The War on Iran

The war has already begun and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons and threats against Israel and everything to do with who rules America

By Stephen Gowans

According to US economist Jeffrey Sachs, “Bush recently invited journalists to imagine the world in 50 years … he wanted to know whether Islamic radicals would control the world’s oil.” Sachs pointed out that stoking fears over who will control the world’s petroleum reserves is not new to the Bush administration. In the lead up to the Anglo-American war on Iraq, US vice president Dick Cheney made the ridiculous claim that Saddam Hussein was assembling a massive arsenal of WMD “to take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies.” “Perhaps though, Saddam was too eager to sell oil concessions to French, Russian and Italian companies rather than British and US companies,” Sachs observed. (“Fighting the wrong war,” The Guardian, September 25, 2006) Strip away the fear-mongering, and what Bush and Cheney are really saying is that a resource as lucrative as petroleum won’t be allowed to remain in the hands of its true owners. It will be stripped from them, by force if necessary. In the Bush administration’s assessment “Iran sees itself at the head of an alliance to drive the United States out of Iraq and ultimately out of the Middle East,” (New York Times, January 28, 2007) forcing the US hand from the world’s oil spigot. Like Iraq, which was said to be a WMD threat, Iran is portrayed as being on the verge of making a nuclear breakthrough. But the fears over Iran’s nuclear program are contrived. “Despite being presented as an urgent threat to nuclear non-proliferation and regional and world power … a number of Western diplomats and technical experts close to the Iranian program (say) it is archaic, prone to breakdown and lacks the material for industrial scale production.” (Observer, January 28, 2007) The mistake is often made of assuming the absence of overt hostilities amounts to peace. War, however, can have various faces. It’s not only missiles crashing into buildings, tanks advancing across international borders, and troops smashing down doors. It can be economic strangulation (blockades and sanctions); funding and training dissidents; military threats, to cow an enemy into submission or bankrupt its economy (as it tries to keep pace.) By these criteria, the US is at war with Cuba, north Korea, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran. War need not be Sturm und Drang. Diplomacy, in the age of imperialism, remarked R. Palme Dutt, is simply war by other means. Sanctions, the funding of civil society to bring about color revolutions, war games along an enemy’s borders — are as much manifestations of war, as overt military intervention. And sometimes, they’re just as devastating. The sanctions on Iraq in the 90s — what some regarded as a pacific alternative to war — killed hundreds of thousands.


The US has established new offices in the State Department and Pentagon to build an opposition movement in Iran to topple the government. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked the US Congress a year ago for $75 million to supplement $10 million already allocated to underwriting the activities of dissidents in Iran and to expand Voice of American broadcasts. (Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2006) The CIA’s budget for programs aimed at bringing about regime change in Iran is probably many times larger.

Financial Isolation

Last September, the new US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (as chairman of the New York investment firm Goldman Sachs he amassed a personal fortune of $700 million in a career than has seen him move between the Nixon administration, the Pentagon and the world of high finance) announced that Iran needed to be isolated financially, in the manner of north Korea. North Korea’s foreign trade was disrupted when the US sanctioned a Macau bank. Wary of being cut-off from the US financial system, other banks, seeking to avoid the example of Banco Delta Asia, have steered clear of transactions with north Korean enterprises. As a result, the DPRK finds it difficult to export to other countries to earn the foreign exchange it needs to import vital goods. In Paulson’s view, Iran is still a major player globally, and needs to suffer the same pariah treatment. (New York Times, September 17, 2006) In October, US Treasury Department officials banned US banks from facilitating transactions involving Iran’s state-owned Bank Saderat. In January, the ban was widened to include another Iranian bank, Bank Sepah. When Iran sells oil to a customer in Germany, the German customer asks a European bank to deposit US dollars into an Iranian bank account. The European bank then arranges for the transfer of US dollars from a US bank to an Iranian bank account in Europe. Paulson’s ban prohibits US banks from transferring funds if Bank Saderat and Bank Sepah are involved. (New York Times, October 16, 2006) With oil sales denominated in US dollars, the aim is to impede Iran’s ability to sell oil. The way around the US manoeuvre is to sell oil in Euros, something Iran has already begun to do. (New York Times, January 10, 2007) This would seem to be a simple enough way of beating the US at its own game. It also raises questions about the prudence of compelling Iran to switch to Euros, since a change to Euros, if adopted by a number of oil-exporting countries, would push down the value of the US greenback. US investment banker John Hermann, a comptroller of currency in the Carter administration, wonders whether the US is shooting itself in the foot. (New York Times, October 16, 2006) On the surface, these are valid concerns. But Paulson’s aims are broader. In September he let the world banking community know that it should stop doing business with more than 30 named Iranian enterprises. Behind the request lay a veiled threat. Banks that deal with Iranian businesses run the risk of jeopardizing their future access to the US financial system. Already, a number of European banks have taken heed, scaling back their dealings with Iranian banks and businesses. Credit Suisse and UBS in Switzerland, ABN Amro in the Netherlands and HSBC in Britain are starting to steer a wide berth around Iran.

