By Michael Karadjis
On October 13, I read two news items next to each other:
“Iran’s resilient protest movement. Nearly a month after Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, demonstrations have continued to shake nearly 20 cities, even as the government cracks down on protesters and stifles internet access. Human rights organizations estimate that the crackdowns have left nearly 190 people dead—28 of whom were children—while thousands more have been detained or wounded.”
“Palestinian strikes. Israeli forces killed an 18-year-old Palestinian teenager named Osama Adawi in the West Bank on Wednesday. Adawi’s death is the latest in a spate of clashes between Israeli forces executing raids and Palestinian protesters; so far, over 100 Palestinians living in the West Bank have been killed this year. On Wednesday, Palestinian businesses in east Jerusalem went on strike to protest against the raids.”
This was October 13, but it could have been literally any other day.
We read every day that Israel and Iran are arch-enemies, and, sure enough, they aren’t friends. Israel continually threatens – for decades – to bomb Iran, it regularly hits Iranian and Hezbollah military assets in neighbouring Syria, and its leaders fiercely campaign against any US attempt to revive the JCPOA or ‘Iran nuclear deal’, signed by Obama in 2015 but scrapped by Trump in 2018. For its part, Iranian leaders regularly make fiery denunciations of the Zionist regime, predictions of its immanent collapse, and somewhat laughable threats to help bring this about.
Yet both are monstrous regimes that deserve to be utterly condemned by anyone with a progressive bone in their body.
For the US and other western imperialist states, Israel’s crimes against humanity, massive violations of human rights, flagrant violation, for many decades, of the most basic rules of international law, its apartheid, its ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, are met with mild rebuke at best, full-scale encouragement at worst, but whatever the case, ongoing economic, diplomatic and military support and the absence of any kind of sanction; yet for the same powers, Iran’s crimes against humanity, massive violations of human rights, gender apartheid and the like deserve condemnation, economic sanctions and so on.
Unfortunately, this has led a certain section of the western left, especially among those who have a hollow and class-free conception of “anti-imperialism,” to simply reverse the hypocrisy of western leaders, by vigorously denouncing Israel (sometimes to the point of placing the Israel issue at the centre of world politics, in a dangerous tendency), while providing every kind of rationale for the actions of the Iranian theocratic despots, in some cases hailing the mullahs as “anti-imperialist,” and quite often appearing to be sucked in by the hollow support for Palestine expressed by the regime. Many of these people denounce today’s glorious uprising of long-oppressed Iranian women, daily confronted by the bloody regime’s bullets, as a CIA-orchestrated ‘regime-change’ operation or ‘colour revolution’, two of the counterrevolutionary tropes these “leftists” have adopted over the last two decades to condemn people fighting against oppressive and fascist regimes.
Internationalism, by contrast, demands 100 percent support and solidarity at all times to the popular masses fighting for their liberation against all oppressive regimes.
The fact that both are monstrous regimes yet are engaged in hostility is no contradiction: there is no law that says “good” governments like each other, “bad” governments like each other, and conflict only occurs between “good” and “bad” ones, even if one were naïve enough to believe in such terms; while US president Biden recently claimed that the Ukraine conflict was part of a global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, no serious person believes such fairy tales (and in any case, how would Biden, who wrongly sees Israel as a democracy, explain its steadfast refusal to provide Ukraine with any of its advanced missile defence equipment?). The world is not in some Manichean conflict between good and bad, and the very concept of good and bad governments is, for the most part, absurd.
Even if we use Biden’s “democracy versus authoritarianism” meme to distinguish between governments which currently are some kind of democracy and do not systematically repress, jail or kill political opponents and those that do (and ignore everything else, such as poor people dying in the US due to lack of health insurance, or state violence against the Black Lives Matter uprising), this would tell us nothing about alliances throughout the world: during the Cold War decades of 1945-1990, the ‘democratic’ US installed, financed, backed and armed dozens of brutal dictatorships throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even southern Europe. US support today to brutal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, to the Israeli apartheid regime, to military coups in Honduras, Bolivia and elsewhere, tell us that ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ are not exports of like from a mother country.
Comic-book explanations of the conflict
In other words, there is nothing unusual about two brutal regimes being enemies. But why Iran and Israel? One may well ask, since both Israel and Iran have a policy of uprooting and “cleansing” millions of Arabs (in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria) as they strive to dominate the region, and since they are effectively separated from each other by the mass of largely Sunni Arab humanity that they both see as Untermenschen, why can they not be allies rather than competitors in this?
