US imperialism is sophisticated and insidious. Although reliant on outright force and invasion when needed, it is also capable of much more nuanced tactics. The US has overthrown around 100 governments in the last century and has covertly stewarded the politics of many more. It is not controversial to point out that the shadowy limbs of the US state are effective at this task. Nonetheless, there continues to be much talk about the frustration of US goals in Iraq, and to a lesser degree, in Syria and Libya. Such discourse is rooted in dated and simplistic ideas; failing to account for the changing strategic orientation of US imperialism.
In the Cold War era, the US relied on regime change operations to bring countries into its orbit. Part of its strategy vis-à-vis world Communism was to offer an alternative ‘modernization theory’ development path, with Japan and South Korea as its illustrious examples. Although not every country in the US camp could be a Japan or a Korea, there was policy space for each country to pursue some form of economic development, however limited.
The situation is different today. China does not lead a rival geopolitical bloc nor does it offer an alternative development path. Despite China’s growth, we still live in a world dominated by a US hyperpower. The current situation is also marked by our changing of the climate and degradation of the environment; haunted by the spectre of mass extermination exemplified by the growing frequency of new pandemics.
US imperialism has responded accordingly to the new global conditions. The traditional approach of pursuing regime change, implementing US-friendly policies, and pushing for a US-aligned economic development is no longer relevant. Put more clearly, the US’s goals in Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, and Syria is not to repeat the 20th century development path of Chile, South Korea, Israel or Greece. Instead, the US appears to be pursuing de-development for sovereign anti-systemic states; and perhaps the entire global south more broadly. The commonplace portrayal of recent US endeavours as failures (with Iraq as the archetype) is incorrect. The common element in US policy towards anti-systemic states, particularly in the de-sovereigned imperial shatterzone of West Asia and North Africa, is the pursuit of de-development.
A useful case study with counter-intuitive implications is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US has sought to strangle the country since the people of Iran established the counter-hegemonic Islamic Republic over forty years ago. The decades-long American campaign against Iran has climaxed in recent months with the intensifying of the embargo, assassinations of Iranian military figures, and an internal sabotage campaign against the country’s infrastructure. But the anti-imperialist response to this assault is still confined to the old way of thinking about imperialism and regime change. Key to this is the belief that the US is trying to restore a pre-1979 form of government in Iran; a reliable subcontractor for imperialism in the region. Presumably, the restored government would pursue a liberal modernization program along the lines of US partners in the 20th century. It is thought, even among Iranian Revolutionary Guards, that the US’s local partners for this restoration will be the monarchists and the MEK, who will lead this Western-aligned government.
However, this perception is not compatible with an understanding of US imperialism as a complex and capable opponent. The monarchists and the MEK have no social base inside Iran, despite strong funding from opponents of the Islamic Republic. The MEK in particular is widely loathed by the entirety of the Iranian population, to the point that it is highly newsworthy whenever the group is able to recruit even a single Iranian to its cause. The monarchists fare slightly better due to the propaganda of polished 24/7 diaspora TV networks that present an idyllic version of pre-revolutionary Iran. Although a surprising number of Iranians have warmed to this revisionist account of Iran’s history, they have not particularly warmed to Reza Pahlavi, the current pretender to the throne. Despite whatever amorphous and precarious popular sentiment the Pahlavis may attract in Iran, the monarchists have no organized base in the country.
This begs the question of why the US would financially and rhetorically support forces that have no prospect of achieving state power in Iran. The most obvious explanation, implicitly held by many, is that the US simply has no other alternatives to select as their local partners for regime change. However, this explanation does not pass an elementary investigation of Iranian politics. To present the situation succinctly, the 1979 revolutionary coalition has continued to shrink further into an ever-smaller circle that has mostly abandoned the original Islamic socialist thrust of the Revolution. Riddled by corruption, partially due to pre-1979 elite networks and partially due to a new ‘Islamic’ elite, the current power structure is reliant on political rents funded by the country’s now nonexistent oil revenues. Throughout its political history, the Islamic Republic has shed and purged various camps that were previously considered loyal to the revolutionary project: starting with the liberal nationalists and communists in the early years of the revolution, to the nationalist-religious (melli-mazhabi) camps, to liberal reformists, Rafsanjani-aligned moderates, and most recently the more nationalist and leftist groups within the Principalist camp (many aligned with ex-President and persona non grata Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Considering this spectrum of suppressed political forces inside Iran, it is apparent that the US has many more prospective (and local!) partners to recruit than the MEK and monarchists. Most obvious is the large and unorganized camp of ex-reformist liberals. With their organized political parties now mostly extinct, this camp is most susceptible to being recruited to pro-US forces. Some ex-reformist luminaries, previously dedicated to an Islamic liberal project within the Islamic Republic, have already become rabid supporters of the US sanctions regime. This liberal camp, bitterly traumatized by its experiences in the 2009 protests, has become a powerful wellspring of anti-Islamic Republic sentiment among Iranians. It is a large but now mostly incorporeal entity within Iran and the dominant political force in the diaspora. It has always held a broadly pro-Western orientation and its previous commitment to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution has dissipated. This was reflected in the liberals’ approach to the most recent parliamentary elections in February 2020. Despite pleas from reformist grandees, the reformist camp was largely unorganized and could not convince its base to participate in the elections. As a result, the traditionally electorally dominant reformists were swept out of parliament, including in Tehran — where they previously held all thirty seats.
