The Kingdom Bahrain is safe, so says the man in charge. His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced a three month reign of safety called “a State of National Safety” to protect citizens’ lives. This March 15 announcement was made in response to popular demonstrations in that country.
European and US support for justice and human rights are armed and supposedly on the march, after all — Bahraini officials would have been sanctioned, and no-fly zones issued by these countries, and the military alliance of NATO. Surely ‘precision’ freedom rockets would have rained from the sky and made impact on government compounds if innocent people were truly at risk. There would have been talk of weapons provided to the opposition movement that is asking for a constitutional monarchy or democracy.
The State of National Safety is decreed to end on June 1. Perhaps this means national safety is being amply protected by targeting and eliminating threats.
Since mass demonstrations took place in Bahrain, threats being handled so far include special military courts being given 405 political detainees to prosecute, including 23 doctors and 24 nurses.
Here is an Al Jazeera report of raids on schools and beatings of school girls.
A lot of work went into getting things to this stage. There was “systematic and coordinated attacks against medical personnel, as a result of their efforts to provide unbiased care for wounded protestors.” The abuse ranged from threats to beatings. Hospitalised patients and detainees received a generous share of the national safety efforts as well, “including torture, beating, verbal abuse, humiliation, and threats of rape and killing; government security forces stealing ambulances and posing as medics; the militarization of hospitals and clinics which has resulted in the obstruction of medical care; and rampant fear that prevents patients from seeking urgent medical treatment.” These are documented by and quoted from Physicians for Human Rights.
Some hospitalised patients are said to have been abused by masked security officers. On the subject of masked men, they have made a couple of other notable appearances of late.
At least two groups of masked men went into action the night of May 1-2. They grabbed Matar Ebrahim Matar and Jawad Fairuz.
Before the abduction, Matar was accused of directing the killing of two security officers during the period of popular uprisings. The accusation was very dramatic. It took place on television. A man detained and charged for the death of two security officers was broadcast admitting the direction of Matar in targeting officers.
Prior to his own detention, Matar identified the bearer of the television accusation as Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer. This man is dead now, since early April. He seems to haven been tortured to death. Fairuz, also a member of al-Wefaq who had earlier resigned from the lower house of parliament, was victim of a home invasion by men with weapons in hand, and he was taken. You can read more about this from Human Rights Watch.
The Kingdom of Bahrain has had help. Its partners include the thousand strong Saudi-led military men who entered the country to help the royal Al Khalifa family maintain control.
Mercenaries were also requested to boost the power and security of the royal family during this time of increased opposition. And it should have by now become increasingly clear that the national safety announced by the king is primarily about the maintenance of power in the hands of the royal family.
The Kingdom of Bahrain benefited from an advert to “urgently” hire military and security personnel from Pakistan. This is what the advert looked like.
The News, from Pakistan, in April expanded on the subject:
The Fauji Security Services (Pvt) Limited, which is run by the Fauji Foundation, a subsidiary of the Pakistan Army, is currently recruiting on war footing basis thousands of retired military personnel from the Pakistan Army, Navy and the Air Force who will be getting jobs in the Gulf region, especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But sources in the Fauji Foundation say over 90 per cent of the fresh recruitments, which started in the backdrop of the recent political upheaval in the Arab world, are being sent to Bahrain to perform services in the Bahrain National Guard (BNG), and that too at exorbitant salaries. Thousands of ex-servicemen of the Pakistani origin are already serving in Bahrain and the fresh recruitments are aimed at boosting up the strength of the BNG to deal with the country’s majority Shia population, which is calling for replacement of the Sunni monarchy. Bahrain’s ruling elite is Sunni, although about 70% of the population is Shia.
[…]According to available figures, over 1,000 Pakistanis have so far been recruited in March 2011 alone.
[…]Bahrain has long been a happy hunting ground for ex-Pakistani army personnel — an estimated 10,000 Pakistanis are already serving in various security services of Bahrain.
The work of repression includes such things as demolitions. Shia mosques and shrines have been demolished. Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ali bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, has claimed, “These are not mosques. These are illegal buildings.”
