Recent months have seen a dramatic escalation of the U.S.-Iran Conflict with a whole series of military standoffs and seizures of oil tankers. In light of this it is important to learn about the history of Iran as well as its present expansionist efforts across the region. It’s equally important to grasp the continuity of U.S. aggression and imperialist policy towards Iran.

Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged a series of threats and inflammatory remarks over the past few years as tensions have escalated.

In recent months political and military tensions have been on the rise between the U.S. and Iran. There have been a series of military escalations, including shooting down each other’s drones and seizing control of oil tankers. These tensions are part of a broader build up to a potential war as the U.S. tries to subjugate the Iranian ruling elite, and the Iranian elite work to expand their influence around the region at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.

As part of the growing tensions Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. This was a significant decision which laid the ground for further escalations and allowed the U.S. to reimpose crippling economic sanctions on Iran aimed at starving the Iranian people and creating unrest in the country by grinding its economy to a halt. It’s important to understand that this withdrawal is a continuation of a long-standing policy of U.S. economic and military aggression against Iran. However, it’s also important to see that the JCPOA itself was not a progressive deal, but rather an effort by the U.S. ruling class and their allies to co-opt the Iranian elite and subordinate them to U.S. imperialism. In the eyes of the more hawkish members of the U.S. elite, this effort had failed and more aggressive measures were needed for Iran, including war and regime change. These hawks were particularly concerned by growing Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, and the Iranian military’s expansion into Iraq and Syria. All this led the Trump administration to pursue a policy of open aggression against Iran.

Recently escalations have pushed the countries to the brink of war, and if this conflict continues to escalate it could engulf the entire region in a major war. Iran is not simply another Iraq; it has a much stronger military and could not be easily defeated by the U.S. military. What’s more, numerous countries in the region and around the world are lining up on one side or another of the conflict. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are waging a genocidal war against the people of Yemen and the Iranian-aligned Houthis. Israel and Iran are fighting a low-level conflict in Syria. The U.K. has seized an Iranian oil tanker and Iran has seized two U.K. tankers.

Chinese vessels help Iran evade U.S. sanctions, and Russia has been in discussions about stationing their troops in Iran. Meanwhile the U.S. and Iran have shot down each other’s drones. All of this shows how unstable the situation is, with open warfare possible in the near future. Regardless of which side wins, the people of the region will suffer immensely. However, in order to understand the present situation in Iran it is first necessary to go into some history about Iran and imperialist efforts to dominate the country.

Some History

After the discovery of oil in Iran, the British created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1909, and just prior to World War I, the company secured backing from Winston Churchill. The British elite were looking to modernize their coal-powered navy and to avoid dependence on the American oil trust Standard Oil and Dutch trust Royal Dutch Shell. The backing of the military allowed Britain to secure dominance over the Iranian oil industry and much of the country.

The next few decades saw a great heightening of contradictions between the British imperialists and the more independent section of the Iranian elites. The latter resented the humiliation and plunder of foreign domination and therefore aimed to find ways to get a greater share of the profits for themselves. Throughout the 30s and 40s the Iranian capitalists tried unsuccessfully to reach a compromise where both parties would share control of the oil fields and in the process grew more and more frustrated with the British.

In 1949, an agreement was reached that gave the Iranian capitalists a few token concessions, including a minor increase in royalty payments and control of the least productive oil fields in Iran. This agreement as the last straw for the bourgeois nationalists in the Majlis (Iran’s Parliament), led by Mohammed Mosaddegh and his National Front. They were determined to control the oil fields whether or not Britain approved of their actions.

Though progressive insofar as they opposed the foreign domination of Iran, it is important to see that Mosaddegh and his ilk merely wanted control of the oil fields for themselves, not the workers who produced the oil with their sweat and blood. So while bourgeois nationalists can play a progressive role in the struggle against the imperialist domination of an oppressed country, as a class they ultimately are interested in becoming imperialists themselves.

In oppressed countries dominated by imperialism, revolutionaries can and should work with these people if they are really opposed to imperialist domination of their country. However, bourgeois nationalists can’t be allowed to lead these struggles or they will either lead the movement into various pitfalls, or kick out the imperialists only to themselves become the new ruling elite. We can see how this played out in Iran.

