Ali Haddadi Asl/CC
Ali Haddadi Asl/CC

Robert Bechert, CWI International Secretariat

Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel ushers in a new, more dangerous, stage in the widening of the Gaza conflict towards a full regional war in the Middle East, something which would have global implications. In reality, some features of a regional war already exist, although not yet between states.

To many Israelis, the missile and drone attack will seem to confirm that Iran is its most serious opponent. Among Palestinians and others in the Middle East, it will have been welcomed as at last someone hitting back after six months of the bloody destruction of Gaza.

This move marks a shift away from Iran’s asymmetrical conflict with Israel, fought often through allies, to a direct confrontation. Notwithstanding Iranian claims that it gave Washington prior notice of the attack, and its claim that its targets were only Israeli facilities involved in the 1 April destruction of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, this is a major development.

It breaks the idea that Israel is too strong to be attacked. The Iranian regime sent a message to the Israeli leaders that it is willing to respond to future attacks directly. Furthermore, some military commentators have said that, without the prior warning Israel received, more of the projectiles would have hit targets.

The Israeli regime has stated that it will respond, which is most likely in some form, but it is not yet clear how or when. In this situation, Israeli rulers face a dilemma: how do they reinstate the deterrent, the idea that Israel is too strong to attack, without provoking a wider war? There are open divisions within the Israeli ruling class over this, symbolised over whether ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ or that, given the developing crisis, action is needed now.

The Israeli hawks may feel confident that they have the support of some Arab regimes; Jordan helped in shooting down the Iranian aerial attack. But these regimes are themselves under popular pressure to support the Palestinians under attack in Gaza and the West Bank, with recent demonstrations in Jordan and Egypt. Thus, recent events bring the prospect of a regional war closer.

The reaction of many Muslims around the world can also be one of support for any opposition to the Israeli state. Although there is a sizable Christian minority amongst Palestinians, this conflict is often seen in religious terms. This is not surprising given the widespread use of Old Testament quotations by many Israeli politicians and military leaders to justify both their conduct of the war in Gaza and the claim, included in the founding statement of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, that “between the Sea and the Jordan (river) there will only be Israeli sovereignty”.

The Middle East is truly a tinderbox and the Western powers particularly fear that both the mounting international popular anger with the Gaza war and the possible widening of the war in the Middle East would undermine their influence and power in the region and beyond.

In some ways, today’s situation in the Middle East resembles the pre-World War One situation, when the tensions between European powers were deepening and the threat of war was becoming more concrete. The likelihood of war was becoming more apparent, and the question was not ‘whether’ but ‘when’ and ‘where’. For a time in 1912, it seemed that a European war could then break out. But, while that didn’t take place in 1912, within two years World War One had begun.

Weakened US

The relative weakening of the US position globally has seen it being challenged by other powers and unable to enforce its wishes as it did in the immediate period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This challenge has been driven by the rise of China but also by other states around the world like India and Brazil being prepared to follow their own interests, something also seen amongst the Middle Eastern oil producers.

The Biden administration both fears what Netanyahu’s far-right government will do and at the same time wants to preserve Israel’s role as Western imperialism’s key ally in the region.

Thus we see the Western powers combining repeated pledges to defend Israel while pressuring and pleading with the Israeli government to moderate its actions. However, the Israeli ruling coalition, between Netanyahu and extreme far-right nationalists, is not willing to play ball. These extreme right-wing ministers might want to provoke Iran in order to invite US intervention. Furthermore, Netanyahu appears to pay limited attention to what Washington says. Perhaps he hopes to remain in power for long enough, hoping that his position can be saved should Trump win November’s US election. It appears that the 1 April destruction of the Iranian consulate in Damascus caught the US unawares. But it is clear that, while there is currently continuing support within Israel for the war in Gaza, Netanyahu’s coalition is in a minority both within the population and amongst the Israeli ruling class.

The Western imperialist powers are facing the Chinese and Russian regimes use of anti-colonial language in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and in parts of Asia to win influence, in a similar way that Japanese imperialism used anti-colonialist propaganda against the British, Dutch and French empires during World War Two.

Facing growing international revulsion at their hypocrisy of condemning Russian attacks on Ukraine, but fundamentally supporting and arming the Israeli destruction of Gaza, the Western powers have seized upon the Iranian attack in a propaganda counteroffensive. In this, the Western propagandists have stressed the oppressive and often brutal  nature of the Iranian regime, something which is true but ignores the Western allies like the highly repressive Saudi and Gulf regimes. In the main Western imperialist countries, especially Germany, this campaign has built upon the recent repression of opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza that is often falsely equated with anti-Semitism.

But war and oppression is not new in the Middle East or the Arab countries of North Africa, it has been a feature for decades.

