Iranian demonstrators with images of Fatemi, Khomeini, Mosaddegh and Takhti Iranian demonstrators with images of Fatemi, Khomeini, Mosaddegh and Takhti

John Rees explains the history that led to US imperialism losing most of its allies in the Middle East, apart from Israel.

A long time ago, in a kingdom far, far away there was a Western ally. He was called the Shah of Iran, or, as he called himself, ‘the King of Kings’. The Shah had come to power courtesy of the British and Russians during the Second World War and concentrated all power in his hands, with the help of a CIA backed coup in 1953 that overthrew the left-leaning, democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh.

The Shah ruled his kingdom with an iron fist. He crushed all domestic opposition. His secret police, Savak, hunted down his enemies in every corner of the globe, torturing those they caught and assassinating those they could not. He bought arms from the West on a prodigious scale.

But eventually, in 1979, the Shah was overthrown in a revolution that contained very powerful working-class struggles, although those that eventually came to power were more moderate religious leaders who had also been longtime victims and opponents of the Shah. The new Iran was, understandably, given the long history of pro-Western despotism that the Shah had represented, not well disposed to the West.

So the West encouraged and armed its then ally and Iran’s neighbour, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a war with Iran which lasted eight years from 1980. The war was long and hugely costly to both sides, leaving between one and two million dead. This war of mutually assured destruction was not of great concern to the West as long as it disabled the Iranian regime, leaving it weakened and isolated in the region.

And there the situation might have rested, had not US backing for Saddam convinced him that he would have US support in his long-running dispute with Kuwait. Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait proved to be a grievous miscalculation for Saddam, turning him from Western asset into Western enemy and triggering the first Gulf War. The US easily dislodged Iraq from Kuwait but this did not lead as easily to regime change in Baghdad. For that, years of sanctions and the second Gulf War in the aftermath of 9/11 were necessary.

But even this did not deliver what the US really wanted: Iraq as a stable, pro-Western, economic and political dependency at the heart of the Middle East. Instead, whatever oil and other benefits the invasion of Iraq brought, the long-sought, politically reliable regime was not one of them. In fact, the country was destroyed, and the government which eventually emerged was pro-Iranian, and Iraq became home to pro-Iranian militias.

Over thirty years, US policy had turned two critical pro-Western states, Iraq and Iran, from allies into enemies. Moreover, US policy elsewhere in the Middle East has allowed Iran to build alliances it could not previously have dreamt would be possible.

Iran’s allies

US backing for Saudi Arabia in its war of choice against the Yemen meant the Houthi regime looked to Iran. The Houthis are not Iranian puppets. Their popular base lies in the fact that they were the Yemeni variant of the 2011 Arab Revolutions, eventually overthrowing the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2014. However, they were almost bound to fall into the Iranian sphere of influence given the poverty of Yemen, and US backing for both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Similar constellations of allegiance would find both Hamas and Hezbollah looking to Iran. None of these movements are ‘Iranian proxies’ as the Western mainstream media repeatedly refer to them. They all have a significant social base in their own communities, and hardly need the Iranian regime to tell them why they need to oppose either Israel or US imperial power in the Middle East. They have plenty of reasons of their own to take that path.

Western mainstream media find it difficult to grant the simple fact that Palestinians, Lebanese, or Yemenis have quite sufficient grievances to make them hostile to Israel and the US without outside manipulation. Yet the inability to recognise this simple fact leads to many false and contradictory assertions.

When Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was President of Egypt, it was supposed to be the fact that Hamas had links with the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than Iran, that was the problem. Now that Morsi has been overthrown by the Western-backed military dictator El Sisi, it is the links with Iran that are meant to be decisive, in spite of the fact that Hamas is a Sunni organisation while the Iranian state is Shia.

The Houthis are Shia and this supposedly links them to Iran, but only 25% of Yemenis are Shia, so this cannot account for the Houthis’ support in Yemen. Indeed, all the evidence shows that it is support for Palestinians which is making the Houthis popular with Yemenis of all creeds.

Perhaps the one thing that has allowed Iran to make allies across the Middle East, besides the continuing destructive acts of the Western powers, is the collapse of the previously hegemonic ideology of resistance to Western imperialism: pan-Arab nationalism.

Since its days of ascendancy in the 1950s, with Gamal Abdel Nasser as its iconic leader, pan-Arab nationalism has declined. The rise of dictators and army regimes using Arab nationalist rhetoric to bolster their support has undermined its mass appeal, and its compromises with imperialism, most significantly the Oslo accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has further diminished its appeal. The 1979 Iranian Revolution has cast the Iranian regime as a successor influence for many, though not all, in the region.

So if there is one reason above all why a conservative and authoritarian regime in Iran has been able to cement alliances across the Middle East, it is not because others in the region envy Iranians their form of government. It is because the actions of the US and its allies, currently bombing three countries in the region and supporting the genocidal invasion of Gaza by Israel, have made the victims of US imperialism seek each other out for support, in spite of their very real differences and in spite of the fact that each of their struggles has its own peculiarities.

US and Western wars and occupations, the destruction of whole nations in the Middle East, have brought co-operation between those who want to survive the onslaught and establish their independence from the colonial past and the imperial present.

How the West created the Iranian ‘problem’ – John Rees – Islam Channel

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John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.