The Justice Ministry’s website had this response: “The ministry will provide legal alternatives for buildings with a licence for those cabins and facilities being removed.” (from Reuters)
Pepe Escobar writes in the Asia Times that detainees put on trial include “Shi’ite dissident Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the opposition group Haq who has called for the overthrow of the monarchy; and Ebrahim Shareef, the Sunni leader of the secular Waad group that called for a constitutional monarchy.”
Human Rights Watch has reported that on May 3 it “received credible reports that a human rights and opposition activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was arrested on April 9 and whose whereabouts and well-being were unknown, had been admitted to Bahrain Defense Force hospital for six days for treatment of injuries, including to his jaw and head. One person who saw him said he was unrecognizable as a result of apparent beatings in detention.”
Local media has also been targeted. For example, three editors from an opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, are being taken to court. Their charges include unethical coverage of demonstrations.
The Al Khalija family is wielding terror, violence, and detentions in its campaign to retain a monopoly on power. This is the same family that has been ruling Bahrain since 1783.
In the 1830s the Al Khalifa family signed the first of many treaties establishing Bahrain as a British Protectorate.
[…]The main British naval base in the region was moved to Bahrain in 1935 shortly after the start of large-scale oil production.
[…]Bahrain… declare[d] itself fully independent on August 15, 1971.
[…]Bahrain promulgated a constitution and elected its first parliament in 1973, but just 2 years later, in August 1975, the Amir disbanded the National Assembly after it attempted to legislate the end of Al-Khalifa rule and the expulsion of the U.S. Navy from Bahrain.
[…]Military exercises are conducted on a regular basis to increase the BDF’s [Bahrain Defence Force] readiness and improve coordination with the U.S. and other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] forces. The BDF also sends personnel to the United States for military training.
[…]Bahrain’s strategic partnership with the U.S. has intensified since 1991. Bahraini pilots flew strikes in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and the country was used as a base for military operations in the Gulf. Bahrain also provided logistical and basing support to international Maritime Interdiction efforts to enforce UN sanctions and prevent illegal smuggling of oil from Iraq in the 1990s. Bahrain also provided extensive basing and overflight clearances for a multitude of U.S. aircraft operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Bahrain also deployed forces in support of coalition operations during both OEF and OIF.
[…]Bahrain and the United States signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement in October 1991 granting U.S. forces access to Bahraini facilities and ensuring the right to pre-position material for future crises. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The U.S. designated Bahrain a Major Non-NATO Ally in October 2001. Bahrain and the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement in 2004.
The language that is understood in our modern democracy [is] through putting thousands of people on the street. [...] We need to go out and do mobilization. [...] It is the only thing that will push into a meaningful engagement; not a discussion. [...] Our power remains in our numbers. Unity is our strength.
Above is an excerpt from a short talk given by S’bu Zikode. Below is the speech in full.
There are two broad schools of thought on people, that they are capable of effective self-determination and free action, or that they are almost exclusively shaped by the social, environmental, and material conditions of their daily life and so they cannot be trusted to decide their own fate.
These two streams of thought take on many different forms, have various names, and are championed by various causes. They both seem to regularly offer the same examples of human atrocities, such as global wars, as events that prove the basis for their argument. A war that mobilizes a great mass of people to kill and die is represented as either:
- The horror of people lacking good judgment and committing murder or mass suicide; or
- The oppressive power of privileged factions organizing a system of government that coerces the mass of people to commit murder.
These ideas of a people, as reactionary networks of individuals or people as the most suitable for determining their own lives touches on all aspects of life, from deciding on types of healthcare to how best to determine good forms of employment.
These schools demand broadly different approaches to governance. Simply put they demand rule by a supposedly enlightened elite that knows best or direct decision-making by empowered collectives of people. These governing bodies range in size from national or international governments to local boards or movements.
B.F. Skinner is famous for supporting the notion that people cannot govern themselves. He helped develop behaviouralism. This presents people as shaped by their social and environmental context, their behaviours shaped in response to stimuli (rewards and punishments). Of course, an ‘engineer’ could then command people’s behaviours. Here is an example.