Economic Warfare

Additionally, Washington is pressuring Europe to curtail exports to Iran and to block transactions with Iranian companies. (New York Times, January 30, 2007) [1] For its part, Israel is campaigning to isolate Iran economically. Israel plans to apply pressure to “major US pension funds to stop investment in about 70 companies that trade directly with Iran, and to international banks that trade with the oil sector, cutting off” Iran’s access to hard currency. “The aim is to isolate Iran from world markets in a campaign similar to that against South Africa at the height of apartheid.” (The Guardian, January 26, 2007)To win support for its campaign, Israel will argue that Iranian president Mohamed Ahmadinejad is working to acquire nuclear weapons to carry out a systematic extermination of the Jews and will pursue the Iranian leader in international courts “under the 1948 UN Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which outlaws ‘direct and public incitement to genocide.'” (The Guardian January 26, 2007) Former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has already filed suit against Ahmadinejad at the International Court of Justice, claiming the Iranian president is inciting genocide. Additionally, Bolton charged Ahmadinejad with “making numerous threats against the United States,” a claim so risible as to mark Bolton as a man whose chutzpah is limitless. (The Guardian, December 13, 2006) Both Bolton’s trip to the ICJ, and Israeli’s plan to pursue litigation against Ahmadinejad, are mischievous. Ahmadinejad hasn’t called for genocide but for the replacement of Israel as a Jewish state by a multi-national democratic state based on equality among the peoples of historic Palestine. What matters for
Israel, however, is not so much winning a conviction but incessantly repeating the lie that the Iranian leader is a new Hitler. Who’s going to object to sanctions on a country whose president Israel’s ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman describes as “saying, ‘There really was no Holocaust, but just in case, we shall finish the job.'”? (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2007)
The Israeli campaign, if successful, will add to sanctions the United States has already imposed under the Iran Non-proliferation Act, passed by the US Congress in 2000. The US sanctions prohibit trade with companies that sell goods to Iran that could be used to build missiles or weapons of mass destruction. Foreign firms that trade with Iran run the risk of getting caught up in the sanctions and losing their access to the US market. Since 2000, 40 companies have fallen afoul of the US law, including Russian, North Korean and Cuban firms. (New York Times, August 5, 2006) Since any of a number of goods that have non-threatening uses could conceivably be used in the manufacture of missiles and other weapons, the effect of the sanctions is to isolate Iran economically by discouraging companies from trade with Iran. A company that sells chlorine for water treatment, for example, wouldn’t want to be accused of supplying Iran with the means of manufacturing chemical weapons and lose its access to US customers. As a consequence many companies tend to give Iran a wide berth, making it difficult for the country to import the goods it needs.In recent weeks, Washington has opened yet another front in its war on Iran: driving down the price of oil to reduce Iran’s revenue. The US can’t affect the price of oil itself, but it can pressure Saudi Arabia to increase output to bring prices down. In January, Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister, vetoed an emergency meeting of OPEC to discuss cutting production after oil dropped below $50 a barrel. The Saudis have signaled that they’re committed to keeping the price of oil hovering around $50 a barrel, down $27 a barrel from the summer. From Washington’s perspective, the high prices allow Iran (and another US bete noire, Venezuela) to export “radical agendas,” (New York Times, January 28, 2007) or more directly, to mount a threat of self-defense.


It’s unclear whether elements of the Israeli ruling circle are preparing to attack Iran or whether they’re simply engaged in a campaign of psychological warfare, seeking to unnerve Tehran by threatening war. The press is full of warnings of an imminent Israeli attack. “Two Israeli air force squadrons,” warned The Guardian (January 7, 2007) are training to use nuclear ‘bunker busting’ bombs to demolish Iran’s heavily guarded enrichment program.” (The Guardian, January 7, 2007.) The Independent (January 22, 2007) concluded that “senior Israeli politicians and analysts appear to be preparing the public for military conflict with Iran” and (January 25, 2007) “Israeli military officials warned … that Israel — acting alone or in coordination with the US — could launch pre-emptive military strikes against Iran before the end of this year.” The warnings were described by a senior British military source as “watering the turf.” Iran, the source said, “is not under enough pressure.” (The Independent, January 25, 2007.)In early January, the Pentagon deployed a second aircraft carrier, the USS John Stennis to join a battle group led by the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, stationed menacingly close to Iran. (The Independent, January 14, 2007.) Britain also beefed up its complement of ships in the region (New York Times, December 21, 2006.) At the same time, the Pentagon dispatched a 600-strong Patriot anti-missile defense system to the Middle East. Asked to explain why the anti-missile defense system was being deployed, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a press conference that “We are simply reaffirming … the importance of the Gulf region to the United States and our determination to be an ongoing strong presence in that area for a long time into the future.” (Globe and Mail, January 15, 2007) US officials would later say the building naval presence was intended to deter Iran from trying to dominate the region.


