Sean Matgamna's article in Solidarity 1/136 tries to explore seriously the difficult issues raised by Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, the threat this potentially poses to Israel, and Israel's threats against Iran. It makes justified criticisms of much of the left. It states the basic case for working-class international solidarity against both the Iranian and Israeli regimes. It spells out the disastrous consequences that an Israeli attack on Iran would probably have. However, it does not make the necessary conclusion: that we should clearly and sharply oppose such an attack.
The AWL's 2008 conference voted to "oppose military action (whether invasion or air strikes, bombing raids etc) or economic sanctions against Iran". The same motion argued: "We characterise any realistically likely military conflict between the US and Iran as one between two imperialisms: an imperialist superpower and a regional 'sub-imperialism'. A conflict between Iran and Israel would constitute war between two sub-imperialisms, with one most likely backed by the American superpower."
What does this policy imply now?
Having hedged his argument round with reiterations that socialists should not call for or endorse an Israeli attack, Sean asks: "If the Israeli airforce attempts to stop Iran developing the capacity to wipe it out with a nuclear bomb, in the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?" He then goes on to list a number of "kitsch left" or "kitsch anti-imperialist" arguments in order to rightly dismiss them.
However, I believe the question is misposed, since the issue is not one of Israel's national survival; and that the reasons for opposing an attack on Iran are clear. Sean's failure to sharply draw the necessary conclusion is all the more peculiar because he himself, in the first paragraphs of his article, spelt out at least part of the case - but then failed to follow it through.
We should oppose an Israeli attack on Iran for the following, interconnected reasons:
1. There is, in so far as we can judge, no imminent threat to Israel. The US government itself, as Solidarity 1/136 reported, has concluded that the Islamic Republic has probably suspended its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Nor was/is Iran close to achieving its nuclear goals.
2. That conditions the nature of an Israeli attack on Iran. In the absence of an immediate threat, such an attack would be a blow struck by one imperialist contender against another in their battle for regional dominance - not a question of legitimate national defence. Socialists must oppose the military projects of both Iran and Israel; this implies opposition to an attack.
3. There is a very strong possibility of large-scale Iranian civilian deaths, particularly given that nuclear facilities are involved.
4. There is also a strong possibility of widespread carnage in the Middle East, with retaliatory attacks, suicide bombings etc, as well as other states being drawn in.
5. War between Israel and Iran would almost certainly strengthen chauvinism in both countries and the position of both regimes against working-class and democratic forces. It would allow the Iranian regime to crack down on the rising tide of working-class, student etc struggles which is the greatest hope for democracy and socialism in the Middle East, reinforcing its reactionary appeals for national unity against "Zionism". Thus an Israeli attack would undermine the very forces which we want to see defang, and ultimately overthrow, the Islamic Republic - as well as undermining corresponding forces in Israel-Palestine. The very forces, in other words, that can derail the disastrous dynamic threatening the working classes and peoples of the region.
Having spelt out why we should oppose an Israeli attack, I want to discuss what I think are the inadequacies of two alternative lines of argument I have heard/read since Sean's article was printed.
1. Pointing out that many other states, including the US and Israel, are nuclear-armed. In the first place, socialists also oppose their nuclear weapons. Secondly, and crucially, the character of the Iranian regime is such that we should be particularly alarmed at the thought of its finger on the nuclear launch button. This is a regime motivated, in part, by virulent anti-semitism dressed up as "anti-Zionist" criticism of Israel, and by an obscurantist and millenarian belief in its theocratic mission (a belief which caused it to send tens of thousands of suicide bombers over the Iraq border during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance). A nuclear weapons in its hands would pose a serious threat to Israeli national self-determination.
Yes, Israel is a capitalist, imperialist state run by bigoted reactionaries; but to simply equate the two - or claim/imply that Iran is somehow more progressive - shows how much sections of the left have lost the plot. (Incidentally, where was the outcry on the left when Israel destroyed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility last year?)
No one, as far as I know, has seriously suggested that Israel is going to drop a nuclear bomb (or any sort of bomb) on Iranian cities; even the idea that Israel might use a tactical nuclear weapon against Iran's nuclear facilities is not part of the current media coverage.* In contrast, who can doubt that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious first-strike threat to the population of Israel? Of course, some on the left are not concerned for the right of the Israelis to self-determination; this is one of the underpinnings of a pro-Iran position.
2. Simply appealing to working-class action against both sides (this is the essence, when the dramatics are stripped away, of David Broder's response to Sean). That is, clearly, the fundamental basis of an international socialist position. Nonetheless, appeals to workers' action do not automatically solve all problems of international politics - particularly in a region where the workers' movement is very weak.
The fact that we want the working class to disarm, and overthrow, both the Israeli and Iranian regimes does not eliminate the problem of the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel and other targets of its aggression in the Middle East. Independent working-class politics, the attempt to mobilise the working class as an independent force capable of determining or at least shaping events, has to be concretised into a policy capable of orienting (in so far as we can) the working class, in the region and internationally, so that it can actually challenge both/all reactionary contenders.
A number of questions follow.
Is it possible to realistically imagine a situation, not immediately but at some point in the future, in which Iran did actually develop nuclear weapons, posing (given the nature of the Iranian regime) a serious threat to Israel's self-determination as a nation? In such a scenario, would the balance of issues change? Would it become possible to isolate the issue of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities from the more general framework of Iranian-Israeli imperialist rivalry? Clearly, we would not call for or support an attack even in these circumstances, but would we continue to oppose it sharply?
Unlike some on the left, we should make clear that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would be a serious problem - including in terms of Israel's self-determination. How would we respond? More discussion of this is needed (which is the rational kernel of what Sean argues in his article). I believe that while the case for opposing Israeli military action would remain, the form and emphasis of our opposition might change - in the same way that, today, what we would oppose and condemn is an Israeli attack on Iran, not the destruction of Iran's nuclear programme.
In any case, on the basis spelt out above, the immediate conclusion is clear. Oppose an Israeli attack on Iran!
* The Weekly Worker/CPGB group seem to be straining every muscle to whip up a lynch-mob atmosphere against the AWL as having "no place" in the labour movement (see James Turley and Mark Fisher's article in Weekly Worker 732). As part of their campaign, the front page of this issue of the Weekly Worker proclaims, in front of a picture of a mushroom cloud: "AWL's Sean Matgamna: excusing an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran"; a claim repeated inside, with fantasy augmented by some dubious military/technical reasoning, by Yassamine Mather. The caption to the picture illustrating this article reads "Sean 'Nuke'em' Matgamna".
This is not only libel, but straightforward, Sun-style gutter journalism. Sean's article does not support any sort of strike on Iran, let alone a nuclear strike; it does not even discuss the possibility of a nuclear strike. Naturally, we vehemently oppose any nuclear attack by any state against any other (see here), including - let us say it just to be clear! - an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran. However, we have come to expect this sort of shameless lying from the Weekly Worker.