Hostility can have many causes; let’s first knock on the head the comic-book explanations. Some wide-eyed “anti-imperialists” believe that Iran, despite its class nature as a brutal capitalist tyranny, is somehow motivated by genuinely emancipatory, anti-imperialist intentions, and via Hezbollah aims to liberate Jerusalem and the Palestinian people. Others who are less sure about such motivations nevertheless believe this alleged Iranian quest to “liberate Palestine” is a remaining impact, via osmosis, of “the Iranian revolution” some half a century ago, somehow pressuring the mullah-fascists from below to engage in regional “liberation” moves. And the reactionaries and racists running Israel pretend to be in full agreement with these starry-eyed leftist admirers of reactionary mullahs, except rather than term it liberation of Palestine, they tell the world that the mullahs are, for reasons unknown, determined to “destroy Israel” and drive them into the sea.
Of course, all this is the purest of fantasy. The mullahs couldn’t care less if the Palestinians were exterminated, and all the bluster about Palestine is done from a safe distance. So unless any serious observer believes that the Iranian regime is either so emancipatory that it wants to liberate Palestine (while oppressing everywhere else it occupies), or so irrationally imperialistic that it aims, come what may, to conquer Israel through several countries in between and annex it to an Iranian empire, then we can now move beyond the realm of fantasy.
The most common explanation for hostility between various capitalist powers is simply ‘rivalry’. Capitalism is built on competition; national capitalist classes rival each other; their state machines reflect this rivalry with policy. It is never as simple as that, but it is a good basis from which to start. However, state regimes also have to maintain support of their own populations, or at least consensus to rule; and this is achieved through hegemonic ideologies which can be based on ‘nation’, ‘race’, religion or other ideologies, which can take on a life of their own and not always correspond neatly to economic interests abroad. Let’s explore these concepts.
If we look at Israel and Iran and decide their conflict is based on ‘rivalry’ for domination of the Mideast region, there are some problems with a simplistic understanding of this.
If we begin by way of contrast, the region-wide conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would appear to have a firm basis in ‘rivalry’; both are medium-sized capitalist states in the same region (as is Turkey, which likewise rivals both); both claim to be ‘Islamic’ governments representing the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the region; and therefore, there is a logic to their rivalry, because a larger sphere of influence within the region for one or the other means more trade, more investment, more goods sold, more economic deals and links, more profit. We can say they are engaged in ‘sub-imperialist’ rivalry, which has taken on quite an active form in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in particular. The fact that one is led by a monarchy allied to the Sunni religious hierarchy and the other is run by the Shia religious hierarchy by no means determines who all their allies are; on the contrary, both act out of ‘national interests’, and countless examples can be given for this. However, it does give them a mobilizational arm when necessary, so a degree of sectarianism can be used when necessary to bolster support in some region or another against their competitor in their geopolitical rivalry.
But can we say the same of Israel and Iran? Israel as a colonial-settler state and mini-imperialist power is in the unusual position of being the absolutely leading economic power of the region (the only indisputably ‘First World’ economy), yet not being able to directly “rival” neighbouring capitalist classes in the region itself, because it is effectively locked out of it. High-tech Israeli capitalism is spread far and wide throughout the rest of the world instead. Unless Israel were ever to allow a just peace settlement with the Palestinians – something which essentially defies the very nature of Zionism – then Israeli trade and investment in the region will remain at its current absolutely negligible and in most cases non-existent level. It can therefore not be engaged in ‘rivalry’ with Iran (or Saudi Arabia or Turkey) at least in this common understanding of the term.
For example, despite having relations with Egypt, alone within the Arab world, for over four decades, Israeli exports to Egypt were under $100 million in 2016–2017 (0.1 per cent of total Israeli exports), and Israeli imports from Egypt were around $50 million a year at that time, a similar percentage; likewise, Israel’s share in Egypt’s total exports of goods in 2016 was 0.3 per cent, and its share in Egypt’s imports of goods was 0.1 per cent. Egypt is 39th in the world in value of Israeli trade ties. This is despite Egypt being a very large country directly bordering Israel. While trade has increased and there is potential for better economic relations via Mediterranean gas politics, none of this could be considered to be part of “rivalry” with Iran, or anyone else in the region; while Egypt and Iran have trade relations, they are geographically distant, trade is small-scale, and as a solidly Sunni country, not a potential part of any Iranian-dominated region. All the same points could be made about Jordan, Israel’s immediate neighbour, which established diplomatic relations with it in 1994: Israeli exports to Jordan around 2017 stood at some $50–100 million per year, about 0.1–0.2 per cent of total Israeli exports to the world, Jordan being Israel’s 51st largest trading partner!
