In Solidarity 3/136 we published a back-page article on Iran, Israel, and nuclear weapons, and an inside-page “discussion article” by Sean Matgamna on the same question. The article said that “an [Israeli] attack on Iran will most likely lead to great carnage… strengthen the Iranian regime… throw Iraq back into the worst chaos”. “Socialists should not want and cannot support… Israel [making] a precipitate strike at Iranian nuclear capacity”.
It also posed questions: in the name of what alternative should we condemn Israel? Not, it argued, “the inalienable right of every state to have nuclear weapons”, or “because Israel has no right to exist anyway”, or similar.
The article has generated discussion in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty — and, not a discussion, but a sort of literary lynch-mob, on the web.
We publish extracts from the discussion.
The article, which includes only minimal and superficial reference to independent working-class politics and any idea of working-class agency, instead dishonestly zigzags between empathising with Israeli hawks and using figleaf, weasel words to avoid openly "advocating" an Israeli strike against Iran in advance. He says we should "least of all" support Ahmedinejad, as if we were under any compulsion to pick sides and support Olmert a little bit more instead.
Throughout Sean also takes for granted the idea that the Iranian regime is indeed developing nuclear weapons. This claim is highly tendentious...
Sean's focus is not the interests of the labour movement or the tasks of Marxists in the (potential) belligerent countries, but rather hoping for a balance in the world of geopolitics, military manoeuvre and weapons competition. Sean's view is crude and one-sided and he is far from condemning the Israeli government's effort to cling onto its status as the leading regional power by force: if he realises that such a bombing run would hamper the possibility of workers in the region "uniting to fight for a socialist Middle East", he certainly doesn't show it.
Sean confuses what is "rational" in the interests of Israeli imperialism and great-power realpolitik with what is "rational" in the interests of humanity. Sean does not want to "advocate" or "endorse" an attack: but this is just playing with words, and clearly given the tone of the piece and the fact that he is so keen to defend the rationale for an attack which is not yet on the cards the article can only be read as offering justification for Olmert et al.
The point of the original article was not to "excuse" an attack by Israel on Iran but to raise questions in relation to the likely left attitude to such an attack. If you think that Israel has the right to exist then by extension you think it has the right to defend itself from destruction. But no nation has the right to start world war three, no right at all to start a nuclear war. We are opposed to Israel launching an attack on Iran. By recognising the right to defend itself, we do not take responsibility for or encourage any and all Israeli actions. If we fail to address this point in our politics then we risk collapsing into a reactionary anti-imperialism or muddleheadedness.
The accusation that we have nothing to say about the working class in Israel and Iran is simply untrue. The article was not a detailed exposition of a independent working class programme for the Israeli and Iranian proletariat — this much is true. But our paper, magazines and website are stuffed full of articles on this matter.
I think Sean's pre-emptive attack on what would undoubtedly be the hypocrisy of the left in such a situation is justified, even if I think the article is badly written and reflects some deeper political problems with the way Sean approaches things.
The mutual incomprehension here has its parallel with the Iraq debate. However, I think the article reflects the fact that Sean seems increasingly to operate in two political spheres with little connection between them.
On the one hand, there is the sphere of principle where we cannot accept responsibility for an Israeli attack or the Iraq occupation, we are "the party of irreconcilable opposition", etc. etc. On the other, because we cannot influence the events, there is the world of day-to-day bourgeois international politics where we are faced with "difficult decisions", have to take sides e.g. between Fatah and Hamas etc. etc.
And there is a real tension here — which comes across as an incoherence and evasiveness in our politics. It not a totally dishonourable position — it resists the temptation to follow Shachtman's path — but it's not one I agree with, though I struggle to articulate an alternative.
Our 2008 conference policy says: "We oppose both military action (whether invasion or air strikes, bombing raids, etc.) and economic sanctions against Iran." And: "Our basic slogans for now are 'no to war, no to the Islamic republic, solidarity with Iranian workers'. In the event of war, our line would be similar, i.e. a 'Third Camp' one".
It also recognises that the Iranian regime has grown as a regional power. It states: "We oppose attempts by the Iranian government to develop nuclear weapons. We want the labour movement to fight for unilateral disarmament by all nuclear weapons states. That should not prevent us from acknowledging, however, that the prospect of the Islamic Republic developing a bomb is particularly alarming".