Here is a a video of Skinner giving a short talk on the subject.
There is also the notion of people having the capacity for self-determination by applying their free will. This is not a complex form of reflex or manipulated bahaviour.
The will of the people is, to quote the philosopher Peter Hallward, “a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective self-determination.” This requires that people not be slave to purely behavioural control. The application of free will requires the people to “resist the power of the historical, cultural or socio-economic terrain to determine” their/our own way. (quotes from Hallward’s essay, The will of the people, available online)
Here is an eloquent articulation of why and how people must organize together:
Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we don’t have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But although we take our place humbly we take it firmly.
[...]Our politics starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politic because it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is part of our lives. We organize it in our own languages and in our own communities. It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what we have and it is made for us and by us. We are finished with being ladders for politicians to climb up over the people.
[...]To think about all this we must start with the history of where we come from. Who are we and what type of society we want to build.
It has become clear to us that whenever we talk about history we are seen to be launching an offensive. It has become clear to us that this is because the rich want to believe that we are poor because we are less than them – less intelligent, less responsible, less clean, less honest, less educated. If we are poor because we are just less than the rich then we must be happy for every little thing that we are given, we must be happy with a hamper or some old clothes when our children are dying in the rats and the fire and the mud.
But we are not poor because we are less than the rich. We are poor because we were made poor. The rich are rich because they were made rich. If your ancestors had the land you will go to university and get a nice job and look after your family well. If your ancestors lost the land you will be lucky to find a dangerous job that you hate so that your family can just survive.
There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another. [...] That subjection is purely one of will over will.
[...]There aren’t two sorts of minds. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations: but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity.
[...] Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to the thing that he already knows.”
Is there something new being introduced in Egypt, launched by a series of mass rebellions in the country and region? If something new is being introduced, then what is it?
Change from an old structure and practice of governance to the new comes in many shades and forms. Change, even if sparked by popular uprisings, does not automatically lead to a popular government nor does it have to fundamentally overturn the power of privileged associations such as broad groups of political or military elites.
What I find significant in the transformation taking place in Egypt since the removal of Hosni Mubarak from the presidency is not the purely structural details, outlines, and schema of state and government change: i.e. political offices, which leaders among the elite are in charge, etc.
The vessel of political imagination is undergoing significant change. This is the immaterial body of the imagined community.
It is a matter of re-conceiving the essence of the state, such that the concept of community and nation takes on new meaning, that old names have new significance. This is the transformation to keep one’s eye on. It is a reframing of names and concepts, leading to a new state of governance.
In their meaning and practice, the names and categories ‘dignity’, ‘national identity’, ‘national interest’, ‘future’, ‘dream’, ‘need’, ‘government’, and ‘popular’ are undergoing investigation, and adjustment or redefinition.
The new state exists within a situation of power concentrated in the hands of associations of the elite that compose a miniscule fraction of the total population. The significant change is not one of power being shared relatively equally across a mass of people.
To put it another way, I mean that the state of affairs following the 2011 uprisings in Egypt has not led to a fundamentally emancipatory practice of social and political life. To paraphrase Peter Hallward’s philosophy on collective self-determination, the event has invented new ground but the walk through the “historical, cultural, and socioeconomic terrain” is not being organized by a deliberate assembly of the people even if they must be “conditioned by the specific strategic constraints that structure the particular situation.” (1)
There is certainly a new state of governance that is vigorously attempting to re-contextualize the concept of state and nation, but it is also clearly not a government of the people. The government of Egypt is a house of power compelled to transform itself by the sudden presence of what were established though previously suppressed incoherencies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the old ‘regime’. This sudden presence of old contradictions appears as a great burden, a mountain of weight on the straining shoulders of Egypt.
It has come to the foreground through mass rebellion and demonstrations. It cannot be missed. It is plainly visible no matter where the gaze is fixed. The incoherencies are raw force, and they have broken the state such as it was. It is now time to grasp onto the event to organize change by transforming cultural, social, and political relationships into a new relation of thought and practice.
