Saudi plans for regional domination are not meeting with much success, writes Yassamine Mather
More than six weeks after the death of Jamal Khashoggi we know a lot more about his tragic plight after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. However, it is still unclear who ordered his execution, what will be done about it, who knew what when …
According to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, audio tapes of Khashoggi’s last moments in the consulate have been shared with the CIA and leaders of the ‘free world’, including the United States, the UK and EU. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau admits his intelligence services have received the audio tapes and listened to them and, while French ministers deny having received such recordings, other European and US officials remain quiet on the subject.
According to The Guardian,Saudi officials have claimed that Erdoğan “betrayed the kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay ‘significant’ compensation”.1 However, it is unlikely that Turkey, playing its own game in this sad saga, will be tempted by blood money, which theoretically can only be offered to relatives of the deceased.
By November 13 the drip-drip of information about Khashoggi’s death reached a new level, with revelations carried by the New York Times and Al Jazeera, quoting Turkish intelligence officers, that soon after the assassination, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the agents involved in the murder, phoned his superior with the message “tell your boss [believed by some to be crown prince Mohammed bin Salman] that the operatives have carried out their mission”. The recording was, according to Turkey, shared last month with Central Intelligence Agency director Gina Haspel.
The allegations, true or false, have caused a considerable dent in bin Salman’s authority. Meanwhile, we have seen the return from self-imposed exile of Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the only remaining full brother of the Saudi king; the release from prison of another royal, Khaled bin Talal al-Saud, who had been held in custody following last year’s purge, when princes and business ‘leaders’ were held in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. But MBS remains crown prince for the time being.
There are also further revelations about MBS’s antics since he ascended to the second most important position in the Saudi kingdom. According to the New York Times, “Top Saudi intelligence officials close to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman asked a small group of businessmen last year about using private companies to assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom.”2
Last week, as oil prices fell following ‘excessive supply’ from the world’s major producers, Saudi Arabian authorities told ministers from other oil-exporting countries at an Opec meeting that they had no prior knowledge of the Trump administration’s plans to exempt seven countries – purchasers of Iranian oil – from new sanctions against the Islamic republic imposed on November 5. As a result the Saudis, who had already increased their oil production, were forced to do a U-turn – a clear sign that US-Saudi relations are not as warm as last year.
Over the last few weeks Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have been lobbying the US government in support of MBS and, according to the website Middle East Eye, “Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman attempted to persuade Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a conflict with Hamas in Gaza as part of a plan to divert attention from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” A “war in Gaza would distract Trump’s attention and refocus Washington’s attention on the role Saudi Arabia plays in bolstering Israeli strategic interests”.3 Yet all this – including attempts to bribe Erdoğan with promises of Saudi purchases of arms from Turkey – seems to have failed so far.
To add insult to injury, Qatar-Israel-Hamas negotiations, which started a few months ago, seem to have progressed. Last week, in what was an unprecedented move, Netanyahu allowed the transfer of $15 million to Gaza, to pay for “salaries”, following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut them in Gaza last year. The money is also supposed to contribute towards medical care of the wounded. Despite criticism by some, including his own ministers, who have denounced the transfer of millions to Gaza as “protection money”, Netanyahu has defended the initiative. In fact, the Israeli prime minister said: “I’m doing everything I can in coordination with security experts to return calm to [Israeli] villages of the south, but also to prevent a humanitarian disaster [in Gaza].”
According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Qatar and Israel had agreed to establish a sea passage between Cyprus and Gaza – a route that would be under Israeli security supervision and monitored by international forces.
Of course, some of this seemed to be in doubt following a ‘secret’ security operation on November 11 by Israeli special forces, using a civilian vehicle deep inside Gaza. What was a plan to target and execute a senior Hamas commander was botched – an Israeli officer was killed and another was wounded. Seven Palestinians were killed.
There is speculation in the Middle Eastern press that opponents of the Qatar deal in the Israeli government planned and ordered the Israel Defence Forces operation. Some ministers, including Naftali Bennett, who had strongly criticised the Qatar-Israel-Hamas deal, were happy to see an escalation of the conflict in Gaza. However, three days after the IDF adventure into Gaza, there seems little sign that either side wants a full-scale war at this particular time. A ceasefire was agreed on November 12 and seems to be holding. MBS’s dream of an Israeli-Palestinian war diverting attention from his plight has not materialised.
Meanwhile, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has resigned, labelling the deal with Gaza “a capitulation to terror”.
Saudi officials have changed their story about the Khashoggi execution so many times that it is difficult to believe anything they say. However, they have consistently denied allegations that MBS played any role in the planning of this political murder. Instead they blame rogue elements, including general Ahmed al-Assiri, who discussed a $2 billion plan with a private intelligence firm to “sabotage Iran’s economy”. During these discussions Assiri is said to have also asked about plans to kill general Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
A few days earlier fresh allegations were made about the kind of activities Saudi publicists are alleged to follow in UK. According to The Guardian, “A UK-based Iranian TV station is being funded through a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close links to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.”4 Although it is difficult to verify the paper’s claims that bin Salman is the “force behind the TV channel” via his media advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, there is no doubt that Iran International’s relentless promotion of pro-Trump ‘regime change’ groups such as Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and individuals such as the son of the ex-shah do follow a clear political agenda. The reporter who is associated with the article has faced a barrage of verbal abuse, and threats of legal action, as well as threats to his safety.
Of course, the TV channel is not unique in promoting individuals and organisations who have been emboldened by Trump’s new sanctions. There are many exiled Iranians, including royalists, ‘liberals’ and even some claiming to be on the left who endorse sanctions as a means of achieving regime change. In the last few weeks some of us have tried to balance the situation by writing or speaking against this type of regime change and as a result we are accused of ‘helping the Islamic Republic by criticising its opponents’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was precisely the reluctance of the Iranian left to expose Ruhollah Khomeini and his brand of Islamic fundamentalism prior to the February uprising of 1979 that led to the nightmare of the religious state. It is a state which claims to be the government of the disinherited, while presiding over one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, where the gap between the rich and the poor is reaching unprecedented levels.
Last week Iranians were treated to an interview with the former shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, courtesy of Iran International TV. In answer to the sycophantic ‘questions’ that started with praise of the hapless ex-prince, every time he opened his mouth he managed to say something stupid.
In other words, if a section of the al Saud family is behind the funding of this TV station run by exiled Iranians, they are failing badly – every time they promote MEK or Reza Pahlavi, they only manage to strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei and the Tehran regime. As much as Iranians hate the increasingly dictatorial tone of the supreme leader at a time of severe economic crisis – not all of which can be blamed on sanctions – the alternatives presented by US regime change planners are both too stupid and too corrupt to be taken seriously. All of this amounts to yet another setback for MBS and the Saudi royals.
As the massacre in Gaza continues, time and time again the survivors of the conflict are heard on Middle Eastern and western media complaining about the leaders of Arab countries failing the Palestinian cause. In fact, even in comparison with previous wars, the official reaction by Arab states has been extremely poor. Protestors in many Arab capitals are blaming their own governments for making no effort to stop the bloodshed. In the first week of relentless bombing, the military-led Egypt, under former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, went as far as to blame Hamas for the Palestinian deaths. Naturally then, the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt were kept closed.
Ironically the Arab spring (and its failure) has played a negative role in this. Arab governments seem so preoccupied with their internal problems that they have failed even to give voice to the usual rhetoric of condemnation. According to Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, “In all the other invasions and assaults on Gaza, there was at least some government that would come out and talk about how what Israel was doing was illegal and show some support. This time around, there’s been nothing. The silence is deafening.”1
Of course, the same is not true about the Arab population. There have been major demonstrations in Middle Eastern capitals, from Tunis to Sana’a. However, those in Cairo have been much smaller than in the past – probably a direct result of the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as Hamas’s close ally.
Recriminations about Arab reactions to the Gaza massacre have already started. Qatar is accusing Egypt of being an obstacle to a ceasefire at a time when all parties are in Cairo for negotiations. Meanwhile Egypt’s foreign minister accuses Qatar, Turkey and Hamas of undermining his government’s attempts to negotiate a ceasefire. Israel, on the other hand, singles out Qatar as the main provider of arms and funds to Hamas.