US troops raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Ebril on January 11, detaining six Iranians working inside. Despite the apparent breach of diplomatic immunity, the incident was greeted with supreme indifference by the Western media, which, some two and half decades ago, howled in outrage at Iranian radicals overrunning the US embassy in Tehran and seizing US diplomats, an event since seared into the US collective conscience as “the hostage crisis.”[2]

Military Industrial Complex

Elevating Iran to a threat comes in handy in justifying extravagantly high military expenditures, incurred, not to build a legitimate national defense, but to soak up surplus capital and provide influential corporations with a boost to their bottom lines. The wars on Iraq and Afghanistan help. “The steadily rising cost of the Iraq war will reach about $8.4 billion a month this year … as the price of replacing lost, destroyed and aging equipment mounts.” (Reuters, January 19, 2007) Manufacturers of helicopters, airplanes and armoured vehicles — among the largest and most influential corporations — will rake in loot hand over fist replacing worn out and destroyed military equipment.British prime minister Tony Blair is proposing to spend $40 billion to buy a new generation of submarines to carry nuclear warheads. Blair says the expenditures are needed to counter “the desire by states, highly dubious in their intentions, like north Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons capability.” (New York Times, December 5, 2006)His reasoning is chock full of holes. First, there’s no evidence Iran is producing a nuclear weapons capability. Second, if Iran did develop one, it would be dwarfed by Britain’s existing capability. Iran’s arsenal would be so small and rudimentary to be nothing more than defensive — a way of deterring the British and American habit of busting down the doors to take whatever they like rather than a way of presenting an offensive threat.[3] Third, Blair talks as if Britain hasn’t a massive deterrent capability already. The United States is also planning to spend over $100 billion to replace its own nuclear arsenal, despite a study that says its existing warheads can be expected to work reliably for a century or more. (New York Times, January 7, 2007) This suggests the real purpose of the program has little to do with self-defense. Massive expenditures on weapons — which distributes income upward through the transfer of tax dollars from working people to the owners and high-level executives of arms-producing corporations — is an ongoing US practice, and has been since the Himalayan military expenditures of WWII dragged the US out of the Great Depression. It has been evident in ruling circles since that without large military expenditures to soak up surpluses, the US economy teeters on the brink of stagnation. Having a stable of demons that can be trotted out whenever necessary to justify frivolous military spending is a necessary part of keeping the profits rolling in.

The Class Basis of US and British Foreign Policy

The foreign policy of capitalist countries, including that of the US and Britain, is driven to secure investment opportunities for the high-level executives, bankers and hereditary capitalist families that have capital to invest and need places to invest it in. By virtue of their wealth and their ownership and control of major enterprises, they are able to dominate public policy and shape it to their own interests. Two important ways in which this class secures opportunities for the profitable investment of its capital is by shaping foreign policy to dominate other countries in order to secure access to their natural resources, markets, and other assets and by providing opportunities for profitable investment in the production of arms and the machinery of war. Both imperatives necessitate a third: to invent threats to national security to justify massive military expenditures, to provide the basis for the deployment of military forces abroad to protect existing overseas investments, and to furnish a plausible reason for wars of conquest to pry open nationalist, socialist or communist economies to investment.Here’s how it works. I have idle capital I need to put to work. I loan part of my capital to the US government by buying bonds. The government sells bonds to raise money to finance government programs, including military and weapons programs, and pays interest to me on my investment. I also invest part of my capital in companies that have secured contracts with the US government to supply the Pentagon with tanks, helicopters, bombers and missiles. Thanks to these contracts, I receive dividends from my investments on the profits these companies make. In effect I’m loaning my capital to the government to spend on companies I have investments in. Moreover, the military equipment I’ve profited from (through interest on the bonds I’ve bought and dividends from the defense contractors I have a stake in) will be used to deter foreign countries in which I’ve invested from confiscating my capital through programs of nationalization and may be used to pry open economies currently off-limits to my capital.I use part of my capital to buy lobbyists and help fund think-tanks and foundations to press the government to change policies I dislike — not only in my own country, but in other countries as well. I press for the opening of investment opportunities that are closed to foreign investment (in the oil industry in Iraq, for example), for the removal of restrictions on investments overseas, and for the improvement of conditions for the profitable investment of my capital. To pre-empt opposition to policies that enlarge my capital, I buy public relations expertise, fund university chairs, employ sympathetic researchers and buy media outlets to make the case that policies beneficial to me are natural, desirable, necessary and ultimately advantageous to all. To ensure the public policy prescriptions formulated by the think-tanks and foundations I support are implemented (and which in turn are promoted by the public relations network I underwrite) I put part of my capital to work by contributing to the major political parties. I also hand out high-paying corporate and lobbying jobs to ex-politicians who have looked after my interests while in office. In this way, I send a message to those who hold public office today that if they play their cards right, they’ll be rewarded. I support the candidacies for public office of promising high-level executives in companies I have major investments in and the high-level operatives of the think-tanks and foundations I support. In this way, those who implicitly share my values and understand my objectives are placed in positions in which they can shepherd public policy through the executive and legislative branches of government to facilitate my profit-making activities.