In 1950, news reached Iran that the Arabian-American Oil Company (now known as Saudi Aramco, American-owned at the time) had agreed to split its profits with the Saudis 50-50. It became clear that a similar agreement between Iran and APOC was not on the table and Mosaddegh began pushing to nationalize the oil fields. In 1951, these efforts succeeded, and the National Front formed a new government with Mosaddegh as Prime Minister. Soon after, APOC was evicted from the southern Iranian oil fields.

After the CIA backed coup in 1953, supporters of the Shah and American plunder of Iran celebrated in the street with the military. While this coup was not in the interests of the vast majority of Iranians, a small section benefited immensely by becoming U.S. puppets.

Fearing the loss of Iranian oil, as well as the growing militancy of anti-colonial and communist movements around the world, Britain cut a deal with the U.S. The CIA would provide the muscle to oust Mosaddegh and retake the oil fields; in exchange, the British would now share their drilling rights with American Oil trusts. This signaled a major change in the balance of power globally, in which the U.S. would increasingly step in to safeguard imperialist interests, brutally crushing movements that make even minor threats to the rule of capitalist imperialism.

In exchange, imperialist powers like Britain would give up some control and profits to the American companies. These sort of arrangements were set up in part because the old European colonial powers were devastated by World War II, while the U.S. was relatively unharmed. However equally important was the rising tide of anti-colonial and communist revolutionary movements that threatened the imperialists. After the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the imperialists feared that similar movements would spread over the world like wildfire.

In 1953, the CIA successfully orchestrated a brutal and ruthless coup that installed a fascist U.S. puppet regime under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, commonly known as the Shah (“King” in Persian). This new regime outlawed all pro-democratic and socialist parties, and virtually all dissent was violently suppressed by the Shah’s secret police. Over the next few decades the misery of life under the Shah only increased. Over 100,000 people were killed under his rule, and likely many more—but the official records are not accurate as they were maintained by the Shah’s regime. One particularly bloody massacre happened in 1963 in which a number of people were massacred after mass protests against the Shah broke out in Tehran.

The people of Iran, fed up with the brutality and corruption of the Shah’s fascist rule, became increasingly radicalized and drawn into the anti-imperialist movement against the government and its foreign sponsors, the U.S. and the U.K. Some people gravitated towards the budding nominally anti-Western Islamist movement under the leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khomeini’s movement had certain progressive tendencies in its opposition to the western imperialist powers and their brutal rule in Iran. However, the clergy also promoted a series of backwards religious ideas about how society should be organized including their aims to impose a series of feudal morality laws that forced women to veil themselves and men to dress in certain ways. These ideas that society should be run in a religious fashion and that people should be compelled to follow religious laws were quite reactionary, despite the movement’s opposition to the western imperialist powers.

In 1979 over a million people rallied in Tehran after the Shah fled the country.

A theocratic state is a very reactionary thing as it compels people to follow religious practices even if they don’t follow the state religion. It’s a big victory for the people to win freedom of religion and freedom from persecution for their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Related to some of these backwards ideas, the clergy was for a long time supportive of the Shah, and as a result Khomeini was, for a time, allowed to operate openly where other more radical forces were not.

Some of these other forces included the Union of Iranian Communists (Sarbedaran), who called not just for the overthrow of the Shah, but the destruction of the whole bourgeois state and its replacement with a revolutionary worker’s state. These more radical trends aimed to upend not only the Shah’s government but also to destroy capitalist and feudal aspects of Iranian society.

When an inflation crisis rocked Iran in the mid 1970s, society was rapidly politicized. In 1978 student protests erupted calling for the end of the Shah’s regime, and the Iranian revolution began. Though Khomeini’s Islamists had strength in numbers, Khomeini was actually living in exile during this period. He had fled the country after openly breaking with the Shah when the latter passed some minor reforms including providing women the right to vote. While these reforms were minor—what good is the right to vote in a dictatorship run by the Shah?—Khomenini and his Islamist forces saw even these minor advances for women as a threat to the religious order. So while many did support Khomeini’s opposition to the Shah, the more radical and revolutionary elements were unwilling to support his movement because of its backwards social views.