Non-Arab Iran has had a turbulent relationship with Hamas over the last few years, but the reconciliation initiated in January 2014 means the Iranian regime appears to be one of only two governments in the region voicing opposition to events in Gaza (Turkey being the other). However, before anyone rushes to congratulate the Islamic Republic, it is worth noting that the Shia government’s relations with Hamas were badly damaged after Hamas supported the uprising against Iran’s ally, president Bashar al-Assad, two and a half years ago. At that time Iran stopped all financial aid to Hamas, estimated to be worth around £14 million a month.
In fact, contrary to scare stories in Tel Aviv and Washington about Iran’s funding of Hamas’s war, Iranian leaders’ talk about Palestine does not match their actions. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei was scathing in his attack on Israel: “This rabid dog, this rapacious wolf, has attacked innocent people, and humanity must show a reaction. This is genocide, a catastrophe on a historical scale.”2 However, earlier in the week, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and his foreign minister were absent from the state-sponsored pro-Palestine demonstration – probably conscious of the delicate stage of negotiations with the P5+1 powers.
Yes, there have been promises of aid, but so far Iran has delivered very little practical support and it is very doubtful that this crisis-ridden country, its economy destroyed by sanctions, will do much. It is wary of the political risks involved in sending arms – in this crucial four-month extension to negotiations over a nuclear deal it does not want to be accused of ‘aiding terrorism’ by the west.
In Washington the Republican chair of the house intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, claimed last week that the extension of nuclear talks means that Iran will now be able to send financial support to ‘militants’ in the Gaza strip, especially now that the US administration has freed $2.8 billion of oil revenue. And, for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the obstacles to a long-term deal between the US and Iran are no longer limited to Tehran’s nuclear capability. There is the alleged support for Hamas. In fact Iran’s improved relations with Hamas are likely to be temporary. Hamas has close relations with the Syrian rebels, Assad’s opponents, and Iran has no intention of giving up its support for the Syrian dictator. Of course, the reality is that the Islamic Republic’s support for Palestine has always been opportunistic.
However, the $64 million question throughout the Middle East is, where does the Islamic State (formerly Isis) stand on all this? In late June and early July the pro-Israeli press was full of scare stories about Isis cells in Gaza. It was alleged that mourners carrying black flags at a funeral in Gaza were Isis supporters, although, far from being an indication of support for the Islamic State, black flags are a common feature of Muslim funerals.
Hamas itself categorically denied Egyptian security claims that “terrorists” have infiltrated Sinai through Gaza tunnels. According to Hamas, there is no Islamic State presence in the Gaza strip. And in fact the jihadists’ official position is that fighting the ‘infidels’ takes precedence over fighting Israel. Responding to a question regarding the group’s position vis-à-vis the current conflict in Gaza, an Islamic State spokesman said: “The greatest answer to this question is in the Qur’an, where Allah speaks about the nearby enemy – those Muslims who have become infidels – as they are more dangerous than those who were already infidels.” There must be “priority” given to “fighting those who have become disbelievers over conquest of Jerusalem”, since “Jerusalem will not be freed until we get rid of the idolaters, such as the wealthy families and the players appointed by the colonial government who control the fate of the Islamic world.”3 This was shocking to many, coming as it did so soon after Isis’s claim to lead Muslims worldwide. Many Islamists must have expected the new caliphate to be in forefront of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist state.
This deprioritisation prompted political attacks on the Islamic State. In response, the group’s spokesperson, Nidal Nuseiri, reiterated the need to ensure that “Bayt al-Maqdis” (Jerusalem) belongs to believers and claimed the destruction of Israel was central to the holy war Isis was waging. However, this required a “systematic approach” and a “process that will take many stages”. Some of those “stages” – building a firm base for an Islamic state in Iraq, and using it as a springboard to wage war in Syria and Lebanon – have already been achieved. But he said a number of other criteria still needed to be fulfilled before challenging Israel directly.
Among them, Nuseiri said, the US, Israel’s greatest ally, needed to be weakened politically and economically via attacks on the American mainland, as well as against US interests in Muslim countries. Additionally, the Islamic State needed to expand its borders to cover all of “greater Syria” (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and possibly Gaza). After all this had been accomplished, the new caliphate would be in a strong position to take on Israel directly. In other words, as Palestinians are massacred, the Islamic State will do nothing to help them. It will continue its efforts to ‘purify the religion’ by killing fellow Muslims, and by attacking innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria.
All this was music to the ears of conspiracy theorists in Iran and Iraq. The Iranian agency, Fars News, quoted Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency turncoat, who said: “British and American intelligence and the Mossad worked together to create the … Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant using a strategy called the ‘hornet’s nest’. The plan was devised to protect Israel from security threats by diverting attention to the newly manufactured regional enemy: Isis.”4
In the good old days of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s official news agency played a crucial role in starting false rumours, which were then repeated by government officials and the rest of the Iranian press and media as fact. Clearly the agency has returned to its old practices and this time pro-Maleki Iraq and the official press in Syria have also picked up on its ‘revelations’ about the Islamic State.
Of course, the Iranian government believes it can take the moral high ground and attack the jihadist group as part of its ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign. This allows Iran to side with the Shia government in Baghdad and the Alawite dictator in Damascus, pretending it is not just a campaign against its Sunni opponents.
Meanwhile, Israel has at last admitted what everyone already knew: there are no grounds for believing Hamas ordered the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers murdered on June 12 – the incident seized on by Tel Aviv to launch its latest war, part of the strategic campaign to eventually drive out millions of Palestinians from a ‘greater Israel’.
Now it is confirmed that the initial Israeli attack against Gaza had nothing to do with that incident: it was an attempt to sabotage the deal between Hamas and Fatah, to isolate Hamas and punish Fatah for the rapprochement. However, this plan has already failed. As early as July 10, the Israeli press was reporting missiles being launched against Israel by groups linked to Fatah. Amin Maqboul, secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, claimed that Palestinians are united against the Israeli assault, rejecting the idea that the war will result in the collapse of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. He said: “We all know that the main Israeli goal has been to break up the national unity reconciliation. We will respond by strengthening our unity and reconciliation.”
All this has led to the Zionist press launching a campaign against Fatah. This quote from Arutz Sheva sums it up: “The ‘moderate’ Palestinian leadership has shown its true colours. It sides with the terrorists, not with Israel.”5
On July 13 the Persian-speaking spokesperson of the US state department was asked by the BBC if in the absence of any progress in negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran before July 20 there would be an extension to the deadline for the final phase of nuclear discussions. His reply was clear: John Kerry is in Vienna to resolve the differences and we want to sign the final deal. So don’t let’s talk of extensions.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was in Vienna for those talks in an attempt to resolve what William Hague has called “a huge gap” – in particular between Iran’s demand for a future nuclear enrichment programme in spite of the west’s strong opposition.
By July 15, after three meetings with Iranian officials, Kerry seemed positive, although both he and Zarif were already hinting at an extension of the July 20 deadline. Further concessions by Iran are likely to include a possible delay of three to seven years in pursuing aspects of the country’s nuclear programme. Irrespective of the final outcome, it is clear that Iran is under considerable pressure to sign the final agreement. A return to sanctions worse than in the 2010-13 period is unthinkable. However, the Iranian negotiating team is aware that the “full support” of supreme leader Ali Khamenei will only last as long as they can come up with a face-saving compromise.
In theory the general outlines of the proposed final deal between the P5+1 and Iran is very clear: western powers will recognise Iran’s rights to have a nuclear industry, as long as the country accepts inspections and verification of all its nuclear facilities. On the face of it, both sides agree with this proposal and, given the current US predicament over Iraq (not to mention Syria and Afghanistan), one might have thought there would be fresh momentum to resolve things. However, US-Iranian relations are not that simple and the west’s insistence on restrictions on nuclear enrichment, the closure of the Arak heavy water plant and an end to plutonium production go far beyond nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conditions (they are, according to the Iranian team, “NPT-plus”).
Iranian president Hassan Rowhani sent his brother to Vienna, apparently as an advisor to the foreign secretary, but sections of the Iranian press claim he came with new proposals that should narrow the gap between the two sides – better monitoring facilities, and a delay in pursuing certain aspects of the nuclear programme in return for Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
However, none of this is sufficient for the US. The reality is, the US wants to punish Iran and make sure it cannot benefit from the political vacuum in the region. It wants to ensure that its own interpretation of the NPT becomes the norm, as far as the developing world is concerned. On this Khamenei is probably right when he says US concerns have little to do with nuclear proliferation.
