What’s at Stake for Iran in Syria?

Prof. Cyrus Bina says during the Iran-Iraq war, Assad’s Syria was the only Arab state that supported Iran

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

It’s a very complicated and very dangerous world we live in. And perhaps the fight or conflict that’s most complicated right now is emblematic of how difficult it is to come to terms with the current balance of forces in the world is what’s going on in Syria. Just about everybody in the planet that has any real geopolitical power has their finger in that pie. Of course, the people who are paying the consequences in their tens and hundreds of thousands are the Syrian people.

But we’re going to try to get more of a handle on what’s happening, and we’re going to do it through the prism of understanding Iran and their interests in the region. And through that, looking at the issue of oil and U.S. foreign policy. And now joining us to talk about all of this in the studio is Cyrus Bina. Cyrus was born in Tehran. He was an activist against the Shah. He left during the Shah regime for the United States in 1971. He continued his activism against the Shah while he was here. He’s now a Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Minnesota Morris. He’s the author of several books, including the latest: A Prelude to the Foundation of Political Economy: Oil, War, and Global Polity.

CYRUS BINA: Thank you very much.

JAY: So it’s a rather complicated story. Rather. It’s crazily complicated, really. I suppose maybe pre-World War I when people were trying to figure out whether there was going to be a world war, and all the various interests colluding. I mean, in retrospect decades later, you know, we can kind of understand the big picture of the uneven development of these big countries and how they started to conflict coming out of colonialism and so on. When you’re in the middle of it maybe it wasn’t quite so clear.

But certainly now we’re in a period of transition, as you’ve described, from a time when the United States could control the world. We really were a kind of hegemon where many, many governments were virtually puppets, to a time where it’s a more complex relationship between American dominant power, but perhaps as you’ve described not hegemonic power. Far more rivalries. And very much being expressed in Syria.

But if one looks at Iran and their role in this, talk a little bit about the Iranian interest and why they have decided for quite some time to stay entrenched in their support for Assad in Syria. What really is in it for them?

BINA: Yes, this is a very great question. Actually, we have to refresh our memories. When the Iran-Iraq war was going on right after the revolution, and there were so many factors which made the Islamic Republic as we know it, established the Islamic Republic. Taking the embassy for instance is one of them, which of course created the sanctions. And then of course the image of anti-imperialist, of the regime, as a populist element to be used to re-establish or establish the Islamic Republic. Because the revolution was not about, you know, Khomeini for instance. It was a revolution and there was a counter-revolution, in my judgment.

JAY: So this is the revolution in 1979, which was a broad front of the Iranian people, which included Islamists but also leftists and communists, socialists, nationalists. Except in the end the Islamists win and actually kill off many of the leftists that there was.

BINA: Exactly. And then the question was the deal, if you will, of the [Guadalupe] Conference between the people who really handled Khomeini, even though Khomeini was not preferred to the Shah. Then the loss of the Shah, which was very unique, the very important [son] of Pax Americana, if you will. Then there was no alternative. You know, they–the United States shifted to the other elements of the National Front, which of course they couldn’t really handle that [inaud.] moved to really go with the Shah, as you remember, probably. And then the other side of the National Front moved to Khomeini. So there was division. Total division between that.

This is a secular movement, division. And in that fundamental sense the taking over of the embassy, and then Iran-Iraq war, established the counter-revolutionary forces of Khomeini. That was a so-called new revolution if you will. So that’s the regime.

If you accept this premise, then Iran-Iraq war is extremely important. And Iran-Iraq war actually created a condition in the region that every Arab country, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, all these [shipdoms] of the Persian Gulf went against Iran. And of course, Iraq was there at the very head of it. And then the only regime which supported Iran was Bashar al-Assad of Syria. So this is payback time, if you will.

JAY: Now you’ve, you’ve talked a lot in your work about the importance of understanding oil to understand everything else. So how does oil–.

BINA: Yes. Because oil was globalized first. This is the first sector of the economy to be globalized, trans-nationalized, beyond the border of the nation-state. That’s why.

