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Weekly Worker 448 Thursday September 19 2002

Oil, democracy and war

Mehdi Kia of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran discusses the sordid relationship between oil and the US war drive in the Middle East

First of all I would like to deal with the question of oil, and specifically the role of oil in the Middle East in a global context, and look at the importance of the working class, and particularly the oilworkers. I will then go on to discuss what is happening in Iran at the moment, including the left - what its weaknesses are, what it has to do, and some of the major thinking it has to go through in order to get its message across.

Oil is the biggest industry in the world, with an annual turnover of 1.7 to 2 trillion dollars. It is also the only business which is fundamentally and predominantly controlled by governments. This means the price of oil, unlike that of other commodities, is determined by the rent that can be obtained for it. To control that rent, it is necessary to control governments and hence, the whole battle from Venezuela to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Once you understand this, what is happening becomes much more clear. Amoco, for example, the Saudi company, sits on one fifth of the oil reserves of the world. It is controlled by Saudi Arabia, an ally of the USA.

Oil is of course very profitable. In the year 2000 there was a threefold rise in profits, a 300% increase. Currently world oil production stands at 77 million barrels per day, of which only a third is accounted for by the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (Opec), which produces 23 million barrels per day. The position of Opec is underestimated by these figures. Russia is producing six million barrels per day, but it is going flat out. Iran is also producing at maximum capacity, but Saudi Arabia actually has a reserve of three to three and a half million barrels per day on top of the seven million barrels per day it currently produces. That reserve allows it to determine the price at the behest of the United States.

Global oil reserves are estimated at 1,000 billion barrels. This will last about 50 years at current consumption rates. Half the known resources have been used up. Out of those reserves Saudi Arabia has 262 billion, Iraq 610 billion, Kuwait 100 billion, the United Arab Emirates 100 billion, Iran 90 billion. A further 70-100 billion are in the Caspian Sea, north of Iraq. So 80% of known oil deposits are in the Middle East and the Caspian Sea. If you compare that with the Russian reserves of 50 billion - half that of Iran - you can see the critical importance of Middle East oil deposits. Oil companies are not only very profitable but also very monopolised. As in other sectors of industry, oil conglomerations get larger and larger.

The US is a net importer of oil, bringing in 11 million barrels a day - a seventh of global production. That makes it the world"s largest importer of oil. Oil comprises the largest part of the US budget deficit. In 2000, almost a third ($8 billion out of $28 billion) was accounted for by oil. Oil is hugely important economically - for example, there is a close link between oil price and unemployment. Traditionally the US imported mainly from the Americas. But its own reserves of 3.7 billion barrels, and the 11.5 billion barrels reserve in North Atlantic Free Trade Association countries will not last very long. Even if the US halves its current consumption, it would use up all the oil reserves in the Americas in 10 years.

There is therefore increasing US reliance on Middle East oil. In 1983 it amounted to only 31% of imports. This went down for a short while after the Gulf War because of deliberate policy, but it has gone up again. The US is now importing 52% of its oil from the Middle East. US strategic reserves, which previously amounted to 25-30 days, was increased after the Gulf War to 80 days, and currently the aim is to stockpile for 100 days, in preparation for the war on Iraq - although at present reserves stand at only 60-70 days.

Middle East oil also has strategic importance in terms of the USA"s rivals - Japan and Europe, but also China. Chinese demand for oil is currently growing by 3.5% every year, and is likely to double in the next 20 years, to a position where it will be similar to Europe. China will be dependent on imported oil.

Paul Wolfowitz says that the US should encourage its main rivals not to develop military power and for the same reason the Middle East must be "stabilised". The cost of maintaining a US presence after the last war amounted to around $50-60 billion. Azerbaijan was previously said to have oil reserves of around 4.2 billion barrels, but suddenly this rose to 200 billion, without any new field being discovered. This happened as part of the political case for persuading the American public to support US intervention in the Caspian.

Imperialism is playing games around the question of Caspian oil. The amount of oil in the Caspian is not known exactly, but is thought to be between 70 and 200 billion barrels. The question is, what is the Caspian? Is it an inner sea, or is it an ocean? If it is an inner sea, then it should be divided equally, according to international law - which is what Iran wants. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia say it is not a sea and should be divided in proportion to the length of each country"s borders. Of course, this means that Iran will get a much smaller share.