Two interpretations of the NPT have dominated the various stages of the talks. On the one hand, there is the non-aligned countries’ literal interpretation. The ‘Brics’ states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) believe the NPT allows for the development of what is known as ‘fuel cycle capabilities’. In fact Brazil and South Africa, who have given up nuclear weapons capability themselves, are allowed to enrich nuclear material, and the Iranian president and foreign minister have based their negotiating position on this interpretation of the NPT.
On the other hand, the US and its allies clearly believe that specific rules should be imposed on certain countries. In this interpretation of the NPT, initiated in the early 2000s by George Bush, the intention is to impose an international ban on the transfer of fuel cycle technologies to countries that do not already possess them. This understanding has been followed by the Obama administration, which insisted on changes to NPT conditions to enable more intrusive and proactive inspections in specific states. Definitely the restrictions posed on Tehran are of this category: ie, they are unique to Iran.
That is why the most important obstacle to a deal over the last few months has been the controversy regarding ‘dual use’ capability and fuel cycle technology. Power stations, as well as nuclear medical research, rely on enriched uranium, and the same reactors producing civil-use uranium can provide the capability to enrich it to the higher levels of concentration necessary for making nuclear bombs.
Over the last decade the US administration has insisted the UN security council adopt resolutions aimed at ending nuclear enrichment in Iran. Tehran accepted them, together with Washington’s demand to limit nuclear enrichment to 20%. According to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, Iran has complied with all the restrictions imposed as of November 2013: all uranium enriched beyond 5% was diluted or converted to uranium oxide. The installation or preparation of new centrifuges was halted, and 50% of the centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility and 75% at the Fordow enrichment facility have been made inoperable. At the Arak nuclear power plant fuel production has stopped. The IAEA inspectors have been granted daily access to Natanz and Fordow, with some sites monitored by 24-hour cameras. They also have access to Iran’s uranium mines and centrifuge production facilities. In other words, there has been full compliance with the interim conditions.
However, it has been obvious since November 2013 that serious points of contention between Iran and P5+1, not least over interpretation of the NPT, will make the final stages of these negotiations much more difficult. Contrary to what was reported in most of the media, the issue is not over the number of centrifuges, but ‘separative work units’ (SWU), by which the power of uranium enrichment is measured in kilograms or metric tonnes. Two weeks ago Khamenei surprised many commentators by divulging the sticking point of the negotiations. According to the Iranian side, the country needs 190,000 SWU per year. But clearly this is a red line for the Obama administration.
Israel and NPT
Throughout these negotiations the elephant in the room has been Israel. Here is a country with nuclear weapons capability, yet it denies it has any nuclear plants, has not signed the NPT and therefore is exempt from any inspections or monitoring. However, the whole world knows about its heavy water plant in Dimona (listed as a textile factory), which produces at least 40kg of plutonium a year – sufficient for 10 atom bombs.
Israel began its nuclear weapons research from its inception as a state in 1948. In exchange for Israeli cooperation during the Suez crisis in 1956, France provided know-how and helped in the construction of a reactor complex at Dimona – it is capable of large-scale plutonium production and reprocessing. By 1958 the US knew about the nuclear facility and, according to White House documents released under the 50-year rule, the subject came up in a number of discussions between US presidents and Israeli prime ministers.
However, in the early 1960s French president Charles de Gaulle ordered restrictions and conditions on the supply of uranium to Israel and in 1964 it was discovered that Argentina had agreed to sell 80 tons of uranium ‘yellow cake’ to Israel, which replaced the fuel it had expected from France. The story of the Argentine yellow cake sale to Israel has remained largely untold because Israel went to great lengths to keep it a secret and because the US government and its close allies kept quiet about what they knew at the time.
After French disengagement in the early 1960s, Israel continued to progress its nuclear programme covertly. Before the 1967 Six-Day War, several nuclear devices were reportedly assembled. Israel had certainly produced its first nuclear weapon by 1967, but it was not until 1968-69 that US officials concluded that an Israeli bomb existed.
The yellow cake issue was a big Israeli secret, but bigger still was the existence of a reprocessing facility to convert reactor fuel from Dimona into weapons-grade plutonium. The Israelis had told the Canadians and the Americans in 1961 that Dimona would include a pilot plant for reprocessing, but it was assumed that it would be too small to support a weapons programme. In reality the original French design for Dimona included a large underground reprocessing facility – Israel’s most important nuclear secret, which Dimona technician Mordechai Vanunu made public in 1986. Soon after The Times published an interview with Vanunu, he was lured to Rome, where he was kidnapped by Mossad, smuggled back to Israel and jailed.
In 1969 the CIA became concerned about massive loss of material from Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation and its possible connection to Israel’s nuclear programme. We know this because the CIA wrote to the US attorney general: “It is critical for us to establish whether or not the Israelis now have the capability for fabricating nuclear weapons, which might be employed in the near east.”1
Israel was expected to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, a number of international events delayed ratification and it was during this period that Israel’s internal divisions and hesitations over the treaty became public. The Johnson administration tried to use the sale of 50 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers to pressure Israel to sign the NPT, but subsequently abandoned the idea. In April 1969 Henry Kissinger issued a national security study memorandum asking for a review of options for dealing with the Israeli nuclear programme, linking it to the pending sale of the Phantom. However, “if we explain our position publicly, we will be the ones to make Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons public, with all the international consequences this entails.”2
In September 1969, US president Richard Nixon met with Israeli premier Golda Meir and, according to Avner Cohen, the author of Israel and the bomb,3 there is sufficient historical evidence to indicate that the two “reached a secret understanding on at least one issue: Israel would keep its nuclear devices out of sight and not test them, and the United States would tolerate the situation and not press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that has been embraced by scores of countries around the world. That understanding remains to this day.”4
There is no written record of the meeting between Nixon and Meir that took place on September 26 1969. However, it marks the beginning of the US-Israeli nuclear understanding, whereby Israel pledged to maintain “nuclear restraint” – no testing, no declaration, no visibility – while White House agreed to “stand down” its pressure on Israel. Following on from this, on February 23 1970 the Israeli ambassador to the US, Yitzhak Rabin, informed Kissinger that, in the light of Nixon’s conversation with Meir in September 1969, Israel “has no intention to sign the NPT”.
By 1975, ‘opacity’ regarding Israeli nuclear arms had become the norm and, in keeping with the US-Israel understanding, when Congress questioned the state department as to whether Israel had nuclear weapons, the response was predictable. The state department refused to deny or confirm the existence of an Israeli bomb.
There are many unknowns about Israel’s nuclear capability. However, according to a study published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute entitled Plutonium and highly enriched uranium, 1996: world inventories, capabilities and policies, Israel had “a complete repertoire” of nuclear weaponry (neutron bombs, nuclear mines, suitcase bombs, submarine-based missiles …). This was the year that the UN general assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. By 2006 the Federation of American Scientists believed that Israel “could have produced enough plutonium for at least 100 nuclear weapons, but probably not significantly more than 200 weapons.”5
In 2009, during a press conference in the White House, Washington reporter Helen Thomas asked the US president if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. Predictably Obama avoided a reply, saying only that he did not want to “speculate”. UK spokespersons have followed the US lead on this. When asked about the Israeli bomb, Conservative peer and foreign affairs minister Baroness Warsi would only say: “Israel has not declared a nuclear weapons programme. We have regular discussions with the government of Israel on a range of nuclear-related issues.”
In parallel with such obfuscation, whenever the issue of an Israeli nuclear bomb is raised, there is always the implication that this is not a central question in any case. After all, Israel is a ‘democracy’ – unlike Iran, a religious autocracy.
Of course, it is true that nuclear weaponry in the hands of a religious dictatorship is hardly an inspiring prospect, especially when sections of the Shia theocracy talk about an Armageddon to precipitate the return of the 12th Shia imam. It is also true that protection against accidents for staff working in the nuclear industry and requirements regarding nuclear plants in an earthquake zone are matters of great importance – despite IAEA monitoring, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme is, above all else, a danger to its own population.
Having said that, Zionist Israel is unencumbered by external monitoring and can hardly be considered trustworthy. The fact that Israel arranged the kidnapping of the only technician who has dared to speak out about the country’s undeclared nuclear facilities, in order to make sure he could reveal no more from his prison cell, tells us a lot.
Are Israel’s nuclear facilities ‘safe’ as far as Israelis and others in the neighbouring countries, or indeed worldwide, are concerned? The answer is definitely no. The nuclear industry is inherently unsafe and obviously secret ‘nuclear’ plants, which by definition are beyond public scrutiny, are even more dangerous. Nuclear industry specialists consider 40-year-old facilities such as Israel’s ‘textile factory’ nuclear plant to be in desperate need of replacement.