The Real Reason for War by Other Means

The US, Britain and Israel are at war with Iran. The war is not conducted, at the moment, anyway, through missile strikes, bombing campaigns or land invasion, but by intimidation, provocation, subversion, and economic warfare. While the war is being justified as a necessary response to a growing threat of nuclear proliferation and to counter the alleged existential threat to Jews living in Israel posed by the president of Iran, the real reason for the war is to be found in the domination of public policy by the owners and high-level executives of banks and large corporations and in the directions in which the logic of capitalism pushes them to shape foreign policy. Iran is not a nuclear threat. Its nuclear program is oriented to civilian uses, and even then is “archaic, prone to breakdown and lacks the material for industrial scale production.” Moreover, the country vehemently denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, and no one has produced a shred of evidence to say it is. All we have are the unsubstantiated claims of a Bush administration notorious for sexing up intelligence and lying about its reasons for going to war. What’s more, even if Iran managed to produce a nuclear weapon, it would be rudimentary and incapable of presenting an offensive threat against the much bigger arsenals of the US, Britain and Israel. At best, it would create a threat of self-defense.The president of Iran, no matter what he thinks of the truth or scope of the systematic extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany, is not an existential threat to the Jewish inhabitants of Israel, though he is unquestionably an implacable anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism, however, is not equivalent to hating Jews, and nor is the promotion of anti-Zionist aims equivalent to inciting genocide.

Iran is not a threat to anyone in the West, but is an irritant to a tiny stratum of the population with capital to invest and a need, driven by the logic of capitalism, to find places to invest it in. Iran’s economy is in large part state-owned, inclined to attach conditions to foreign investment, and competes with US enterprises (Iran has its own automobile industry, for example, and has invested in automobile factories in Syria and Venezuela.) From the perspective of the US capitalist class, an Iran that limited itself to oil exports (preferably with plenty of scope for US investment), recycled petrodollars through New York investment banks, and worked with the Pentagon to crush the resistance in Iraq, would be preferable to the current economically nationalist regime that bristles at the idea of throwing its doors wide open to US domination and has too many ties to Europe.As for the Israeli ruling class, its aims are to facilitate US foreign policy as a condition of continuing to receive the US military and economic aid and diplomatic support it needs to remain viable to pursue the Zionist project of dispossessing the rightful inhabitants of historic Palestine. To secure the consent of the Israeli population for the sacrifices of a potential war on Iran, and to play the role of potential victim of Iranian aggression to justify an Anglo-American naval build up in the Gulf, Israel’s ruling circles liberally employ the arts of public relations to bamboozle Israelis, and the rest of the world, into believing Iran is working toward the revival of the Nazi project of exterminating the Jews.[4] Iran’s pursuit of civilian nuclear energy becomes a secret program to build a nuclear bomb to wipe Israel off the face of the map. Ahmadinejad’s anti-Zionism becomes an insane anti-Semitism headed toward a nuclear confrontation with Israel.

My Enemy’s Enemy

“The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend,” intone those too unwilling, too frightened, too unprincipled, or too comfortable, to rouse themselves to defend Iran. (By defend Iran I mean doing what one can to thwart the de facto war against the country, even if it only means challenging the deceitful pretexts used to “water the turf.”) While it may be that my enemy’s enemy is not always my friend, this has nothing to do with the reasons why the US, Britain and Israel are locked in a war (by other means) with another oil-rich Gulf state. Powerful countries driven by the expansionary logic of capitalism have always sought, in various ways, to dominate other countries for the purposes of opening new opportunities for the profitable investment of capital. Imperialism is carried on independently of whether the dominated countries are ruled by the friends of progressives in the West, or their enemies. The Iranian government needn’t be your friend to recognize why a war on Iran is being carried out, whose interests it serves, and that it doesn’t serve yours. On the contrary, it detracts from them.Peek below the surface, and the hostility to our own interests of the recurrent pattern of capitalist-driven expansion at the expense of the sovereignty of other countries becomes evident. Who pays the taxes to pay the interest on bonds sold to investment bankers and hereditary capitalist families to refurbish nuclear arsenals that don’t need refurbishing, to replace tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters lost in the wars that should never have been fought, and to build war machines to outrage the sovereignty of other countries? Who foots the bill for lucrative defense contracts to make the machinery of war? Who carries the ball to finance the programs of subverting democracy in other countries? Who sacrifices their limbs, eyesight, hearing, sanity and lives to fight wars to secure profitable investment opportunities for the super-rich? In this system, the bulk of us are exploited, while a tiny minority reaps the benefit of monstrous profits. We are the cannon-fodder, the vote-fodder, the tax-fodder that allows the system to run and the super-rich get super-richer. True, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. But we should be clear who — and what — the enemy is, who the victims are, and how the victims have a common interest in challenging their common enemy