Israeli trade and economic cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by contrast, has shot up to $1.4 billion just in the first 7 months of 2022, following the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2020, and the free trade agreement signed this year, the first with any Arab country. Yet interestingly, the UAE also has multi-billion dollar trade ties with Iran, indeed the UAE is Iran’s second largest trading partner, and a major conduit for Iranian economic links with the world in the context of western sanctions. Indeed, despite the popular, but false, analysis in the mass media which suggests the Israel-UAE rapprochement was directed against Iran, the UAE is currently busy upgrading its relations with Iran. But it would take a brave person to decide that Israeli-Iranian conflict is due to “rivalry” merely for the small UAE market; on the contrary, the UAE excels precisely in having excellent relations with both.
Of course, Israel would like the opening provided by the UAE to extend to the major prize, the Saudi market, but currently the value of underhanded Saudi-Israeli trade is around $11,000 per year, basically a grain of sand on a beach in terms of economic value. And in any case, being the main actual rival to Iran in the region, Saudi Arabia’s negligible trade with Israel is hardly due to Iranian rivalry! Rather, while Saudi trade with Iran is valued at some fifty times the value of its trade with Israel, it is still only in the hundreds of thousands; in opposite fashion to the UAE, Saudi Arabia maintains only the most minimal relations, trade or otherwise, with both Israel and Iran (the decade-long daily excitable claims that Israel and the Saudis are forever on the verge of establishing relations notwithstanding).
A map of Israeli exports to the world shows all this graphically: the entire Middle east is a huge black spot for Israeli exports, rivalled only by Greenland!
Rather, the essence of the ‘conflict’ – largely a ‘phoney war’ as will be discussed below – is rooted in hegemonic mobilisation: the Zionist and Iranian ethno-theocratic projects both need the “great enemy” of each other to justify themselves. The Iranian “threat” to Israel – whether the “liberatory” or the expansionist-genocidal – is an entirely manufactured threat, but the need for such a major “threat” is crucial to the ideological foundations of the late Zionist state, as it is likewise to the ‘Islamic Republic’ state.
Israel felt so unthreatened by Iran during Iran’s much more “revolutionary” era of the 1980s, just fresh from the revolution and with the firebrand Khomeini still in power, that it armed Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and openly advocated Iranian victory, as is extremely well-documented. But following the US destruction of Iraq in 1991, Israel began to vocally declare Iran to be its worst enemy.
According to the article ‘The Forever Threat: The Imminent Attack on Iran That Will Never Happen’, Israel has been making noises about launching an imminent attack on Iran, often “within weeks,” since 1994. For example, on December 9, 1997, “The Times of London headline screamed, ‘Israel steps up plans for air attacks on Iran’. The article, written by Christopher Walker, reported on the myriad “options” Israel had in confronting what it deemed ‘Iran’s Russian-backed missile and nuclear weapon programme’.” The Forever Threat shows dozens of similar headlines from the past quarter century about Israel being ready to attack Iran any day now. When an Israeli attack on Iran is not just generally a possibility but is “imminent” in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015 and onwards, we start to get what the title of the article means: it will (likely) never happen because there is no Iranian threat to Israel to require it.
This continually repeated “imminent” threat, the permanent call on Israelis and the whole region to be on tenterhooks expecting Armageddon any time, the permanency of a state of advanced paranoia, xenophobia and existential “threat” to Israel and the Jews, serves a purpose: Israel may never attack, but the daily threats that it is always around the corner are their own goal.
For many years now, Zionist ideology has been in crisis. The success of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the growing questioning of Israel’s savage treatment of the Palestinians; the obvious contradiction between being a “Jewish state” and democracy; support around the world for Palestinian statehood; are all manifestations of this.
But if Israel and “the Jews” are under existential threat, then Israel and its allies have something with which to homogenise Israeli and Jewish opinion about the need for a Jewish homeland. As the alleged “threat” of another Final Solution coming from the oppressed and terrorised Palestinian “terrorists” looks more and more ridiculous to rational people, what can rescue this charade better than a powerful regional state, with a regime that similarly relies heavily on bloated “anti-Zionist” rhetoric, allegedly developing a nuclear bomb with which to wipe out Israel? Israel had found itself the necessary “new Hitler.”