Several accidents have occurred in Dimona. The first we know of took place in 1956 or 1957, before the construction of the nuclear plant itself. Scientists in the Weizmann Institute working on the construction of the reactor revealed: “Material which was supposed to seal the nuclear substance and protect it from leaking cracked and radioactive materials leaked. This was discovered late, and high reading of nuclear material was found in the laboratory and in the bodies of some of the workers. High radiation was also found in the homes of the young scientists, articles they touched and even their children’s beds.”6
This was all reported by the Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv in 2006 following 50 years of censorship on this question.
Haya Sadeh, widow of Dror Sadeh, one of the scientists employed at the lab, explains the situation as follows: “Dror arrived from the Weizmann Institute with two other persons and a Geiger counter in order to measure the radiation levels. They said there had been an ‘accident’. They went to the hut where we lived and then to the children’s dormitory where our son was staying. They found contamination on everything that Dror touched, even on Shmuel’s baby crib and his sheets. Dror would come every time from the lab and directly go over to the children’s dorm. They saw that everything was contaminated. We had a sink where we would make coffee. The sink and utensils were all contaminated. We got rid of the utensils and Dror’s clothes. None of us knew about the dangers of nuclear materials.”7
This incident forced Israeli authorities to close down the Weizmann Institute while all those working there were asked to undergo tests. We know of at least two scientists, including Dror Sadeh, who died of cancer as a result of the incident.
Haya Sadeh explains the ‘democratic’ Israeli state’s approach: “They were all interested in keeping the incident quiet. Nobody knew that the Weizmann Institute was doing things like that. I too talked to no-one regarding these issues. I thought, ‘Why ruin things?’ It would have closed down the institute. However, it was always at the back of my mind, but Dror did not want to think about it, not even after the first scientist died.”
On December 14 1966 another major accident occurred in the Dimona reactor. One employee was killed and an entire section was contaminated. At the time it was thought that the improper use of alcohol for cleaning purposes was the main cause of the accident. The clean-up took weeks and throughout this period the reactor was shut down.
Then in 1982 a hydrogen leak produced a small explosion and in the early 1990s a large fire broke out in the reactor’s grounds, causing another shutdown, this time for a longer period. Again, there was a news blackout – you can hardly admit to nuclear accident if you deny having a nuclear programme.
In 1994, following heavy rains in the Dimona area, water leaked from the reactor’s drainage pools. Clearly this water was contaminated. Yossi Sarid, minister of environmental affairs, told reporters they could not bring their own Geiger counters to the scene and instead produced a reading from a ministerial counter, which gave a zero result. Clearly a stage-managed pretence at an investigation. However, Sarid admitted in front of the TV cameras that Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister, had forbidden the publication of the official findings. And, of course, no-one was allowed to ask about the nuclear waste from a plant that does not exist.
In October 1997, a Tel Aviv district court judge ordered £427,000 be paid to the family of an employee at the Negev Nuclear Research Centre in Dimona, who died of cancer in 1989, aged 43. The judge ruled there was a link between his death and his work, as he could have been exposed to radiation.
None of this means we should ignore accidents that have taken place at Iranian plants, such as the blast at Isfahan in 2011, or the lax attitude to health and safety reported by staff. However, at least Iran’s nuclear plants are clearly marked on the map – they are not shown as textile plants and they are regularly monitored by IAEA inspectors. Those of us who have campaigned for a nuclear-free Middle East oppose Iran’s nuclear programme as much as that of Israel.
However, achieving such an aim requires openness about existing nuclear capability in the region and the Zionist state’s ‘secret’ nuclear programme, which is so prone to accidents and mishaps, making a mockery of western claims of adhering to non-proliferation. It is such double standards that provoke such deep resentment in the region and, in the absence of a revolutionary left, it will be the fundamentalists and jihadists who continue benefit from such obvious imperialist arrogance.
Let me start with a proposition that should by now be a matter of general knowledge: the totality of Jews do not constitute a nation in the modern sense of this term; nor have they been a nation in any contemporary meaningful sense for well over 2,000 years.
The only attribute common to all Jews is Judaism, the Jewish religion, encoded in the Hebrew-cum-Aramaic language of its sacred texts and liturgy. The only way in which a non-Jew – a person whose mother was not Jewish – can become a Jew is by religious conversion; and a Jew who converts to another religion is no longer regarded as a Jew (except by racists, who believe in the false doctrine of race). There is, of course, such a thing as secular Jewish identity: in other words, there are people not practising Judaism or believing in its god, but who regard themselves and are regarded by others as Jews. But outside Israel – I will return to this significant exception later on – secular Jewish identity tends to dissipate after two or three generations: it normally no longer pertains to persons who do not practise Judaism, and none of whose parents and grandparents practised this religion.
Of course, some Jewish communities have, or used to have, common secular cultural or social attributes, such as a communal language of everyday discourse, a literature in this language and a distinctive musical tradition. But these attributes differ as between communities. Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish (a German dialect), Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Iraqi Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic.
The fact that the Jews are not a single nation or ‘people’ has been popularised by Shlomo Sand’s book The invention of the Jewish people.1 Actually, Sand did not claim he was disclosing original or new discoveries; he merely put together what was quite well known, but not so widely recognised. Indeed, anti-Zionists had long ago argued that the Jews do not constitute a nation in the modern sense (current since the French Revolution).2 It was simply a matter of dispelling the misconception fostered by Zionist ideology: the myth that Jews all over the world are a single ancient nation, forcibly exiled from its ancient homeland, the Land of Israel, to which it is ‘returning’, thanks to the Zionist project of ‘ingathering of the exiles’.
A Jewish nation that perished
Yet this Zionist myth had a degree of verisimilitude, because it was partly based on fact; a fallacious generalisation of a particular reality. By the second half of the 19th century, the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim in the Russian empire and its immediate periphery did constitute a nation or quasi-nation, with its own Yiddish language, vibrant culture, secular literature, music and (by the end of that century) organised working class, led by the Jewish Bund. (The Bundists did not have to invent a new Yiddish culture: they simply invested it with proletarian content.) This quasi-national group did not, of course, encompass the entirety of world Jewry, but did comprise a considerable majority of it.3
The Bund, the foremost Jewish workers’ organisation in the Russian empire, was formed in 1897. A year later, when it helped to found the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, it demanded, and was initially granted, the right to be an autonomous national section within the new party. In the 1903 second congress of the RSLDP, the majority (Bolshevik) faction, led by Lenin, had that right revoked, and the Bund thereupon split from the RSDLP. (It rejoined the party at the 1906 6th Congress, in which the Bolshevik faction was a minority.) Among Lenin’s arguments was the claim that the Jews were not a nation. In support of this claim he quoted “one of the most prominent of Marxist theoreticians”, Karl Kautsky, as well as the anti-Zionist radical French Jew, Alfred Naquet.4
However, Lenin’s polemic on this particular point is somewhat misplaced: Kautsky and Naquet argue, in effect, that the totality of all Jews is not a nation. But the Bund had no need for such an overarching, and indeed false, notion. It was not concerned with world Jewry, but only with the Jewish workers in the Russian empire, as its full name made clear: General Jewish Labour Bund (Federation) of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Kautsky and Naquet based their denial of Jewish nationhood on the observation that world Jewry lacks a common language and is not territorially localised. But the Jews with whom the Bund was concerned did have their own distinct language, Yiddish. And, while they were not a majority of the population in a single, contiguous territory, they did not differ very much in this respect from some other national groups in the mosaic of eastern Europe, where nationhood tended to be primarily a linguistic-cultural category.
Moreover, Yiddish-speakers did form a high proportion of the population in quite a few towns and cities, mostly clustered in the western parts of the Russian empire. This was documented by the Russian imperial census of 1897. Note that in the census summary tables ‘nationality’ was based on the declared mother language of respondents. The census recorded a little over five million Yiddish speakers, constituting some four percent of the total population. The census also classified respondents by religion; and, according to this classification, the Jews were 4.15% of the total, presumably because some Jews (mostly outside the Pale of Settlement) were linguistically assimilated.5
Let us look at the percentage of Jews in the population of some selected cities.6
Kovno (Kaunas) 36
Wilno (Vilnius) 41
Kishinev (Chișinău) 43
Clearly, it was quite possible for Jews living in those areas to interact mainly with members of their own community, in their own language. So it is hardly surprising that many of them regarded themselves, and were widely regarded by others, as a national group. (Indeed, Lenin’s contrary view notwithstanding, Jews in the USSR were classed as a national group, and were officially registered as such in the ‘nationality’ rubric of the ID document that each Soviet citizen had to carry.)