[1] The US is also pressuring European oil firms to avoid oil and gas deals with Iran. “Many of the world’s biggest oil companies were expected to attend a meeting in Vienna (from February 1 to February 2) held by the National Iranian Oil Co. to drum up interest in 12 onshore and five offshore blocks.” In advance of the meeting, US officials “met with European oil company executives, cautioning them that the situation with Iran was ‘hot and is going to get hotter.'”“An executive from [a] major European company said, ‘The administration is putting the full-court press on foreign companies and is going all out to impress them that it would be a mistake to do anything with’ Iran.”— The Washington Post, February 1, 2007.

[2] The pretext for the raid on the Iranian diplomatic mission was to stop Iran from “meddling in Iraq’s affairs.” Washington was to present evidence on January 31 that Iran is providing arms and explosive devices to Iraq’s resistance forces, but postponed its plans indefintely over concern “that some of the material may be inconclusive” and “overstates murky evidence.” Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2007.

[3] In an interview on January 29, 2007, French president Jacques Chirac dismissed the idea that Iran would pose much of a danger, even if it had one or two nuclear weapons.“I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb. Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that’s not very dangerous.”“Where will [Iran] drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before
Tehran would be razed.”
“It is obvious that this bomb, at the moment it was launched, obviously would be destroyed immediately. We have means — several countries have the means to destroy a bomb.”Chirac called back reporters the next day to retract his remarks. The New York Times attributed them to a “neurological episode” the president had suffered in 2005.— The New York Times, February 1, 2007.

[4] In a January 2007 speech, Israel’s prime minister Ehud Olmert said, “The Jewish people, on whom the scars of the Holocaust are deeply etched, cannot allow itself to again face a threat against its very existence. In the past, the world remained silent and the results are known. Our role is to prevent the world from repeating the mistake.”— The Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2007.

Whose Rights?

By Stephen Gowans

It is widely believed in the Western world that respect for civil and political liberties is more highly advanced in the United States and among countries of the Anglo-American orbit than it is anywhere else. The idea is so deeply ingrained that even egregious abuses of human rights by the US government (most recently in connection with the “war on terror”) are insufficient to discredit the fiction among US citizens that their government is the world’s principal human rights champion.  While the US government has been criticized by such human rights organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the criticisms have been made in the context of concern that the US is squandering its human rights moral authority – criticism that serves to reinforce the dogma, not challenge it.

Juxtaposed against the view that the United States is the world’s most highly committed human rights defender is the view that its official enemies are human rights monstrosities. This was especially true of the Soviet Union and is true today of Cuba and north Korea –countries seen to define the opposite pole of the human rights continuum. Indeed, Western wars of aggression are often cast as human rights missions – campaigns to deliver civil and political liberties – free speech, freedom of religion and multi-party democracy – to the supposedly gagged, subjugated and politically enslaved people of certain Third World countries the US declares to be its enemies.

But while Western discourse on human rights emphasizes civil and political liberties, it ignores economic rights altogether – the right to a job, to participate in enterprise management, to free health care, to free education at all levels, and freedom from foreign economic domination – rights developed to a significant degree in the communist countries, and to an admirable degree in some economically nationalist Third World countries (Iraq, for example, before human development and social welfare were undermined by war, sanctions and finally abolished by the US occupation authority.)

Significantly, economic rights conflict with the profit-making activities of Western capital. The right to a job conflicts with the right of capital to hire and fire labor. The right to decent pay conflicts with the right of owners to minimize wages and salaries to maximize profits. The right to free health care conflicts with the rights of insurance companies to make a profit and of doctors to sell their services to the highest bidder. Because economic rights conflict with profit-making rights, they are not recognized as legitimate rights in the Western capitalist world. Here, profit is alpha and omega; all else is subordinate.  Instead, civil and political liberties, which only have substantive meaning to those who have the money power to own the media, fund think tanks and foundations, pay lobbyists and finance the campaigns of sympathetic politicians in order to be heard and dominate the political arena, are elevated to special status. The Soviet Union, east Germany, Cuba and north Korea, which championed economic rights and pushed the rights of the many to fore, are given no credit, yet, for most of us, it is the rights they championed that have substantive meaning. Freedom of the press means little to those who don’t own one, and much less to those struggling to get enough to eat.