The long history of colonialism has shaped the history of the region and the peoples living within it. The Western imperialist powers drove out the Ottoman Empire to get control of a region strategically important, which was later discovered to have key mineral resources, basically oil.

It was on this basis that British and French imperialism divided most of the region between themselves and chose which tribal chiefs to install as rulers. There was no talk of democracy let alone self-determination, and ‘problem’ rulers were removed, as the British did in Oman in 1970. The rising worldwide anti-colonial mass struggles and sentiment forced the British and French to retreat from direct rule and they were eventually relegated to a position of influence behind US imperialism. The 2011-12 ‘Arab Spring’ illustrated how mass movements that were not able to take power into their own hands would be ultimately suppressed. But despite this, the rulers still fear ‘the street’ and the possibility of revolt, hence the general lack of democratic rights.

Israelis themselves have not found, despite economic growth, a peaceful ‘land of milk and honey’. Marxists opposed the Zionist plan to create a Jewish state on the basis of removing the existing population of Palestine, a plan justified on the basis of the Old Testament. The cynical reason for British imperialism generally supporting the demand from 1917 was to create a client state in the region, something the French later attempted to do in Lebanon. Thus, the first British governor of Palestine later wrote that London’s aim in encouraging Jewish migration was “forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”

This plan inevitably sowed the seeds of today’s conflict because it was based on the forced displacement of the existing population. This is why the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky warned in 1940 that settling in the region “may well transform Palestine into a bloody trap for several hundred thousand Jews”. And this is what it has become. While over decades an Israeli nation has developed, it has not achieved security, which is one reason why the majority of the world’s Jews do not live in Israel.

Every decade since the state’s foundation, the Israeli population has faced major wars – in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 – or very significant military operations against significant military forces or uprisings, Intifadas, by Palestinians. Hamas’s 7 October attack was for Israelis a confirmation that if they were defeated in a war they would, at best, be pushed into the sea. This is a key reason for the ruthlessness of the Israeli military and especially the fanatical settlers and ultra-nationalists. There can be little doubt that, if faced with military defeat, the Israeli rulers would consider using nuclear weapons, something which is a reason why they fear so much Iran building its own nuclear weapons and would like to try to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

What next?

Faced with this situation what can be done now?

In 1912, the threat of war led the Second International, which brought together socialist and labour parties internationally, to hold a special congress that agreed what was basically a militant programme of opposition to war. However that was when, at least formally, the majority of socialist parties opposed capitalism, unlike today when there are hardly any workers’ parties that have that principled position. But tragically, when war actually broke out in 1914, the overwhelming majority of the leaders of these parties supported their ‘own’ ruling classes and monarchs against their rivals.

The need for action to end the terror in Gaza is vital and the workers’ movement needs to follow the example of its pioneers. The capitalist governments will not act except when they are forced to. Thus, for example, the British prime minister Rishi Sunak praised the “heroic” RAF pilots that helped stop Iran’s strike on Israel but, of course, has never even called for an end to the bombardment of Gaza.

It needs mass action to succeed. Protests and demonstrations are important as mobilisers and expressions of opinion but, as was seen in the run-up to the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq, will not on their own stop the war.

International workers’ action is needed. If trade union leaders in different countries were to build for a 24-hour stoppage to demand an immediate ceasefire, the resumption of full supply of food, medicine and essentials plus the release of all hostages and detained on both sides, and an end to arms supplied to Israel, it would receive huge support.

The CWI has argued that “the rotten, dictatorial Arab regimes need to be overthrown as well as the ruling class in Israel and the elite in the Palestine territories. A socialist confederation of the Middle East on a free and equal basis will need to be built, with all resources under the democratic control of workers and the poor.” We call for:

  • The withdrawal of all Israeli military forces from the Palestinian territories
  • The right of Palestinians to resist repression and aggression. A mass Palestinian struggle to fight for genuine national and social liberation. The establishment of popular, democratically controlled committees to lead the struggle, with the right to provide armed defence
  • For national liberation for the Palestinians and their right to self-determination, including an independent socialist state
  • The building of direct links between workers on both sides of the national divide
  • The building of democratic and independent workers’ parties in both the Palestinian territories and Israel
  • For socialist change to end capitalism. The right of Israelis to have their own state. For a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine, with full rights for minorities, while recognising that workers’ and oppressed peoples’ organisations will democratically negotiate and decide the state boundaries and forms
  • A struggle by the masses of the Arab states against the dictatorial capitalist Arab ruling elites, and of the Iranian masses against the reactionary theocratic regime. For a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East

Such an international call could get an echo within Israel/Palestine, offering the idea of a way out of repeated wars and endless repression. But this can only come to fruition by building movements of working people and youth offering a programme of liberation, social and national, which includes breaking with capitalism and beginning the socialist reconstruction of society. That is the way to end the wretched cycle that the Middle East, and much of the world, is in.