In fact, pro-democratic and especially communist forces played a leading role in this revolution. For example, in December of 1978, class-conscious oil workers in the southern fields led major political strikes. These were strikes aimed not just at securing better economic compensation and working conditions, but actually strikes that primarily aimed at toppling the Shah. These mobilizations ground the Iranian economy to a halt and inspired people throughout the country to rise up against the Shah.

With the economy in ruins and entire cities in revolt, by early 1979 the Shah was forced to flee the country, and shortly thereafter, the revolutionaries waged a successful armed insurrection to seize state power from the remnants of the regime. At this time Khomeini returned from exile to rally the moderate and capitalist forces. In April 1979 a coalition of bourgeois religious factions proclaimed the Islamic Republic.

Though the revolution had seen widespread politicization of society and inspiring demonstrations of people’s power, the bourgeoisie have no interest in this sort of thing. It was overall a big success that the Iranian people were able to throw the brutal U.S.-backed dictator out of their country, but unfortunately the proletarian and internationalist forces were not able to defeat the bourgeois nationalist forces.

Members of the Union of Iranian Communists before they were massacred in the early 1980s.

Ultimately these bourgeois forces, grouped behind Khomeini, proclaimed the Islamic Republic and started a campaign of political repression against leftist and secularist forces. While this state was nominally a democratic country, it was founded on the bloodshed of thousands of revolutionaries and others who opposed the imposition of religious rule. They saw clearly that true democracy for the people is impossible when the country is governed by religious laws and religious elite. In order to consolidate this “republic” Khomeini and his allies brutally executed at least 15,000 opponents of the regime.1 In particular they targeted communists and other radicals who were carrying on the spirit of the revolution by protesting new, oppressive religious laws and waging armed struggle against the regime in the countryside.

Unfortunately, though the revolutionaries were many in number, they had internal issues and were not sufficiently organized to carry forward the revolution. So, the counter-revolutionary attacks of the Islamic regime eventually defeated them and led to their massacre.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, hoping to seize on the chaos. The U.S. and the USSR initially tried playing both sides of the conflict against each other. For example, the U.S. was caught red-handed selling arms to Iran and using the profits to fund anticommunist contras in Nicaragua (as part of their efforts to maintain imperial domination in Latin America and their global crusade against anti-colonial and communist movements). The U.S. feared that if the Islamic Republic was defeated, a working class revolution would follow in Iran. However, as the war turned in Iran’s favor, the imperialists fell in line behind Iraq, fearing that Iran would seize control of the oil industry in the region. The U.S. realized that the expansionist aims of the newly independent Iranian capitalists posed a real threat to their own influence in the region and shifted to a policy of containment. Since then the U.S. has only grown more hostile to the Islamic republic, issuing a series of crippling sanctions starting in the 80s and in 1984 adding Iran to its official list of state sponsors of terrorism.

However, in their campaign to consolidate control over the Middle East, the U.S. made a series of key blunders. First, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the deposition of Saddam Hussein, occupying forces backed Shia militias (despite the warnings of U.S. intelligence) with deep links to Iran, giving the latter huge influence in the new regime.

Then, in a bid to oust Russian lackey Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. funded ultra-reactionary Sunni Islamists in the Syrian civil war, who were eventually crushed by Assad’s forces with direct assistance from the Iranian military, again greatly increasing Iranian influence in the region. Elsewhere, the Islamic Republic has pursued an expansionist agenda, backing Shia militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. All of this has also led Iran into a proxy conflict for dominance in the region with Saudi Arabia, which sponsors its own Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.

Imperialist powers all over the world came together to sign the Iran Nuclear Deal, a temporary treaty which did not resolve their underlying competition.

