- Created: Tuesday, 13 August 2019 10:48
- Written by Toby Harbertson
US imperialism is driving the world to the brink of war in the Middle East. Tensions with Iran are increasing; the passage of oil and gas through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula is at risk. On 20 June, US fighter planes were ready to launch airstrikes on Iran, before Trump’s divided administration pulled back. Britain has been thrust into the centre of these tensions by its seizure of Iran’s Grace 1 oil tanker off Gibraltar on 5 July, following a request from the US. Iran retaliated by seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker on 19 July. Behind these confrontations is the aggressive and unpredictable US state, as Trump’s government fights to delay US imperialism’s relative decline. TOBY HARBERTSON reports.
The Strait of Hormuz has been a crucial route for British imperialism for over a century; in 1903 Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, called the Persian Gulf a ‘British lake’. The Strait is 25 miles wide at its narrowest point and is the transit route for 20-30% of the world’s oil. 85% of this is destined for Asia, with China taking one fifth. Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar rely on the Strait to trade almost all their oil and natural gas. Saudi Arabia ships the largest volume through the Strait. British imperialism relies upon the trade in oil and gas, with Shell and BP dependent on Gulf supplies. Britain cannot allow major disruption to the Strait of Hormuz. US imperialism relies upon its ability to impose its will over the Middle East and to control its resources, preventing the emergence of rivals, and protecting its regional allies. Equally, China cannot accept disruption to its oil supplies – it may use the Gulf crisis to demonstrate its increasing power. Battles over oil and gas threaten the world with ruinous wars as well as ecological catastrophe.
British imperialism is in a bind: should it satisfy Trump’s US government or stay on board with the EU’s different plans to tame Iran?
The US withdrawal in 2018 from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, and its imposition of devastating sanctions on Iran, were intended to reassure Israel and Saudi Arabia and to subdue Iran’s challenge. The result has been a deepening rift between the US and the EU, with France and Germany leading an attempt to maintain the nuclear deal. Britain, along with France, Germany, the EU, Russia and China, still participates in the JCPOA. However, the British ruling class has been divided over whether the future of British imperialism lies with the US or the EU.
British imperialism is in a bind: should it satisfy Trump’s US government or stay on board with the EU’s different plans to tame Iran? We have covered the deep divisions in the British ruling class in consecutive issues of FRFI (see ‘The EU referendum: the position of communists’ in FRFI 251). Britain’s attempt to remain with France, Germany and the EU in JCPOA nuclear deal angers Trump’s administration, which wants Britain to take a more aggressive stance. The Conservative Party leadership under Boris Johnson has set its sights on Brexit. It conjures up nostalgic delusions of British grandeur and calls for increased military investment. Johnson’s refusal to defend the former British ambassador to the US after his criticisms of Trump were leaked, indicates that a Johnson government will likely side with the US. If the British government attempts to satisfy both sides of the deepening inter-imperialist divide between the US and the EU, it will find this balancing act beyond even its contortions.
The art of the deal?
Regime change in Iran has been a longstanding US foreign policy aim, and of its Saudi and Israeli allies. Since Trump’s election the US has been lurching towards war, stepping up proxy confrontations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. His government has a strong ‘bomb Iran’ faction led by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. On 3 May, the US tightened its sanctions on Iran. The EU opposed the move, encouraging Iran to comply with the now irrelevant restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal (see ‘US threatens China, Iran and the EU’, FRFI 270). US sanctions on Iran are having a devastating effect, isolating the country from the global financial system and drastically reducing the standard of living of ordinary Iranians. Inflation is at 40% and the IMF predicts a 6% contraction in the economy as a whole (The Independent, 10 May).
Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA nuclear deal on 8 May 2018. This 2015 agreement between Iran and the US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China, with the EU, imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme – supposedly to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon – in return for the lifting of economic sanctions (see ‘Iran: the prize’, FRFI 246). On the first anniversary of the US withdrawal, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) announced that it would no longer comply with the deal’s regulations unless it gained the promised economic benefits. It gave Europe 60 days to devise a way to facilitate trade with Iran. The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) was launched; a special purpose vehicle designed to make payments to Iran, avoiding the US sanctions, but which does not allow for oil transactions. Russia has said it wants to join INSTEX. Iran said this was not enough and on 1 July announced that it had exceeded the 300kg of 3.67% enriched uranium permitted, and then on 4 July that it had begun to enrich uranium beyond the 3.67% allowed limit to 4.5% (90% is required for a nuclear weapon). Iran claims to be enriching uranium solely for purposes of domestic nuclear power. Following the illegal US exit from the deal, and its re-imposition of sanctions, Iran has no responsibilities to continue to comply with the deal. On the day that Iran’s deadline to Europe expired, Iranian President Rouhani said, ‘Iran’s measures are all reversible in the immediate term. We will return to the JCPOA any moment they [the US] do.’