In the event of any military conflict between Iran and Israel, most of the left will back Iran in a particular way and oppose Israel in a particular way. They will be "defencist" of Iran, meaning in practice they will give political support to a greater or lesser extent to the Iranian regime. They will say that Iran has the right to "defend itself by any means necessary". The left will also oppose Israel with arguments about the need to "smash Israel", the "Zionist entity" etc. We in the AWL should prepare ourselves for confronting those arguments
If I thought Iran were about to nuke Israel would I be in favour of Israel ‘taking out’ Iran’s nuclear capability? I would understand why the Israeli ruling class would try to. Understand? Yes. Condemn? Still, possibly, yes.
Not because I don’t in the abstract support Israel’s right of self-defence: I do support Israel’s right of self-defence. But there is, for example, the question of how many Iranians would be killed by such an Israeli attack. I wouldn’t like to try and guess what the balance of suffering might be in such a scenario.
I don’t think Iran’s anywhere close to nuking Israel. In the foreseeable future I think a strike against facilities where Israel believed Iran was developing nuclear weapons would bolster Ahmedinejad, with all the bad consequences that has, and kill some, possibly many Iranians. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, I’m against Israel bombing Iran and I’d condemn them should they do it.
We should be marching against the madness of nuclear weapons and war, denouncing both sides, and mobilising the workers on all sides against what was happening. The point about Israel’s right to defend itself — and, depending on how things were playing out, Iran’s right to defend itself — would be in the text of any article but it wouldn’t be the headline.
I’m not sure that in the context of sabre-rattling against Iran (though it seems to be calmer from the US side for now) Sean’s comments don’t add a tiny, tiny bit of grist to the mill for an attack on Iran. At the least, there is the danger that people that would otherwise read the many thousands of excellent words that we have written on Israel-Palestine, for example, won’t now take the time because, at first sight, Sean’s words could be interpreted as adding grist to the mill of sabre-rattling against Iran.
Sean characterised Iran as "a state whose clerical fascist rulers might see a nuclear armageddon, involving a retaliatory Israeli... strike against Iran, in the way a God-crazed suicide bomber sees blowing himself to pieces".
Too much of what we say about Iran is tainted by this kind of idea that the Iranian ruling class are just a bunch of nihilistic "mad mullahs" who are perfectly willing to see their own annihilation in the cause of anti-semitism. We often seem to believe every mad word that Ahmedinejad says is actually going to be carried out.
Yet we as Marxists do not judge the Iranian state by its rhetoric or by its propaganda. Instead we analyse its class character. To characterise Iran as "clerical fascist" does not do that.
If the Iranian regime is building nuclear weapons, it is not doing so to annihilate Israel, since it would lead to Iran's own annihilation 10 to 15 minutes later. It is doing so to assert its power as regional sub-imperial power and to ward off attacks by Israel and the USA.
Just as Workers Power are wrong to describe the regime as actually anti-imperialist, so we are wrong to see the regime as absolute anti-Zionists. Any direct conflict between Israel and Iran will not be at root about taking back the holy land for Islam, rather it will be about competing for influence and economic, political and military power.
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.
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. Iran is not close to achieving its nuclear goals.
2. In the absence of an immediate threat, an Israeli attack on Iran would be a blow struck by one imperialist contender against another in their battle for regional dominance — not a question of legitimate national defence.
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. Thus an Israeli attack would undermine the very forces that can derail the disastrous dynamic threatening the working classes and peoples of the region.
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) is however, not enough. It 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.
Ideas act upon reality, and have a certain amount of autonomy. But not to the extent that the Iranian ruling class would launch a suicidal nuclear war!
Sure, it's not completely unthinkable that Iran would nuke Israel. But, to steal Sean's term, they don't have "good reason" to so do. We should see the difference between Iran (clerical fascist) and Israel (bourgeois-democratic, though highly militarised)... but seeing the difference between them doesn't mean cooking up a view of Iran as a totally irrational entity.
Our discussion should clearly separate the current state of affairs — Iran "may be" developing a bomb, which it "may hope" to use to destroy Israel — from the hypothetical "45 minute" situation in which there definitely is an Iranian nuke which definitely does immediately threaten Israeli self-determination, and in which the only way to get rid of it is an air strike.
