Iran-U.S. Relations: What Does Normalization Entail?

To the best of memory, one of the first authors, whom I respect, to shed doubts on the possibilities of an American military attack on Iran was Tariq Ali. In an article on Counterpunch (May 11, 2006), he argued succinctly that Iran had been nothing but helpful to the American colonial ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, why would the U.S. attack Iran and turn a big helping asset in the region into a colossal hostility, which would in turn make Americans’ presence in the region far more hellish?

A lot of Iranian socialists, liberals, radical democrats and plenty of people in the clerical and merchant classes, as well as millions of ordinary citizens know that the ruling classes in the U.S., divided as they are over attacking Iran militarily, are united in preferring an Islamic Republic, rather than a secular republic, in Iran. The American rulers know, or at least calculate, that any other political formation in Iran will definitely be socially to the left of the current set up. The Mullahs also know that the Americans know this. So, both are clear on this.

Those of us who grew up under Shah’s dictatorship used to think that he was the limit, but of course leave it up to the clergymen, the ideological singing birds of the ruling classes in Iran for the past one thousand years and more, to come up with an infinitely improved dictatorship, something the Pahlavi ‘dynasty’ could only dream about (the ‘dynasty’ was a mere two kings long; both took power through Western-supported coups; I’d call it ‘foreign investment’, not ‘dynasty’).

In terms of a sufficiently thorough dictatorial set up, then, beneficial to anybody wishing to do business (wink) with Iran, Western imperialists cannot have it any better than the regime that exists there now; they don’t want this regime to disappear. So, if and when talking regime change, they mean merely a change of behavior. The major differences between the American and the Iranian regimes revolve around the terms and conditions under which the Islamic Republic will continue to rule.

Over the recent years of the verbal back and forth between the ugly duckling Uncle Sam and bad, bad Ayatollahs, I have noticed a curious side-correlation. The rise in the level of belligerent talk directed at Iran coming out of Washington has usually accompanied a rise of violence in Iraq. Every time the Americans experience intensified resistance from the Iraqis, there is a surge of accusations regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions and ‘meddling in Iraq’.

So, one can imagine that what the U.S. administration is really saying is that the Iranian regime and their capable military and paramilitary presence, in terms of personnel and influence in Iraq, are not doing enough to keep the violence under an acceptable level; ‘acceptable’ meaning here, a level which can still be spun somehow positively in the establishment mass media in the west, particularly in the U.S.

For example, right now, due to Iranian exertion of influence, as thoroughly reported by Patrick Cockburn, Sadr’s militia’s have been given stand-down orders. This has partly been responsible for the ‘relative success’ of the so-called surge of American military forces into the Baghdad area. In such a context, a death rate of more than 550 per month in Iraq, can be presented in the American mass media as a ‘success’. In order for this death rate to be presented as progress, the Iranian regime has done its fare share. No wonder then that, diplomatically, the Iranians act like the Americans owe them something; which they indeed do!

Mixed in with the nuclear-related accusations, when attacking Iran undiplomatically, has been the issue of Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Since at least 2004, we have heard accusations of ‘Iranian meddling’ by U.S. military and political leaders. That these accusations of ‘foreign meddling’ are forwarded by a mercenary army of more than 350,000 (including the contractors) who flew or sailed thousands of miles to get to Iraq is of course totally beside the point.

The factual truth, however, is different. The Americans knew from the very start of the invasion’s planning stages that the Iranians would be there; in fact, during the aerial bombardments and the initial land invasion of Iraq in 2003, American military was coordinating with the Iranian-based Badr brigades, which meant coordinating with the Iranian military.

So far as Iranian ‘meddling’ goes, then, the Americans were relying on it to achieve their own politico-military objectives in Iraq. So, to now turn their presence in Iraq into an excuse to attack Iran is not just outrageous, it is in fact insane. Would the U.S. not intervene in Mexico if, say, a European country or, who’s kidding who, even if Belize invaded Mexico?

A broken Afghanistan and a broken Iraq along with a huge American military presence on two of its borders with enormously destabilizing effects — all these have brought lots of problems for the Iranian government. Yet, the plus side has outpaced the negative by strides. In short, the Iranian regime does not have an unambiguous anti-imperialist stance vis-à-vis the U.S; in fact, at key junctures it has moved quite pro-imperialistically.

