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War with Iran? Teetering on the brink

Strictly speaking, the United States is already at war with Iran. By the rules of international law, the drone attack that killed General Soleimani and other high-ranking figures was an act of war. Iran will now retaliate against an American asset. How long can this crazy game of tit for tat go on without triggering all-out war? The region is teetering on the brink.

For Trump, especially in an election year, electoral considerations are paramount. His provocative bluster is designed to mobilize support from his ‘patriotic’ – i.e., chauvinist – base. He doesn’t care that it scares the shit out of everyone else in the world. However, his past behavior suggests that he does not want all-out war. All-out war means American soldiers returning home in body bags, and that is no way for a president to make himself popular. The Iranian regime cannot win against the full might of the United States, but it can exact a pretty high ‘entry price’: it will not crumble like the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Nevertheless, Trump may get himself into a situation where he feels he has no choice but to order a massive attack against Iran. Behind the scenes his ‘allies’ in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Gulf states are urging him to strike, although the Europeans are evidently begging him not to. But the main danger lies in the huge strategic advantage that will go to whichever side strikes first. Use them or lose them! So once either side concludes that all-out war can no longer be avoided it is almost certain to act decisively. 

An ostensible goal of US strategy is to destabilize the political situation inside Iran with a view to eventual ‘regime change.’ In these terms Trump’s behavior is counterproductive in the extreme. He has cut the ground from under the feet of President Rouhani by exposing his conciliatory approach as futile, thereby strengthening the hardline Islamist forces.

Another goal of US strategy is to weaken Iran’s regional influence. From this point of view Trump’s bellicosity is again counterproductive. Here it is necessary to understand what is happening next door — in Iraq. 

The Iraqi government that emerged from the US occupation is predominantly Shi’i and has close ties with the Shi’i regime in Teheran. Armed resistance to the occupation has come mainly from the Sunni part of the country, which was Saddam’s power base. So in Iraqi politics the US and Iran have been on the same side. Only now may this be changing, after the attack on the US embassy by pro-government Shi’i militants. However, the main current of the popular demonstrations in Iraq has been aimed against all violations of national sovereignty, whether by the US or by Iran. With just 5,200 US troops remaining in the country, this means primarily against Iran (see this video). 

If the US government had had the good sense simply to allow events to take their course, Iraq would soon have removed itself from Iran’s sphere of influence, cutting Iran off from its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. Trump’s threats against Iran and the new buildup of US troops in Iraq divert the attention of Iraqis to the threat posed by the United States. A major US attack on Iran would finally close off this scenario.  

As socialists we reaffirm our solidarity with working people, in and out of uniform, wherever in the world they may live. Working people everywhere are in the same plight and face the same problems. They have nothing to gain from war and everything to lose, including their lives. The quarrels of their rulers are no concern of theirs. We ask them carefully to consider what they can do to thwart the ‘masters of war’ and preserve the peace.  

Stephen Shenfield

Born 1950 in London. Joined SPGB at age 16. Several years in Government Statistical Service, then Soviet Studies at University of Birmingham. Taught International Relations at Brown University, Providence, RI, USA. Author of 'Russian Fascism' (2000). Translator from Russian. Currently general secretary of World Socialist Party of the US.