The urgency of the agreement with Iran can only be understood considering the situation of the Middle East: it’s the only state in the region that can organize the whole of social relations within its territory. It is a fundamental ally to control the region.
Translated by Nicolás Muñoz
The recent agreement between the United States and Iran has prompted a significant controversy worldwide. While some think that it is a new path to freedom, for a region so troubled as the Middle East; others, in contrast, understand this situation as a form of enhancing the Iranian nuclear capacity in the long run.In this article we analyze the relations between the United States and Iran through the history, the nature of the agreement and its effects in the American internal politics, in order to evaluate the magnitude of the historical transformations that are being operating in the international relations between powers .
A brief history of the sanctions
The novelty of the agreement between the United States and Iran can only be understood if we remember the last 30 years of conflicts and tensions between them. Since the fall in 1979 of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, who openly responded to EEUU interests in the region, Iran became one of the main enemies of the US government. Without the political control over the region, EEUU could not take the benefits for the investments that the Iranian state needed to exploit large reserves of oil (the largest after Saudi Arabia and Canada) and gas (the largest after Russia). So, to avoid its incorporation in the world market as an oil and gas exporter, as well as to limit its nuclear program developed with the help of Russia, EEUU implemented some sanctions against that country. Nonetheless, EEUU didn’t give up on trying to overthrow the Iranian regime, providing military support to Saddam Hussein during the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988).
In this way, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency the sanctions were focused on blocking the assets of the Iranian government and its deposits in American banks, as well as a full trade embargo. After a brief impasse between 1981 and 1984, achieved thanks to the Algiers Accords that temporarily defused the sanctions, Iran was designated as a “State sponsor of terrorism”, which concretely resulted in the prohibition of financial assistance and the sales of arms from EEUU. From then on began a period of progressive tightening. Three years later, Ronald Regan banned imports of Iranian products and services, fundamentally oil. During Bill Clinton’s administration, in 1995-1996, those last sanctions were deepened, establishing the prohibition of commercialize Iranian oil by American companies, as well as to export goods to a country that later could send them to Iran. In short, EEUU could sanction companies of other countries, affecting their businesses with local firms. The implementation of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), the first great extraterritorial sanction, allowed the American government to block European and Japanese capital flows to Iran, but didn’t allow the same against China and Russia.
However, the fall in agricultural prices obliged Clinton’s administration to increase flexibility in the commercialization of these products. In this way, a licenses system was implemented, by which the commercialization of food and medical products was allowed after obtaining a particular authorization from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of Treasury. Two types of licenses were set, one for authorizing operations in general and another more specific, which only enabled particular transactions. Obtaining each one of these licenses depended on the product for sale. In the case of food and medical products, both of them were required[i].
With the arrive of the new century a law was passed aiming to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Physical and juridical persons that have collaborated with programs for the production of weapons of mass destruction in Iran could be sanctioned. The sanctions included prohibiting the exports of arms and so called “double use” products (civilian and military) from the EEUU to the sanctioned entity. In this sense, George Bush issued an order in 2001 that allowed the government to block the assets of persons and entities that would provide support, services or assistance to groups considered terrorists. In 2005, to block financially the manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction, the sanctions were deepened by freezing their assets. So all of the transactions between the terrorists and any American person were disabled, in addition to freezing any asset they might have in the country.
Since 2010, granting special licenses for trading with a sanctioned country gained a big impulse under the umbrella of a “humanitarian exemption”. This meant sending first-necessity goods for human development, fundamentally the ones related to food, medicine and telecommunications. Thus, more than ten thousand licenses were granted. The company General Electric was the first big beneficiary with 160 licenses, followed by Coico Medical LCC, company dedicated to medical equipment, with 129 licenses. In third place was America Pulp & Paper Corporation, dedicated to the commercialization of paper, with 128 licenses. There were also other food companies like Bunge Global Markets, Coca Cola Company, Pepsico Inc., Archer Daniels Midland and Mars; as well as companies dedicated to genetic modification of animals. In the case of arms industry, the only beneficiary was Hercules USA Inc[ii].
Furthermore, a “special rule” was set that exempts from any sanction the companies that commit to end their businesses with Iran as well as renounce to any future sanctionable deal with that country. With this exemption companies like Total SA (France), Stat Oil (Norway), Shell (Holland), Eni Spa (Italy)[iii], Petronas (Malaysia), Inpex (Japan) and subsidiaries of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) were benefited.[iv]
What this brief historical story shows is that, in effect, since various decades, the EEUU has maintained a policy of hostility towards Iran. However, the sanctions are not unambiguous nor were totally applied, actually they been tied to the economic interests of North America, as the selective use of the licenses in recent years has strengthen the market in certain sectors of its economy. In this sense, the sanctions sought to limit Iran’s growth and its accumulation capacity based on oil rent, and, at the same time, to favor some branches of American industry.