Rights have a class character. Freedom of expression to persuade others has little meaning if you haven’t the resources to own and control the mass media. Freedom to run for elected office has little meaning if you haven’t the money power to buy high profile advertising, hire pollsters, campaign strategists and PR firms to persuade voters. Because they often have no substantive meaning to anyone except the wealthy investors, bankers and hereditary capitalist families who have the money power to turn them to their advantage, political and civil liberties have been allowed to flourish in parts of the Western world that have not been challenged by significant labor and socialist movements. But when political openness has allowed these movements to threaten the status quo, civil freedoms and electoral democracy have been abridged or cancelled altogether (as in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; in Chile in 1973; and in countless other countries, usually with the blessing, if not the assistance, of the US government.)

Despite civil and political liberties being skewed in favour of those who have economic power, commitment to civil and political liberties is never absolute. The notion of warranted restraint – that liberties can be abridged or even denied under certain conditions (freedom of expression does not give me the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre) – says that formal human rights are conditional.  The conditions are often presented as the need to strike a balance between liberty and security, but what civil and political liberties have always been conditional on is the degree of threat they pose to whatever class dominates the society.  Security, it’s true, is relevant – but whose security?

In the list that follows, you’ll see what appears to be an exposition of the hypocrisy of Western governments that criticize Third World governments for human rights breaches, while engaging in the same, or worse, practices at home or in territories they control. And while the list is indeed an exposition of the hypocrisy of Western governments, it is important to note two things. In all of these cases, the human rights breach in question protects the interests of some ruling class, whether in the West or in the Third World from a threat posed by an antagonistic class or nation. Or to put it another way, no right is absolute. Enforcing the rights of a dominant class or nation means negating the rights of an opposing class or nation. For example, the freedom of expression rights of Iraqis to persuade others to join the resistance movement to end the occupation of their country, or the political freedom of the Ba’ath party to run candidates in elections to restore the status quo ante, have been denied by the US government to secure the right of US capital to economically reorganize Iraq. That a ruling class of any class society, whether feudal, capitalist or socialist, will limit the civil and political liberties of its enemies, where those liberties become a threat to the dominant economic class, can be posited as an inexorable law.

Most Leftists in the Anglo-American world, however, are committed to a different view, not one that recognizes rights as class-defined and as relative rather than absolute, but one that is ultimately moralistic and tied to dogma congenial to the economic elite of Western societies. In this view, the problem is not the human rights rhetoric of Western governments, but the failure of those governments to live up to it; the goal of Leftist forces is not the promotion of the rights of oppressed class and peoples over (and hence the denial of) those of oppressing classes and nations, but the expansion of civil and political liberties for all. It is, for this reason, that the soft Left has often had difficulty identifying with socialist and national liberation forces which operate in a real world of right against right, where conflict among classes and nations is inevitable, and where the elevation of the rights of one class or nation inevitably means the negation of the rights of another class or nation.  

Moralist positions on human rights are not only beside the point; they’re nonsensical, inasmuch as they assume rights are absolute and that antagonisms between the rights of oppressor classes and nations and the classes and nations they oppress can be mediated. In the real world, it is not possible to build a socialist society if the capitalist class is allowed the freedom to organize to restore its power. It is not possible for a government of national liberation to achieve its country’s independence if it grants political and civil liberties to all, including agents of the oppressor nation who seek to restore that nation’s formerly privileged position.  It is inconceivable that a revolutionary socialist government would tolerate a multi-party democracy that allows pro-capitalist parties to operate openly, just as it is inconceivable that the post-war east or west German governments would have allowed the Nazi party to run candidates, or that the revolutionary US government would have allowed pro-British monarchist parties to stand for election, or that the US occupation authority in Iraq would have allowed the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein to contest elections.

The battlefield of human rights isn’t one in which the object of Left forces should be the securing of absolute rights for all (for there is no such thing as liberty and democracy for all) but the securing of the rights of oppressed classes and nations at the expense of those of their enemies. The right of the sheep to be free from predation comes at the expense of the wolf’s right to eat the sheep. The question is never whether you’re for human rights or not. The question is always whose rights are you for? 

Public Advocacy Rights

While much is often made of China blocking access to websites, little is ever said about south Korea’s blocking access to 73 pro-DPRK websites. (1) US ideologues sometimes argue that respect for civil and political liberties is inextricably linked to capitalism, and conversely, that socialist regimes are repressive by nature. We might expect China, then, to be repressive in this way, but not south Korea. The truth of the matter is that the ruling class of any class society is repressive toward its class enemies, and only opens space for the exercise of political freedoms where and when its class enemies are weak and pose little threat. Capitalism, socialism or the peculiar form of socialism practiced by the Chinese Communist Party have nothing to do with it. That class societies are antagonistically divided, does.