The road to war?
Confrontations began shortly after Iran declared its intention to breach the limits set by the nuclear deal. On 12 May, Saudi Arabia claimed that two of its oil tankers were sabotaged in the Gulf, an act claimed by the Houthi-led rebels, who are resisting the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal war on Yemen. On 12 June, Houthi missile strikes hit Saudi Arabia’s Abha international airport, injuring 26 people. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with the missiles – which Iran denies. No evidence has been provided of Iranian military support for the Houthis. The following day Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers were damaged in the Gulf of Oman. The attack coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran. US military footage was released allegedly showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces removing limpet mines from one of the tankers. Trump said: ‘Iran did do it and you know they did it because you saw the boat.’ Japan disputed the US story, claiming the boats were hit by projectiles. Iran denied involvement. On 16 June, Pompeo told Fox News that when Asian countries (including Japan), which rely on Gulf oil, see ‘the risk to their own economies and their own people… they will join us’.
Tensions reached a new high on 20 June when Iran shot down a US RQ-4B Global Hawk drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran claimed that the $200m drone had entered Iranian airspace and was warned twice. Responding, Trump authorised military strikes against Iranian targets. However, Trump’s advisers were split, with Pompeo, Bolton and CIA director Gina Haspel backing strikes, but Pentagon officials warned of Iran’s military capability and potential reprisals, with rockets and missiles, against US forces in Syria and Iraq (The Guardian, 21 June). The strikes were called off at the last minute. Instead, Trump approved cyberattacks against Iranian radar and missile systems, and implemented further sanctions against key Iranian officials.
The US response also took other forms. On 5 July, British Marines seized the Grace 1 Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar. It was carrying two million barrels of oil which Britain claimed was being transported to Syria. However, it soon became clear that the ship was seized following a request from the US. Patrick Cockburn commented: ‘The UK claims that it is implementing EU sanctions on Syria, but the act will be seen by Tehran – and most other states – as the British enforcing US sanctions on Iran that the EU [including Britain] said it opposes’ (The Independent, 5 July). By seizing the Iranian tanker Britain has been thrust into the centre of a crisis of the US’s making. In response to this cynical manipulation of EU sanctions, the EU said nothing; a stance described by academic Barry Ryan as a ‘deliberate and strategic use of silence’ (The Conversation, 18 July). Mohsen Rezaei, a former leader of the IRGC warned: ‘If England does not release the Iranian oil tanker, [Iran’s] duty... is to respond and seize one English oil tanker.’
On 9 July, British ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz were put on high alert. Two days later Iranian forces approached the British Heritage tanker, and British warship HMS Montrose intervened. Iran denied attempting to seize the ship. An additional British warship, HMS Duncan, was sent to the Gulf to protect shipping. On 18 July, Iran offered new nuclear talks to the US, but was met with outright rejection. That same day the Gibraltar Supreme Court announced that it was extending the detention of the Grace 1 until 31 August. Iran responded on 19 July, seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and taking it to the military port of Bandar Abbas. Iran initially accused the ship of breaching maritime regulations. Iranian leaders later declared that the ship would be held until the Grace 1 was released. Mostafa Kavakebian, from Iran’s national security committee stated: ‘It is required that the Iranian ship would be released as soon as possible so that we would not have to impose tolls on UK and US ships crossing the Strait of Hormuz’ (The Guardian, 21 July). The then British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Iran of ‘serious consequences’.
On 23 July, China’s foreign ministry said it would ‘oppose the bullying and sanctions by the US of China’s enterprises and individuals based on US’s domestic laws’. This was in response to the US saying it would impose sanctions on China’s largest state-backed oil trader for transporting Iranian oil in defiance of US restrictions. World oil prices are rising as the tensions increase.
The British government has been criticised for failing to provide protection for British shipping in the Gulf. Politicians and military figures have lined up to decry the supposedly sorry state of the British military. Former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood argued: ‘Our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests across the globe, if that’s our future intentions, and that’s something the next prime minister will need to recognise.’ In his bid to become Tory leader Hunt championed greater military spending. Trump would like Britain to increase its military budget. The US spends $650bn a year to Britain’s $50bn (Iran spends $19bn). Despite discussions about a US-led maritime task force monitoring security for international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, on 22 July Pompeo said that Britain must be responsible for the security of its own ships. On the same day Hunt announced plans for a European-led maritime protection mission. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and his government will find it is not possible to straddle two horses running in different directions.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 271, June/July 2019