The agreement in question
This story began to change in November 2013, when the “Joint Plan of Action” was signed by the countries of the G5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia and EEUU) and Iran, which committed itself to stop the development of its nuclear program in exchange for a relief in sanctions. In this way Iran achieved the temporary suspension of the restrictions to the purchase and sale of gold and other precious metals, and to the export of petrochemical products, among others. The agreement also allowed opening financial channels to facilitate Iran’s import of certain humanitarian goods, payment of medical expenses made by Iranians abroad, payments of the obligations in the United Nations, as well as the release of 400 million dollars as tuition assistance for Iranian students abroad.
This solution has been renewed until the start of this year. However, Obama got to face a fierce opposition in the Congress, because interfere with his political strategy of rapprochement with Iran. In February, the republican senator Mark Kirk and the democrat Robert Menéndez presented a project that proposes a progressive plan of sanctions, and has as a starting point the reestablishment of the sanctions that had been temporarily suspended if there is not an agreement until July 30th. Furthermore, it prohibits the President from granting any kind of exemption to sanctions, and sets their immediate application if Iran does not behave as it should.
To show its position, Obama assured that he would veto the implementation of the sanctions if the project were to be approved by Congress, since it would ruin the negotiations held so far. The opposition, continuing the provocations, invited the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress, without the authorization of the president, to pronounce himself against the rapprochement with Iran.
¿What are the interests behind this fierce opposition to the line of the White House? Mark Kirk is a senator from Illinois, he was co-author of the project of sanctions to Iran voted in 2011 and he is linked with various Zionist organizations. The presentation of the project was driven by four pro-Israeli lobbies: American Israel Public Affairs Comittee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and Zionist Organization of America. The AIPAC is the most powerful pro-Israeli group in EEUU and handles funds of 72 million dollars. In the last five years, AIPAC spent more than $14 million lobbying in Congress and Federal Agencies to stick its nose and to put pressure in the legislative agenda[v]. Its principal demands have revolved around achieving a tough agreement with Iran (which in concrete implies continuing with the sanctions, since it stablishes conditions that the country won’t accept), support the assistance and security to Israel, suspend humanitarian aid in Palestine and fight against the boycott to Israel by European governments[vi].
This lobby group has a great power. In 2011, as an example of its influence, it managed to persuade forty six members of Congress to oppose the recognition of the Palestinian State. In effect, AIPAC has influence over republicans as well as democrats. Since the beginnings of Obama’s presidency, the group had been aligned with Netanyahu’s political. AIPAC gave impulse to the Corker-Cardin project that enables the Legislature to revise the agreement with Iran, because suspiciously the Kirk-Menendez project has not been dealt in Congress yet. In its beginnings, the project contemplated sixty days for the revision of the agreement and it obliged Obama to make a periodical report about Iran’s compliance.
Against this opposition, naturally, Obama is not alone. AIPAC’s main rival is J Street, a more “liberal” group of the pro-Israeli lobby. J Street is openly aligned with the White House and agrees with Obama’s policy regarding Iran. In March this year there was a conference of the Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who made a speech calling for the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to repudiate Netanyahu’s presence in Congress.
On occasions, J Street has pressured Congress to oppose condemnations of Palestine, urged a cease-fire when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in 2008 and opposed the funding of Israel’s anti-missile system (known as Iron Dome). The main financier of J Street is George Soros, multimillionaire Jewish critic of Zionism. Since 2008 this group has been having an exponential growth: it went from having four employees to sixty employees currently, with 180 thousand affiliates and a budget of 8 million dollars. J Street provides financial support from American Jewish to the political candidates whose points of view are not aligned with AIPAC. The main theoretician supporting the group is Daniel Levy, son of Lord Levy from Great Britain, who was the main fundraiser for the Labor Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair.[vii] Of course, J Street was fiercely opposed to the Kirk-Menéndez project.