As for Iran, for how many decades has the “road to Jerusalem” gone through either Baghdad, or Damascus or some other unfortunate Arab capital over the bodies of tens of thousands of Arabs? Iran and its proxy forces can slaughter Arabs in Baghdad, in Ramadi, in Mosul, in Aleppo, in Homs, in Damascus, in Qaysar, and claim to be fighting the great battle for Jerusalem! [and an either ethically corrupt or criminally ignorant section of the western “left” can help spread this literally other-worldly propaganda]. The reactionary ‘Islamic Republic’ regime has also been in a long-term crisis of legitimacy, demonstrated by repeated popular upsurges over the last decade and a half, in every case met with bloody repression. The ideological clap-trap about allegedly being a ‘rejectionist’ state in relation to Palestine is key to the regime’s propaganda arsenal throughout the region, and among a section of its own people.
The Iranian regime of Ahmedinejad was particularly adept at pushing rhetoric to the limits and playing into the hands of Likudnik hawks and neo-con nutjobs. While it is true that his statement that Israel will “disappear from the hand of time” was deliberately mistranslated by Zionist and imperialist hacks to Israel will “be wiped off the face of the Earth,” this mistranslation was made more believable by other vile Ahmedinejad noises and actions: Israel could hardly believe its luck when he organised a Holocaust-denial conference and invited, among others, David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Perfect for Zionist homogenisation: a “holocaust denying regime wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and is building nuclear weapons to do it with!”
In reality, the geographic distance between Iran and Israel is precisely what makes this propaganda game safe for both. This was also the case for past reactionary Arab dictatorships claiming the ‘rejectionist’ mantle, namely Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the further away, the louder you can bark. This has also been the case with Erdogan’s Turkey for much of the period since 2009.
It was only the actual contiguity of a Lebanese Shiite population under brutal Zionist occupation in southern Lebanon for over two decades that led to the growth of Hezbollah and thus actual confrontation between Israel and an Iranian-backed force; this was a genuine national liberation struggle, where Iran just happened to be in the right place to be able to gain political credit from afar. But Israel was evicted from Lebanon in 2000 – 22 years ago – and as such Hezbollah has not the slightest interest (let alone ability) in using its position to “liberate Jerusalem” or even to fire a rocket; apart from the 2006 flare-up, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been particularly quiet.
However, the phoney “war” atmosphere requires Israeli strikes when Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces inside Syria get within striking distance of the occupied Golan. Not because these forces want to use this position to “target Israel” – on the contrary, their presence has only ever been used to kill Syrian people – but because the entire Zionist case that Iran is out to destroy it would go up in smoke if Israel let them be when in “its vicinity” and nothing happened. The fact of the matter is that while Israel has struck Iranian assets in Syria hundreds of times (in open cooperation with Putin’s Russia, which controls Syria’s air defence system and allows all this …), neither Iran nor Hezbollah has ever initiated an attack on the occupied Golan, and possibly only twice have ever even returned fire.
It would certainly be difficult to see Israel’s bombing of Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria as “rivalry” with Iran for influence – economic or otherwise – within Syria. On the contrary, while Israel and Iran agree on one thing – the preservation of the Assad regime, and the crushing of the anti-Assad decade-long uprising – Israel knows well it can never gain any support among the Syrian population – pro- or anti-Assad – as long as it occupies the Syrian Golan Heights. Despite bombing Iranian forces – Assad’s allies – Israel never attempted to aid the anti-Assad forces; there was not a singular instance where Israel bombed Assadist or even Iranian or Hezbollah forces while in active conflict with the opposition. And it is no coincidence that Israeli strikes on pro-Iranian forces have increased precisely as the threat to the regime from the largely defeated rebels has receded; as then Israeli Defence Minister, far-rightist Naftali Bennet put it, “Iran used to be an asset for the Syrians [ie, as long as it was useful in crushing the rebellion] … but now it’s a burden.” Similarly, the opposition has always emphasised the need to recover the stolen Golan and expressed its solidarity with Palestine. Rather, Israel’s key alliance within Syria has always been Assad’s most strategic backer, Putin’s Russia, the main actual rival of Iran for domination over the recovered Assadist state and its resources.