Of course, this quasi-nation no longer exists: most of it perished in the Nazi genocide, and the remainder largely dispersed. But a considerable majority of present-day Jews around the world are its relics and descendants, and still carry in their collective memory a lingering sense of a national identity, which, while no longer based on actual reality, did have a real basis in the not too distant past.
Western Jews’ opposing view
While many Jews living in, or recently migrated from, eastern Europe around 1900 tended to regard Jewishness as a national category, members of the long-established Jewish communities in western Europe and the US tended to view matters quite differently, due to their very different experience. They shared their non-Jewish compatriots’ language of everyday discourse and secular culture. And, unlike their east European coreligionists, in most western countries they had won legal equality. In the US Jews had equal rights since 1789, and the French Revolution emancipated the Jews in 1791. This was extended to other west European countries during the 19th century (Napoleon freed the Jews in the countries he conquered). In the UK, the process was – as you would expect – gradual, and Jews achieved full legal equality relatively late, under the 1858 Oath Bill.7
The deal in 1791 revolutionary France was that Jews would be equal citizens of France, as members of the French nation. They would, of course, be perfectly free to practise their distinct religion. This kind of deal was emulated elsewhere – and it was a tremendous achievement, which its beneficiaries were loath to lose. To most of them the idea, propagated by anti-Semites and Zionists, of a separate, worldwide Jewish nation was anathema.
I referred earlier to Lenin’s polemic, in which he invokes Alfred Naquet against the Bund. Here is the relevant quote from Lenin’s article
A French Jew, the radical Alfred Naquet, says practically the same thing [as Kautsky – MM], word for word, in his controversy with the anti-Semites and the Zionists.8 “If it pleased Bernard Lazare,” he writes of the well-known Zionist, “to consider himself a citizen of a separate nation, that is his affair; but I declare that, although I was born a Jew … I do not recognise Jewish nationality … I belong to no other nation but the French … Are the Jews a nation? Although they were one in the remote past, my reply is a categorical negative.“The concept nation implies certain conditions which do not exist in this case. A nation must have a territory on which to develop, and, in our time at least, until a world confederation has extended this basis, a nation must have a common language. And the Jews no longer have either a territory or a common language … Like myself, Bernard Lazare probably did not know a word of Hebrew, and would have found it no easy matter, if Zionism had achieved its purpose, to make himself understood to his co-racials [congénères] from other parts of the world.
“German and French Jews are quite unlike Polish and Russian Jews. The characteristic features of the Jews include nothing that bears the imprint [empreinte] of nationality. If it were permissible to recognise the Jews as a nation, as Drumont does, it would be an artificial nation. The modern Jew is a product of the unnatural selection to which his forebears were subjected for nearly 18 centuries.”
This argumentation was echoed a few years later by leading members of the established Jewish community in Britain against the Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann – who was to be the first president of Israel – was born in 1874 near Pinsk (a city where Jews were nearly three quarters of the total population, as we have seen). From 1904 he was senior lecturer in chemistry at the university of Manchester, where he invented an industrial process for producing acetone – a crucial input for manufacturing the explosive, cordite, which played an important role in World War I. During that war, he was active lobbying the British government for a charter whereby Zionist colonisation of Palestine would proceed under British protection. (This charter was eventually granted on November 2 1917. It is known as the Balfour Declaration and was included verbatim in the text of the Palestine mandate granted to Britain in June 1922 by the League of Nations.)
When Lucien Wolf, distinguished journalist and leading member of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews, was confronted with Weizmann’s project, he wrote a worried letter to James de Rothschild, dated August 31 1916:
Dear Mr James de Rothschild
At the close of our conference with Dr Weizmann on the 17th inst, you asked me to write you a letter defining my view …
I have thought over very carefully the various statements made to me by Dr Weizmann, and, with the best will in the world, I am afraid I must say that there are vital and irreconcilable differences of principles and method between us.
The question of principle is raised by Dr Weizmann’s assertion of a Jewish nationality. The assertion has to be read in the light of the authoritative essay on ‘Zionism and the Jewish future’ recently published by Mr Sacher, more especially those written by Dr Weizmann himself and by Dr Gaster. I understand from these essays that the Zionists do not merely propose to form and establish a Jewish nationality in Palestine, but that they claim all the Jews as forming at the present moment a separate and dispossessed nationality, for which it is necessary to find an organic political centre, because they are and must always be aliens in the lands in which they now dwell (Weizmann, p6), and, more especially, because it is “an absolute self-delusion” to believe that any Jew can be at once “English by nationality and Jewish by faith” (Gaster, pp92-93).
I have spent most of my life in combating these very doctrines, when presented to me in the form of anti-Semitism, and I can only regard them as the more dangerous when they come to me in the guise of Zionism. They constitute a capitulation to our enemies, which has absolutely no justification in history, ethnology or the facts of everyday life, and if they were admitted by the Jewish people as a whole, the result would only be that the terrible situation of our coreligionists in Russia and Romania would become the common lot of Jewry throughout the world.9
And on May 24 1917, as negotiations that were to lead to the Balfour Declaration were at an advanced stage, Alexander and Claude Montefiori, presidents respectively of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and of the Anglo-Jewish Association, wrote a letter to TheTimes in the name of the Conjoint Committee of these two bodies, protesting against the fallacies and dangers of political Zionism. After declaring their adherence to Lucien Wolf’s position, the writers went on to say that“establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded on the theory of Jewish homelessness, must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands and of undermining their hard-won positions as citizens and nationals of those lands”.
They point out that the theories of political Zionism undermined the religious basis of Jewry to which the only alternative would be “a secular Jewish nationality, recruited on some loose and obscure principle of race and of ethnographic peculiarity”.
They went on:
But this would not be Jewish in any spiritual sense, and its establishment in Palestine would be a denial of all the ideals and hopes by which the survival of Jewish life in that country commends itself to the Jewish conscience and Jewish sympathy. On these grounds the Conjoint Committee of the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association deprecates earnestly the national proposals of the Zionists.The second part in the Zionist programme which has aroused the misgivings of the Conjoint Committee is the proposal to invest the Jewish settlers [in Palestine] with certain special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population …
In all the countries in which Jews live the principle of equal rights for all religious denominations is vital to them. Were they to set an example in Palestine of disregarding this principle, they would convict themselves of having appealed to it for purely selfish motives. In the countries in which they are still struggling for equal rights they would find themselves hopelessly compromised … The proposal is the more inadmissible because the Jews are and probably long will remain a minority of the population of Palestine, and might involve them in the bitterest feuds with their neighbours of other races and religions, which would severely retard their progress and find deplorable echoes thought the orient.10
A new Hebrew nation
As the Zionist colonisation of Palestine proceeded – beginning with the first aliyah (Jewish immigration) of 1882-1903 and the second aliyah of 1904-14; and then, following World War I, gathering momentum under British protection – a new Hebrew settler nation was forming in that country.
There is nothing exceptional about this. As a general rule, colonisation where the settlers’ economy did not depend on the labour-power of the indigenous people led to the formation of a new settler nation; think, for example, of North America or Australia. The only exceptional feature of the Hebrew settler nation is that Zionist ideology denies its distinct nationhood. As we have seen, according to this ideology the settlers are part of a pre-existing Jewish nation, encompassing all Jews everywhere. For this reason the self-awareness of this nation is schizophrenic. At the informal everyday level, persons who are not Jews according to the rabbinical definition, but are socially and culturally integrated in Hebrew society, are regarded – at least by secular Hebrews – as belonging to this new nation; but according to the dominant ideology they cannot be accepted as such.11 To borrow Marx’s distinction regarding the different senses of the term ‘class’, the Hebrew nation is a nation an sich (in itself) but not quite für sich (for itself).
