The Cards are Re-shuffled in the Middle East

The US-Iranian rapprochement which began in September with a telephone call between Obama and Ruhani and proceeded with the moderation in nuclear negotiation process can be taken as the sign of a new period in the Middle East. When taken with its reconciliatory attitude towards Russia over Syria, this move of the Obama administration indicates that the USA changes its policy at tactical level in the Middle East. However, this tactical change created a troubled situation for the regional allies of the USA, namely, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The USA compels these allies to take a position in line with the new political line in progress. However this will not be that easy. Although not being able to explicitly oppose the USA, these countries express their complaints over the issue. Such tactical changes which global powers like the USA can afford and sometimes need may simply mean a total balance change for the rival regional powers. Consequently, in addition to the “flattening” of relations with Obama administration, it should be anticipated that the given countries will implicitly work in collaboration and they will also form explicit or implicit alliances in order to make this new policy of the USA fail.

There are those powers within the Western imperialists in the camp led by the USA who oppose this policy shift. France can be given as an example in this regard. French imperialism, in its search for a new breakthrough, advocates aggressive policies both in Africa and in the Middle East. It opposed a softer policy based mainly upon diplomacy towards Iran both during nuclear negotiations and in the UN Security Council. Moreover, France was praised by Israel who stated that the USA did it wrong. This is among the very factors which will complicate the policy of the USA.

Why did the USA need such a policy shift that might damage its relations with its regional allies or bring about important consequences causing, at least, a serious loss of trust?

This new policy that the USA developed with Britain will increase Iranian influence in the Middle East at least in the short run. The USA will benefit from the impact of such a development balancing Sunni Islamist powers. The USA aims at obstructing radical Sunni Islamist powers that spread everywhere while gradually gaining strength. These radical Sunni Islamist powers symbolized with the front organization called Al-Queda became influential actors in many regions including Africa and Far East by benefiting from the political instability environment created by imperialist scramble. These movements gained a broad mass base with the help of a propaganda emphasizing anti-Americanism and they continue to cause trouble for the US government.

The USA did not want the Assad regime to be replaced by a Sunni Islamist government and therefore, compromised with Assad-sympathizer Russia-Iran couple by abandoning its redlines. The US government seeks to benefit from Iranian influence to ensure political stability in Iraq and to prevent Taliban’s comeback to power by means of the “rapprochement” with Iran (after withdrawing its soldiers). Bringing Iran into a milder line is also important for Israel, a country whose existence mean a lot to the USA in the Middle East.

Easing the tensions with Russia-Iran front will both relieve the US in shifting its forces away to different regions and will open the way to provide new solutions which will not damage its own interests in problematic issues although they might not suit its regional allies.

Imperialist politics are based on concrete interests

Before attempting to explain the historical background of Obama administration’s policy shift, it would be useful to make a few reminders on how politics work out in the imperialism’s dog-eat-dog world. First of all, there are no indispensable allies or unchangeable tactics for a hegemonic power like the USA. There is a prominent saying of İsmet İnönü: “Having relations with great powers is like sleeping with a bear. You cannot anticipate what will a bear do and when it will act. A bear can wound with its paw even when it loves.” Similarly, you cannot predict what the “friendship” of imperial powers will bring, because you can get harmed when trying to have your own little piece from the hunt and you can even become the new hunt. Secondly, in a region like the Middle East which has been in the middle of scramble fights for centuries, the analysis should be concrete. It is because interests constantly change and there a number of actors. The conspiracies and games that imperialist-capitalist powers organize together with local powers against each other chase one after another. Thirdly, it is an exception to become permanent friends or enemies in inter-state relations. They sometimes agree and sometimes disagree over certain issues. Here, the determining factor is whether the interests are common or not. Moreover, there is no guarantee that today’s friend will not be tomorrow’s enemy or vice versa.

We have learnt from the bourgeois media that before the so-called “historical” phone call between Obama and Ruhani, the USA and Iran have secretly talked at least five times. These conversations are hidden even from the closest allies like Israel. In other words, the foundations of the current rapprochement between the USA and Iran were laid even before Ruhani was elected. We should add that a USA-Russia “rapprochement” must have preceded such a development. It simply means that a serious tactical move have been made in this regard.