Strategic positioning and competition
Nevertheless, there may have been an element of quiet “rivalry” involved in bombing Hezbollah when looked at closely: for many years, Israel and Lebanon (with Hezbollah in the Lebanese government) have been engaged in hard bargaining over demarcating the gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea (and, ironically perhaps, Assad’s Syrian regime also has a demarcation dispute with Lebanon over the gas in the sea in Lebanon’s north).
Therefore, with the just-signed historic US-negotiated Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement – with a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah, and led by Hezbollah-allied president Aoun – enabling demarcation of drilling rights in the gas fields of the Mediterranean Sea – there is reason to believe that Israel-Hezbollah “tensions” may relax; indeed, notably, the most recent Hezbollah threat of sabotage action was related directly to pressure on Israel’s position during the bargaining over this treaty. It may be too early to say, but it is notable that, while Israel struck Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria at an unprecedented rate throughout 2022, as of late October there have been no more such attacks since September 17 – some six weeks – the maritime agreement, signed on October 11 and welcomed by Hezbollah and Syria as well as the two signing countries being a possible explanation.
At a larger level, the ideological positioning, while driven by the requirements of internal hegemonic mobilisation, has also gained a life of its own as a strategic tool for Israel in the region, in Israel’s drive to open up more of the Arab market via avenues such as the Abraham Accords signed between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, further bolstering relations Israel already has with Egypt, Jordan and Oman, and attempting to drive open the Saudi and further Gulf markets. In particular, by drumming up the Iranian “threat,” Israel’s major military and “security” industries aim to profit via cooperation with the military and repressive forces of these regimes.
Ironically, however, that does not necessarily mean most of these regimes do feel “threatened” by Iran – only Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, with a large Shiite minority in the east, and Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy rules over a disenfranchised Shiite majority, have an Iran problem, and while Bahrain has been in the forefront of rapprochement with Israel, the Saudis, as we have seen, are very much the rearguard, at most, of this move.
Rather, for the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, what they share with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Assad regime is seeing the regional Muslim Brotherhood (sponsored by Qatar and the Erdogan regime in Turkey) as a strategic enemy: a movement which attempts to combine Islam and democracy, no matter how precariously or dishonestly, which was active throughout the Arab Spring, including in Syria and Egypt, and in Palestine takes the form of Hamas, is considered anathema. Military and security cooperation with Israel serve the purposes of internal and regional counterrevolution (something they have in common with Iran in fact), not just against the MB but against democratic upsurge more generally. But the bogey of a large and powerful state like Iran with a very loud mouth, large armed forces and a supposed nuclear threat makes much better propaganda for bolstering “security” cooperation and profiteering than the threat from below. So Israel needs to continually pose as a regional “anti-Iran” leader, the regional First World military hegemon that can offer “security.”
Indeed, it is hardly surprising that all the Arab regimes that have cozied up to Israel the last few years are identical to those who have cozied up to the Assad regime, re-established relations with both, or always had them: Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco, with the Saudis more quietly supporting from behind but refusing to openly budge on either. This fact renders all discussion of Middle East “camps” the nonsense they are, leftover ashes of what was perhaps a partial reality some half a century ago that many still live in: the regional counterrevolution is largely the same camp, with bumps at the edges.
Longer term, it could be projected that Israel’s ideology of the phoney “Iran threat” could be related to a kind of future strategic competition between Israel and Iran: competition for this very position of regional cop as recognised by world imperialist powers. There is little doubt that Iran’s role in crushing the Syrian revolution, while the US looked on and did deals, and its role in defeating ISIS in Iraq in cooperation with the US, was widely appreciated, but the stripes gained were looked upon with apprehension by Israel. Of course, most readers would say this is far-fetched, which it is, for now: the mantle of regional cop, especially for US imperialism, clearly belongs to Israel. But the emergence of a powerful, relatively ‘modernised’, non-Arab state of 70 million people from imperialist sanctioned isolation to imperialist-blessed prominence, via the nuclear accord and its possible revival, cannot but be seen as a threat to its position by Israel in the longer term.
In this sense, Israeli leaders are not wrong that US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, and the possibility of a new deal, are an existential threat to Israel, but in a very different way to what they claim. If western imperialism’s need to bring Iranian capitalism more fully back into the world capitalist system leads to a deal that allows Iran to peacefully develop nuclear energy, then 30 years of Zionist bluster is out the window and finding a new “threat” of that magnitude will not be an easy task.