Iran: The Fate of Empire

In the history of the world, empire has always crashed on shoals of political economy. Over the last five hundred years Spain, Holland, France, England and the Soviet Union have all been economic victims of their own global overreach. Within the new 21st century, even the US has shown distinct signs of economic malaise in its quest for uni-polar military hegemony. The American overreach has been a sui generis example of an empire of military bases, supported by a world reserve currency and the influx of global imports. This includes those imports from potential global rivals, like China.

Sooner or later, all empires spend more abroad than their debt load can handle. Domestic industry and economy suffer, as local political constituencies are prone to dissatisfaction. Strategic vacuums are created as global projects become less and less popular at home. Rivals begin to assert themselves and alliances become essential as war looms.

In the Middle East, the Anglo-American empire has been the dominant foreign player since the 19th century. But the English speakers haven’t been alone. Russia has challenged both Turkey and Iran on its Black Sea and Caucasus periphery, while France has been an empire-game player in North Africa, in competition with German aspirations. In the Levant, whole nation-states have been carved out of the international-law aftermath surrounding the Versailles Conference and the creation of the League of Nations. If there is any such thing as international law, its modern roots are planted firmly in the greatest clash of empires of all, WWI and its near mirror replay, WWII.

The peoples of the Middle East have been supreme victims of foreign empires. But attempts to establish alternative local empires (as a barrier against outsiders) has now created chaos throughout the region. Iran has become the key revolutionary motor for this chaos. But the axiom of overreach and economic travail has not been overcome by Tehran. Domestically, Iran has crashed on the reefs of inflation and unemployment as it strives to uproot foreign hegemony. By creating an existential threat to key longstanding US allies — both Sunni Arab nation-states and the Jewish State of Israel — Iran has taken on far more than it can possibly handle. While the Anglo-American empire has become weakened by its own debt and overreach, it has hardly been defeated in the Middle East.

The US has a new president, Donald J. Trump. His opposition to the appeasement policies of his predecessor has created an environment most unfavorable to the aspirations of a budding Shiite-led Iranian empire stretching across the Levant. The Iranian revolutionary concept has little chance of success without a vast infusion of investment funds from abroad, most specifically European multinational corporations. The Trump administration will make sure that such an infusion will simply not happen. On the contrary, more sanctions against Iran’s regional behavior and missile development are coming. This is especially true now because of the domestic demonstrations against Tehran’s foreign policy by disgruntled Iranian workers and youth. It’s jobs these people want, not empire.

The Iran nuclear deal was premised on the faulty assertion that the release of funds sanctioned against Iran could be established without any attempt by Iran to loosen the grip of the Anglo-American military empire lodged on its perimeter. But instead of moderation to the empire, Iran has now seriously overplayed its regional hand. The Islamic Republic is not a strong conventional military power. It is a mountainous country with a very large population consisting of many ethnic groups. Mountainous countries tend to be poor. Those with large populations, like Iran, tend to be even poorer. Poverty in its rural, ethnic provinces can become a real danger to Iran, especially to the people living in the cosmopolitan capital city of Tehran.

Iran cannot remove US forces from the Persian Gulf or the Middle East. It doesn’t possess that kind of economic lift or military power. To achieve such an end, Iran would require far more dollars than its central bank possesses. Hence, Iran remains vulnerable to the Anglo-American empire. Iranians are proud people. Like Sunni Arabs and Israelis, the ideal situation for all would be a region living in peace without outside interference. But the Islamic revolutionary leadership in Iran continues to harbor the delusion that the Sunni Arabs states and Israel can be defeated. They believe that the US would simply condone such a retreat from the region without any domestic or global consequences.

This Obama-like thinking — pivot to the Far East, spurred by a successful (and weak) nuclear deal and a moderate outcome in Iran, albeit with the continuation of US bases on the Persian Gulf and Obama’s Nixon-like, twin-pillar approach to the Middle East balance of power — was typical of the implausible fantasies emanating from the previous White House. But no longer does such thinking exist, not even on the American Left.

The Iranian rush into Syria, its support for Afghani and Pakistani Shiite militias, the spread of Hezbollah into Syria and Yemen and the use of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps near the borders of Israel (and the Iranian worker’s reaction to these policies) have now worked to alter the entire NATO approach to events in the Middle East.

Obama was wrong to disengage the events of the region from the Iran nuclear deal. I have written about this for years. The region needs a complete peace plan encompassing a sustainable and permanent balance of conventional power without proxy militias. It also needs the absence of nuclear weapons and an end to the stationing of foreign forces within the region. Obama only offered a shortly-timed sweetheart nuclear deal, with maximum compartmentalization from the ravages of foreign empire and the Iranian attempt at counter local empire. The Iran nuclear deal now needs a follow-on agreement for the whole of the Middle East.

The Iranian people were told that such a nuclear deal would work to their economic benefit. But it hasn’t. Iran needs to free its domestic budget from hegemonic military expenses — that is, if it wants to aid its own economy. But, on the other hand, no country can sit still with outside powers poised on its borders. Iran faces the eternal catch-22 of empire within history — expansion breeds decline but without expansion what can deter other empires from filling the void of weakness? This is the madness and the fate of empire. It is also Iran’s supreme dilemma.

Enter nuclear weapons. These weapons systems have become the deterrent of choice for many weaker powers. This was true of NATO toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was true for the French when the question of an extended US nuclear shield became of paramount concern to Paris. It is now true for countries as diverse as Pakistan, North Korea, even China and India. As NATO has expanded eastward, Russia depends more and more on its nuclear arsenal for leverage. Israel developed its nuclear arsenal in the face of Russian threats and the indifference of American leadership during the wars of 1956 and 1973.

Now Iran is backed into a corner. They can continue with a regional anti-imperial strategy based on their own designs for regional hegemony or they can tear up the nuclear deal and push toward a nuclear breakout. Either way their economy will suffer dearly and their population will become more and more restive. Both roads will lead the Tehran government to a far more isolated and desperate international position. The fact is that the Islamic Revolution has run its course. It needs to truly moderate its international position with a broad new peace plan for the region. This plan must include Israel and the future of all the region’s nuclear weapons. But also on the table must be the future of foreign empire and all foreign military forces stationed within the region. This would include both US and Russian forces.

Our world needs a new understanding between nations. International relations must become historically anti-imperial as cooperation and coherency replace might and force. So-called “peace through strength” might have had moments of limited success during the mutually assured destruction phase of the early nuclear age. But, I doubt its permanent effectiveness in our current time of nuclear proliferation. What the Middle East needs is an all encompassing plan for genuine peace. Only when Iran, Israel and the Sunni Arab states (including Palestine) can come together in peace — only then — can the fate of empire be extinguished from history’s long destiny of war, death and economic dislocation. This is G-d’s true Islamic and Judaic message. The whole world will be watching!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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