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez is criticized for refusing to renew the license of RCTV, a private television station that colluded in the short-lived April 2002 coup, but the closing of news media by the US or governments under its control are barely acknowledged. For example, the TV station Al Zawra was banned in Iraq for broadcasts said to “promote attacks against the Americans and the Shiite militias.” (2) Iraqi government forces raided and shut down the station’s offices when a newscaster wore black mourning clothes following the execution of the country’s legitimate president, Saddam Hussein. (3) While Chavez is criticized by US ideologues as being repressive, anti-democratic and dictatorial, he is none of these things. On the contrary, Chavez can be criticized for not being repressive. The country’s dominant economic interests have plenty of room to organize their return to political power. Chavez’s socialism for the 21st century – nothing more than Western social democracy circa 1965 built on oil wealth – will almost certainly fail to come off for allowing the opposition (to use a hockey term) to stick around in the game too long. That’s not to say that Chavez has a lot of options and that he can make history just as he pleases. Circumstances limit his room for manoeuvre, but even so, that doesn’t gainsay the regularity of reformist and social democratic movements being swept away by resurgent Rightist forces that have been given time to recuperate their strength.  Fascism, it has been said, is punishment meted out to those who fail to go far enough because they naively believe capitalism can, in time, be peacefully transformed into socialism from within while the Right stands by passively and allows it to happen.

Cuba is often taken to task for jailing dissident journalists. However, the Cuban case rarely gets a hearing. The journalists were arrested for what they wrote, yes* (though that is often denied), but more importantly for taking money from the US government to further the project of overthrowing socialism and restoring US hegemony over Cuba. The job of the US is to provide funding and support to the journalists to allow them to amplify their anti-socialist, pro-capitalist views. The job of the dissident journalists is to persuade others. The job of the Cuban government is to protect Cuba’s socialism and political independence. While the jailing of the Cuban journalists is fairly widely known, what is barely known is that the US jails journalists in Iraq and holds them without charge. The US arrested at least three Reuters journalists in Iraq and held them without charge for eight months. (4) The US feared the journalists were materially aiding the resistance, and therefore were acting to thwart US goals related to re-organizing Iraq economically to the benefit of US corporations. The Cuban government feared Cuban journalists, materially aided by a hostile foreign power, were acting to undermine the socialist economic organization of Cuba and its political independence. In both cases, the battlefield pitted right against right.

On June 10, 2003, the US occupation authority in Iraq proclaimed Order #14, prohibiting “media activity” which “incites violence against Coalition Forces” or the occupation authority or “advocates the return to power of the Iraqi Ba’ath party, or makes statements that purport to be on behalf of the Iraqi Ba’ath party.”  In late 2005, an Iraqi court disqualified 90 candidates because they had ties to the Ba’ath Party. (5) The US pushed sectarian and ethnic-based parties to the fore, part of a project of re-organizing Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines (the usual conquering nation ploy of divide and rule.) US forces routinely close newspapers that express views that get in the way of pacifying opposition. The offices of al-Arabiya were shut down as was the al-Hawza newspaper, published by the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (6) The US government clearly regards the Ba’ath party as a threat to its designs on Iraq. Likewise, the Chinese government regards the Falun Gong movement as a threat to its particular view of socialism. In both cases, the repression is carried out to limit opposition to the dominant authority in the country.

A British Muslim who led a crowd in chants of “Bomb, bomb Denmark, bomb, bomb USA’ in protest over the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad was found guilty of incitement to murder. (7) Two Canadian newspaper columnists who called upon the United States to launch a nuclear strike on Iran were neither charged by Canadian authorities nor found guilty of any crime. Any demand that they be charged with incitement to murder would be dismissed as frivolous, and an attack on freedom of speech.

Twenty countries prohibit Holocaust denial, including Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and Israel. (8) Holocaust denial laws often appear together with laws prohibiting Nazi or neo-Nazi parties. The intent is to designate certain political views as being beyond the pale and inimical to the smooth functioning of a country’s social order. These prohibitions are regarded, in large measure and even among Leftist forces that define the aim of socialism as enlarging democracy and civil and political liberties for all, as being legitimate and as warranted restraints on rights of free speech and political association. Conversely, laws enacted in revolutionary societies which ban political parties that call for the restoration of class oppression or oppression by former colonial or foreign powers, or prohibit the advocacy of such restoration, are regarded in the West, including by large parts of the Left, as illegitimate, despotic and authoritarian. Clearly, they are despotic and authoritarian, in the same manner Holocaust denial laws are despotic and authoritarian, but they are not illegitimate from the point of view of the formerly oppressed class or nation.