For the USA, there is an important and objective factor which conditions it. Although the USA is still the world’s dominant imperialist power, we might say that it fell into a decline. It has to take different global and regional powers into consideration and form alliances with those powers rather than doing everything on its own and by considering only its own interests. The so-called peaceful foreign policy of the Obama administration is an expression of this necessity. For the same reason, the USA finds it difficult to intervene in more than one region. Starting from Obama’s government, the USA moved the center of gravity of imperialist scramble from the Middle East to the Far East. It is simply because China has now become the greatest rival of the USA. The USA initiated an extensive economic-political-military containment policy against China just like it did before against Russia. The increasing political tension in Asia and Pacific is a result of this policy shift. Moreover, Obama administration is not willing to lose more energy-money-time in the Middle East while it focuses on China that much. The major purpose, here, is to focus all its power and attention to China after putting its business in order in the Middle East.

Following the re-establishment of US hegemony which was weakened due to use of force in the Middle East, Obama administration started to fix this situation by emphasizing diplomacy and sought to consolidate the new order through its new allies in the region. However, things did not work out the way that the Obama administration desired. During AKP rule, Turkey was introduced as a role model for other countries in the region by the US. However, the AKP tended to go out of control with the policies followed by Erdoğan and started to create problems on some particular issues. Furthermore, the other representative of the moderate-modern Islamist tendency in the Middle East apart from the AKP, the Muslim Brotherhood started to act independently from the US government and together with the AKP even in the very vital issues for the USA. Anti-Israelism, positions on the Palestinian problem diverging from the USA and the failure to take concrete steps against Iran and anti-Americanism can be listed among these problematic issues. Following these developments, the USA decided that it could not continue to proceed with Sunni Islamists that it supported and used since its “green belt” project. Simultaneously, Muslim Brotherhood have come to power or become the strongest candidate/partner of the government in various countries. The fact that the US could no longer fully control this Sunni Islamist line with regard to its plans over the Middle East and that these Sunni Islamist forces are on the rise (under the leadership of AKP-Erdoğan who challenges the USA) have compelled the USA towards a tactical-political change. This is compounded with the fact that radical Islamist movements have gained strength within the recent years–one development related to another.

The overthrow of Ikhwan with a military coup in Egypt, the curbing of Ennahda in Tunisia, the explicit attrition activities against AKP-Erdoğan following Gezi protests and the attempt to bring Saudi Arabia and Gulf states into line while re-starting open diplomacy with Iran (because some sections of the bourgeoisie in these countries are the major financiers of radical Islamist groups) are all originated from this above-mentioned development.

When we look at the other side of the picture, we can see that there will be consequences if Iran and Russia positively respond to this tactical movement of the USA. For Russia, the situation is not that complicated. The struggle against radical Sunni Islamist forces was already on the agenda of Russia since the Afghanistan occupation. These radical powers fight against Russian interests both in Chechnya and in Central Asian countries. However, it is a success for Russia that the USA decided to compromise on the Syrian issue. Such a development also created an important impulse for the continuation of its influence in the Middle East. In a similar vein, the softening of Iran-USA relations carries a potential to turn into a factor which will increase Russian influence in the region through Iran. This is, of course, unless this “rapprochement” leads to a situation that Iran does no longer need Russia.

For Iran, we can count more than one reason. The most important of them is that the economic and political embargo employed by Western powers for many years has made a serious damage to Iranian economy. Iranian rulers resisted this embargo at the expense of deterioration of people’s living conditions and their suffering under intense political oppression. Iranian people are on the verge of eruption due to these economic problems and the pressure of the regime. In order to prevent such an eruption, Iranian rulers have already been giving signals of softening the regime. The rapprochement with the West initiated by Ruhani who was elected with the support of reformists –more precisely, made elected– and his attempt to establish a more moderate internal and foreign policy gives the rulers a chance to prevent such a social outburst.

The narrow framework that Mullah regime put economic-political structure in, presents a long-standing obstacle to the growth of capital that has reached a certain level of development and prevents its foreign expansion. For this reason, the current motivation of Iranian bourgeoisie is to cut loose from the burdens of embargo and increase the level of foreign expansion. Iran is struggling to be a regional power and Turkey is among its very rivals in this regard. The rapprochement with the USA and an alliance with the West against radical Sunni Islamists will pave the way to increase Iran-Shiite influence in the region.

