Memories of De-development
What does the U.S. really want in Iran?
The recent protest movement sparked by the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, the latest cycle of a larger revolutionary upswing in Iran, has galvanized global opinion. While elites in the Iranian diaspora lead those sympathetic to the democratic movement in Iran into the dead-end of performative solidarity, a portion of the anti-imperialist left has fallen back into stale defenses of the Islamic Republic.
Less concerned about actual labor or women’s struggles in the global south, the political horizon of this genre of anti-imperialist is firmly within the Jack Ryan cinematic universe. Real political contestation is unimaginable outside of regime change-color revolution plots. For them, the only forces with actual agency are the agents of the CIA and IRGC. Ironically, the relationship between US imperialism and the Islamic Republic is critical to understanding Iran, though perhaps not in the manner one would expect.
The standard anti-imperialist perspective heralds the Islamic Republic as a powerful counterhegemonic force that has successfully thwarted US attempts at regime change. The US’s failure to restore a pro-Western liberal government is interpreted as the culmination of a wider chain of US impotence in the region; from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen and Syria.
But this perspective ignores the reality that the US government is fairly competent at achieving its geopolitical goals; having overthrown dozens of governments in the past century and stewarded countless others. Rather than assuming that the imperialists have ‘failed’ in West Asia and North Africa, it is perhaps better to re-assess its changing strategic goals.
During its Cold War competition with the socialist bloc, the US was forced to offer an alternative modernization theory of development for the global south. 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. But 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, the world is still dominated by US hyperpower. The current historical moment is also marked by a degradation of the environment and is haunted by the specter of mass death – demonstrated by new pandemics and other ecological disasters.
US-led imperialism has responded 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 less 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. US adventures in the region reveal an imperial hegemon deeply at ease with primitive accumulation through the liquidation of human, natural, and economic capital in societies that it targets for military intervention. Simultaneously, the disintegration of centralized state capacity in formerly socialistic states like Syria and Libya vetoes any future economic development and any future alignment with a Chinese-led bloc. The de-development perspective, pioneered by scholars like Sara Roy and Ali Kadri, depicts a metropolitan imperialist core that is blocking development paths for the global south while (literally) building walls to protect itself against the consequences of collapse and decline in the south.
Iran offers an illuminating case of how the de-development perspective can puncture and defog conventional wisdom. The standard view on Iran, implicitly held by both anti-imperialists and pro-western Iranian oppositionists is that the US seeks to empower proxies like the MEK and Pahlavist monarchists to install a pre-1979 form of government. Presumably, this restored government would pursue a liberal modernization program along the lines of US partners in the 20th century whilst acting as a reliable subcontractor for US interests in the region. However, this perception is not compatible with an understanding of US imperialism as a complex and capable force. The monarchists and the MEK have no social base inside Iran. The MEK in particular is widely loathed by Iranians due to its alignment with Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq War. The monarchy fares better as the 24/7 propaganda of polished diaspora satellite networks present an idyllic version of pre-revolutionary Iran. But despite whatever amorphous and precarious popular sentiment the Pahlavis may attract in Iran, the monarchists have no organized presence in the country.
This begs the question of why the US would invest in forces that have no prospect of achieving state power in Iran. The standard explanation is that the US simply has no other alternatives to select as their local partners for regime change. However, this explanation 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 abandoned the original Islamic-socialist thrust of the Revolution. Through various cycles, the Islamic Republic has continuously shed and purged 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) parties, to liberal reformists, Rafsanjani-aligned moderates, the more nationalist and egalitarian groups within the pro-regime Principalist camp (including ex-President and persona non grata Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and even barred elite moderate conservatives like Ali Larijani from running for President. 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.
The susceptibility of Iran to a US-led regime change campaign is particularly acute due to the collapse of the reform movement. With reformist political parties now mostly extinct, the urban professional classes that formed the basis of the reform project can fairly easily be corralled into a US-backed opposition movement. The Islamic Republic has left Iranians with two choices: either support the state in its most reactionary form since 1979 or be completely barred from participating in meaningful politics. Faced with this decision and with no reform movement to contain oppositional energies, many Iranians have aligned with (often diaspora-based) radicals seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The latest uprising is only the latest round of a cycle of protest movements. Each protest cycle has drawn in more social classes while also utilizing escalating levels of violence against the security forces.