The associations that, until now, seem to have most successfully taken this opportunity in hand in order to forge the structure of the future Egypt, those associations that are (re)aligning the elements of the opportunity afforded them into a new state, reside predominantly within the elite, though thrust into motion by the muscle of the people. This new state is, so far, a state of the nation and not a new state of and for the people.
A tendency of privileging national identity has historically been the ease with which it is turned to the very serious zero-sum game of competing national blocs and powers. The national identity also competes with other conceptions of community and can provide “a cement which [bonds] all citizens to their state, a way to bring the nation-state directly to each citizen, and a counterweight to those who [appeal] to other loyalties over state loyalty.” (2). In this fashion, the ‘nationality’ may become “a real network of personal relations rather than a merely imaginary community.” (3) It introduces the possibility of privileging national interest by lauding those who are true defenders (patriots) of the nation tied to its instrumental apparition in the body of the state. This can endanger the effectiveness of critique as well as limit social and political options that are critical in practice.
Here is a glimpse of the tension prior to the uprisings that toppled Hosni Mubarak from nearly 30 years as president (from Amira Mittermaier’s book, Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination):
People can’t afford to buy anymore; the only thing left is window-shopping. We are sipping heavy tea that is bearable only with an excessive amount of sugar. But the tea is not the only thing that is heavy; so is the atmosphere. Like Ahmad, many friends during the course of my visit will explain that economically, morally, and politically, Egypt is going through a crisis. Almost everyone I talk to feels helpless, hopeless, and outraged about the ongoing war in Iraq and about the emergency laws that interdict all expressions of discontent within Egypt itself. ‘We’re living in a nightmare,’ people say when I bring up the topic of dreams.
Here’s what a Cairo taxi driver had to say, as recorded by Khaled Al Khamissi:
Education for everyone, sir, was a wonderful dream and, like many dreams, it’s gone, leaving only the illusion. On paper, education is like water and air, compulsory for everyone, but the reality is that rich people get educated and work and make money, while the poor don’t get educated and don’t get jobs and don’t earn anything. They loaf around, and I can show them to you, they can’t find anything to do, except of course the geniuses. And our boy Albert is definitely not one of those.
But I am trying with him. I pay for private lessons like a dog. What else can I do? I say maybe God will breathe life into him and he’ll turn out like Ahmed Zeweil, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. (4)
Another driver has this to say:
I don’t understand what they want from us. There are no jobs, then they tell us to do any job that’s going, but they’re waiting in ambush for us whatever job we do. They plunder and steal and ask for bribes and where it all leads I don’t know. Just as I spend so much a day on petrol, I have to put aside bribe money for the traffic department every day just in case. (5)
In Egypt, the practice of political power must today acknowledge the eruption of the mass response to crisis by addressing, incorporating, co-opting, redirecting, or deflecting it.
The uprisings and the resulting strain on the socio-political order were not an end to be achieved: the event is a point of departure.
The thing to keep in mind is not simply that change is taking place. It is vital to take notice of how change is taking place: what groups are and will be organizing the productions of human conditions in Egypt, and what will these conditions be? (6)
I’ll conclude with a joke as told by a Cairo taxi driver. This joke underscores the trouble with some types of change or transformation as directed by the minority who hold power. “We thank all those who voted yes in the referendum and we give special thanks to Umm Naima because she voted twice.” (7)
(1) from Hallward’s essay, The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism.
(2) Eric Hobsbawm, 1989. The Age of Empire, p. 149. Vintage Books.
(3) Ibid. pp. 153-154.
(4) From chapter 29 of the book, Taxi.
(5) From chapter 33 of the book, Taxi.
(6) Here, I’m adapting Peter Hallward’s some thoughts in the essay, Jacques Ranciere and the Subversion of Mastery.
(7) From chapter 33 of the book, Taxi.
Russia’s presidential tag team continues, the U.S. plans to build new military sites in Central Asia and China’s growth hastens
The expected has happened, which somehow has stirred a lot of speculation about the future of Russia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would consider taking back the country’s presidency during the 2012 elections.