On the other hand, the once emerging regional power, Turkey, has begun to decline owing to AKP-Erdoğan’s ambitions beyond its capacity and actual developments. Loosening of sanctions against Iran is an advantage for Turkey because it imports significant amounts of natural gas and oil from Iran. This new situation has created an opportunity to easily conduct such a trade while it has once made this trade in violation of the sanctions. However, a stronger Iran as Turkey’s most important rival in the region is not in the interest of the Turkish bourgeoisie. More importantly, the attitude of the USA over Syria and Iran ruined Turkish foreign policy that Turkish officials have followed over the last few years. Erdoğan and AKP government are under great pressure both inside and outside. Under this pressure, Erdoğan tries to hold his position while also trying to decrease the tension and concentrates on collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. Saudi Arabia initiated preparations against Shiite forces which are strengthened in Iran-Syria-Lebanon belt with its bilateral agreements with Israel. It also increased its military and financial assistance to Syrian radical Sunni forces.

Syrian Conference: Will the mountain give birth to a mouse?

We need to look at the Syrian issue in terms of conflict of interests and alignments that accompany, or possibly accompany, the new political move of the USA. It was announced that the Syrian Conference (also known as Geneva-II Conference) which has been continuously cancelled within the last months would be organized in Montreux on 22th of January. In addition to imperialist powers, all of the regional countries except Iran will be participants of this conference. The USA opposes Iran’s participation.

The trio of USA-UN-Russia who organize conference preparations state that the aim is to bring peace to Syria. However, everyone is aware that the peace of imperialists will neither bring any serious and useful solution nor it will bring any good to Syrian people. As was announced, the UN and the five permanent members of UN Security Council as well as EU, Organization of Islamic Cooperation and twenty five other countries will join the conference. The first day of the conference will start with the participation of these participants and will proceed in the second day with the negotiations between Assad regime and the representatives of opposition forces under the supervision of UN Special Envoy.

Nevertheless, it is still not certain who will be in the Committee in order to represent the opposition because the opposition is not united and settled on major issues. Anti-Assad opposition basically comprises of three parties: Syrian National Council (SNC) which is supported by the USA and UN; Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is in the Council and supported by Gulf states and Turkey and radical Sunni Islamist forces, who are financed by Saudis and are logistically supported by Turkey (however, AKP government started to distance itself because of increasing pressure within the last months). As for radical Islamists, they boycott the conference and contend that it will not bring any results. Free Syrian Army which is a part of Syrian National Council remains distant to the conference. Syrian National Council which resides in Istanbul is not decisive on the conflicting within Syria whereas Syrian Kurds have a quite different situation. They stayed out of two warring sides and did not take a direct position against Assad administration. However, they are against the continuation of Baath regime the way it is now. Syrian Kurds represented by PYD have established an autonomous territory and they, together with other Kurdish groups, formed a committee in order to send to the conference. However, it is still not settled if this committee will be a part of Syrian National Council.

On the other hand, the USA explicitly declared that under current situation, it would prefer Assad rather than radical Islamists. Moreover, it has reached a compromise with Russia-Iran couple and it no longer insists on Assad’s dismissal as a prerequisite for negotiations. At best, the USA’s goal is to sell a transition government that Assad would consent and be a part of it in one way or another and at worst, to gain time by convincing the parties for a cease-fire. For this purpose, in the London meeting of “Syria’s Friends” group, it achieved to get decisions in order to soothe the forces in the front that it leads, i.e. Turkey-Saudi Arabia-Gulf Countries-Free Syrian Army. Furthermore, by putting pressure on them, the USA has also achieved to take out the issue of “Assad’s removal” from among the decisions and made it accepted that the Sunni Islamist groups would be withdrawn from Syria.

On the other hand, the front of Russia-Iran-Assad regime is in an advantageous position. Assad is in a superior position and the dominance of Assad continues in important parts of the country. The USA could not risk initiating a military intervention against Assad at the expense of running over its own redlines. And the opposition forces are not united and they even wage war against each other. Moreover, the Sunni Islamists that the USA opposes, constitute the major part of the armed opposition and they are about to be the dominant force within the armed wing of the opposition. In addition, Saudis continue to provide financial and military assistance to radical Islamists despite all the pressure of the USA. Even Turkey continues to provide support in a covert way though it has distanced itself from these forces.