JAY: So how does oil play into this alliance where almost all the Arab regimes back the Iraq war against Iran? What’s the underlying economics of that vis-a-vis oil?

BINA: Yes. To know that we have to go back to the oil crisis of 1973-74, which led to the de-cartelization of oil. International petroleum cartel was imploded, gone, 1972. And then the crisis set in, and then oil was globalized–.

JAY: And by that you mean the American-controlled cartel.

BINA: The American-controlled–exactly. Because there was the umbilical cord of the U.S. foreign policy to the cartelized oil. Not all oil. Cartelized oil was caught. So in that fundamental sense this direct dial was gone.

JAY: ’73-’74 was the creation of OPEC.

BINA: ’73-’74. ’73-’74, OPEC was there. OPEC was created in 1960. But OPEC becomes OPEC, really, with some teeth during this process of globalization. And then therefore it was [inhaled] by the globalization. That’s why OPEC could not set prices. And then of course a spot market and futures market, all these things, was coming about to establish the globalization of oil. In other words, unified pricing at the global level without, with minimal control, if you will, from OPEC. So if you look at the whole thing, oil can be figured out within this process.

JAY: Okay. This is almost for another time, because this is actually a very complicated subject.

BINA: Sure, sure. I’m just using it.

JAY: I hear you. Go back to this issue of the Iraq-Iran war, and why all the Arab countries support the isolation of Iran. Now, how much of it has to do with just they’re opposed to the Iranian revolution? They don’t like the fact that a monarchy gets overthrown. Isn’t that enough reason?

BINA: Absolutely. Absolutely. The question was, first of all, the so-called green light of the United States, if you will, for the time being because they cannot get the Shah. Why not nationalists? Why not the leftists, and so forth. Why the thesis of the green, you know, around what do you call, the [Islam], around the Soviet Union–at that time the Soviet Union existed. But why that sort of foundation was established, that Khomeini could be seen in a favorable light comes from the policies of the United States and Carter administration, and [inaud.] thesis you know about that sort of thing, against the Soviets.

So the international policy comes in. and of course we are talking about regional arguments.

JAY: But if the, I would guess there’s kind of two motivations for the Arab countries supporting Iraq against Iran. Number one is they hate the idea that the monarchy gets overthrown, and they want to overthrow the overthrowers of the monarchy. But is it also to try to isolate Iran and in terms of taking their oil? I mean, how does oil figure into this piece of it? Do they want the Iranian oil to be off the market? They just really just want this regime overthrown.

BINA: There are two arguments here. The argument that they were afraid of the monarchy being overthrown, because the monarchy in Iran was overthrown. And of course when you look at Nixon’s [inaud.], the two pillars of the, two [gendarmes] of the Persian Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia. So that would figure that out.

JAY: And Israel.

BINA: And Israel, of course. It’s a different than, [inaud.] the Persian Gulf. Not the entire region. Of course you’re right, absolutely.

Now, the question of oil is figuring out how oil revenues will be distributed. So therefore if during this war, if Iranians could not produce more oil–which they did. They just bombed all these platforms and so on and so forth during he war so that Iranians should be submitted and could be submitted to say yes. Uncle, as they say, you know.

JAY: Uncle.

BINA: That’s what it is, you know. So in that sense they did it in such a very brutal way. The only country which came to the rescue or had a relationship with the Islamic Republic was Syria. And everybody else were trying to push and shove.

And then if you remember in 1986 or so, the Saudis for the first time and the last time, they turned the oil, they increased the level of oil, the volume of oil, to create crisis against their own interest. In other words if you increase the supply of oil, beyond the capacity–and capacity is not just turning the spigot of oil and something like that. There are technical issues and so forth. They lost the quality of production from their own oil wells by doing that. They lost the revenue, Saudis, during the Reagan–.

JAY: Saudis. What year [inaud.] now?

BINA: I was in the United States. I was working–.

JAY: I said what year are we talking about.

