Over the weekend of May 4-5 Israel launched air raids against targets in Syria. Yassamine Mather and Moshé Machover, two members of the Hands Off the People of Iran steering committee, discuss the issues raised by this latest development
YM: The two Israeli air raids into Syrian territory have to be looked at in the context of the current Syrian civil war and realignment of regional powers. However, there is an Iranian dimension to all this. According to some Iranian military strategists, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan [in southern Iran], the priority is that we keep Syria.”1
According to ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most senior foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, “Syria has a very basic and key role in the region of promoting firm policies of resistance … for this reason an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”2
Until May 4-5, there could have been no doubt that, in the event of a military attack by US or Israeli forces, Iran’s first line of defence would be a retaliation against Israel using Hezbollah, who in turn would rely on Syrian military support. The Israeli bombings have clearly changed the situation and weakened Iran’s position considerably. What do you think? Am I right or is this a very Iran-centric analysis?
MM: You can regard these air raids as a narrow intervention in the Syria civil war, but this is not the way to understand their wider significance. If you look at it only in this way, it appears very paradoxical. If it was aimed at helping the forces opposed to president Bashar al-Assad, there was no logic to it.
First of all, it compromises the Syrian opposition, which is very heterogeneous. Some elements are genuine popular forces, others are supported from the outside by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and indirectly by the US. Those sponsors don’t mind collaborating with Israel, but the forces on the ground, even the forces supported by Qatar, the Islamists, are not happy being in a common front with Israel. In this respect, it gives Assad a means to denigrate the opposition and he has taken it. So this is not the context in which to understand the logic of these attacks.
I think that context is a wider regional one. Israel is doing everything it possibly can to widen the confrontation and there are several reasons for this. A couple of weeks ago there was a hoo-ha about weapons of mass destruction, specifically poison gas. The Israeli intelligence agency alleged that poison gas had been used, knowing that president Barack Obama had said this was a “red line” for intervention. Clearly the intention was to draw Obama into a more direct intervention in Syria: in other words, to widen the confrontation.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not working hand in hand with the Obama administration, but with some more rightwing forces in the US. The announcement about poison gas was very much welcomed by senator John McCain and various other rightwing elements. It turns out that Obama and his administration were not very keen to take up this infringement of the “red line”. (Let me add there is no serious proof about the use of poison gas: it isn’t clear how much was used and who actually used it. There are even reports that it was sections of the opposition who were responsible.)
This attempt to widen the conflict failed, so now Israel has embarked on a new adventure. Following the weekend attacks, all commentators are saying this was an attempt to stop Syria delivering missiles to Hezbollah. This may or may not be true. However, I don’t think this is the whole answer. The key point is that Israel is trying to widen the confrontation. This is expressed well by a cartoon I saw, showing Israeli planes spouting petrol over the flames of the civil war.
Why? I think there are two parts to this. First, there is an attempt to prevent a settlement both in Syria and more generally between the US and Iran. There are various attempts at arriving at a modus operandi in both the limited Syria context and with Iran. There is a long history of this and I don’t need to go into details about it. Some elements within the Obama administration would like to achieve a compromise and the same is true of elements of the Iranian regime, but the more hawkish circles in the US, with whom Netanyahu is allied, want to prevent it.
Israel wants to prevent it because for it an upgrading of relations between Iran and the US via a settlement of their conflict would mean that Israel loses its position as the unique and most reliable franchise-holder of US imperialism in the region. It would be a relative loss of status for Israel.
The other issue is more strategic. Netanyahu is doing everything he can to create a major conflagration in the region. I have conjectured several times that this is because he would like to use it to perpetrate massive ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and with a big war, win or lose (whether the Iranian regime were overthrown or not), that one thing can be achieved. The chances are improved if the war is widened sufficiently and if it creates regional upheavals; under those conditions it offers an effective smokescreen for ethnic cleansing.
I think this is his plan and for this he would be ready to accept casualties on the Israeli side – a real possibility for which there are already various estimates. For this strategic aim of securing Israel’s future as a Jewish ethnocracy, Netanyahu is prepared for sacrifices, as such a war would solve Zionism’s historical dilemma, the so-called ‘demographic peril’. Israel is holding occupied territories with a Palestinian population that is roughly the same size as the Israeli Hebrew population. Israel has done everything to prevent a Palestinian state; it wishes to annexe territories, but without a large Arab population. Logically, expelling a large part of the indigenous population in the West Bank would solve the demographic problem and a major regional conflict would present the opportunity. This is my interpretation: it is only a conjecture, but it relies on facts.
