The Past, Present, and Future of the US-Iran Conflict

Photo: Iranians mourn the death of military commander Qasem Soleimani

By Mike Talavera, with contributions from Kate LaBelle

Last week, the US Senate passed an Iran War Powers resolution, a symbolic slap on the wrist for US President Donald Trump after his ordering of the January 2 US airstrike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to smooth over this assassination of one of Iran’s top military leaders, this resolution, which is intended to curb escalation with Iran and follows a similar one passed last month in the House, shows the lingering fears of further military conflict with Iran. In neighboring Iraq where the airstrike took place, protests have rocked the country in the six weeks since Soleimani’s death, with calls for US forces to leave.

Iran’s leaders promised “severe revenge” for the loss of their prized general, which took the form of missile strikes on January 8, targeting Iraqi military bases that housed US troops. In a national address the following morning, Trump had claimed that no US personnel were injured, “which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” he said.

Now, the Pentagon has admitted that more than 100 US service members are being treated for injuries sustained during that missile assault. That same week, Iranian forces downed a Boeing passenger plane, killing 176, which they have blamed on the anticipation of a US invasion.

Weeks of tension between the US and Iran in January included protests and missile attacks.

As the drums of war rattle, US media pundits and bourgeois politicians have mindlessly followed Trump’s labeling of Soleimani as a ‘terrorist,’ but Soleimani, who led Iran’s Quds Force, did not earn the designation of ‘terrorist’ because of his character or the nature of his methods; he was labeled with it because of his role in undermining US operations in the Middle East, in particular his support of the Syrian government during the proxy war in that country between US and Russian imperialisms.

Many in the US recognize that Iran is not primarily to blame for the looming prospect of war, and thousands have felt the urgency to take to the streets to protest what some see as the prelude to another imperialist war. This movement is weak compared to the mobilizations against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, but even with greater numbers, the anti-war movement at that time failed to halt the US’s march towards war.

Some of the 2003 movement’s main organizational leadership, in particular the ANSWER Coalition which is a front group for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), have latched onto this current national upswing against US aggression towards Iran. Bolstered by the World Workers Party (WWP) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), PSL has seized the moment to advertise themselves as the ‘anti-imperialist’ response to the warmongering Trump administration.

Aside from the bombastic language used at the ‘anti-war’ rallies of these groups, their proposals for defeating ‘imperialism’ do not differ much from the resolutions that have been passed by the bourgeois Congress, in that they identify the office of the Presidency as one of the main sources of ‘imperialist’ aggression, and they believe parliamentary means are the best way to rein in this hostility. Just like last week’s Senate resolution, which Trump has vowed to veto, these ‘radical’ plans to take on the ‘military-industrial complex’ are doomed to fail.

The toothless politics of these revisionist groups (revisionist in that the leadership sells themselves as Marxists) are based on the warped view that imperialism is simply a matter of foreign policy and not the political and economic foundation of modern US society.

The recent popular resistance to US imperialist war on Iran is just, but false characterizations of imperialism beleaguer this defiant response. The reforms proposed by revisionist groups rely on a narrow view of history and serve only to advance the careers of their leadership, a sorry collection of shameless, wannabe-Marxists.

The rank-and-file of these groups, and all of those who have taken action to stand up against this latest flare up of US imperialist aggression, deserve a broader historical analysis and a scientific understanding of how the US and Iran became so at odds with one another.

The current conflict between the US and Iran is the outcome of US imperialism’s domination (both politically and economically) of the Middle East since World War II. To characterize US occupation of the region as being the result of a series of bad policy decisions would be to view history as the plaything of ‘Great Men,’ an outdated way of understanding the world. Marxism offers the correct interpretation, that the US, as an advanced capitalist nation, was compelled to claim a monopoly of Middle Eastern resources and markets. The underlying logic of imperialist political economy, to replace free competition with monopoly in the pursuit of super-profits, is a driving force that no US bourgeois politician, progressive or otherwise, has the power, nor the desire, to reverse.

“Axis of Evil”

According to the Trump administration, Soleimani’s assassination was carried out in defense of US interests. Even to those less familiar with Middle Eastern history, this claim raises questions as to why the US is in the Middle East in the first place, what its interests there are, and what’s preventing it from leaving.

Recent memory suggests that US meddling in the Middle East was provoked by the September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, which prompted an invasion first of Afghanistan in 2001 and then of Iraq in 2003, countries which are still occupied by US forces today. The justification for these wars, which resulted in over a million deaths of Afghani and Iraqi people combined, was ‘counter-terrorism.’

By now, it is well known that the benefits of the US invasion of Iraq went beyond the suppression of terrorism. The head of US occupying forces in 2003, Paul Bremer, told the press at the time that he was coordinating with US, British, and other banks to finance investment in the reconstruction of the country, which had been devastated by the US military.

“This will be a symbol that Iraq is open for business and an incentive to those who want to export to Iraq,” Bremer said.

