Revolution, sanctions and US imperialism

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Sarah Ensor and Mark L Thomas spoke to Tariq Ali who gives his take on the revolutions and rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, the threat of war with Iran and US imperialism after Iraq

What is the balance sheet on Iraq for US imperialism? How far has US dominance been damaged?

Politically speaking Iraq has been a disaster for US foreign policy. The aim was to set up a so-called democratic state which would be a shining beacon for the rest of the Middle East. In reality they have set up a de facto clerical state which operates like a police state. The level of repression according to some is higher than it was during Saddam Hussein's last year. What has been created is a division along religio-ethnic lines using the Shia majority against the Sunni minority in a country where these things did not matter in previous years. That's the first thing.

Secondly, it has left Iran the central player in the region, which the US certainly did not want to do, but how they could not have foreseen that this was going to happen is mind-boggling.

Militarily, they will claim that they have got rid of a hostile regime or a regime which had become hostile to them, and that they have done their duty towards Israel from which the main pressure for the war was coming. But it came at very heavy cost.

One also has to take a circumspect view of the withdrawal because there are still US troops, US mercenaries or so-called contractors in the country and they number in the thousands. And the US troops have mainly gone to regional bases in the Middle East. So if the US want they could strike very quickly from their big base in Qatar, which is where the war was launched from in the first place. It's not that the withdrawal is cosmetic - it isn't. But at the same time they have kept people in there who could strike back whenever they want.

So I wouldn't say militarily they have lost in any way. And the state in which Iraq has been left is barely discussed in the Western media. The country's social infrastructure has been destroyed; there are incredible restrictions imposed on women; a million Iraqis have died - this number used to be disputed but is now viewed as the minimum number.

Even the puppet regime in Iraq said there are five million orphans in the country. So you have to assume that at the very least a million people have died. And two million are homeless and refugees are living in surrounding lands. From the humanitarian point of view this war has been a complete disaster.

It has created new divisions in the country. In the northern regions of the country you have Kurdish leaders in charge backed by the US and Israelis. Then you have different Shia factions competing for the support of Tehran and the situation remains unstable because the people are waiting to see how long [Iraqi prime minister] Maliki remains in power without the presence of US troops in the green zone in Baghdad. So I would say wait another six months before we have a proper balance sheet of this particular disaster.

How serious are the tensions between the US and the Iranian regime? Will there be military clashes and even war?

In my opinion it is not in the interests of the American empire to wage war on Iran. This is also the view of the Pentagon at present for a number of reasons. It's not that they don't want to - if you look what happened after the fall of Baghdad there is a very interesting statement by the Israeli ambassador to the US ambassador. He said, "Don't stop now - take Damascus and Tehran," and that is the aim of the "ultras" within the American ruling elite. But of course it's not so easy to do.

Up until now they haven't managed to topple the Assad regime in Syria, and that is a weakened regime. The Iranian regime is not, however, a weak regime. We may not like it but it is not a weak regime - it has mass support and the idea that it doesn't is something that the Americans believe at their peril. So were they to attack Iran, what is likely to happen? First, there would be huge resistance in Iran. Second, the bulk of the country would unite behind the regime because no one wants to be invaded.

There might be tiny groups of liberals who might want US intervention but they are restricted to certain areas of Tehran. The bulk of the country would fight back and the Iranians have a proper army and airforce that can't be demobilised as quickly as the Libyans were. And they have ways to strike as well. They have three possibilities.

One is to get their people in Iraq to say gloves off. Moqtada Al-Sadr would be forced into unity with others to do that. In Lebanon, Hezbollah could be told to assert the rights of the majority of Lebanese, who are the Shia, and to take power. In Afghanistan, Iranian forces based in Herat could be told to join the insurgency. The US could be forced to fight on four fronts including Iran itself. The Pentagon are perfectly aware that this could be a disaster for them and so are trying to quieten the politicians down. And here again the pressure for this war is coming not from any European countries, but from Israel. They are knocking off Iranian scientists, and won't even deny that they're doing it.

The imposition of sanctions is just absurd. Why are doing this? To weaken the country? The Chinese have a 30-year pact with the Iranians to provide them with oil and gas. I don't think that the Chinese are going to observe the sanctions and the Russians are saying they won't either. The people who will observe sanctions at the moment are just the stooges of the American empire. That's not enough to bring the Iranian economy to its knees and in any case, as we know from the case of Iraq, sanctions never hurt a ruling elite. It is always the poor who suffer and it drives people towards the clerics.

The question is more whether or not they will encourage the Israelis to launch attacks on Iran's nuclear reactors. I don't think so because that is equivalent to war. The reactors are spread all over the country and some of the most strategically important reactors are close to the holy city of Qom. Are they going to bomb Qom? That would be the equivalent of bombing Mecca for the Shia population of the world. So it's a difficult one for them. I think what they're doing is putting maximum pressure on the Iranians not to make nuclear weapons at all.

Is the relationship between the US and Pakistan near breaking point?

It's under very heavy pressure. When the US decided to bomb an official army checkpoint killing dozens of soldiers and others, it was a grossly provocative act and they did it deliberately - there was no mistake. So why do it?

The conspiracy theorists in Pakistan think that they want to destabilise the army and move in and de-nuclearise it altogether. I think that is far-fetched. Were they to do that they would unleash a huge civil war, the military would split between anti and pro-American factions and the antis would be the overwhelming majority. So that's not on the cards.

The Afghan war was always likely to destabilise Pakistan because of close links between the Pashtun population on both sides of the border. The longer the war goes on, the further the risk of destabilising Pakistan. The solution to this problem doesn't lie in Pakistan; it lies in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of all Nato troops immediately with no conditions.