YM: Sections of the Iranian press are saying that Israel has accepted responsibility for, or at least hinted strongly that it was behind, the air raids. An unusual admission, but intended to provoke Iran into retaliation.
In fact, an Iranian retaliation seemed to be very likely and, let me stress, I am glad it did not materialise. It would have provided the perfect excuse for military attacks against Iran by the US and Israel. However, the fact that this did not happen is both a reflection of the weakness of the Iranian state and, indeed, an expression of the weakness of the supreme leader, Khamenei. There are two reasons for this: the terrible economic situation in Iran and the political chaos in the country.
Iran’s currency continues in free fall. Sanctions, combined with economic mismanagement, have crippled the economy. The US department of energy estimates that Iran’s oil exports fell by 27% from $95 billion in 2011 to $69 billion in 2012.3 Inflation is estimated by Iran’s central bank to be around 40% and there is a zero growth rate.4
The political situation is fraught. We are in the middle of a presidential election that was supposed to be a fait accompli. However, all predictions of the make-up of the future government are on hold, as the conflict within the regime widens. The supreme leader’s relationship with his former protégé, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is at an all-time low. Rumours circulate that Ahmadinejad was arrested for seven hours last week. The supreme leader is accusing him of trying to delay the elections. Until a couple of weeks ago, everyone expected the nomination of Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to be rejected by the Guardian Council, which would have allowed the uncontested election of a ‘principlist’ candidate loyal to the supreme leader.
This was before it became apparent that Ahmadinejad was not giving up power so easily. His determination to hold on has gone as far as threatening the very foundations of the regime. He has hinted at possession of tapes purporting to show electoral fraud in 2009 and the corruption of ‘principlist’ candidates. To add to the turmoil, in the last week before the deadline for registration of presidential candidates, two ‘reformist’ leaders, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, issued statements indicating that one of them might stand.
Candidates have to register by May 11. Those putting forward their name will be vetted by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council and no-one expects a ‘reformist’ to win. However, it is conceivable that the Israelis are concerned that the new Iranian president, whether a reformist, a ‘principlist’ or even Ahmadinejad’s favoured candidate, will move the negotiations with the ‘P5+1’ countries forward. Even some of the supreme leader’s close supporters have made conciliatory comments about the nuclear issue.
Sanctions are destroying the country and the expectation is that the presidential elections will not solve anything. One could say that Iran’s Islamic Republic is politically and economically weak and the timing of the Israeli attacks against Syria cannot be a coincidence. And, of course, when it came to the threat of war, an important weapon in Iran’s hand was Hezbollah and the potential danger it poses to Israel. The Syrian bombings allegedly destroyed deliveries of heavy artillery from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. This is a major blow to the Islamic Republic of Iran, making it far more vulnerable to a serious attack by Israel or the United States.
MM: Let me stress that there has not been an official Israeli admission that it was responsible for the weekend’s air raids. However, Israeli military experts and other commentators have made comments which are as good as an admission. Not that there was any doubt about it anyway.
There is a little twist to this. There were two attacks. There is good reason to believe that Israel got approval from the Obama administration for the first attack, which was relatively minor. The second was a much more powerful explosion – the ground around Damascus shook. I think Israel got the green light to attack – in fact, the announcements about the May 4 attack were first made by the US. But, as so often happens, it seems that in the second attack Israel exceeded the prior agreement.
YM: On the other hand, all the current and potential candidates in Iran’s presidential election (reformists, ‘principlists’ or Ahmadinejad’s favourite, Mashaei) are united on one issue: they all want to negotiate an end to the nuclear debacle. So the question of the timing of these bombings against Syria is very indicative.
MM: Yes this timing question is very important – why now? All bourgeois commentators are happy to look at the issues country by country – Israel versus Syria and Hezbollah, etc – but they cannot see that all the issues are linked. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, with Iran and with Hezbollah – all are interconnected; and in that context the best explanation for the timing of the attacks on Syria is the forthcoming presidential election in Iran.
First published in the Weekly Worker