“Naturally, I am already thinking about this issue with President Medvedev but have decided not to make much fuss about it, not to let ourselves be distracted by this problem,” Putin said to French media.
It appears that the Medvedev-Putin duo are working out plans for the next round of elections and are likely not going to run against each other but manage a deal in which they can together govern Russia as they have been doing after Putin stepped down from the presidency in 2008 and picked Medvedev as his favoured successor.
And it seems that Russia is playing with both Iran and the U.S. by sending mixed messages on its sale of anti-aircraft missiles. Iran wants what is called a S-300 missile defence system from Russia. The order has long been placed, and delayed. Shortly after UN Security Council sanctions were passed against Iran, a Russian arms supplier was quoted saying the missiles would never be delivered.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, on Thursday, responsed to Iran’s complaint and publicly gave hollow assurances. So the official line is that there are no legal constraints holding Russia back from selling S-300 milles (the fourth round of sanctions against Iran really didn’t add much that is new). But, this is a far cry from saying that Russia is prepared to complete delivery. So, it seems the ball is still in play on this one, and Russia is likely using this in negotiations with the U.S. and perhaps to make sure the U.S. keeps its end of any bargain in the long term.
Just a reminder, the U.S. is still set to implement and expand covert military activity inside and around Iran. A directive signed by General Petraeus in September 2009 is still in play, deepening related plans that began under the Bush administration and continue under President Obama.
“The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive,” writes Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times.
More recently, it was revealed that the U.S. is indulging in a small building binge: it will be setting up new military facilities in all Central Asian countries. There seems to be a jostling for such facilities between both the U.S. and Russia.
China, meanwhile, is stamping its presence in the same Central Asian countries economically instead, such as by taking majority shares in a Kazakh oil venture in exchange for a US$10 billion line of credit to Kazakhstan. This sort of lavish spending and economic investment is made possible by its fast growing economy, and, maybe, we might also say that its fast growing economy is a little aided by its economic investments.
Numbers just came out: China’s exports have risen by almost 50% over the past year (no that’s not a typo). It rakes in US$1.2 trillion in export revenues in a year. The economy as a whole has grown at a rate of 11.9% in the first quarter, and all this heat is pushing up housing prices very rapidly which could be leading to a real estate bubble in China. Workers have been increasingly demanding that they get a fair share of all of these profits and have staged various actions including strikes. The most famous case, in a Honda plant, has seen wage levels for its workers rise by between 24% and 33%.
As for Turkey, it seems to expect to reap some economic rewards from the sanctions against Iran. Today’s Zaman writes:
“Strategic Thought Institute (SDE) President Professor Yasin Aktay said the sanctions bring advantages that outweigh any damage that they could present for Turkish-Iranian trade. ‘The sanctions are more concerned with weapons and [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards; there’s not much activity between [Iran and Turkey] in these fields. Our trade with Iran is concentrated in oil, natural gas, industry and consumer products,’ Aktay said. He further commented that sanctions had above all a strong psychological effect and that this could lead to increased trade with Turkey in fields not covered by the sanctions. ‘It’s an important position to be in when you are a country that can say ‘no’ and remain on its feet; there’s no better public diplomacy than this,’ he said.”
Currently, a natural gas pipeline delivers US$1.5 to US$2 billion of energy from Iran to Turkey each year, and there is talk of more such ventures. In various statements in the early part of this year, Turkish leaders have suggested significantly multiplying trade with Iran, which is at the moment focused on transfers of energy.
(First published at Rabble.ca)
Israel threatens China; Iran barred from the SCO; Israeli document calls Gaza blockade ‘economic warfare’; US to display captured war documents
Israeli officials have said they threatened war against Iran in order to try and convince China to vote in support of economic sanctions at the UN Security Council.
The New York Times broke this story: “In February, a high-level Israeli delegation traveled to Beijing to present alleged evidence of Iran’s atomic ambitions. Then they unveiled the ostensible purpose of their visit: to explain in sobering detail the economic impact to China from an Israeli strike on Iran.”
One Israeli official they interviewed said that “the Chinese didn’t seem too surprised by the evidence we showed them, but they really sat up in their chairs when we described what a pre-emptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on.”
