A New Phase of Imperialist Challenge in the Middle East

John Foster on geopolitical shifts in the Middle East and how recent global crises, such as US aggression on China, NATO enlargement and the resulting war in Ukraine have influenced them.

For the past decade the Middle East has experienced an uneasy stability – one based on harsh repression, sectarian politics and gross economic exploitation. Initiated by Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, this period saw the US seeking to replace direct military occupation by reliance on proxies, specifically Israel, and the exploitation of a balance of power between the region’s dominant states: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. 

This period has now come to an end – in part as a consequence of the next stage in the pivot to Asia, the development of direct military threats to China, NATO’s enlargement across Eurasia, the associated war in Ukraine and the impact of this on the world economy.

The resulting multiple crises pose a direct challenge to all those committed to Liberation’s founding objectives. In framing its response, the Left in Britain must listen to progressive voices in the Middle East itself – in practice, demands already largely embodied in the UN resolutions, on Palestine, Syria, Cyprus and Yemen, that have largely remained dormant and unfulfilled, often for decades. 

What has triggered this situation? First, the massive economic dislocation resulting from the war in Europe, bringing hunger and destitution to the most vulnerable Middle Eastern economies; Syria and Lebanon in particular and to a lesser extent Iraq and Iran. The second is a more subtle but important shift in diplomatic and economic alignments, resulting largely from the economic consequences of the war, affecting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey. 

First, let us consider the impact of war and profiteering by the great energy and food monopolies. This has had devastating consequences for countries that are either without oil or where oil revenue is appropriated by a sectarian elite. 

Lebanon, according to the World Bank, faces one of the world’s worst economic crises. GDP has fallen steadily for the past three years and precipitously in 2022. Already by 2021 it was down by 37 percent. By 2022, 82 percent of the population were in poverty and inflation raged at 145 percent. 

The World Bank’s comment, in January 2023, is that this is a ‘deliberate depression … organised by the country’s elite’.  Unusual language.  What does it mean?  Effectively that ever more income is being seized by the ruling elites, whether Christian or Moslem, to buttress their failing sectarian control through direct handouts to those they can buy.  The formal state machine, the usual provider of welfare and relief, has virtually disappeared.  Government revenue is now just 6 percent of GDP. 

To a lesser, but significant extent, the same has happened in Iraq – whose oil revenues should have been sufficient to guarantee a significant buffer against rocketing food prices. 

However, in both Lebanon and Iraq, there has been one positive result.  Sectarian control has started to loosen – especially among the young.  In the 2022 elections in Lebanon,       an anti-sectarian Left and progressive coalition managed to secure a block of 13 seats in the Parliament, including one Communist. In Iraq’s 2022 election Muqtada al Sadr, whose base is among the poorest sections of Baghdad’s population, broke with his sectarian allies. A Communist-supported popular alliance has correspondingly increased in its influence.

To this extent, the revolt in Iran has similar origins – though here it is combined with a more explicit rejection, especially among the country’s students and organised labour, of the brutal sectarian regime itself, of ‘Political Islam’ as the foundation for state governance.

So what of the other side of the equation – the changing political alignments among those dominant Middle Eastern states on whom the US had relied to maintain a balance of power: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt     ?

First, Saudi Arabia and allied Gulf states. 

The lingering distrust between Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and the US state department has been sharpened by conflict over oil. Saudi Arabia’s absolutist rulers want to maximise oil income while they can and safely store this wealth overseas. The US, to placate its EU allies on energy costs, wants the reverse: to minimise energy prices and maximise its own shale oil exports. At the same time Saudi rulers also want a safe haven for their assets and are concerned by the dollar’s monopolistic control over banking and payment systems. Over the past three months these concerns have seen the Gulf Coordination Council strike agreements with China over oil supplies and to agree payment in Chinese currency. This move followed earlier conflict with the US in September over at OPEC’s decision to freeze oil production.

The Gulf States, as well as Egypt, have additionally been discomfited by the failure of the US to provide them with the same state-of-the-art weapons as supplied to Israel. On this front also, they have turned to China.

In the US, these developments, on top of the popular mobilisations in Iran since September 2022, have led to a major shift of attitudes in the State Department, reflected in recent issues of its house magazine, Foreign Affairs.  Intervention is now back. This time it will not be direct but instead mainly through reliable allies, particularly Israel – despite the criminally revanchist and racist nature of its new government. 

The first target is likely to be Syria, prostrate as a result of the earthquake, denied oil income by the continuing US-Kurdish occupation of its oil-bearing North-East and facing an Israeli bombardment now reaching its capital, Damascus.

Iran will be next, a much bigger target. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) has now been placed onto the backburner given the new opportunities that exist to exploit leverage or otherwise exert pressure on the regime in Tehran. The US is now backing those exiled groups that advocate armed intervention and regime change, including the monarchists and the mojahedin (MKO) who are further financed and facilitated by Iran’s regional adversaries – not least Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Success here, in Syria and Iran (and consequentially in Iraq and Lebanon) would dramatically change the balance of forces across the Middle East and restore US leverage over the Gulf states and Turkey. Turkey under Erdogan has ridden free of any control in order to pursue Ottoman ambitions. Although now smitten by the earthquake and facing an imminent general election, Erdogan has used abundant labour and harsh coercion to supply a production base for external capital. This base has financially sustained interventions in Syria, Cyprus, Libya and Armenia as well as new alliances with the Turkic countries of central Asia. 

In both cases, of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and allied Gulf States, the new alignments would assist the US in bringing them back into line with its wider strategy of isolating and confronting China and its allies. Currently they are seen to be obstructing it.

These are today’s challenges in the Middle East – challenges posing grave dangers for the peoples of the region and world peace. What should be the response of the Left in Britain

First, to understand these challenges, then to act. 

First, on Iran. Every support must be given to the democratic opposition. Mr Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s prime minister for eight years during the 1980s, leader of the country’s opposition ‘Green Movement’, and president-elect in 2009 before being placed under house arrest, has called for a secular constitution, a disbanding of the theocratic regime and free democratic elections. This is the position backed by the students and striking teachers and oil workers. The alternative, the US-domiciled monarchists and their mujaheddin, must be opposed.  CODIR supplies the briefings.

Second, on Israel, the current US tool. The extremist character of the Netanyahu government provides an opportunity for a renewed drive to secure the enforcement of UN resolutions for Palestinian rights. Starmer’s Labour Party must be put to the test.

Third, on Syria. The UN-backed Astana Peace Accords are there. They must be carried forward to ensure Syria’s territorial integrity under UN resolutions.

Fourth, there must be action to end Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus and to defuse conflict over oil resources off the costs of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine.  Here Britain has a direct responsibility as chair of the UN-brokered Commission tasked to secure agreement.

Finally, Yemen, where 350,000 have died. Britain must stop arming Saudi Arabia and work for a negotiated settlement.

John Foster is an Emeritus Professor of Social Science at the University of the West of Scotland, and has authored many books.

Photos: Creative Commons

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