Under current circumstances, it is not possible that the front of Russia-Iran-Assad will consent a scheme excluding Assad. Although Russia has stated many times that Assad is not indispensable for its own interests, one should not expect such a concession under current balance of power. As for the opposition, the only subject matter that they unite over is their opposition to any scheme involving Assad. However, they cannot even agree on the list of ministers in a transition government. Briefly stated, under these circumstances, it is impossible for the Syria Conference to yield results that will satisfy all parties. The highest possibility is to provide a temporary cease-fire with the pressure of the USA and Russia. However, for this reason, the conference may be re-cancelled if the USA and Russia fail to bring these parties to a certain point.

There is no “peace and quiet” in the horizon

It seems that the Middle East is in a process that “the cards are re-shuffled” by the USA and the positions will be re-determined. We summarized what could come out of this process and its likely consequences. We can enumerate what should not be expected from this process as follows: Firstly, no one should not attach too much importance to the new tactical move of the USA. This policy shift will not (at least in the medium-run) cause policy change on the strategic level. As long as Russia is the opposite side of the pole that the USA leads, one can only expect policy changes at tactical level. Moreover, we should not exaggerate USA-Iran rapprochement. The USA and its Western allies made a “preliminary agreement” with Iran on loosening sanctions worth 7-8 billion dollars in return that Iran would stop its uranium enrichment efforts and open its nuclear facilities to inspection. Six months later, the process will be re-examined and if there are positive developments, new steps will be taken. However, six months is a very long period for the Middle East. A lot of water may flow beneath the bridge and “everything can change within five minutes.”

The second factor which is linked to the first one is that one should not see this tactical change of the USA as a “trick” that it prepares with its regional allies. For the reasons that force the USA towards this tactical change are objective. We also should not think that the USA would consider the objections of its allies. All in all, the “quarterback” is the USA and the regular players are countries like Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They have the option not to obey but it will have consequences. No matter how they complain about this situation, they will eventually be in the same line with the USA. For the USA, obstructing radical Sunni Islamists and focusing on Asia, i.e. on China, after setting things right in the Middle East, have become priorities.

Thirdly, we should say that the USA made its first move in order to re-start the game. The following steps and the course of process are, of course, depend on how other players act. The USA had to amend its initial plan over and over again and it may feel the same necessity again.

When we look at the process from the angle of the working classes and oppressed peoples, we still cannot say that much will change. No matter what changes imperial-capitalist powers make, the basis of their policies is their own class interests and, therefore, it is not possible to expect an advantageous change for the working classes. The “rapprochement” between the USA and Iran does not open the way for permanent peace and quiet in the Middle East. It only prepares the ground for new conflicts. It does not matter for the working class which power would forge ahead or lag behind in the rivalry between regional powers because it is no use for the worker class if any of these imperialist-capitalist powers would get ahead. Neither Turkish workers nor Iranian workers would benefit from the increasing strength of Turkish or Iranian capitalism. However, there would be many disadvantages. For this reason, both Turkish and Iranian working classes must not support their own ruing classes. The working class must not be a part of the rivalry between the rulers.

The very essence of imperialist policies towards the Middle East is still based on “divide and rule” policy. Moreover, imperialists still continue to use national-ethnic-sectarian divisions in this context. This simply means the continuation of regional wars and conflicts. The civil war in Syria is a bloody example of it. Neither the US-Iran rapprochement nor the Syria Conference will bring an end to the suffering of Syrian people. War continues in various ways outside Syria. The unending events of violence in Iraq and Lebanon are not mere terrorist incidents but appearances of the imperialist war. Satisfying the aspirations of Kurdish or Palestinian people for freedom will not be through imperialists either. Imperialists can only offer solutions that will meet the demands of the bourgeois like Barzani or Mahmud Abbas. It is not possible that they will satisfy the real demands of the people for freedom. Rather, their fundamental priority would be to sacrifice the aspirations of these peoples for their own plans.

What should, then, Iranian, Turkish and Middle Eastern workers do? The working class should not be a part of the conflicts between the bourgeois, capitalist countries and imperialist powers and it also should not allow the polarization imposed by them to divide its own class ranks no matter in which country these workers inhabit. Workers of the Middle East and workers in the world in general, share the same destiny. The choice, here, for the workers of different countries is either to form independent class politics, unite on the basis of internationalism and take their destiny into their own hands or they will accept their fate and become the victims of imperial wars.

Marksist Tutum, Ocak 2014, no: 106