BINA: ’86, 1986. So in that sense they were killing two birds with one shot. In other words, the Iranians didn’t have enough money, if the price of oil comes down. And price of oil came down, if I’m not mistaken it did off the top of my head, $32 to $9 or so. And in that sense Iranians couldn’t get enough revenue. And therefore in that sense war effort can be, you know, against the Iranians and for Saddam Hussein.

JAY: What’s the relationship between the Saudis and the Shah of Iran?

BINA: It was lukewarm but cordial, if you will. As I remember at that time.

JAY: So this contradiction with the Saudis and Iran now is really about a regime that overthrew the monarchy rather than some inherent fight between another oil power.

BINA: That’s right. There was no inherent fight about the oil powers, no, at that time. So in that sense the second idea, which decreased the price of oil to $9, hit the Iranians at the heart. And then at the same time, simultaneously, this is funny. During the Reagan administration, that most of the oilfields in Oklahoma went out of business.

And this is the connection when I say globalization, you do something and then, and unintended consequences will be happening halfway around the globe.

JAY: Similar to what’s happening with the price of oil now. The Saudis have allowed production to go up, and oil prices to go down. And it’s…

BINA: But not beyond the capacity of [ruining] the oilfields that at that time they did. This is at the capacity. And then Saudi Arabia really had deficits a year and a half after that, because they were buying arms and everything else. They didn’t have enough money, Saudi Arabia, they were hit. So in that sense going against their own interest.

JAY: In order to weaken the Iranian regime.

BINA: In order to work with the Reagan administration. They were asked by the Reagan administration to do so.

JAY: So if we go ahead today–now, I understand Syria was the only one that supported them in the Iran-Iraq war. But geopolitics is geopolitics. It’s pretty pragmatic. And loyalty, and all these things, they don’t really matter all that much when it comes down to hard national interest. What does Syria do for Iran now? And would they really–you know, now that they’re starting to make this deal with the U.S., does that interest in keeping the Assad regime, or I should say a pro-Iranian regime in Syria, of such value to them?

BINA: I think it is almost parallel with how Putin sees Syria. It’s very important that the interest of Iran will be preserved. In the sense that there’s a contradiction with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, the GCC, so-called GCC in the Persian Gulf on the one hand. And at the same time there’s a contradiction with Israel on the other hand, which we didn’t talk about. This is 800-pound gorilla in the room here. So Syria matters. That’s very important for Iran. And the loyalty of Iran, Iranian regime, you see, they owe to Syria for that war.

JAY: When you talk about Israel, I mean, is it Syria that matters? Or is it Hezbollah that matters, and thus Syria matters?

BINA: That’s another matter.

JAY: Because Syria was no threat to Israel. The only force that was really standing up to Israel was Hezbollah.

BINA: That’s right. You are opening up another front. In other words, how Hezbollah was established by Iranian–as a separate [posture] on, of course force, and so on and so forth. This was done earlier in 1982 or so during the war. So it’s a whole package that we are talking about. You cannot separate Hezbollah from the, from the viewpoint of Iranians. I mean, the regime itself, and Syria. So it’s a package altogether. So it should be seen all together.

JAY: Now, we’re focusing now on Iran. Of course we will get to U.S. interest and U.S. policy there, which clearly is to stay as dominant as they possibly can within all of these moving parts for their own narrow interest. But right now we’re focusing on Iran. And with all of these countries, you know, to really understand foreign policy you have to understand domestic politics.

BINA: Absolutely.

JAY: And I think–you made an interesting point in one of your works, was the extent to which the sanctions against Iran strengthened the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and how much that changed the political culture and I would guess also foreign policy of Iran. Talk a bit about that.

BINA: Absolutely. I think the establishment of the Islamic Republic, as I mentioned, there are a few factors got to be coming to be combined with the existing conditions at the time to establish the counter-revolutionary government of Iran. I said counter-revolutionary because original revolution was a different story. In that particular sense we can see how this question of Iran-Iraq war and then how it is extended to become eight-year war would have impact on that. And then in terms of regional situations, all these Arab countries in the Persian Gulf piled up against Iran. This is another question. So the contradictory process can be seen from that sort of thing.