The Iran Nuclear Deal and Trump’s Withdrawal

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the “Iran nuclear deal,” was reached between the European Union, the United States, and Iran on July 14th of 2015. The deal primarily compels Iran to make a number of significant concessions in exchange for the U.S. lifting economic sanctions against the country. Under the deal, Iran had to significantly roll back developments in its existing nuclear program and grant International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors a great deal of access to Iranian facilities. The JCPOA also demanded that Iran drastically reduce its stockpiles of uranium. This deal was signed by the U.S. and their allies as part of a concerted effort to win over a section of the Iranian elite politically and economically. The Obama administration and its allies hoped to use the deal as a way to deepen the U.S. and EU’s economic ties with Iran, and thereby isolate the hardline anti-western members of the Iranian elite.

However, it is important to also understand that the U.S. signed this deal from a position of weakness and because of its declining power globally, and not out of the kindness of Obama’s heart. In the Middle East specifically the U.S.’s power was weakened by the Arab Spring—which saw the toppling of many U.S. client governments such as Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt and Ben Ali’s in Tunisia—as well as the political destabilization of Iraq and Syria caused primarily by U.S. political and military mistakes which led to mass unrest and ultimately the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

In the face of these failures, the Obama administration—and the U.S. elite who supported them—decided that a direct military confrontation with Iran was not feasible and that it would better for the U.S. billionaires if they won Iran over to their side. This plan was also aimed at courting the Iranian elites away from the China and Russia, by encouraging U.S. and European tourism and having the young, wealthy section of the Iranian elite attend U.S. universities. The hope was that these maneuvers would eventually develop a section of the Iranian elite loyal to U.S. interests and in the short-term would help to preserve U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria, where Iran has a significant foothold. The deal slowed the pace of Iran’s nuclear program, thus appeasing Israeli concerns that Iran would develop the bomb.

The JCPOA was also aimed at appeasing the wealthy, largely pro-Iranian elite in Qatar where the Al Udeid Air Base—which is the largest U.S. military base in the region and a critical command base for U.S. drone warfare and other military operations—is located.

In an interview with New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman, then-President Obama made it abundantly clear that the United states could withdraw from the deal at any moment, even if Iran was not violating the terms of the deal. This was a thinly veiled threat to reinstate sanctions against Iran and restart the U.S. campaign of economic warfare on Iran, and eventually even military intervention. Obama was making it clear that he had signed the deal with Iran because it was convenient for the U.S. Empire at the moment, but that if things changed, he could just as easily quit the deal, regardless of what Iran did. This is clear because past opportunities to enter into a similar deal were shot down by the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration itself. For example, in 2010 the governments of Brazil and Turkey suggested a deal to hold 80% of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles outside of Iran. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected the deal and instead imposed further sanctions on Iran.

During his presidential campaign Trump railed against the Iran Nuclear Deal and promised to tear it up if he got elected.

Developments like this show the real U.S. agenda with Iran and the sanctions – not to “promote peace” but to keep the Iranian government in check and continue to exert economic domination over the Iranian people. This pressure was and is part of the U.S. efforts to create the conditions for regime change in Iran. When it became apparent to the Obama Administration that such a policy was no longer feasible, the U.S. state pivoted to a policy of collaboration with Iranian elites as a means of exerting control of the country and preserving U.S. interests in the region.

However, this policy wasn’t universally accepted by the U.S. elite. There were some among the elite who were more in favor of continuing economic sanctions and moving towards direct military intervention as a means of regime change. This hawkish approach towards Iran is closely aligned with the interests of the fascist elite in Israel, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly voiced his disdain for Obama’s policies in the Middle East, including the signing of the JCPOA, and has long advocated for direct military action against Iran.

The EU had its own interests in Iran as well; European capitalists had their eye on Iranian markets and had sought “investment” opportunities to expand their business interests into Iran. Furthermore, wealthy Iranian elites were spending billions on properties and developments in Western Europe and in Dubai. In particular, European companies were heavily drawn to the prospect of exploiting cheap labor from Afghan refugees in Iran. These companies used the JCPOA to set up factories and plants in Iran and take advantage of the cheap labor available there. For example, Mercedes Benz had many car engines manufactured in Iran and Total, the largest French oil and gas company, invested billions of dollars in Iran to gain access to the North Dome-South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf.

Then when Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S., the various reactionary war hawks within the American and Israeli elite rejoiced. Through the course of the presidential campaign Trump became one of the key voices in favor of terminating the JCPOA, returning to sanctions against Iran, and pushing for regime change.