In this respect, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF government comes to mind. ZANU-PF was a leading force in the armed struggle of the Black majority to wrest political control from the White minority Rhodesian settler regime. While the Black majority achieved a kind of formal political independence, de facto independence has always been limited by the reality that the White minority remains economically dominant. The land seizures were a way of carrying forward the revolution to its logical conclusion in the absence of Harare having the wherewithal to buy out the White settlers and absentee British landowners. While the confiscation of land was, on the one hand, a denial of the previous owners’ rights to make a profit, it was, on the other, a reclamation of a right to land that had been stolen by colonial plunder — a war of right against right (with the soft Left in the West, sadly, though predictably, aligning itself in the war with the landowners.) Zimbabwe is not, however, a one-party state, and nor is it a country in which those with money power are prohibited from buying mass media or funding opposition political parties to oppose the government. For this, Zimbabwe too, along with Venezuela, can be criticized for failing to be repressive enough, and yet it is revolutionary and national liberation movements that fail to repress their enemies with sufficient zeal and that allow ample opportunity for their enemies to marshal a counter-strike, that are often the most vigorously reviled by the soft Left (and perhaps because part of the counterstrike is PR campaigns mounted in the West to discredit the regime in question – campaigns the soft Left has always shown a particular vulnerability to.)  Whatever repressive measures ZANU-PF takes toward its opposition must be understood in the context of the history of the struggle for national liberation and of the alliance of the main opposition party, the MDC, with Britain and the White settlers. 

Police States

The Soviet Union, east Germany, Cuba and north Korea are often thought of in the West as police states. To deny the reality that the USSR and east Germany were, and that Cuba and north Korea are, police states would be disingenuous.  But at the same time, to deny the reality that the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and other Western countries are also police states would be equally disingenuous.  It is only the power of anti-communist propaganda that allows the socialist east German Stasi to be invested with a unique menace while any recognition that an equally repressive police state apparatus existed in capitalist west Germany is entirely suppressed.  

“Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the (US National Security Agency) monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people inside the United States without warrants.”  (9) The New York Times held back this story for a year, after Washington asked that it not disclose the violation of its own laws to spy on its citizens. 

Canada’s RCMP and intelligence services amassed files on 800,000 Canadians (Canada’s population is only 30 million) and secretly monitored thousands of organizations, including church and women’s groups. For over three decades, the Mounties spied on Tommy Douglas, esteemed by Canadians for his role in creating public health insurance, even when Douglas was leader of the social democratic New Democratic Party and a Member of Parliament. (10)  

In Mexico, more than 700 people were assassinated by the state and many tortured, from the late 60s through the early 80s, as part of a secret campaign to eliminate militant leftists. Successive governments used “massacres, forced disappearances, systematic torture and genocide, in an attempt to destroy the part of society it considered its ideological enemy.” (11)

These examples, drawn from recent newspaper reports, only scratch the surface. You could write tomes and tomes on US police state activities (COINTELPRO being one of the more infamous programs to neutralize class enemies), and many have been written. But it’s not the reality that the US government conspicuously parades around the world as human rights champion, when it’s just as repressive, when circumstance demand, as any other state, that is important.  Nor should the failure of Western governments to live up to their human rights rhetoric hold our attention. Human rights rhetoric is based on the idea that rights are absolute, not relative, and that different groups of people don’t have antagonist interests, based on their economic positions and role as either exploiter or exploited.   And we certainly shouldn’t expect that states can be pressured to live up to their rhetoric, anymore than we should expect that lions can be pressured to give up meat for grazing on grass. Have they ever? All states are police states, and always will be, so long as antagonist classes exist. The antagonism is played out on many battlefields, human rights among them.  In battles over human rights, we shouldn’t ask whether rights, as an absolute, are being denied, for rights are never absolute. We should ask whose rights are in conflict with who else’s, which rights are our own, and whether sheep can be faulted for denying wolves their flesh.

1. Reuters, January 27, 2007; Yonhap News, March 26, 2007.

2. New York Times, January 21, 2007.

3. New York Times, January 2, 2007.

4. New York Times, January 23, 2006.

5. New York Times, December 25, 2005.

6. Antonia Juhasz, “The Bush Agenda: Invading the World One Economy at a Time,” Regan Books, 2006, p. 205.

7. Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2007.

8. William Blum, Anti-Empire Report, November 19, 2006; New York Times, December 21, 2006.

9. New York Times, December 16, 2005.

10. Globe and Mail, December 18, 2006.

11. New York Times, November 23, 2006.

* Had they written in favour of Cuban socialism, they would never have been arrested, even if they were taking money from Washington. To say what they wrote had nothing to do with their jailing, then, is absurd, and has more to do with pandering to liberal prejudices than anything else.