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Will Israel attack Iran?

Imperialism in the dock by Marcus Halaby

Two counties where people will have kept a close eye on the US elections are Israel and Iran. It is, after all, no secret that Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have clashed over Iran’s nuclear programme, with Netanyahu publicly threatening a unilateral military strike at Iran to prevent it acquiring the ability to build nuclear weapons.

The risk of an Israeli attack on Iran may have receded somewhat with the defeat of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who would have given Israel a carte blanche for military action. Now there will not be two months of a lame-duck administration that Israel can use to create facts – as happened when Israel bombed Gaza to rubble in the closing weeks of George W Bush’s presidency in December 2008 and January 2009.

The threat of an Israeli attack, however, has not disappeared, and could yet become one of the defining issues of Obama’s second term. This is because Iran’s status as a regional power, capable of changing the balance of forces in the region with or without a nuclear arsenal, is something that no Israeli government can tolerate.

Like the old radical Arab nationalist regimes – of which Iran’s ally Syria is the last surviving example – Iran’s theocratic regime relies for its claim to popular legitimacy on its noisy defiance of Israel and its superpower master, and on its show of support for the Palestinians.

Moreover, non-Arab and Shi’a-majority Iran’s attempts to gain hegemony in the region required it to appeal to the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim populations of the Arab countries over the heads of their rulers, by emphasising its support for “resistance” to Israel, in the form of the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Iran’s rise, however, has not been consistently anti-imperialist even in the most limited sense. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq handed the Iranian regime a gift by overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who in the 1980s fought a destructive eight-year war with Iran on behalf of the Western powers.

Iran’s clients in Iraq, Shi’a leaders Muqtada al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani, were quite happy to cooperate with the US-led occupation, with their supporters joining the pro-occupation Iraqi security forces and taking part in the US-dictated “political process”. They came into conflict with the occupation only as a result of pressure from below and the US imperial viceroy Paul Bremer’s intolerance of independent popular forces.

Israel, for its part, remains a key component of US imperialism’s system of alliances for controlling the region, alongside oil-rich Saudi Arabia (one of the most reactionary states on the planet), Egypt (the most populous Arab country and a massive recipient of US military aid), and, in the past, the Shah’s Iran.

Israel, however, occupies a unique position in this system of alliances, as an ultimately unviable settler-colony existing on land seized from and emptied of its original inhabitants, and surrounded by populations that are spontaneously hostile to it, whatever the official view of their governments.

It is this strategic dependence of the Israeli state on Western imperialism – reflected in the largely “Western” origins and ideological outlook of its ruling class – that makes it the most reliable of its allies. Western politicians and planners can rest assured that unlike Egypt or Iran – or even Saudi Arabia – there is no risk that Israel will one day experience a popular revolution that might seize the assets of Western multinational corporations, or stand against Western interests in the region.

But Israel’s very “reliability” on this score leaves its sponsors strategically dependent on it in return. And Israel’s rulers periodically use this to advance interests of their own that are either irrelevant or deeply inconvenient to Washington, London and Paris.

Typically, this means military adventures that the United States, thinking in terms of its global position, sees as being precipitous, while Israel, looking through the narrow “security” prism that frames the thinking of all its main political parties, sees as being urgent and essential. Israel’s determination to prevent Iran changing a balance of forces in which Israel can make war on any combination of the surrounding states and win is a case in point.

Israel’s sabre-rattling has even frightened Saudi Arabia, which is now the Arab state most vehemently opposed to a US or Israeli strike on Iran. Additionally, the outbreak of revolution in Syria, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s abandonment by his former allies Turkey and Qatar, has given the Saudis an alternative, of weakening Iran by breaking the so-called “Shi’a Crescent” linking it to Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas through Iraq and Syria. Israel, however, prefers to deal with the devil it knows on its own borders, a weakened Assad too busy slaughtering his own people to pose a threat to the Zionist state, while striking at Iran directly.

We must therefore be ready for anything from Israel in the period ahead. Moreover such a strike could have unforeseen consequences in the entire region; for the imperialist powers, for the Arab revolutions and regional powers like Turkey. In Europe it could (and should) generate a major revival of the antiwar movement.

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