Before the US invasion, the Iraqi bureaucratic capitalist economy was mostly centrally planned, with the state owning or controlling most major industries. Afterwards, the US-led occupation privatized those industries (including the oil industry), cut corporate taxes dramatically, and allowed foreign countries to repatriate any profits they made in the country.

“Our strategic goal in the months ahead,” Bremer said, “is to set in motion policies which will have the effect of reallocating people and resources from state enterprises to the more productive private firms.”

Major imperialist oil firms including Exxon, British Petroleum (BP), and Shell all secured major stakes following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government and remained in the country even after many US troops left. Order 81 of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) gave firms like Monsanto, Cargill, and others leeway to dominate Iraqi agriculture. Other companies secured federal contracts in the reconstruction of Iraq totaling in the tens of billions of dollars.

Former President George W. Bush labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’

Not long after this highly profitable invasion, the US began more closely spying on Iran, both through ground forces and aerial drones, in an attempt to monitor the development of its nuclear power capabilities. While this was happening covertly, in public the US made every effort to demonize Iran, with former US president George W. Bush describing it as part of an “axis of evil” in a speech following the September 11 attacks.

However, the US has not always held an adversarial attitude towards Iran, although it has always wanted to exploit its resources.

Before World War II, the US had engaged little with Iran, which had been dominated by Tsarist Russia and British colonialism since the 19th century. During this time, Iranians mainly knew the US through its religious missionaries, especially Presbyterians, which established schools and cultural centers in the country. US missionaries did this all over the Middle East.

The discovery of oil in the country in 1908 did not go unnoticed. The British-led Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was formed in pursuit of its extraction soon after (AIOC would later rebrand itself as BP).

US influence over Iran was invited by its feudal ruler Reza Shah, who was particularly interested in modeling Iranian society after those of the emerging imperialist countries.  He hired many US consultants in pursuit of this goal, the most well-known of whom was Arthur Millspaugh, who headed the Iranian Finance Ministry from 1922-1927.

Despite Millspaugh acting under the premise of making Iran’s economy independent from foreign influence, his reforms effectively opened the country up further to US private interests.

After the replacement of Reza Shah with his son Mohammad Reza Shah and the conclusion of World War II, US interest in Iran intensified, fueled mainly by fears of the Soviet Union’s influence over the world’s oppressed nations. The Soviet Union had held significant influence over northern Iran during the first decades of the 20th century, particularly in Iranian Azerbaijan. In the provincial capital of Tabriz, Stalin had supported the establishment of the Azerbaijan People’s Republic, a socialist state that lasted from 1945-1946.

Left: Feudal ruler, Reza Shah, Right: His son, Mohammad Reza Shah, a CIA installed puppet

The US and British were so desperate to protect their interest in Iranian oil that the CIA and MI6 worked together to orchestrate a coup d’état against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had supported the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. The plot to remove Mossadegh from power was executed in 1953. He was overthrown and kept under house arrest for three years until he died in isolation.

In contrast to the contemporary anxiety over Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions, the US actually helped Iran begin its nuclear program in the late 1950s by giving Iran its first nuclear reactor. Mohammad Reza Shah gave millions of dollars to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to support the studies of a group of Iranians sent there to train in nuclear physics.

Mohammad Reza Shah was even more willing than his father to subjugate Iran to US imperialism for the sake of securing his own puny position of power, and the US was more than willing to oblige him, selling him countless weapons systems, fighter jets, and other military supplies during the 1960s-1970s. The CIA trained SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police force responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and disappearing of thousands of Iranian activists from the mass movements at the time rebelling against the Shah and US imperialism. Members of the Iranian police force were also sent to the US for tactical training led by US police sergeants.

The so-called ‘Islamic Revolution,’ which overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah and left a void filled by the Islamic theocracy headed by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1979, did not totally sour relations between the US and Iran. US policymakers, diplomats, and President Jimmy Carter, while regretting the end of the Shah dynasty which had faithfully served US imperialism for decades, were hopeful they could continue to dominate Iran with Khomeini’s help.

It was the taking of 52 hostages from the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 that seriously damaged relations between the US and Iran. It was an act that shocked many who had worked closely with the Iranian government for years, especially Khomeini’s vehement support of the act. This was the first time that the US placed sanctions on Iran’s economy, and it was at that point that the US understood that Iranian leadership had turned decisively away from catering to US imperialism as it had done during the reign of the Shahs.

‘Maximum pressure’

In the tumultuous days following the US assassination of Soleimani, Trump cited the 1979 hostage crisis in his exchange of threats with Iranian leaders. He threatened to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites, one for each US hostage held, playing on old fears attached to that moment.

In effect, US imperialism has been holding the people of Iran hostage through the enforcement of harsh sanctions, imposed as part of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy which started in May 2018 with the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Many of the sanctions had already been in place before the nuclear deal was brokered in 2015.

Scenes from the 1979 Occupation of the US embassy in Iran

The tactic of isolating Iran from world markets aligns with the Trump administration’s strategy in the Middle East: to balkanize the existing nation-states in order to undermine Russian and Chinese imperialist interests in the region. It is worth noting that Solemani closely coordinated with Russia in Syria.