Essentially Israeli officials boast that they tried to threaten China by showing how they could undermine its energy security and damage its economy.
Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be traveling to China this week, this very day in fact, officially to take part in the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. It is expected that he will meet with Chinese officials to discuss the newly minted sanctions against it.
Meanwhile, no surprises for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting , it is will not be giving Iran permanent membership just yet.
The SCO, which has become one of Asia’s most prestigious multilateral organizations, has Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as members. Iran, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia are observers, and it will have Afghanistan as an honoured guest this time around.
Iran, Pakistan, and India have been interested in becoming full members. There is jostling for whether Pakistan or India, or both could become full members. But Iran is essentially barred for now. The SCO is to adopt a new document outlining admission rules. The secretary general of the SCO, Muratbek Imanaliyev, has said that “the document contains a very important thesis that states under UN sanctions cannot become SCO members yet.” So, there, Iran can only watch for now.
Apparently Tajikistan lobbied in Iran’s favour, asking that the restriction based on UN sanctions not be included. Interestingly, president Ahmadinejad was just in Tajikistan, this very Wednesday. He was there for a UN-sponsored water security conference but was supposed to have met with the Tajik president to discuss regional security, and I suppose also push for support on SCO membership.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, there’s more fallout from the commando attack on the Gaza flotilla that saw 9 people die. An Israeli human rights organization, Gisha, has legally forced the government to explain its motives for a blockade of Gaza. Apparently the blockade is not for security reasons after all, though that is what is publicly stated to garner international support. The Israeli government document attained by Gisha says that the blockade is in fact economic warfare.
“A country has the right to decide that it chooses not to engage in economic relations or to give economic assistance to the other party to the conflict, or that it wishes to operate using ‘economic warfare’.” says the government document.
And in the US, some of the spoils of war from Iraq and Afghanistan will be on display. The Conflict Research Center will allow researchers to view archived digital copies of documents captured from Saddam Hussein’s government as well as some that were captured from al Qaeda and its affiliates. The facility boasts that it has a database of “1.5 million captured records.”
These records “consist of a wide range of files, including everything from al Qaeda “pocket litter” to financial records, theological and ideological documents, strategic plans, operational guidebooks, and histories of individual operations from the Afghan war in the 1980s through the early 2000s.”
The original Iraqi documents are supposed to be returned to Iraq after digital copies are made.
The UN Security Council, on June 9, 2010, implemented new sanctions against Iran. US president Obama called this fourth round of sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear program as “the toughest ever faced by Iran.”
The new sanctions add little in the way of increased legal barriers to Iran’s trade, energy sector, or political organizations. It does create political and diplomatic barriers because of the heavy symbolic character of the sanctions, which will likely favour growing political and economic ties between Iran and eastern countries, particularly China, as the Western investors and diplomats bump their heads against a hardening wall of rhetoric (see an earlier post for details on this).
But is it true that Iran has not seen tougher sanctions in its modern history?
The Company [the Ango-Iranian Oil Company, now BP] is confident that no oil company of repute or any tanker owners or brokers of standing will countenance any direct or indirect participation in the unlawful actions of the Persian Government. Should, however, any concerns or individuals enter into transactions with the Persian Government in regard to the oil products concerned, they are warned that this Company will take all such actions as may be necessary to protect its rights in any country. (1)
This is a statement by the precursor of British Petroleum (BP), in 1951, while they had a monopoly on oil in Iran’s south, where lie the bulk of the country’s energy reserves. In 1951, the government of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, held power in Iran. This government, over time, challenged and succeeded in temporarily ousting the last Shah during what became a popular democratic movement that drew an astounding number of people to the streets to defend the government. Mosaddeq infuriated the British by nationalizing the country’s oil and offering new terms to the British, who were, prior to this, reaping the benefits of a monopoly on Iran’s oil to the delight of their industries and economy.