Since the 1990s the US has made major investments in energy in the Caspian - particularly Chevron, which has put in about $12 billion of sole or joint investment into Kazakhstan. BP has gone in a big way into Azerbaijan. Many Russian companies (linked to the mafia) in turn have very close links with US capital - including, for example, with Halliburton.

Pipelines have also been created for political reasons, like the one that goes from Baku, through Georgia into Turkey, and which should logically go through Iran. The diversion, for which the American government is paying the oil companies, is not cost-effective, but results from the political need to bypass Iran.

What I have tried to do so far is emphasise the key importance of oil and the Middle East in relation to the US"s hegemonic power. What about the future? By 2005, most of the world"s non-Opec oil will actually have run out or be running out. It is worth recalling that 80% of all the oil that is currently being pumped out is actually from wells that were dug before 1973, before the first oil crisis. Very few new fields have been created. If we look at drilling, US oil costs about $10-11 dollars per barrel to get out; Russian oil costs $14; Venezuelan $7; North Sea oil $11; Mexico $10. But Saudi Arabian oil costs only $1 to extract, so it is cheap and easy to come by from existing sources.

By the year 2020 world investment in energy will be something like $30 trillion in terms of 1992 prices. Take gas. The Caspian has 11 trillion cubic feet of known gas deposits. In the light of Kyoto and global warming, gas is one of the cleaner fuels that will be more in demand. Iran has 80% of the world"s gas reserves. It is thought that gas could rise from 23% of current world energy production to 30% in the next decade or so. It was this enormous potential that lay behind the creation of the conglomerates that encompassed so many energy firms like Enron.

Who is involved and what are the links between oil and US politics? The president of the United States, the vice-president, the defence secretary and his deputy, the attorney general, the chairman of the national security council, the CIA chief and even the special envoy to Afghanistan - all had links with oil. Never in history has a government been so clearly identified with one industry. This is the state being colonised by one section of the bourgeoisie.

Enron paid 80% of all Republican Party election costs. Dick Cheney was chairman of Halliburton, which employs about 100,000 people and paid $1.4 million to the Republicans in return for $1.5 billion in loans from the government and $2.8 billion-worth of government contracts.

What has been the US policy in the last few years? US troops have surrounded the area that I have described as holding more than 80% of the world"s oil resources. There is no doubt that they are there to stay. There is absolutely no doubt either that the Bush administration has decided to go into Iraq. But US policy towards Iran has received less attention, even though Bush may well be targeting Iran in the short term.

Iran is part of the "axis of evil". There have been leaks about the possibility of bombing Iran and so forth. It was interesting that in June president Bush actually sent a message directly to the people of Iran, over the heads of the Tehran reformists. This was quite unprecedented. He said: "I am listening to you. I am going to support your movement." This was akin to an invitation to rise up against the islamic regime. The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article by a former head of the CIA, which essentially said that the US needs to go into Iran: the Iranian people are fed up and are "looking to us" to go in there. So I think the US has designs not just on Iraq but on Iran, and not in the long term but in the short term.

As an aside it is also worth mentioning the role of local nationalisms, which have been exploited by imperialism in very complex ways. We know that since the second Gulf War the Iraqi Kurdish parties have been very closely linked with imperialism. The Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party has actually allowed the Turkish army into its territory to fight the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK, therefore, has allied itself with Iran and operates inside the country, working closely with the Islamic Republic, and is now being used as a way of breaking up the Iranian Kurdish movement. There are a lot of disputes now going on inside Iranian Kurdistan, particularly in the areas where both Kurdish and Turkish nationals live. This tension is being stoked up by the Iranian government in an area where battles have already taken place.

In Iran one third of the population is Turkish. All Iranian rulers except two since the time of the Arabs have been Turks. Many of the Iranian tribes are Turkish. The Turks and Iranians are very much intertwined. Recently a nationalist movement has developed among the Azeri Turks, encouraged by Turkey and also by the ex-Soviet Azerbaijan. So tension is building up, and if that tension explodes it could be serious.

With this background in mind, the role of the oilworkers in the region - traditionally very militant - is critical. This is something the left has never really looked at.