Ironically, bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist Palestinian ideology mirrors its Zionist counterpart in denying the existence of a new Hebrew nation. It finds it difficult to come to terms with the existence of this nation and prefers to conceptualise it as a confessional Jewish community, similar in kind to (albeit larger than) Jewish minorities that existed for centuries in the Arab world, which were indeed essentially confessional communities. This conception is encoded in the formula, “secular, democratic Palestine, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims will live in equality and without discrimination”, proposed for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.12
However, readiness to step outside these ideologies will lead anyone familiar with the realities on the ground to conclude that a new Hebrew nation has indeed come into being. The first to do so were the Young Hebrews (better known as ‘Canaanites’, as they were pejoratively labelled by Zionists, who rightly regarded their views as heretical). This was a group of artists and writers that formed in 1939 a Committee for Consolidation of the Hebrew Youth. Although its rightwing Hebrew nationalism found little political acceptance, this group had a major impact on modern Hebrew literature and art.13
The Young Hebrews were by no means the first to designate the settler community in Palestine as ‘Hebrew’. This term was in fact commonly used by the Zionists themselves, who, while refusing to accept that this community was a distinct new nation, were quite willing to recognise its distinctiveness and newness – albeit as part of the alleged worldwide Jewish nation. Let me give a few examples of this common usage.
It is widely known that the pre-1948 settler community in Palestine was referred to as the ‘Yishuv’. But as a matter of fact the full term used at the time was the ‘Hebrew Yishuv’ (or, less commonly, the ‘new Yishuv’) – as distinct from the ‘old Yishuv’, the pre-Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land. The first Zionist feminist organisation in Palestine, founded in 1919, called itself the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael.14 The notorious Zionist campaign for excluding Arab workers from employment in the settler economy was conducted under the slogan “Hebrew Labour!” And I remember witnessing, as a young boy growing up in Tel-Aviv during the rift between the Zionist movement and the British government, mass Zionist demonstrations in which the main slogans displayed and chanted were “Aliah hofshit!” (free Jewish immigration) and “Medinah Ivrit!” (Hebrew state!).
Of special significance is the usage in a quintessentially Zionist text, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, promulgated on May 14 1948. In its two references to the settler community, the Hebrew text of this document uses the term, “Hebrew Yishuv”:
In World War II, the Hebrew Yishuv in this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations …Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Hebrew Yishuv and of the Zionist movement, … hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.
Even more significantly, in the official English translation, provided by Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, the term “Hebrew Yishuv”, which I italicised in this quotation, is falsely rendered as “the Jewish community”.15
‘Nation-state of the Jewish people’
This fudge – or, let me call a spade a spade: falsification – in the translation of a key document is not accidental. Since 1948, Zionists have been increasingly reluctant to use the term ‘Hebrew’ in referring to the so-called ‘Israeli Jews’ and have preferred the latter term. This terminological back-pedalling has a definite ideological, political and propagandist purpose.
It is well known that Israel defines itself officially as a “Jewish and democratic state”: this is enshrined in constitutional legislation adopted by the knesset.16 But most people are not fully aware of the import of this formula. It is widely recognised by critics of Israel that this official definition privileges its Jewish citizens and relegates its Palestinian Arab citizens – approximately one fifth of its population – to an inferior status. This is true, but by no means the whole truth. What the formula is intended to mean is that Israel is a state of the entire Jewish ‘nation’: not just of its own Jewish citizens, but of all Jews everywhere.
To prevent any ambiguity, it is now proposed to enact a basic law declaring Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.17 Moreover, senior Israeli politicians have already made it abundantly clear that any accord between Israel and the Palestinians must be based on acceptance of this formula. Thus, Ron Prossor, Israel’s envoy to the UN, asserted on April 26 2013 that “peace must be built on a clear recognition that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people”.18
So Israel officially presumes to be the state not only of Binyamin Netanyahu but, willy-nilly, also ‘of’ Ed Miliband and Michael Howard, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, as well as Alan Dershowitz.
Clearly, to promote this breathtaking pretension it is necessary to repress Hebrew identity, suppress any reference to it, and blur the distinction between it and Jewishness at large.
This political and ideological strategy is by no means new. In the May 1967 issue of Matzpen – the last one to appear before the June war – I published an article entitled ‘New premises for a false conclusion’, whose English translation is included in my book.19 This was a polemic against the leading Zionist historian and ideologue, Yigal Elam, who proposed exactly this strategy. Begging the reader’s indulgence, let me quote from my 46-year-old article:
The kernel of Zionism [according to Elam] is “the linkage of the State of Israel to the Jewish people … It is only this linkage that gives the State of Israel a sense and a raison d’être; it is only from this linkage that it developed, and only with this linkage can it exist and sustain itself in the world’s consciousness.” Israel is a Zionist state so long as it is not a political instrument of its inhabitants, but of all the world’s Jews; and the world’s Jews must be harnessed for pro-Israel activity …
He therefore proposes that Israel’s Zionist character be given an official, constitutional and institutional expression:
“The State of Israel will be accepted as the political project of the Jewish people, in the domain of responsibility of the Jewish people everywhere. This means that responsibility for the State of Israel and for whatever happens in it will not be confined to the citizens living within its borders. The Israelis will have to assert this issue in their constitution and give it immediate institutional expression (original emphasis).”
In order to secure the “permanent linkage between the Jewish people and the State of Israel” Elam proposes the following two institutions: (a) a written constitution that will proclaim the linkage between the State of Israel and the Jewish people; (b) a senate, in which the Jews of the diaspora will sit, and which will act alongside the knesset and will be empowered to prevent or delay legislation that is contrary to the constitution of the State of Israel or to Jewish public opinion around the world.
To the objection that it is unacceptable for the destiny of a country to be decided by those living abroad, Elam has a ready response: this is nothing new; this is precisely what Zionism has always practised. Indeed, the colonisation of Palestine was carried out without consulting its inhabitants, so the very existence of the Zionist state is based from the start on the premise that the destiny of Palestine ought to be determined not by its inhabitants, but by the entire Jewish people.20
The background to this proposed strategy was a crisis of Zionism in the period just before the 1967 June war: Jewish immigration had dwindled to a trickle, and the Zionist leadership was worried that in the long run Israel’s small size would turn the balance of power between it and the Arab world to its disadvantage.
Following the 1967 war, Israel greatly expanded its territorial domain, and has gained a large inflow of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. But it is now ruling over a Palestinian Arab population of roughly the same size as its Hebrew citizenry; and the sources of potential new Jewish immigration seem to be virtually exhausted. So the long-term anxiety about an adverse change in the balance of power is still haunting Zionist strategists. Plus ça change …
Politics of the two identities
In some progressive circles in the Jewish diaspora there are attempts to promote an alternative Jewish identity – secular and non-Zionist, in some cases pointedly anti-Zionist. I assume that this is motivated partly by nostalgia for the murderously extinguished progressive and proletarian tradition of east European Jewry, and partly by outrage at Israel’s pretension to speak and act for all Jews and thus implicate them in its misdeeds.
It is not my business to tell those who pursue such an alternative identity how to define themselves. It is entirely up to them. Even nostalgia is a legitimate sentiment (although, alas, it is no longer what it used to be …). And a progressive Jewish identity deployed against Zionist propaganda certainly plays a positive role.
But I believe that diasporic Jewish secular identity does not have a long-term future, because it lacks an objective basis. The condition of Jews in virtually all parts of the diaspora are not at all like those in eastern Europe around 1900, but more like – in fact, considerably more advanced than – those reflected in the quotes from Naquet, Wolf and the Montefioris. Jews enjoy equal rights, are well integrated in their respective homelands, speak the languages of their compatriots and have no separate culture. There are, of course, famous Jewish authors, writing ‘Jewish’ novels; but these are part of the general culture of their linguistic communities, just like the English novels of immigrant writers from the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, as I noted before, secular Jewish identity in the diaspora tends to dissipate within a very few generations.
Turning now to Hebrew national identity, it should be clear from my earlier discussion that I think it is very real and – at least potentially – a positive counter to Zionism. The Hebrew nation exists, and those who deny this fact are misguided by ideology. There are also some who claim that this nation is an oppressor not just due to present circumstances, which are mutable, but inherently and inexorably. I find this view quite mistaken. It is no truer of the Hebrew nation than of its American or Australian counterparts.
I think it is vital to recognise this fact, because no eventual benign democratic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be possible unless it is acceptable to a considerable majority – primarily the working class – of both national groups; and a precondition for this is recognition of their national existence, and right to exist on equal terms.
What a nation finds acceptable depends, of course, to a large extent on real objective circumstances. Under present conditions no benign resolution of the conflict is possible, because the balance of power is so overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour that what a large majority of Hebrews find acceptable falls far short of what can be acceptable to the Palestinian masses. Yet, even given Israel’s massive power, and despite the brutality of its attempts to impose an unjust outcome on the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nation of which they are a component part, it is unable to achieve this. The strong do what they can, yet the weak can still resist so long as they are alive. Only a total massacre can eliminate their resistance.