After winning the election, Trump wasted no time in openly drumming up conflict with Iran. He immediately claimed that Iran had violated the nuclear deal, despite the lack of any evidence to support these claims. He appointed John Bolton—an open proponent for regime change in Iran and key architect in the invasion of Iraq in 2003—as his National Security Advisor in March of 2018. Two months later, the Trump Administration formally withdrew from the JCPOA, despite the fact that the Iranian government had largely honored the terms of the deal. Israel was also supportive of the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. Netanyahu in particular personally pressured the U.S. to withdraw. Since then, the US has imposed new sanctions on Iran to strangle the Iranian economy and people, while escalating direct threats of force, including troop deployments to the region in June of 2019.

The crude oil tanker Front Altair burning in the Gulf of Oman. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. claimed the attack was carried out by Iran, but there was no real evidence to support this claim.

The Current Situation

The present situation in the U.S.-Iran conflict is extremely unstable. Recently, a section of the U.S. ruling elite, and their allies in the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.A.E. have made a concerted effort to spark a war with Iran. The most recent escalation began this past May when Saudi Arabia and the UAE claimed that their oil tankers were attacked by Iran while traveling through the Persian Gulf. While the evidence was scant—and even the U.S. Maritime Administration urged caution and warned that the reported attacks had not been confirmed—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to parrot the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ claim that Iran was responsible for the attack.2 While no immediate military action was taken against Iran, tensions were on the rise.

The next month, there was another attack on oil tankers in the region. This time one vessel was operated by the Japanese company Kokuka Sangyo, and the attacks happened to coincide with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Tehran. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih was quick to call for a “swift and decisive” response to the attacks, and the U.S. released grainy footage which they claimed showed that Iran was responsible for the attacks.

It seemed likely that these incidents would serve as justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. However, Yutaka Katada, the President of Kokuka Sangyo, made a public statement that the ship’s crew had reported “that the ship was attacked by a flying object.” This cast doubt on the official story that Iran had placed mines on the ship, and seemed to indicate that the attack was in fact a “false-flag” operation by the U.S. and its allies to justify war with Iran. The timing of the attack was suspicious, because the Iranians were hoping that their meeting with Shinzo Abe would lead to better relations with Japan and the West. This whole situation is reminiscent of the infamous “Gulf of Tonkin” incident in which the U.S. faked an attack on its own ships to justify the start of the Vietnam War.

A week later, a U.S. spy drone was shot down while in Iranian airspace. This was seen as a warning to the U.S. military as they did not believe that the Iranian military was capable of shooting down a drone flying at such a high altitude. This brought the two countries to the brink of war, and various reports said that Trump called off a military attack on Iran with minutes to spare. While Trump claimed that he called off the attack because he did not want to kill Iranians over the downing of an unmanned drone, his policies—including the concentration camps at the border—show how little he values human life. For example, Trump was willing to kill thousands of civilians in the bombing of Mosul, Iraq and other military campaigns in Iraq and Syria; additionally he is sponsoring the Saudi-UAE led genocidal war in Yemen that has pushed 20,000,000 people to the brink of starvation.

So, it seems possible that the strike was called off because of military concerns, including fears about the Iranian military’s capabilities. This whole incident was also likely aimed at sending a message to Iran that the U.S. can mobilize its military to attack Iran at any time. However, even by itself the Iranian military is a powerful force, and with the aid of its allies and proxies across the region, Iranian forces are well positioned to fight against the U.S. and its allies.

Two weeks after this standoff, the U.K. seized an Iranian oil tanker on the grounds that the tanker might be shipping oil to Syria, an Iranian ally. After negotiations for the return of the tanker failed, Iran seized a Panamanian oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. responded by shooting down an Iranian drone. The Iranians then seized two more oil tankers, this time both British. Since this point there have not been any major escalations, but things remain balanced on a knife’s edge. All of these escalations have left many around the world concerned that war could break out at any moment.