The first major trade union in Iran organised oilworkers. They were a major component of the first union federation in the 1920s. In the 1950s they were at the forefront of all the anti-imperialist struggles which resulted in the nationalisation of Iranian oil. In the last two or three years they have been the first group of workers to have set up a national structure once again.

Considering the value of oil to imperialism, you can see that the organisation of oilworkers - not just in Iran but also Azerbaijan - is critical. Azerbaijan too had a long tradition of organisation amongst oilworkers - they were the backbone of the Social Democratic Party in the 1905 revolution, and thereafter continued to remain highly active and highly political.

Some people accuse me of following a Socialist Workers Party analysis saying that oil is everything. But there is no doubt that oil is of central importance, as are the oilworkers.

What about the working class in Iran? It is still very much focused on economic issues rather than political ones and remains fragmented. There have been political demands surfacing in the last year - eg, the demand for the right to strike and for independent organisation (which in Iran is a political demand because such a right is not in the constitution). But by and large the workers have not been actively involved as a group in the democratic movement that has taken shape against the Islamic Republic.

I never use the word "fundamentalism", by the way, when referring to the islamic regime. The word is misdirected. We need to talk about radical islam, political islam, or revolutionary islam. They are not fundamentalists in the sense of going back to the fundamentals - they have actually produced a lot of change. Theirs is a modern movement relating to modern times, and we need to use modern terminology to describe it.

Anyway, as a group, workers have not been involved in the democratic movement. They have not taken up the slogans, such as "Free all political prisoners", although there are working class political prisoners. The long-term aim of the left in Iran has to be to help the self-organisation of the working class.

What anti-regime forces are there within the country? There are three major movements. First, the reformists within the regime. They have conquered everything that there is to conquer, and have been unable to go any further. They have hit the brick wall of the theocratic part of the state, which controls all the organs of repression, including the army and the judiciary. They managed to act as a national movement, because they were able to control a whole series of national newspapers. They used those newspapers as a party. They were able to mobilise widely across the country, giving voice to well-honed slogans.

But they then used those very newspapers to dampen down the popular movement when it became clear that it wants to go beyond the Islamic Republic. Subsequent to that of course, their newspapers were closed down. Some have reopened, but, in place of the 50 that were previously circulating, there are now five or six. The conservatives understood that that was the way the reformists could actually talk to the people, so they closed their newspapers down. For their part they have increasingly lost credibility.

The second group are the pro-US forces. The monarchists, nationalists, and sections of the left. They are looking to the United States for help. Their slogan is: "Let us all act together against the Islamic Republic, then settle our quarrels afterwards." They too have powerful propaganda machines in their hands. They have radio stations and three television stations, financed by US money, transmitting 24 hours a day into Iran. They also feature, for example, on Radio Free Europe. They have learned a lot. They do not say directly, "Come and join the monarchists." Instead they transmit popular programmes and increasingly people are being drawn under their umbrella.

The third movement is the largest - a positive thing. It consists of hundreds of mass organisations: single-issue non-governmental organisations for the rights of political prisoners, for the rights of children, for wives that have been beaten; women"s organisations, youth organisations, students organisations. These NGOs are poverty-stricken. Unlike in the west, they are not getting money from anybody, especially not the government, but generate their own. But they are dispersed and not linked together. They do not speak with one voice. They do not have any centralised propaganda machinery. No newspapers or radio or TV networks that would allow them to cohere and expand. Their demands are essentially democratic, and the left can be found within these groups. Incidentally the majority of people who consider themselves left in Iran do not belong to any political organisation - maybe one in 30 or one in 40 does.

But there are illusions. The first concerns US intervention. The idea is, "Let the Americans come in and clean things up, and we can sort it out afterwards." The second illusion concerns the nature of change. They have witnessed a failed revolution, they have seen a failed Soviet experiment. Twice hit, they do not want revolution. They do not understand that a peaceful revolution is possible. For them, a revolution creates another dictatorship. Large numbers of people have this belief, including people who were on the left in the past, and still consider themselves as left. They are quite happy to revolt, and they are revolting - we have had a large number of revolts over the last few weeks. But revolution, talked about in the sense of a utopia, is no longer acceptable for many. They also have illusions in the liberal economic agenda, because the present economic situation is so bad.

