Capital, oil, and pistachios: America’s imperial interests in Iran

There are clear economic and imperial incentives for the United States to ramp up its aggression towards Iran.

America Iran graphic by Laudy Issa

Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani has been assassinated by the United States, President Trump has threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites, and thousands of American troops are on route to Iraq.

Iran has since responded, targeting two US military bases in Iraq. How did we get here, and why is the United States so fixated on Iran?  To pretend the United States is concerned with ‘human rights’ or ‘terrorism’ is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order. Therefore, we’re forced to ask the question: what does the United States want from Iran, and what does the empire stand to gain?

The Unity of the American Ruling Class

America seems to, once again, be slouching towards war. This is despite the fact that until recently, like most Americans, Trump had never heard of Qassem Soleimani. It is equally likely that the Democrats seeking to challenge Trump in 2020 were ignorant of his existence until after his death. Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro (who has since endorsed Warren) released nearly identical statements, calling Soleimani a “murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands.” Joe Biden proclaimed he would not mourn for Soleimani (did anyone expect him to?) and that Soleimani “deserved to be brought to justice.”  

While most of the Democrats condemned Trump’s action as ‘reckless’ or ‘unwise’ by the end of their statements, only Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders fully condemned the strike without any caveats. 

Why do we see such uniformity among the ruling class? Usually, the Democrats and the Republicans are at each other’s throats.  On the question of Iran, however, they’re in total lockstep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, went as far as to say that, “Iran is full of malevolent evildoers.”  

What, then, is the US’s interest in Iran? To this end, it is instructive to look back on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. This is especially relevant, as the same tired justifications are once again being brought to the fore. Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, advanced the breathtaking argument that Soleimani, like Bush said of Saddam, was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks.

The Post-War Reconstruction Grift 

The Iraq War may have been based on falsehoods, caused the deaths of more than a million Iraqis, and cost the United States trillions of dollars, yet, it was incredibly lucrative for the American ruling class. A war with Iran would be just as lucrative for the same people.

Iraq’s so-called ‘re-construction’ proved profitable for American corporations. Bechtel Corporation, one of the largest corporations in America, scored more than 100 million dollars in no-bid contracts, constructing power generation facilities, electrical grids, municipal water systems, sewage plants, airports, and even schools and ministry buildings.

Parsons Inc, another behemoth out of corporate America, garnered more than two billion in no-bid contracts. Among these was a multi-million dollar contract to construct a series of clinics across Iraq. Parsons got their paycheck, and none of these hospitals ever materialized.

There is no reason to think Iran would be any different. If given the opportunity, these same private contractors stand to make a killing picking up the pieces following any American invasion. 

Oil Again?

Even casual observers of US imperialism are aware that the Americans are drawn to oil like moths to the flame. In what must be an incredible coincidence, two months ago Iran announced the discovery of a new oil field, containing more than 50 billion barrels. While certainly there are American companies that would love to drain Iranian oil fields, America’s oil-thirst does not always manifest as a direct “smash and grab.” Merely keeping the oil spigot open can be enough of a motivator. 

Iran was actually the first ever target of American oil-based imperialism in the Middle East. In 1953, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Tehran.  His crime? Iran had nationalized foreign-owned oil companies. This was not allowed to stand. The US installed the Shah, who not only re-opened Iranian oil assets to foreign (read: American) companies, but initiated a brutal crackdown on the people of Iran. 

The US strategy of targeting unfriendly governments, and forcing them to open their markets, quickly showed results. According to David Harvey’s The New Imperialism, between 1940 and 1967, American oil companies increased their share of Middle Eastern oil reserves from 10 percent to 60 percent.

Pistachios as the Villain: A Strange Nut to Crack

Few Americans have heard of Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the billionaire nut barons who own the ‘Wonderful’ Pistachio company. Those who have heard of the Resnicks (a husband/wife team) are likely familiar with their work privatizing California’s water supply, and profiting despite drought conditions in the state.  

Even committed anti-war activists, however, may be surprised to learn that the Resnicks have been using their massive wealth to push for sanctions against Iran, and even to advocate for the overthrow of the Iranian government.  

Iran is the world’s leading producer of pistachio nuts, producing more than double that of the United States. Iranian nuts cannot, however, be imported to the United States due to sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. This represents a form of protectionism, allowing the American pistachio industry to survive.  

The Resnicks donate a massive amount of money to interventionist and pro-Israel (and thus, anti Iran) think tanks in Washington. One of these Resnick-backed think tanks, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has long advocated for the overthrow of the Iranian government. 

In fact, less than a month before the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, they published a piece entitled “Punishing Iran’s Triggermen in Iraq,” which identified Iran’s partners in Iraq as being guilty of a “murderous crackdown.” Any opposition to the US occupation of Iraq is painted as an Iranian plot, and thus any resistance to imperialism is somehow illegitimate. Obviously the Trump administration bought this logic, and had been bombing Iraqi targets it viewed as aligned with Iran in the days leading up to Soleimani’s murder.

In a far more disturbing turn for the think tank, Patrick Clawson, a contributing member, is on video openly suggesting that the United States could encourage its proxies to provoke a larger conflict with Iran by sparking (or faking) attacks on American assets.  

Journalist Yasha Levine and filmmaker Rowan Wernham, the creators of the documentary Pistachio Wars, explain the origin of the Resnick’s wealth, and the American pistachio industry: 

“Without out a doubt, President Carter’s embargo on Iran was what gave birth to America’s pistachio business. Historically, pistachios imported from Iran had dominated global markets, including in the US. When America was suddenly cut off from Iran’s pistachio supply after Carter’s economic blockade in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, it left a giant hole in the market and created the need for an alternative source of pistachios.”

Between the re-construction industry, oil corporations, and, somehow, big pistachio, there are clear economic and imperial incentives for the United States to ramp up its aggression towards Iran. In the coming days, as we see the echos of 2003, American media will wax poetic about how terrible Soleimani was, or Khamenei is. None of it will matter. The United States will work with despots from Saudi Arabia to Chile, if it is in their economic interests.  

As Rosa Luxemburg wrote: 

“Capital, impelled to appropriate productive forces for purposes of exploitation, ransacks the whole world, it procures its means of production from all corners of the earth, seizing them, if necessary by force, from all levels of civilization and from all forms of society,”