While the news cycle has—at least for the moment—shifted away from the U.S.-Iran conflict, the situation remains dangerously unstable. The U.S. has imposed serious economic sanctions on Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel—the U.S.’s closest Middle Eastern allies—are all pushing for war with Iran. In fact, Israel is already in a low-level war with Iran in Syria. During the Syrian War, Assad’s government asked Iran for military and economic assistance. The Iranian government, as part of their expansionist efforts, sent a large number of troops to Syria and invested tens of billions of dollars in setting up Iranian military bases throughout the country and buying up a large stake in the Syrian economy. They also mobilized Iranian-allied militias and paramilitary organizations in Iraq and Lebanon—such as Hezbollah—to fight alongside Iranian troops in Syria. These efforts are part of the Iranian ruling class’s overall plan to become a major regional power and to stake out a powerful military position against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.

Over the past several years, Israel has carried out a huge number of airstrikes on Iranian bases and forces in Syria, and Iran has retaliated in various ways. If Iran launched a significant attack against Israel, or even just managed to shoot down some Israeli planes, this could lead to a major escalation in the U.S.-Iran conflict. While Donald Trump previously called off the attack on Iran at the last minute, it seems likely that he would not think twice about attacking Iran if they shot down an Israeli fighter jet.

However, given Iran’s influence in Lebanon, with Hezbollah in particular, their military bases in Syria, and their militias in Iraq, any conflict with Israel would likely spread across the entire region. Israel is not the only U.S. ally engaged in an ongoing conflict with Iran and Iranian-aligned forces. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are waging a genocidal war against the people of Yemen which has pushed 20,000,000 Yemenis to the brink of famine. This war is primarily about crushing the Yemeni Revolution which began in the Arab Spring in 2011 when the people of Yemen toppled the U.S. and Saudi backed dictator, “President” Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for over 30 years. However, the revolution also created an opening for the growth of the Houthis as a political and military force. They maintain relatively close ties with Iran, and have received some military, political, and economic support from the Iranian government in their war against the Saudis and UAE.

Israeli aistrikes in Syria from December, 2017 to September 2018. Since then airstrikes have continued and intensified in number.

In any war with the U.S., Iran would increase its support for the Houthis and likely would also help them mine and blockade the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea, through which around ten percent of the world’s seaborne oil travels. This, in conjunction with a similar blockade of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf—through which one third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and one quarter of the world’s oil pass each day—would lead to a massive disruption in the world economy. While these mines and blockades could eventually be cleared, mine sweeping is a time-consuming task, and all of this would happen during a war, making it even more dangerous and complicated.

All of this shows that this conflict with Iran is not just a repeat of the Iraq War; it is something far more dangerous. Any military conflict between these two reactionary powers would quickly spiral into a larger regional conflict that would put the lives of tens of millions of people at risk. However, this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past few years both China and Russia have been strengthening their ties with Iran, including by conducting joint military drills. Recently Russia and Iran conducted a series of joint military drills in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. China has also been a key partner to Iran and has worked closely with them to ensure that Iran can continue to sell its oil despite U.S. sanctions. This means any future conflict between the U.S. and Iran could also involve Russia and China, and thus quickly escalate into World War III.

However, even in a direct military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. it would not be a cakewalk for the U.S. military. In 2002 the Navy carried out a simulation of war with Iran known as the Millennium Challenge. During this simulation, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper was tasked with leading the simulated Iranian forces and deploying a variety of “asymmetrical” tactics which a weaker military force would use against a stronger one. In short, instead of going toe-to-toe with the U.S. military in the simulation, he used a variety of tactics to out maneuver and overwhelm the U.S. forces. In the opening maneuvers of the simulation General Van Riper was able to “sink” nineteen U.S. ships in the first battle, including an aircraft carrier. Had this been a real war it would have led to over 20,000 U.S. causalities in the first day of fighting alone.3

Even though the U.S. has a large number of bases surrounding the country, Iran’s military could still do a lot of damage to U.S. forces in a war.

After these embarrassing defeats, the Navy paused the simulation and changed the rules, preventing General Van Riper from using asymmetrical tactics, and putting other unrealistic conditions in place to ensure a U.S. victory. He promptly quit the simulation, and publicly critiqued it as “rigged” to confirm a predetermined conclusion: that the U.S. would defeat Iran in a war. It would have been very embarrassing for the U.S. military if the most expensive military drills ever conducted showed how a relatively weak country like Iran could decimate U.S. forces.