The intent of Israel is not to establish an imperial base in Iran, and in this instance it is not to act as a pawn to any US imperialist designs on Iran (that the US state has recently joined diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclear development tells us something).
No, in this instance, Israel would be acting alone, and actually with some kind of sincere belief that Iran (if it acquired the nuclear bomb) would possibly at some point use it to destroy Israel. Are those in Israel who think this being irrational — in part yes, in part no. Israel is a paranoid nation for sure. Is it likely that Iran will nuke Israel? Not likely under present conditions, no.
The intent of Israeli air strikes on Iran's nuclear capability will not be to cause maximum bloodshed, but minimum. Why? Not because the Israeli state and military care deeply about Iranian lives. But because the Israeli state cares about (selected) world opinion.
For many reasons, we have ample ground to oppose an Israeli attack. But to morally hammer Israel for it? On what grounds?
We would condemn an attack by the US and/or Israel on Iran in the name of working class unity and democratic self-determination, as well as for its humanitarian effects, impact on the rest of the Middle East etc.
I found Sean's article thought-provoking and useful. He is right to pose the question: what if Iran gets a nuclear bomb? Such an outcome is feasible in the near future. An Iranian bomb held by the present theocratic regime would directly pose a threat to Israel’s right to self-determination. An Iranian bomb would drastically alter the balance of forces in the region, in favour of Islamists such as Hizbollah and Hamas, who want to destroy Israel.
But I think Sean’s article telescopes the situation today with the foreseeable future.
I think his characterisation of the Iranian regime is a poor formulation (clerical fascists or bonapartist theocrats would be better), but he is right to argue that we cannot "defend" the "right" of this regime to have a bomb, just because other states have them.
The workers’ movement in Iran is probably not strong enough to put a halt to the nuclear ambitions of its rulers. The Israeli workers’ movement certainly isn’t. Must we, therefore, with however heavy a heart, abrogate the hope for "a world where the workers of Israel, Iran, Iraq were united in opposition to all their rulers, and strong enough to get rid of them" to another day, hold our noses and pick the least-bad bourgeois option apparently on offer?
This is a perspective of permanent abrogation. If you hold your nose for too long you cease to be able to breathe properly.
Nothing prevents us from saying openly that a given imperialist adventure may have a positive consequence. But we say this in a framework which despite any potential positive outcome or side-effect tells the truth about the interests in which it is carried out and emphasises constantly the only means by which a better future may be carved out of regional and global inter-imperialist firefighting; independent working-class struggle.
I believe that revolutionaries in the Israeli labour movement should propagandise vociferously against any Israeli war-effort, explaining clearly Israel’s role as a regional imperialist power and explaining how this impacts on the material quality of life for Israeli workers. I believe they should attempt, wherever possible, to actively sabotage any war effort including refusing to move munitions.
I believe they should also be clear about the nature of the Iranian regime and its imperialist aspirations while pointing out to other Israeli workers that class struggle takes place inside Iran just as in any country and that they have more in common with Iranian workers than they do with the Israeli-Jewish bosses attempting to convince them that bombing Iran is in their best interests.
In Iran, I believe revolutionaries in the labour movement should do whatever they can to oppose and sabotage the Iranian government’s nuclear programme.
Looking at a potential Israeli strike on an Iranian nuclear facility from the point of view of its impact on class struggle in the region makes it abundantly obvious that we should oppose it, that we should mobilise against it, and that we should counsel workers more capable of immediately effecting the situation to do likewise.
Totally aside from the potential civilian slaughter such an attack would unleash (who’s to say that a botched bombing of a nuclear facility wouldn’t lead to an Iranian Chernobyl?), I think it’s beyond question that the Israeli ruling-class would use such an attack to drag workers behind national chauvinism (undoubtedly invoking the “existential threat” posed to them by Iran’s machinations) and that the Iranian ruling-class would do likewise.
Personally, I think there are grounds to criticise Sean's article, and am inclined to broadly support David Broder's response to it. However, far more shocking and appalling than anything that Sean wrote is the response from some sections of the "left".
All the shrill blusterous denunciation of the AWL because of Sean's article throws up a convenient smokescreen to avoid answering that question. The attempt to address this question is the strength of Sean's article — the left has for too long settled for being against things without troubling itself about the grounds.