The left itself has no coherent presence, and no voice that can be heard. It cannot compete with the first two groups, the non-democratic opposition of reformists and monarchists - those who claim to be democratic but are not.

How can we solve this problem? In the current balance of forces in the world the left should not, in my opinion, take over power even if it has the opportunity. I believe it would be a complete mistake for the left to take power in Brazil, where they can, or in Italy. That would mean making major compromises under pressure, which would totally discredit you from your support base for at least two generations. There might be times when we would have no choice. If the choice was between taking power and allowing your whole organisation to be destroyed, obviously you would have to go for it. However, at the moment, the major task of the left globally is to create and broaden and strengthen its support base.

What should the left do? I think we must create that space below, to put pressure on governments in order to weaken them. Certainly in the non-metropolitan world, imperialism wants strong governments that can take its agenda forward. You can oppose that by creating and linking up organisations from below.

What I want is a weak government, and anarchism down below. I do not mean anarchism in the old sense. I mean establishing a power balance in such a way that governments can no longer govern. In my view this is achievable today. In Iran the left needs to be able to help link up the various groups that exist within society. If we do not bring them together, they will come under the influence of the monarchists, or the non-democratic opposition. Inevitably human beings go after power, wherever it is, and if the monarchists look like the future power, they will attract a following - that is the reality.

What we need is a united front for democracy: the organisation of a party for socialism needs to be separate from this. At the moment we need to create some kind of space, which can only be done through a broad front around democratic slogans. But these slogans can create their own momentum. The process has to go through various stages.

The individuals involved could potentially constitute a left party. But today they operate in small groups, each with its own slogan: freedom of speech, freedom for women, freedom for workers to associate. The groups operate separately on the basis of these single slogans without apparently realising that they are talking about the same freedom. If they all could be linked together then a real movement could be created.

The potential is there. The Iranian population is highly politicised and highly anxious about the country, much more than the average British person. But there is no tradition of democracy in Iran. Let me give you an example. If a politician in Britain were to say, "Expel all refugees", everyone on the left, including the liberal, Guardian-reading left, will stand up and say, "This is bad". In Iran, when the government wanted to expel asylum-seekers, the majority of people did not object. A lot of them supported it. The concepts that are deeply rooted in the European democratic consciousness are not there in Iran.

When talking about democracy, you need to ask yourself what people understand by the term. The fact that there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of association, is something that has little impact on many people. The key link, which the Iranian left does not understand, is that European democracy owes its existence to working class organisation. In every single country of the world where there has been any democratic change, it has been because the working class have been organised in one way or another. This linkage between democracy and working class organisation is the key one we have to get through to the Iranian people. This understanding has been lost, so that even those who want to be democratic do not want socialism or revolution.

As far as I am concerned, a democratic alliance with the existing parties would be a bad idea. In the understanding of the Iranian left it would be an alliance for government and, as I said, we do not want to be in government. Also, such an alliance would exclude more people than it would include, which would only be a small minority. So what can we do? I think the model we need to look to creating in Iran is a model that accepts two things.

It accepts total pluralism. The Iranian left pays lip service to pluralism, but does not actually understand what it means. It must also accept the separation of religion and state. The reason I put it that way is, if, for example, the slogan "Overthrow the Islamic Republic" were to be put forward, then that would not be on the agenda of many people. But separation of religion and state is on their agenda. If you think about, the two are the same thing, because the Islamic Republic by definition is religion as state. The acceptance of pluralism will exclude the monarchists, because they do not accept pluralism, and the separation of religion and state will draw a line between us and the reformists within the regime.

When Rifondazione Comunista in Italy talks about "contamination", it is a good model for organising alongside a movement. You unite with people without imposing your views on them. You are part of the movement. You try to influence it, you have a debate with it, you try to link people together and bring your arguments to bear, but it is your relationship as the left with that popular movement that is important. To me, the left must be able to link in with that third movement, and give it a voice, and in return that movement can give the left a voice.

NB Mehdi Kia has since corrected the above article, inso far as the statement that Iraq has not in fact got greater oil deposites than Saudi Arabia. The major point and accuracy of the rest of the article however remains clear as day and answers a great many question about US foriegn policy today.