Strikingly, much of the opposition is already aligned with the West. The opposition has no clear strategy for regime change besides appeals for international support; which implicitly supports some form of intervention. It is not rare to see major opposition figures demand the Trumpist refrain of ‘maximum pressure’ from Western states against the Islamic Republic.
Simultaneously, the Islamic Republic is weaker than it has ever been. While the country’s slow-motion collapse commenced during the Ahmadinejad administration, it entered a Toozean polycrisis after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran faces a total embargo from the global dollar system, the basis for international trade. Remaining trade is mostly limited to bilateral barter, the export leg of which consists of selling heavily discounted oil to countries like China. High inflation rates, low growth rates, and high unemployment (particularly for women) reinforce each other; while also pushing more Iranians to migrate, which in turns worsens the socioeconomic crisis. Meanwhile, Iran’s productive capacity has been hollowed out by declining investment and worsening state capacity. The environmental situation is even worse, with Iranians confronting interconnected water, pollution, dust-storm, and deforestation crises. While the rest of the world may be able to tolerate a moderate level of global heating, for Iranians it would mean the likely abandonment of large parts of the country. Iran’s working-class and poor continue to struggle against these conditions, particularly in labor struggles when possible. Emblematic of the people’s response to this crisis of social reproduction is their inadvertent fertility strike: Iran’s fertility rate has fallen to 1.7, well below the population replacement rate.
Despite the diaspora-led opposition’s imploring of ‘action’ (whatever that means) from the ‘international community,’ the US government’s reaction has been fairly placid. Besides some meaningless additional sanctions and rhetorical support for the protesters, not much else has occurred. Those able to recall the media spectacle leading up to the invasion of Iraq or intervention in Libya can easily ascertain that the US state has no immediate military ambitions for Iran. The US government’s concerns focus on specific technological breakthroughs like Iran’s drones, missiles, and nuclear program; not necessarily toppling the Islamic Republic.
This presents an interesting paradox: an embattled Islamic Republic that has never been weaker, a large opposition movement capable of violence and willing to submit to pro-US political forces, and the notable absence of meaningful US engagement with the opposition. 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 counterhegemonic countries, then the absence of a US-backed group seriously attempting regime change starts to make sense. Consider the probable outcome if such a group was to prevail and overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Regardless of how beholden it is to foreign governments, the new US-backed Iranian 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 seek to rejuvenate a path of economic development, though within the (neo)liberal framework outlined by the West. Though such a development path has obvious limitations and contradictions, it would be clearly preferable to the status quo – where Iran is facing total social collapse. Most importantly, it would allow a centralized Iranian state 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 that includes an industrial base, a large and well-defined domestic market, advanced military technology, and institutionalized anti-imperialist structures. With this inheritance, the self-interest of these new liberal rulers would not easily be metabolized by imperialism. It would essentially be the continuation of the Iranian republican project, but with rejuvenated economic, financial, social, and political capital.
The scenario sketched out above is not particularly optimal for the US or its regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. With this in mind, it is not surprising to witness the US government’s disinterest in forging a united and effective Iranian opposition force capable of defeating the Islamic Republic. As the noted Iran scholar Kevan Harris states, “few very policymakers actually believe that a reconstituted, pro-US government will be the outcome of any state collapse in Iran.”
With de-development and state collapse as the US’s goal, the primary instrument for that goal is the Islamic Republic itself. For over forty years the Islamic Republic has relied on and cannibalized pre-1979 financial, physical, and human resources in order to stay in power. With the effective, rational, and progressive wings of the revolutionary project safely clipped, the Republic is fully under the control of the most reactionary clique within the country’s political landscape. While it wages a top-down class war for the cultural and material benefit of Islamist ruling class, it blindly steers the country into irreversible collapse. The US simply needs to contain the country for another few years, knowing that the Islamic Republic’s current leadership will prevent the breakout of an effective developmentalist project. After a decade or two, climate change will finish off whatever remains. Occasionally, the US will have to ‘mow the lawn’ through assassinations and strikes against the country’s military and scientific infrastructure. Despite the US and allies’ clear capacity to assassinate high-level military and scientific figures, it has never targeted anyone in the Islamic Republic’s political class. Why would they when this leadership so effectively secures a broken and fragmented Iran?