly running in sync with the needs of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and behind and guiding them, the United States.
One fork is the economic sanctions which continue to prevent Iran from “integrating” fully into the world system on an independent basis. These sanctions are unlikely to be lifted until “Thermidor” is complete.
The International Monetary Fund explains what it expects from Iran. First, there must be a “reorientation of the Iranian economy… [an] opening to international trade and investment.” As one model, the IMF cites Latin America which “emerged into the global economy” after the 1960s-70s period of industrialization and increased living standards.
Latin America’s net growth during this period of “emergence,” from 1980-2000, was 6 percent per capita, “its worst long term economic growth failure for at least a century,” notes economist Mark Weisbrot.
Other IMF recommendations include “opening up product and services markets,” and “removing barriers to competition and foreign investment, reducing the hold of monopolies and special interests.” This essentially means allowing U.S. and European monopolies to replace Iranian monopolies. The IMF also seeks to empower the “new middle classes” who reject both the foreign and domestic policy of the Iranian government and seek global integration and the removal of an independent foreign policy.
A second fork is financial. As Ayatollah Khamenei said in March, “Today in all Western countries and in all those countries that are under their influence, ourbanking transactions have been blocked. We have a problem bringing our wealth — which has been kept in their banks — back to the country. We have a problem conducting different financial transactions that require the assistance of banks.”
U.S. analysts confirm this, stating “It is fairly irresponsible for officials to just expect banks to rush back in without considering these things. That does take time and due diligence.” But such banks are waiting for the government’s green light.
A third fork is political: the constant pressure from the business party’s right-wing – known commonly as the Republicans – to attack Iran. Such rhetoric has yet to compel any U.S. government to attack Iran. What it does do is allow all Democratic presidents to present even the slightest sanctions relief as resisting pressure from the Republicans, and obscuring that it is the Democrats in power who continue to attack Iran. The anti-Iran trade embargo remains a consensual U.S. policy.
A fourth fork is psychological. The Supreme Court decision chills banks’ willingness to engage in any transaction with their Iranian counterparts, knowing that funds may be seized at any moment.
The fifth fork is military. The continued U.S. proxy war on Syria is oriented almost entirely to bleeding Iran. Since a total collapse of the Syrian state in the short-term is unlikely and would require a further Saudi-Turkish escalation which could cross Russian-Iranian red lines, the current strategy is weakening and possibly partition.
Coupled with constant sectarian incitement from the Gulf media, the strategy is to isolate Iran from the surrounding Sunni populations, ensuring that there can be no anti-imperialist bloc, let alone an anti-imperialist bloc with clear pro-worker policies. Despite constant sectarian propaganda from Al-Jazeera Arabic and the rest of the Qatari-Saudi-Emirati state media, the policy has been only partially successful. Polling data in Lebanon, for example, indicates still-substantial support for the Shi’ite organization amongst the country’s Sunnis.
Iran is not a perfect country. And so? It remains under U.S. attack not for what it has done badly but for what it has done well: state dominance of the economy, an independent foreign policy, and as Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian writes, “giving priority to social rather than military expenditures … bridge[ing] the chasm between urban and rural life” and “tackl[ing] the problems of the urban poor.” Furthermore, partially as a result of its isolation, it has partially delinked from Western financial and commodity flows and increasingly relied “on the global South to meet its own interests.”
The Iran deal was and is a means to break that bundle of policies, by blackmailing Iran into surrendering its legally-enshrined rights and independence in exchange for progressive ceasing of the economic warfare against it.
This does not mean the Iran deal should have been rejected. It does mean that a progressive position – one of true solidarity with Iranian aspirations – would be to allow Iranians to have a proper deal: to secure all of their legally guaranteed treaty rights, to fulfill U.S. obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, to cease belligerent trade embargos and proxy-wars against Iran, and to allow the Iranian people to determine their own path and their own future.
Until that happens, the war against Iran continues