This drill was held over a decade ago, and since then Iran’s military has only grown in strength. They have developed advanced drones, high altitude anti-aircraft missiles, new submarines, electronic warfare capabilities, thousands of cruise missiles and speed boats, and much more. In the event of a war, they could mine the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, launch long-range artillery and cruise missiles to destroy oil infrastructure and cities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, mobilize their militias in Iraq against the U.S., launch a variety attacks against Israel through Hezbollah, have the Houthis shoot a number of missiles at Saudi Arabia, and deploy a variety of other asymmetrical tactics against the U.S. navy.

It is very likely that the Iranian military would be able to replicate General Van Riper’s success against the U.S. Navy. If they were able to sink an aircraft carrier and inflict tens of thousands of losses on U.S. forces, public opinion in the U.S. would quickly turn against the war. Between 1965 and 1972 the U.S. forces suffered around 57,000 casualties in Vietnam. If the U.S. military lost tens of thousands of lives in the first days of fighting with Iran, the U.S. public would be outraged and would likely take to the streets en masse.

All of this raises the question of what revolutionaries should do at the present moment. Some people argue that it makes sense to support the U.S. because at least this country is a democracy and Iran is a theocratic regime. However, the U.S. is not a truly democratic country because its policies and decisions are determined by the wealthy elite, and not the people.

What’s more, U.S. invasions always make the situation worse, even when the U.S. is invading a reactionary government. For example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein led to a complete disintegration of Iraqi society, with disastrous consequences for the Iraqi people. This U.S. “pro-democracy” war ultimately created the conditions which gave birth to ISIS, the reactionary Muslim-fascist force that briefly controlled a chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan also ultimately strengthened the Taliban and turned Afghanistan into a narco-state run by various regional warlords and the U.S. military. Any invasion of Iran, if the U.S. were successful militarily in defeating the Iranian armed forces, would have similar results, and would similarly be a disaster for the Iranian people.

Others argue that because the U.S. is the aggressor, it makes sense to support Iran. However, even when the U.S. is an aggressor, it does not make sense to actively support a reactionary government. During the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, it did not make sense to support Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. And this is all the more true in the case of Iran, which is an imperialist power—although a relatively weak one—expanding its economic, political, and military influence across the region and the world.

However, there is another option. It is not only possible, but necessary to support the people of the United States and the people of Iran in their respective struggles against the repressive governments in their countries, while also opposing the reactionary and imperialistic maneuvers of both the U.S. and Iranian governments. Much like the people of this country are struggling for liberation from white supremacy and wage-slavery, the people of Iran are struggling against the reactionary theocratic regime that bleeds them dry and tries to keep them in chains with feudal values and social norms.

It is important to understand that we do not have to settle for the logic of lesser-evilism when two imperialist powers compete with each other. This is a logic that the ruling class of this country sells us all the time. When it comes to presidential elections, they tell us to pick the least-bad of two oppressive corporate-sponsored war mongers. And when it comes to reactionary governments around the world they try to sell us on the same logic. Ultimately these ideas are based on nihilism, the belief that nothing can change and that a better world is not possible.

Instead of accepting these lies, revolutionaries and progressive people must support the people of Iran in their struggle to topple a corrupt theocratic capitalist regime, while also struggling against the U.S. government, and in particular building domestic opposition to imperialist war, attacks, and sanctions on Iran. We live in a powerful imperialist country that is constantly scheming and maneuvering to subjugate other countries and peoples. So it is on us to get organized, develop the anti-war movement, and fight back. We cannot sit by idly while the ruling class of this country and their government instigate new conflicts and use the people as pawns in their games of nuclear brinkmanship with rival imperialist powers.

During the Iranian Revolution, U.S.-based revolutionaries organized to support the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah. Today we have to learn from this spirit of internationalism.

  1. For more information on this see the Revolutionary Worker, Vol.4, No. 27, p. 9. Online here: ↩︎

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