At the moment, everything seems to indicate that Obama has the upper hand. He currently has international supports to deal with a change of policy. He was supported by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who argued that it was necessary to give an opportunity to the diplomatic negotiations. The United Kingdom is part of the diplomatic coalition that pushes forward the negotiations with Teheran. Added to this is the support of the G5+1 as a whole. With this foundation, the “Joint Plan of Action” as a temporary solution was not renewed and a “Framework Agreement” was reached, and if it is implemented it would be in effect for 10 or 15 years. The fundamental requirement of the member countries of the G5+1 was to set parameters to limit the Iranian nuclear program. The maintenance of 5.000 centrifuges that will produce enriched uranium in Natanz nuclear facility was accepted, half of the ones that are currently functioning. A particular point of concern was the production of uranium in Fordow nuclear facility, which was signaled by Israel and some American officials as dangerous for having a subterranean location immune to air bombings. However, that facility will only be used for advanced nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes. Another worrisome point was the main reactor in Arak, which could, as officials in charge of the negotiations feared, produce plutonium. It will operate on a limited capacity, hampering the production of enough fuel to produce a bomb. In exchange for all this concessions, the European Union and EEUU will begin lifting the sanctions. First, the ones that affect the automotive and oil sectors.
In the context of this “Framework Agreement”, Obama imposed modifications to the AIPAC project, reducing the revision period to 30 days and obliging the realization of periodical reports only about Iran’s support of terrorism. Furthermore, in relation with said project, Obama obtained control of the terms of the agreement.
From everything said so far, an obvious question arises: ¿what is at stake in this EEUU rapprochement with Iran that has led the White House to openly confront with Congress? Let’s see.
One of the main reasons used to oppose the agreement is the potential development of weapons of mass destruction by the Iranian government. However, this country abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and currently doesn’t have enough power to produce a bomb. The production of Iranian enriched uranium was made for civilian purposes: it has been used as alternative fuel for the atomic centrals, allowing the country to diminish its dependency on oil and gas import.
A curious fact appears when we observe which countries currently own nuclear weapons: China, France, India, Pakistan, Great Britain, EEUU, Israel, North Korea, Italy, Turkey, Holland, Belgium and Germany. The last five store weapons belonging to EEUU.
Netanyahu assures that there is a genocidal intention on the part of Iran and asks for the recognition of the Israeli State as a condition to move forward with the agreement. The paradox is that a while ago came to be known a 1987 document of the EEUU, where Israel’s nuclear capacity is assessed and this country’s experimentation with a code that allows to build hydrogen bombs is demonstrated, bombs that are thousands of times more powerful than an atomic bomb. Israel developed its nuclear program in the late sixties through the assistance and technical control of EEUU. In this way, it is clear that criticism of the agreement doesn’t correspond to the reality of the Iranian nuclear production. Israel pressures to maintain itself as the hegemonic power in the region based on its arms superiority.
The tensions between Israel and EEUU are not new, although they’ve deepened since the agreement with Iran, and the presence of organizations like J Street makes them more evident[viii]. Furthermore, in the long run Iran could replace Saudi Arabia’s role as leading oil trade partner of EEUU. Everything indicates that we are headed to a transformation of the historical alliances between great powers. However, the urgency of the agreement with Iran can only be understood considering the situation of the Middle East: it’s the only state in the region that can organize the whole of social relations within its territory. In this sense, it is a fundamental ally for controlling this area of vital economic importance and fighting against ISIS’s reactionary insurgency.
Here the Palestinian question appears as a key factor, since Obama is reevaluating his country’s policy in the conflict and could try to resolve it through the recognition of that State. It is important to note that recently there have been various changes in the European policy regarding the Palestinian conflict. In October last year Sweden open the debate by recognizing Palestine as a State. In December was joined by Ireland. This is accompanied by the European Parliament’s joint resolution that recognized Palestine as a State also in December. It is estimated that in the next United Nations meeting France will propose the recognition. In this context, Israel is pressuring Obama to give a negative vote.
The resolution of the Palestine situation is fundamental for the stability of the region. Currently there’s more than four million Palestinians living in Arab countries and more than two million of them are in Jordan[ix], consolidated as relative over-population[x]. In this scenario, the configuration of new alliances between EEUU and Iran doesn’t have anything progressive about it and it won’t guarantee “peace”. The immediate goal is to appease the movements that threat the local bourgeoisies’ power, which means that it will continue to be the working class’ blood the one at stake, unless an independent workers political alternative appears.
[iii] http://goo.gl/OF1n9J, http://goo.gl/A9GCb8
[x] Harari, Fabián: “El primer mandato”, en El Aromo, nº 41, marzo-abril de 2008.