As relates to the U.S. side, Zbigniew Brzezinski is as well an established heavy weight as there has ever been in the contemporary political life of American capitalism. His share in the architectural design of late twentieth century posture of the U.S. imperialism vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and in particular his role in militarization and destabilization of Afghanistan starting in late 1970s, is well known. As well, he was and is a big supporter of the ‘adventures’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most recently, Brzezinski has reiterated that the Iranian regime must be engaged with diplomatically by the U.S. and not belligerently, while talking like a bully. This stance is consistent with his pronouncement back in the late 1970s that Ayatollah Khomeini was a man the U.S. could consider a strategic ally. Remember his ‘Green Belt’ strategy? Well, the late Ayatollah fit right in the buckle of the belt.

Western imperialists plan ahead and do have enormous resources to employ as they adapt to changed situations. Chance does favor those better prepared; especially when those chances are created by the better prepared.

Iran may talk big about anti-imperialism but has cooperated with the U.S. at strategic junctures. The Ayatollahs helped the Afghan mujaheddin from their early days (cooperating with the U.S.); they helped Reagan administration get money for the Contra army to harass and terrorize a truly revolutionary government in Nicaragua; later still, they facilitated the U.S. invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Iranian government, like most other states, knows that there are limits to the U.S. power and that the U.S. rulers need cooperative regional client states. And the American policy makers know well the price for a successful-looking reorganization of Iraq; with the helpful hand of the Iranians, they can make a show case of the ‘success’ of the U.S.’s power projections, military and otherwise, oh so beneficial for the ‘stability’ of the region and for its future prospects for economic development — all of it privatized, securitized and stashed away in fat western banks.

The fact is, as Gary Leupp among others has explained, the U.S. ruling class is divided over whether or not to militarily push the mullahs a bit further, so as to extract the concessions they are seeking. Likewise, the regime in Iran is very much divided over how to approach the Americans. However, the Iranian theocrats have a unique problem when it comes to this one particular issue.

If there is one bit of legitimacy that holds the Islamic Republic as something unique — compared to the Pahlavi regime, which the people overthrew — it is their ‘anti-imperialist’, or more specifically anti-American-imperialist, stance (they do lots of economic and other dealings with many European powers).

In terms of lack of democracy and the presence of violently repressive measures taken by the state to maintain control, the mullahs are far more effective than anything the Shah could put together. Additionally, in terms of economic mismanagement, they have done thousands of times worse than the Shah, who at least could deliver an economic ‘development plan’ that froze the inflation rate to lower single digits for some twenty years.

The mullahs, on the other hand, have produced inflation rates in the hundreds of percents per year, for decades; poverty rate is above 50%; class A drug addiction, in a country of 68 million, is crippling the lives and aspirations of some eight million (a conservative estimate); meanwhile, the clerical and merchant ruling classes, who are not by any measure of imagination productive and purely speculative in their economic activities, are building giant mansions on choice real estate around Iran, and luxury villas and houses around the world, while padding their Swiss bank accounts.

So, if they were to give up their Anti-Americanism, their last shred of a fig leaf, what else would they have that shows any improvement on the previous regime, to prove their legitimacy?

Still, there is a very strong ‘realist’ faction (sure, we have them too) within the regime that has wanted for a long time to ditch all pretense of anti-American posturing, and get on with the business of doing business. This faction includes big establishment figureheads such as Hashemi Rafsenjani and Khatami, and has a strong social appeal among swaths of the middle classes and professionals ideologically aligned with the regime, among the ideologically neutral, and the support runs even as deep as mid-ranking Revolutionary Guards officers.

The Americans know this, as do the Europeans. If this were not the case, there would not be any backdoor negotiations (always the prelude to overt ones), nor would there be any overtures such as sending undersecretary William Burns to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the European powers underway in Geneva, on July 19.

So, in short, the Americans as well as the Europeans do not want a complete regime change in Iran (at least not for a while), but merely a change of behavior of the Iranian regime.

All of this leads one to conclude that if a military attack takes place, it is because the U.S. administration of George Bush (or McCain or Obama) has reached the conclusion that the only way to force the ‘behavior change’ is by splitting the Iranian regime through a military shock, thus nudging the pro-American faction to take more decisive actions in the fog of the chaos. Any military attack by the U.S. would be done in the spirit of splitting the Iranian regime and forcing a regime self-adjustment or fine-tuning.

A final point is to pay attention to what is entailed in ‘normalization’. To a lot of people, normalization has a soothing diplomatic sound to it. It forms the artificial antonym of ‘attacking’. An ‘attack’ on Iran is strictly defined to be something that can happen only militarily. The economic attacks, meanwhile, are not even registered on the liberals’ and most leftists’ radars. Yet, the economic interests are the real motivation driving the aggressive diplomatic postures as well as the threats or actual uses of military harassment.