Both Russia and China have violated US sanctions to trade with Iran, and last December the three nations conducted a joint naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz, where 20% of the world’s oil passes through. There is no doubt that the rising imperialist powers of Russia and China are ready and willing to pounce on the region that continues to grow weary of US control.

In hindsight, the Obama administration’s policy towards Iran may seem like the peaceful alternative to the Trump’s characteristic recklessness, but the two approaches are simply different strategies in pursuit of the same imperialist domination of the region. The Obama administration, in an effort to counter Russia, focused on strengthening ties with the imperialists of the European Union, who would have been the main beneficiaries of the nuclear deal with Iran.

Trump, on the other hand, has demonstrated through his dealings with Ukraine (which prompted his impeachment scandal), his support of Brexit, and his breaking away from the Iran nuclear deal that he and his cabinet do not see the European bloc as a useful servant of US imperialism in the way Obama did.

The divergent strategies of Obama and Trump were not just a matter of their political preferences but the changing economic conditions they were presented with.

In 2005, for example, the US Energy Policy Act leased federal land to oil companies in an effort to dramatically increase shale oil production. It was not until the next decade that the industry kicked into high gear, culminating with the US becoming a net exporter of oil in November 2019.

It is this oil ‘independence’ (a temporary status), among other conditional factors, that has made it possible for Trump to take greater risks with Iran, like the assassination of Soleimani.

If a Democratic US president is elected in 2020, whether it be Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, he or she will face the same imperialist economic conditions and command the same US state, regardless of how much more ‘reasonable’ they are than Trump. When Iranians, Iraqis, and others in the region chant, “Death to America,” it is not only in response to Trump’s recent actions but expresses a rejection of the legacy of US oppression and exploitation perpetuated by both Democratic and Republican presidents for the past century.


Marx’s theory that the “free competition” of the 19th century capitalist world economy would inevitably give rise to a concentration (or socialization) of production was borne out by the rise of monopolies at the turn of the 20th century, where entire industries became dominated by small groups of the wealthiest capitalists. As the Great Lenin wrote at the time, “Here we no longer have competition between small and large [capitalists], between technically developed and backward enterprises. We see here the monopolists throttling those who do not submit to them, to their yoke, to their dictation.”

If the expansion of free competition capitalism corresponded to the spread of bourgeois democracy, then the domination of finance capital (monopoly industrial capital merged with banking capital) is reflected by widespread political reaction, as exemplified by the decades-long US campaign of terror in the Middle East.

The assassination of Soleimani signifies much more than Trump’s penchant for brashness; it is yet another illustration of how US imperialism, the sole hegemonic superpower, is willing to gamble with the welfare and well-being of millions in order to take another step on its ruinous road of monopoly mania. While war with Iran has been averted for the time being, war itself is inevitable when domination is a rule and rebellion is commonplace.

Considering this inevitability, assured by the economic logic of imperialism, the pacifism promoted by the leadership of revisionists in response to US aggression should be met with harsh skepticism. Calls for an idealistic ‘peace’ by sell-out politicians and corrupt activists have been used to pacify the anger of the masses since before the first World War and are as insidious now as they were then. Bought off by the super-profits raked in by imperialism, these lapdogs of the ruling class are not really interested in taking on imperialists but in convincing the working class that the bourgeoisie can be persuaded to stop oppressing and exploiting.

Fascists holding ANSWER coalition (PSL) signs at an anti-war rally in Denver

That is why the political opportunism personified by the leaders of PSL, WWP, and DSA can be said to be a product of and a service to imperialism, and any self-respecting anti-imperialist must combat these revisionists with the same zeal as when opposing US aggression against Iran. Antifascists also have reason to fight against these groups, who have regularly allowed and even protected fascists at their ‘anti-war’ rallies.

If imperialism is viewed not only as a foreign policy but as the fundamental basis of US society, then the conventional means of enacting political change (running candidates, advocating for reforms, etc.) cannot be relied on to root out something which is at the nation’s core. Agitating for mass revolutionary action against the US government is the only appropriate anti-imperialist response.

Across the country, anti-imperialists have already started such a campaign, vandalizing US military recruitment centers and protesting against US imperialism as a whole rather than one policy over another. Revolutionary slogans such as ‘Death to US Imperialism’ build on the ideas of the masses of the Middle-East, who already call for ‘Death to America,’ but must be united with an international proletarian solidarity against the sole hegemonic imperialist superpower. Revolutionary actions distinguish themselves from revisionist proposals in that they do not propagate the lie of stopping war (which excludes the reality of revolutionary wars) but instead call for US imperialism’s defeat.

In so doing, this legitimate anti-imperialist movement unites with the people of Iran, the international proletariat, and the oppressed masses of the world, who all have an interest in seeing the overthrow of US imperialism. In its pursuit of monopoly, the ruling class has incidentally brought more and more workers together, and this mass socialization of production cannot peacefully co-exist with private ownership. The only solution is worldwide proletarian revolution.

Anti-imperialist grafitti seen in Austin, Texas