The death of the reformist project is a well-reported phenomenon. A key element to note is that it has not been replaced by another political orientation. The success of ‘Principalists’ in conquering the state institutions in Iran has not been due to their ability to win over previous reformists. Instead, extra-electoral strategies were applied to weaken the reformist camp — which coupled with their disastrous backing of the current President Rouhani, has resulted in the social base of liberal reform breaking from the reformist parties.
With no political home of their home, Iranian liberals are a strategically valuable target for US-backed political forces. This is not a new idea as US, Israel, and Saudi-financed media networks frequently trot out ex-reformists on satellite TV networks to make their case for why their fellow liberals in Iran should abandon the Islamic-Republican project and ally with the opposition. Where the imperialist project goes awry is that the only active US-backed opposition groups (besides smaller regional separatist parties) are the MEK and monarchists — two forces that are anathema to most Iranian liberals.
The absence of a US-sponsored liberal-nationalist group is very striking, particularly in the current context where the Islamic Republic is facing existential threats to its survival. Externally, US imperialism has severely escalated its war against the Islamic Republic. The country faces a total financial embargo and its trade is limited to non-US dollar barter with mostly neighboring countries and China. Unlike Cuba or the DPRK, it lacks the self-sufficiency to provide sustenance to its population alone. Most tragically, the governing elites are uninterested in undertaking the structural reforms necessary to ensure Iran’s industrialization and economic self-sufficiency. The reliance on cheap politically-connected credit, directly financed by its oil exports, has distorted and hollowed out the country’s productive capacities. The industries that are still active are mostly unproductive and, due to Iran’s pre-1979 relationship with the US, are technically dependent on US technology and capital goods. The country is also haunted by the spectre of a worsening ecological disaster that threatens the abandonment of large parts of the country. Iran’s working-class and poor continue to struggle against these conditions, engaging in labour struggles when possible and increasingly participating in outright protests against the state. Most emblematic of the people’s response to this crisis of social reproduction is their fertility strike: Iran’s fertility rate has fallen to 1.7, well below the population replacement rate and the lowest in its history.
This is the most success the US campaign against Iran has achieved since the Islamic Revolution. Considering this, one must explain the absence of a US-backed opposition group capable of consolidating the large liberal base inside the country into a regime change campaign. Imperialism is adept at simultaneously sponsoring multiple, often contradictory, and at times even leftist political forces in order to bring down an enemy government. The absence of this project cannot be due to a lack of resources or importance for the Americans, considering the billions already spent on waging indirect warfare on the Islamic Republic. If the US’s goal is to overthrow the Islamic Republic and establish a new liberal US-aligned state in Iran, then it is very difficult to explain this absence. Its prospective base in the country is large and presents a credible challenge to the Islamic Republic. Again, this analysis is not particularly new. It is a common refrain among Iranians that the Islamic Republic has been extremely fortuitous in having to face the current roster of opposition groups, due to how unpopular they are inside the country. Considering how well-known this idea is, it is difficult to believe that the absence of a liberal-nationalist opposition group is simply a strategic oversight by the US.
One way to resolve this paradox is to re-assess what exactly imperialism wants in countries like Iran. If we consider the goal to be the de-development of counter-hegemonic countries, or the global south more broadly, then the absence of a liberal-nationalist US-sponsored opposition group starts to make sense. Consider the potential outcomes if such a group was to be formed.
With high levels of discontent inside the country, it is within the realm of possibility that an organized opposition force could fragment the ruling elite and ride on popular, and perhaps military, support to seize power. But what next? Regardless of how beholden it is to imperialism, the new government would have some freedom of choice in its policies. It would likely have no patience for regional separatist campaigns and quickly consolidate a new liberal-nationalist order throughout the country. It would probably rejuvenate a path of economic development, though within the (neo)liberal framework outlined by the West. We are all aware of the limitations and contradictions of this approach but it would be preferable to the status quo — where Iran is confronting total social collapse. Most importantly, it would allow Iran to live to fight another day. The Iranian republic, as a third-world political project, would survive perhaps to once again be led by revolutionary forces. Until then, the new liberal elites would find themselves to be often at odds with US interests. Like all other junior partners in imperialism, they would seek to maximize their interests vis-à-vis their sponsor. Unlike other junior partners, they would be inheriting the material legacy of the Islamic Republic — including an industrial base, a large and well-defined domestic market, technology, and institutionalized anti-imperialist governance structures. With this anti-imperialist inheritance, the self-interest of these new liberal rulers would not be metabolized easily by imperialism. It would essentially be the continuation of the Iranian republican project, but with rejuvenated economic, financial, social, and political capital. For Iran, it seems that imperialism would prefer that the country no longer be a factor — a goal that is realized by de-development. Most concerning to supporters of the Iranian people is the extent to which the US is comfortable with (a greatly assailed, besieged, and sanctioned) Islamic Republic maintaining power and steering Iran into irreversible de-development.
When studying and analyzing imperialism, we must never fall into the trap of believing that we are simply smarter than our enemies. Contemporary imperialism is an organized force, institutionally clustered around the US government and its allies. As a result, it is capable of conscious long-term planning and using deception when needed. This should alert us that something is wrong with our analysis when imperialism’s actions, such as towards Iran, are incompatible with how we understand it. The US’s adoption of de-development as a broader goal for the global south has profound theoretical and strategic implications for anti-imperialists.