Then, as now, oil was a significant source of government income, though it is much more important to Iran’s government today since Iran only received a tiny fraction of profits from the British. The British boycott of Iranian oil in 1951 was joined by the US and others, creating a very serious financial crisis for Iran. The boycott lasted until the summer of 1953, during which prime minister Mosaddeq was overthrown by a CIA orchestrated coup and the last Shah of Iran was reimposed as an increasingly autocratic monarch.
The boycott of Iranian oil at the time was used as economic warfare to maintain Britain’s established control of Iranian oil. This British led and US supported boycott was largely successful because the times were different. Petroleum companies and tanker fleets were largely under the influence of these two countries, a situation which is not quite true today. (2)
At the time, the US State Department gave strong support to the boycott, stating that “the US Government should not make the nationalization of Iranian oil a success for others to emulate.” (3) This was a serious problem, since other countries in the region also had significant oil concessions and they might have moved to nationalize their oil or use the threat of such to increase their share of spoils from sales.
The US support of Britain’s boycott caught Mosaddeq off-guard. He had expected the US to assist Iran against the perceived holdover of a colonial and imperial era following the US promise of a new post-colonial world that would not be snared by the old European imperialism which saw the world plunge into the Second World War.
At that time, Mosaddeq tried to invigorate Iran’s non-oil based economy. Some of his measures at least succeeded. He managed to somehow take Iran’s trade balance from a significant negative to a significant positive by 1953. (4) Such rapid transition was made at least partially possible because of the situation of crisis; Iran simply had no other choice than to reform its general economy or have the government face the possibility of fiscal collapse from lack of oil revenues. This doesn’t mean that life was easy for the average person. The economy was in rough shape, and people suffered because of the boycott, but the worst case domestic political and economic scenarios were avoided.
In the end, the Mosaddeq government was able to break the long trend of government deficits under the Shah, and actually had a positive net balance. Even inflation was kept to reasonable rate, performing better than the previous government which was not even hamstrung by a boycott.
As for today, perhaps the UN Security Council would have done a service to Iran by really cutting off its sales of oil, forcing the country to reform its economy and government budget. However, an effective boycott of Iranian oil is no longer possible without a declaration of war. Other countries, such as Japan, and China, have their own capacity to extract and refine oil, as well as to ferry it in their own substantial tanker fleets. So these countries’ would have to willingly join in a Western boycott of Iranian oil or their vessels would have to be blockaded by US and allied naval power.
Well, it is possible that Obama was referring to these new sanctions being the toughest Iran has faced since the 1979 revolution which saw it become the Islamic Republic of Iran, so let’s for now forget pre-revolution 1951.
In that case, president Obama is forgetting the near decade long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
That period of long war began after an invasion by Iraq, which Saddam Hussein falsely believed would lead to a quick defeat of Iran. In that span of time, the Islamic Republic of Iran was internationally isolated and there was broad economic boycott of its products. During that period, the country not only suffered from economic sanctions, but was also burdened with the human and economic cost of a war that saw the death of one million people on both sides of the conflict.
As a child, I lived in Iran during the war. My family was comfortably in the middle class. Goods were scarce, the country was under military and economic siege. I was delighted when my family splurged every few months to buy me a single over-ripe banana, a luxury item that was caught up in the price hikes caused by sanctions and war.
Though it took a severe blow, the country’s economy did not collapse, nor did the post-revolution government collapse though it was internationally expected to fall under the weight of fiscal deficits. The war and severe sanctions put an end to the fervor of revolutionary competition for power, and what has emerged as Iran’s current political power-holders were aided by the international situation to consolidate their position: people were fighting for the very existence of the country in the face of foreign intervention, so how much would people be willing to risk internal division over the new government under the threat of national collapse and conquest?
So, let’s be clear, this is certainly not the worst economic sanctions Iran has faced in its modern history. Today’s sanctions engender tough talk, but to what end? What is the gain of distorting facts? What the US gains with such talk is the perception of Iran being faced by the toughest sanctions in its history, a narrative that flies in the face of truth. This perception serves to reinforce an increasingly hostile attitude between the West and Iran, shapes a US domestic image of jingoistic bravado that limits the possibilities of diplomacy while favouring antagonistic strategies.