And even if the balance of power were to be totally reversed – a very big ‘if’ – the Hebrew masses would resist to the death any attempt to deny their nationhood or subjugate them as a nation. This is not an outcome that socialists ought to advocate.
I have outlined elsewhere a socialist resolution of the conflict, so I need not expand on it here.21 Suffice it to say that it looks beyond the narrow box of Palestine to a regional revolution that will overthrow Zionism as well as the oppressive Arab regimes and establish a socialist Arab east, within which both Palestinian Arab and Hebrew national groups can be accommodated by democratic consent and on equal terms.
1. Translated by Yael Lotan, London 2009.
2. Matzpen’s long-held view on this is reiterated in my 2006 public lecture Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution, included as chapter 33 in my book by the same title (Chicago 2012). See also the review of Sand’s book in chapter 32.
3. It is estimated that before World War II over 90% of all Jews were Ashkenazim (see S DellaPergola, ‘Demography’ in Encyclopaedia Judaica Philadelphia 2006, table 2. Also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazim). At the end of the 19th century a large majority of Ashkenazim were in the Russian empire and its periphery, although from about 1888 there was mass migration of Jews from that part of the world to the US and elsewhere.
8. Lenin is quoting from Alfred Naquet’s article, ‘Drumont and Bernard Lazare’, published on September 24 1903 in the Paris La Petite République. Édouard Drumont was founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France.
9. Photocopy of typewritten original in B Destani (ed) The Zionist movement and the foundation of Israel 1839-1972, Cambridge 2004, Vol 1, p727.
16. Passed in 1985 as amendment 9, clause 7a to the Basic law: the Knesset 1958. Israel has no written constitution, but ‘basic laws’ are supposed to be elements of a future constitution and have constitutional force.
19. Israelis and Palestinians (op cit), chapter 18.
20. Elam’s words quoted and paraphrased above are from his article, ‘New premises for the same Zionism’ Ot No2, winter 1967. Ot, of which Elam was an editor, was an official journal of the Labour Alignment.
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.
The public meeting held on Monday 28th May to discuss the war threats against Iran, which was jointly organised by Hands Off the People of Iran and the Milton Keynes Stop the War group was a good success. Over 20 people attended and heard an excellent opening from Moshé Machover, Israeli socialist and member of the HOPI steering committee. This was followed by a good discussion with a number of interesting questions and points being raised.
Thanks to Brian Robinson for the recordings and summary of the questions.
Responding to questions (see below):
What bearing do current events in Syria have on Israeli thinking? Doesn’t it seem all part of an Israeli push for war?
Some time ago, towards the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule, there was a rumour going around the middle east about a plan to move Palestinian refugees to Iraq, the alleged quid pro quo being that if Saddam agreed, the West would “get off his back”. The questioner also heard at the same time that the Saudis allegedly backed the plan, as part of their “unholy alliance” with Israel. Was there any truth in these rumours?
There was a report in the Guardian recently about some evidence having been found of a “nuclear clear-up” in Iran. There was no suggestion that it was evidence of military potential, or indeed of any other use, but the questioner wondered how easy or difficult it was for inspectors to distinguish between civilian-use and weapons-grade radioactive material.
We are “at the mercy of decisions made in Israel and Washington” concerning these matters, but how do the Israeli general public feel about them? To what degree is there opposition to an attack on Iran amongst the general Israeli public?
Does Israel really have a nuclear bomb? There is talk that they have a stockpile of simulated nuclear bombs only, but what is Prof Machover’s view? (A. There is no question but that they do have several hundred, possibly even more than Britain.)
A further question as to how Israeli nuclear policy makes sense.
In the early days of Israel, people used to emigrate “with a very egalitarian view of what it was about”, and they lived “like communists”, but that was then and this is now. What would the world’s view be, where would things be in 50 years?
Prof Machover deals with the first part of the question, but declines, with humour, to speculate on the long term future, apart from emphasising that we are now in the middle of a worldwide crisis of global capitalism and nobody knows how it is going to be resolved.
Further question re social media, specifically Facebook and how it might affect developments.
And further to that, what effect might the Occupy movement have?
Question about the situation inside Iran.
The demographic situation in Israel is not tenable, but the questioner felt that further ethnic cleansing would be both unsustainable and unsupportable in the light of world opinion, so what did the future hold for Israel? Do not Israelis suffer from an absence of hope and do they not therefore rather “live from day to day”?
The United States and its allies are racketing up the pressure on Iran as they have recently forced the heavyweights of the petrochemical industry Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura, BP and Royal Dutch Shell to end petrol sales to the fifth largest oil exporter. The building, construction and manufacturing £13 billion conglomerate Ingersol-Rand has also ceased business with Iran after threats to its operations by the Obama regime. These ending of contracts or refusing to enter into new terms with companies and the regime in Iran is down to massive U.S. pressure which is now culminating in new legislation that would penalise those companies that supply fuel to Iran. The legislation is an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 which would include severe and damaging monitoring and interference in trade with Iranian companies and Western businesses. This legislation also includes forced divestment from Iranian operations and interests by companies based or have interests in the United States.
Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and other Arab states have been receiving visits from US and Israeli officials threatening them about the risks they face by doing business with Iran. Brazil’s President Lula defied warnings from U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on business with Iran as she lashed out at the Brazilian government on her recent trip. Brazilian based companies will no doubt be put under massive pressure by the U.S. Government over the coming months.
Moves in the U.S. are being backed up in Europe and on the U.N. Security Council with only China as the stumbling block in the UN. The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was reported as being hopeful that new sanctions will be agreed that will target the Revolutionary Guards, Shipping, Banking and Insurance Sectors. This will no doubt lead to massive job losses and the further impoverishment of the working class.
Iran finds itself in a situation like other natural resource rich former semi-colonies, whilst sitting on one of the biggest known oil reserves in the world, its oil industry is dilapidated and has a fraction of the needed refining capabilities to ensure it can serve its internal market and industry. These sanctions will hold back any expansion in petrochemical industry as well as starving the population of petrol for daily use, further pushing down the living standards of population.
It is essential that the worker’s movement take the strengthening of the sanctions regime seriously. It is a mistake to see sanctions as an alternative to military action. Sanctions are a form of soft war and just like Iraq pave the way to some military action, either through targeted bombings or full scale invasions. The sanctions regime should be seen as a siege tactic to impose hunger, demoralisation an and desperation. Iraq was a perfect example of how sanctions impact on the population, the sanctions regime throughout the 1990’s killed over a million Iraqis and disproportionately children. The U.S. and its allies were hoping for a revolt out of desperation, which never came just like Zimbabwe. Such sanctions strengthen such regimes support base and demobilise the masses as they attempt to live a decent life and feed their families.
Sanctions like a military strike are a disaster to the cause of freedom and democracy. The only force capable of bring about genuine and progressive social change in Iran is the working class. We should also not look to the Iranian regime as a consistent anti-imperialist force not only does it support the puppet governments in Iraq and Afghanistan the theocratic regime supported and welcomed the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The only real anti-imperialist force is the working class of the Iran and the region. Our line in the UK is clear, our primary target is the British state and it’s allies who are strangling Iran in the run up to military action. We must continue and redouble our efforts to build organic support and solidarity links between the broad labour movement here and workers, youth and women in struggle in Iran.
Israeli anti-Zionist Moshe Machover of the Hopi Steering Committee will discuss what lies behind the renewed threats of intervention and increased sanctions against Iran from the US and Israel, and the utter hypocrisy of the nuclear pretext for ‘regime change’ in their own interests.
Come along to join in the discussion and meet others committed to the cause of the Iranian people.
Come and find out what we can do to oppose another disastrous imperialist adventure in the Middle East and strengthen the real forces for democracy in Iran and indeed across the world – the mass democratic workers’, women’s and student movements that we have seen in recent times.
Public meeting hosted by Hands Off the People of Iran
Ahmadinejad uses the ‘enemy without’ to justify increased repression, arrests and the torture of the ‘enemy within’, writes Yassamine Mather
The dramatic statements by Obama, Brown and Sarkozy about Iran’s undisclosed nuclear enrichment plant, made in a ‘breaking news’-style press conference on the first day of the G20 gathering in Pittsburgh, were clearly intended to prepare the world for a new conflict in the Middle East. The presentation of the ‘news’ and the language used in delivering the threats were reminiscent of the warnings about Iraq’s ‘45-minute’ strike capability.