For years now the US have been negotiating with the Afghan resistance behind the scenes. They're trying to find some face-saving device, leaving behind huge military bases. But that is unacceptable to the Chinese.

So the Afghan war has gone very badly for them militarily. The Afghan guerrillas couldn't be divided. The bulk of the resistance in the southern region was conducted by Pashtuns. Attempts to divide people on religious grounds don't work because 60 percent are Pashtun and Sunni. So they haven't succeeded in doing what they did in Iraq where the resistance was largely the Shia population with small exceptions. But in Afghanistan the majority of the country is opposed to the puppet regime. Even puppet regimes now denounce the United States!

What strategy has the US adopted towards the Arab Spring?

They were completely taken aback by the upheavals. Both the US and Europe were totally surprised. The French even offered to send paratroopers to Tunis to defeat the insurgency. Now that couldn't happen in Egypt. But the US tried very hard to hang onto Mubarak. They let Mubarak go very reluctantly and then made sure that Tantawi and the old military command which had backed Mubarak stayed in power. Now elections have resulted in a victory essentially for the Muslim Brotherhood. It means the US, which always had links to the Muslim Brotherhood despite what they say, have the serious business of bringing the Brotherhood on side.

The Turks are being used very openly to show the Egyptians the "right way" to function. The Turkish "moderate Islamists" are one of Nato's favourite allies in region. The main thing that worries the US is not that the Muslim Brotherhood will be anti-capitalist or impose a social programme that is unacceptable to them. That is unlikely, though they might be forced by pressure from below to impose a few social reforms. The big thing that worries them is whether the new Egypt will retain the accord with Israel.

The pressure from the population in Egypt is to support the Palestinians and if necessary break off relations with Israel, hence the occupation of the Israeli embassy in Cairo for the first time ever. This will be a difficult one for the Brotherhood to deal with. My own feeling is that the majority of their leaders will capitulate in return for a deal with the United States who will demand that that treaty remains in place. I hope that I'm wrong, but I think that is the likely alternative. The Americans will do a deal and the army and Muslim Brotherhood will agree behind the scenes in an informal way to run the country together.

What happened in Egypt was a huge national uprising to get rid of a dictator. By and large it was an uprising for democracy. The aims of the uprising were limited and that is something of a problem.

The people who determined the course of events are the large political parties, which is why I was never sympathetic to the position that this showed we don't need political organisation at all. That is nonsense. Those who were in political parties illegally or semi-clandestinely before the fall of Mubarak are the people who won the elections.

On the other hand what has been most striking is that the people have acquired a taste and sense of their own power. That is the most important thing about the upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia and the hope for the future.

What should the left say about calls for intervention in Syria?

In Syria you have a corrupt brutal clique that took over the Ba'ath party, removed the best people from the party and locked them up or sent them into exile - there were lots of really good people inside that party who I met when I went there after the Six Day War [in 1967]. This little clique led by Assad ruled over the people through brute force, not permitting any liberties and passing the succession over to the son. Once the Arab Spring began there was no surprise that it spread to Syria. Why shouldn't it?

These Ba'athist leaders had a very clear choice. They could have done a deal with the opposition, permitted elections and a constituent assembly. From what I hear there was a big debate in the Ba'ath leadership and they decided to go for repression. For several months the traders, the merchants, the Syrian bourgeoisie if you will, did not back the rebellion. They knew that the Assad regime brought them stability - unlike the situation in Egypt where more or less the whole country wanted to get rid of Mubarak. Now these people realise that the longer Assad stays the worse. That is a big shift.

Of course within the Syrian opposition there are different factions. It's worth remembering Syria has a left. There used to be a strong Communist party which split. One of the factions heavily involved in the uprising are the followers of Riyad Al-Turk, a very important Communist leader, imprisoned for years, but who never submitted. In Damascus and Aleppo you have a strong left faction in both these cities which have been playing a big part. Then of course you have the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian exiles, some of which are linked to the Communists. They have to decide what to do.

The people largely outside the country, the Syrian National Council, which was created on the Libyan model and is based in Istanbul, are the people acting on behalf of the West and want Western intervention to take Syria. According to my information, a bulk of the opposition in Damascus do not want their country bombed, but would like external pressure.

Personally, and especially with what has happened in Libya, I am totally opposed to any Western intervention in the region, which will disrupt the organic development of politics, however repressive they may be. I think the best solution is to continue the struggle against the regime until some of the armed forces break up. To call for an outside intervention would be disastrous.

What makes it even more complicated is that, for example, Syria is the main conduit for arms flowing to Hezbollah. Without that Hezbollah would not have been able to stop the Israeli army several years ago. Hezbollah organised a demonstration of a million people in support of the Assad regime. So the geopolitical position of that regime has divided people outside the country as well.

But Western intervention would make Syria a client state as most of the other Arab states are. So those who want intervention from outside are the Turks and the Gulf states. To ascribe any independence to the Gulf states is wrong. In the past I've called them "imperial petrol stations" and that is what they remain. The Saudis, of course, are a proper country but never act of their own accord. The intervention in Bahrain was green-lighted by the Americans first and without that there is no way the Saudis could have intervened in Bahrain.

The intervention in Libya has been a disaster. The pretext they used was that Gaddafi was threatening a big massacre in Benghazi. Scholars in the US, not on the left, have been looking for evidence for when Gaddafi made this threat. No one has been able to find the so-called "speech" or statement in which he threatened a massacre in Benghazi. Hugh Roberts of the International Crisis Group has written a fine essay in the London Review of Books making this point clearly. I put it to someone at the British foreign office: how many have you killed? He said 20,000. Twenty thousand people killed to "avoid" a massacre!

Tariq Ali's most recent book is The Obama Syndrome published by Verso, £7.99