This is a rhetoric that displaces facts and promises heightened tension and conflict disguised by empty gestures of a false diplomacy that doesn’t even regard the basic lessons of recent history as worth considering.
(1) Gasiorowski, Mark J., and Byrne, Malcolm (ed.), ‘Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran.’ Syracuse University Press, 2004, Syracuse, New York, USA, p. 178.
(2) Ibid., p. 182
(3) Ibid., p. 186
(4) Ibid., p. 191
The UN Security Council is to impose sanctions against Iran today.
These sanctions are being billed by the US as tough, effective, and the most severe Iran has yet faced.
The new sanctions, actually, add very little that is new. The passage of sanctions is opportunity for tough talk but little tangible difference is offered over previous sanctions (see the new sanctions document here).
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett pick the document apart on their site, The Race for Iran:
In the main body of the resolution, there are, literally, no sanctions limiting the capacity of the Islamic Republic to produce and export hydrocarbons.
[...]Likewise, there are no sanctions barring the extension of financial services, insurance, reinsurance, etc. to Iranian individuals and entities.
China and Russia will support this resolution since the situation will not substantially change for them in regard to their dealings with Iran. Russia will still be able to deliver sales of S300 anti-aircraft missiles, and China can still invest in Iranian business, import energy, maintain its existing financial dealing via Iranian banks (I think China often trades in hard cash anyway when it comes to purchase of oil from Iran), and maintain its growing trade with Iran.
The Race for Iran adds that:
Among the entities “involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities”, the United States was able to win the agreement of China and other Council members to include only one bank that had not been previously listed—and that bank is a subsidiary to Bank Mellat, which had been previously designated by the United Kingdom and the United States.
[...]Ostensibly, there are 15 entities listed as “owned, controlled, or acting on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”. But this is seriously misleading. There is, in fact, only one Revolutionary Guard-affiliated entity captured in the annex—the Khatam al-Anbiya construction company. The other 14 entities are all either subsidiaries of Khatam al-Anbiya or subsidiaries of subsidiaries of Khatam al-Anbiya.
What the sanctions do embody is politics rather than economics. It hardens the political and diplomatic division between Iran and the US and Europe because of the rhetoric and symbolic quality attached to the application of sanctions as championed by the West. So, the rhetoric will make it more difficult for the West to conduct diplomatic dialogue and engage in economic transactions with Iran not because of new legal barriers but from political ones.
This will support and probably hasten the growing economic ties between Iran and China as well as other non-Western countries. This is to China’s advantage since it can deal with Iran while facing decreased international, mainly Western, competition; permitting it to more easily position itself as a vital economic and political entity to Iran. Essentially, the West is cutting itself out of the picture and giving China competition free access to Iran, which is geostrategically important: it can serve as a gateway to the Middle East and Central Asia, has access to the Persian Gulf and the Straight of Hormuz, has some of the largest deposits of oil and natural gas in the world, and has the potential to serve as an energy route to transit fuels from nearby countries that are also rich in hydrocarbons.
In 2009, China beat out the EU to become Iran’s largest trading partner. Trade with China amounted to some $36.5 billion while trade with the EU totaled $35 billion. Iran’s foreign minister indicated that trade with China had risen from $400 million in 1994 to $29 billion in 2008, growing at an average annual rate of 40% in the tail end of that period. In May 2009, China’s ambassador spoke at an Iran-China trade cooperation conference, stating that “The Chinese Embassy in Tehran will continue working with Iranian companies in order to expand cooperation between the two countries.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates that its important economic projects with Iran include: “energy, transportation, machinery, building material, mining, coal, chemicals, nonferrous metal, etc. The main projects are subway in Teheran, multi-functional vessels, building of oil tanker, production line of cement plant, 4*32.5 thousand KW thermal power electrical machinery units in Arak, hydroelectric generation equipment, etc.”
More than “100 Chinese state companies” operate it Iran, according to Press TV. China is said to have more than $80 billion invested in the country’s energy sector, and Iran has, since 2009, opened five trade centres in China in Shanghai, Urumqi, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guan ju.