When discussing ‘normalization’ of relations, what are we really talking about? We are talking about allowing a certain market to be penetrated by certain western economic interests. The economic interests should be self-evident, and the recent announcements by Iranian government regarding new laws allowing unlimited foreign ownership rights in Iranian firms and resources is a clear enough indication that the current regime is willing and able to accommodate all western needs. Last month, Iran’s deputy minister of commerce, Gazanfari, declared to a South Korean delegation that, “The volume of foreign investment in Iran is not subject to any limitation.”

The second plank of the ‘normalization’, in the particular case of the U.S., is the restoration of full diplomatic relations, with embassies and the works. This means the return of American spies to Iran, under a full legal protection, which, according to knowledgeable sources, is usually a precondition for relational normalization with Uncle Sam.

Understandably, professional spooks are impatiently lining the corridors of the American intelligent and foreign services, ready to be deployed to their posts of choice in any of the very desirable locations around Iran. These days, besides the beautiful geography, a wide range of habitats, great people and great food, these professionals can even enjoy the added delights of temporary sigheh brides,Sigheh marriage/bride is a form of marriage, legal in Shiite Islam, which is a temporary marriage, certified by a clergyman. should they wish to partake.

These professionals are actively for ‘normalization’ — as is Sen. Biden, as is Brzezinski and the entire ‘realist’ wing of the American imperialism — as are some ‘leftist’ organizations such as CASMII who, consciously or unconsciously, have become unofficial lobbyists for a theocratic dictatorship, the Islamic Republic — all of whom, and their NGO brothers and sisters, must surely toast their drinks and clink their glasses to the soon-please-come-quick detente that would bring them back to Iran, pockets full of grant money from CIA, NSA, State Dept., or whatever, salivating all over the scene, padding resumes, telling us how to dig holes and plant things we have planted for thousands of years.


Iranian people, free from imperialist interference, will change their regime, as they have been trying to do peacefully for some time now. Iranians are not deeply religious (in the strict, establishmentarian sense of the term), though the current regime does have a sizeable, and clearly well organized (since they have the state), minority of religious supporters. But this support, according to regime’s own men (e.g., Hashemi Rafsanjani), adds up to at most 15% of the population. The 85% of the population not actively with the regime is the unknown, and therefore the variable, factor.

Iranians have in fact a deep-rooted tradition of skepticism toward religious thought, something that has been aesthetically best expressed by our great poets historically. Further, we have a strong tendency toward an egalitarian society. Long before Saint Simon, Proudhon, Robert Owen, or Babeuf, and long before Marx, Engels or Lenin, we had Mazdak (died c. 524 A.D.), a popular figure in our historical consciousness, who stood against the corrupt established clerical hierarchy of his own day, and advocated public ownership of all resources as well as for the eradication of classes.

Our history and our egalitarian natural inclinations are known to both the Iranian regime as well as to westerners, and they know that any opening of the gates will unleash a situation, the outcome of which can be a big loss to big business and a huge setback to imperialists’ strategic designs for our country. So they will try their best to keep the gates closed by keeping the current regime in power, with certain adjustments, which will be extracted one way or another.

Socialists worldwide, and particularly in the Middle East and Iran, must persist on a line of thinking and action that demands the independence of all the countries in the region, including Iran, from western imperialism in all its forms; socialists must consistently demand freedom from threats of military attacks and freedom from a ‘normalization’ that enslaves the people of Iran or any other country to western economic interests.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Dawson said on August 14th, 2008 at 9:50am #

    Great piece! Thanks, Reza!

  2. bozhidar balkas said on August 14th, 2008 at 11:18am #

    mad priests don’t like democracy. not that we have any anywhere. perhaps swiss rule is the best. american rule is one of the best for controlling domestic and alien/foreign pops.
    world plutos (hey, let’s stop picking solely on amer plutos) make it abundantly clear by their actions that they will never allow a democracy or socialism anyhwere on this planet.
    we have iraq, palestine, ossetia,kashmir, afghanistan, kurdistan, lebanon, because pluto want it that way.
    it is world plutos that control all schooling, media, etc. US’ plutos control, senate,congress, WH, clergy, (mis) educators, city police.
    perhaps we can one day free ourselves from serfdom. what’s the way?
    education! thank u