And then Revolutionary Guards were very important at the time, because the Iranian government was worried about a coup d’etat, as they say. 1953 coup d’etat, it’s a real one, of course. So that established the Revolutionary Guards. And then of course [section] [inaud.] the whole thing, sort of ostracized the Iranian army, which was the Shah’s army, and that sort of thing. So in that particular sense, Khomeini at that time [overheard] that, say that, don’t let these Revolutionary Guards interfere in politics. Khomeini said that, the leader of the counter-revolution.

So in that particular sense when they came out of, the war ended. But at the same time the sanctions was established early on in 1980, late ’80s, against the embassy, taking over of the embassy, and so forth. Then all these Revolutionary Guards become, monopolize the economy gradually. Monopolize the judiciary, monopolize the every aspect of the society with the Basijes, which was another force. Which is lesser force, but of course is–.

JAY: These are the guys riding around on motorcycles.

BINA: Exactly. That’s what, what, what we’ve seen.

JAY: Clubbing the demonstrators and such, yeah.

BINA: So in this particular sense they prop up this, Revolutionary Guards, to become part and parcel of Iranian economy, Iranian society. And if you will, civil society of Iran, if there is any–.

JAY: Because they use the, they use their sort of military-political clout and sanctions as the rationale to enforce their whole role in–it becomes like the role of the Pakistani army.

BINA: That’s right. That’s why I say that during Ahmadinejad and the riots in Iran and so forth, the second term of Ahmadinejad, the nature of the Iranian regime has changed, because the qualitative change has happened during the process of Revolutionary Guards become part and parcel of society, production, economy, judiciary, everything else.

JAY: And the rationale for all of this is, we stand up to the United States.

BINA: Absolutely. Because we are, we are isolated. We are [as figured] by these state is sanctions, what can we do. And then they’re interfering in economy, and then create a monopoly, if you will.

JAY: And the more the Americans huff and puff against Iran, the stronger the Revolutionary Guard then gets.

BINA: Exactly. And now the Obama administration, some of the elements in the Obama administration, they’re acknowledging that the sanctions couldn’t really do anything. But of course, sanctions did all kinds of things. One of the actions, one of the tasks, if you will, intended or unintended, was to create the paramilitary estate in Iran.

JAY: If the Iranian regime, and it seems to me most of them, are very interested in making money, and if you wanted to have a fairly easy life and make lots of money, and you could still one could think have your theocracy, you would join the American umbrella.

BINA: Exactly.

JAY: Sell your oil. Give up on Hezbollah, give up on Syria. Play nice with Israel. And make money, and live happily ever after. The problem, I guess, is if you do that then you unleash all the internal forces that would like to overthrow you, and so you need the nationalist card.

BINA: Right. But you see, the sequence of history is not as rosy as we can predict. Iran-Iraq war is more than Iran-Iraq war. That was huge. In other words, created the, that was a pre-history of the history, present history, if you will. So in that sense it happened, we cannot wish it away. And that with the embassy takeover created sanctions. And then the arrogance, if you will, of the United States policy, rather than thinking through. That’s why I say that this is a time of decline of the United States, if you will. But that’s a different story.

JAY: Let me just add one thing here, tell me if I’m right. You know, once you have the revolution and against the Shah, you can’t just play nice with the Americans because it will be a betrayal of the people. And this is the factor here, is that the Iranian people were revolutionary. The Iranian people overthrew the Shah. And you have to keep taking that into account if you’re ruling Iran, because you yourself will get overthrown.

BINA: The takeover of the embassy was done spontaneously, as you probably–if you go back to the history. But about a day or two, Khomeini said yes to the so-called [students]. In other words, they used it in such a way to show that they are anti-imperialist, quote-unquote, and anti-American, if you will, for domestic purposes. To establish the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic was not established, really, at that time. I mean, it was in flux. So in that sense you see how the question of sanctions created something which is a monster, actually, contradicted itself. And then Iran-Iraq war, as well.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue this discussion and focus a little bit more on Syria. Please join us for my continuing interview with Cyrus Bina on Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network.

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