Just as there were bad as well as good grounds for opposing the invasion of Iraq (e.g. the far-right view that Britain shouldn't waste its time and money on foreigners), there are bad as well as good grounds for opposing an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear capacity — an example of "bad grounds" would include asserting that Iran has the "right" to nuclear weapons, or that Iran nuking Israel wouldn't be so bad.
Anyone who is going to screamingly denounce Sean's article should address these questions: Is it OK for Iran to have nuclear weapons? Does Israel, and do Israelis, have genuine grounds to fear being nuked by Iran? And if so, what are they entitled to do about it?
What Matgamna and all his hangers-on leave out of the equation is oppression. Iran is an oppressed nation, Israel is an oppressor one. Lenin was absolutely unambiguous (and he wasn't one known for his ambiguity) that in a war, socialists support the oppressed nation against the oppressor.
The Iranian President has denied that he is trying to obtain a nuclear weapon. However, at the same time Associated Press reports that he has doubled the amount of centrifuges from 3,000 to 6,000. The Associated Press report goes on to state:
"A total of 3,000 centrifuges is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program that could churn out enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons. Iran says it plans to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that will ultimately involve 54,000 centrifuges."
Iran is awash with oil. It has no need for nuclear power for domestic consumption at the moment. What if Ahmadinejad or a replacement President suddenly changes their mind and decide that with the nuclear capability they will have a bomb?
The Ayatollah Khomeini who ruled Iran for much of the 1980s said:
"We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."
Even the supposedly moderate Iranian President Rafsanjani is quoted to have said:
"If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession . . . application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world."
These quotes have become quite famous. They were used by the neo-conservative author and commentator Norman Podhoretz and he was accused of using fake quotes. He then backed up his sources and his critics on the quotes went quiet:
As much as the mullahs may genuinely despise Jews, Israel, and Israelis, they are not averse to discarding their propaganda for real-world material gains for them and their regime.
Iran is an up and coming regional capitalist power, with a lot of ambition in the Middle East; and not as a suicidal nuthouse prepared to throw away decades of work on the basis of a nuclear strike on Israel which would lead Iran to be "wiped off the face of the map" as part of a nuclear retaliation from Israel and/or the US.
Iran's nukes (if it is indeed building nukes) are part of a strategy of the mullahs to enhance their status as a regional power. Having nukes effectively rules out any Israeli or US assault on their country, or at least very strongly deters it.
This is particularly important given Iran's moves to creating the first oil bourse in Euros, a move which if followed by the rest of the oil producing world would cause dramatic damage to the US Dollar — a Dollar whose prime source of strength is its monopoly as a currency for which to buy oil with.
We should oppose the power block Iran aligns itself with (Russia and China) and its capitalist regime. But why should we have any sympathy with the opposing power block of Israel and the US, who wants to overthrow the Iranian regime and replace it with a pliant one for their own interests?
It is worth listening carefully to what the Ahmadinejad regime says. Don't imagine they mean what you think they mean. Listen to what they actually say.
(1) "Israel is a filthy black germ..." http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1694.htm
(2) Jewish conspiracy behind 9/11 http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1674.htm
(3) Ahmadinejad boasts about operating 3000 centrifuges to enrich uranium — http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1604.htm
(4) Ahmadinejad argues for Israel to be moved to Canada or Alaska and he argues for a truth-seeking commission to find out what lay behind 9/11 and to find out whether the Holocaust really happened. http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1585.htm
(5) Ahmadinejad: "death to Israel..." http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1222.htm
Plenty more here. http://tinyurl.com/6xc8ry.
I know it always sounds a bit mad to compare someone to Hitler, but I'll do it anyway. Hitler said he wanted to kill the Jews and nobody took him seriously. He was a ridiculous little man with a comedy moustache — a clerk who was trying to sit on the shoulders of his boss and stick his heels in.
Hitler's promise to kill the Jews of Europe was too ridiculous. It was against the interests of capital. It was against any kind of conception of German national interest.
But he did it anyway and the adventure ended in the total defeat of Germany. So why wouldn't Jews take Ahmadinejad seriously? At least, how can we be sure that he's not serious?
• All these contributions are edited. For more debate see elsewhere on this website.