According to Obama, “Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on October 1 they are going to have to come clean, and they will have to make a choice.” The alternative to sticking to ‘international rules’ on Iran’s nuclear development, would be “a path that is going to lead to confrontation”.
Yet in some ways the existence of a second uranium enrichment plant is old news. By all accounts US and UK secret services had known about this plant for at least three years – Israel and France also knew about it for some time and had delivered their finding to the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this year. The ‘dramatic’ disclosures came at a time when Russia was already on board regarding further sanctions. Given its billion-dollar trade with Iran, China – one of Iran’s major commercial partners – is unlikely to change its opposition to further sanctions.
So what was the main purpose of the Obama-Sarkozy-Brown show on September 25? Could it be it was directed mainly to audiences in the US, UK and France, to convince them that, at a time of economic uncertainty, western leaders have to deal with a ‘major external threat’ posed by Iran’s nuclear development?
But the elephant in that press conference room was the Israeli nuclear programme. While Iran might be approaching nuclear military capability by 2010-15 (no-one is claiming it has such capability now), another ‘religious’ state in the Middle East is exempt from IAEA regulations and possesses between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads (this according to US estimates), yet it maintains a policy of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ on whether it has nuclear weapons.
Former IAEA director general Mohamed El Baradei regarded Israel as a state possessing nuclear weapons, but there has been no IAEA inspection, hence the ambiguity over the number of warheads it possesses. Strictly speaking, as a beneficiary of the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II, Israel is not supposed to have any. Yet every year the US congress approves billions of dollars of US military aid to Israel. For the fiscal year 2010, Obama is requesting $2.775 billion.
The Symington and Glenn amendments to foreign aid law specifically prohibit US aid to nuclear states outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has signed the NPT. Israel has not.
Of course, none of this justifies the Iranian rulers’ obsession with reaching a stage where they can produce nuclear weapons. Unlike middle class nationalist Iranians, who even in their opposition to the regime, favour the government’s nuclear programme, the Iranian working class has been clear on this issue, as shown by placards on recent demonstrations: “We don’t want nuclear power – we don’t want huge salaries. We work so that we can live – we don’t live to work.”
Millions of Iranian workers have not been paid for months, while capitalists and the religious government keep telling them of Iran’s economic crisis and shortfalls in both the state and private funds, yet the Islamic regime seems to have sufficient funds to equip one more nuclear enrichment plant, paying billions – presumably to dubious sources – for black market equipment. The current escalation of the conflict also exposes the stupidity of the Iranian rulers who only admitted to the existence of this ‘secret’ plant after its existence was ‘exposed’.
Of course, Iranians have become so used to hearing total lies from the leaders of all factions of the Islamic regime that the revelation of the existence of this facility, hidden not far from the capital, did not come as a surprise. After all, this is the same government that used Photoshop to pretend a failed rocket did succesfully launch, the same government that cheated in the presidential elections, then lied about the number of people killed in the subsequent protests, and the same government whose president claims to have seen a white light descending from another world while he was addressing the UN assembly in 2007.
Further sanctions will bring more poverty for Iranian workers and it will be the Iranian people who will pay the price for the foolishness of the very leaders they have been protesting against for over two months. The US is keen on sanctions against companies exporting refined oil to Iran (which imports 60% of its requirements). It now looks like France and Germany are sceptical about such sanctions. They refer to the Iraq experience and the ease with which petrol can be smuggled across land borders.
The Iranian government has already indicated that it will cut petrol subsidies. It is blaming the west and hopes such a move will unite the country against the ‘foreign enemy’. Contrary to the pessimism of sections of the Iranian left in exile who ‘despair’ of the growth of the ‘Green’ movement or who have joined the bandwagon behind ‘reformist’ presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi, workers in oil refineries in Iran are well aware of the historic role of their class in the current situation and there have been discussions regarding strikes in this industry for the last few weeks. These workers have two valid concerns: (1) that their strike should not benefit Moussavi (he is hated by these workers, some of whom remember his time in power); and (2) that their strike should not help US efforts for regime change from above.
Western countries are also considering options including an embargo on investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector, an end to loan guarantees to all companies investing in Iran, a ban on Iranian businesses trading in euros, and a ban on foreign companies insuring Iranian shipping and air transport. All of these measures will target the Iranian people, the majority of whom hate the clerical state.
If the Iranian government lied about its nuclear installations, Ahmadinejad’s speech last week at the UN was also full of deceit. His holocaust-denial comments, repeated in every interview he gave while in the US, were a deliberate attempt to divert attention from mass protests at home and to heighten the tension with the rest of the world. This regime and this president rely on foreign crises to survive – he desperately needs enemies abroad to divert attention from problems at home, and the Obama-Brown-Sarkozy trio gave him that.
However, his speech contained other lies. The man who has printed money in an attempt to solve Iran’s economic problems told the world: “It is no longer possible to inject thousands of billions of dollars of unreal wealth into the world economy simply by printing worthless paper assets, or transfer inflation as well as social and economic problems to others through creating severe budget deficits.” He also criticised “liberal capitalism” (as opposed to clerical capitalism?). After all, this is the president of a government that is busy privatising every industry in Iran, from services in the oil industry to car plants and Iran’s national telecommunications. The telecom company was privatised and sold to the ‘revolutionary guards’ in the last week of September, although Iran’s ‘monopoly regulatory commission’ is now said to be investigating this.
However, such actions by Iran’s Sepah Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) do not imply that the country is under military capitalist rule: they are controlled by the most conservative sections of Iran’s clerical elite. The Pasdaran ownership of the telecommunication services is only another success for supreme leader Ali Khamenei, his son and the clerics around him, as this ideological military force has no life and no significance without clerical rule.
The few delegates in the UN assembly hall who heard Ahmadinejad condemn the excesses of “liberal capitalism” might have thought Iran is an egalitarian religious society. Nothing could be further from reality. After 30 years in power Iran’s Islamic regime has created one of the most unequal, corrupt societies of the region, where the gap between the rich and the poor is amongst the highest in the world. As Ahmadinejad was speaking, Iran’s car workers (amongst the best paid sections of the working class) were protesting at long shifts causing ill health and workers throughout Iran were on strike or demonstrating against non-payment of wages. While factory closures due to privatisation continue, Aryaman Motors, a Tehran-based company specialising in reproducing classic cars, launched a new series of replica vehicles based on the original design of the earliest Rolls Royce models at $120,000 each – wealthy Iranians have already pre-paid for the first models that will be finished later this year.
In his speech Ahmadinejad also referred to the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, failing to mention Iran’s role in support of US aggression in both – as leaders of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran keep reminding us! The Iranian president then referred to breaches of human rights in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Of course, it is inevitable that abuse of human rights by the ‘torch holders’ of liberal democracy in the US and the UK will be used by every tinpot leader in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere to justify the torture and execution of opponents. The Iranian president is the leader of a government that has killed at least 72 civilians and tortured hundreds in the last two months alone, yet the actions of western governments allow him to stand up in New York and give moral lectures about ‘human right abuses’. We truly live in irrational times.
Protests and divisions
The first days of the new university term in Iran saw major protests on campuses throughout the country – the largest being at Tehran University on September 27-28. Students shouted “Death to the dictator” and booed the new minister of higher education. Security forces retreated from the campus. On Tuesday September 29 students protested at Sharif University, once more causing the minister for higher education to abandon plans to speak. Meanwhile, security forces are warning football crowds not to chant political slogans at the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis on October 2.
As former president and leading ‘reformist’ Ali Akbar Rafsanjani continues his efforts to find a compromise between the regime’s warring factions, the first signs of a rift amongst ‘reformists’ has appeared. In an open letter addressed to Rafsanjani, another ‘reformist’ presidential candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, writes: “What is your answer to the people who, under dangerous conditions, question the actions of the Assembly of Experts under your leadership? … By what measure have you preserved the ideals of the revolution in your role as chair of the Assembly of Experts, whose first duty is fighting injustice?”
Moussavi’s latest statement on September 28 is also predictably uninspiring. Its repeated references to the “wisdom” of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, confirmed his continued allegiance to the ‘imam’s line’. But this will not gain him much support amongst young Iranians, who will not accept any solution short of the overthrow of the entire regime. Moussavi’s call on his supporters to “avoid any radical measures which could damage the achievements so far made by the opposition” expose once more his fear of radical change and his determination to save the religious state.
All this is very good news for the revolutionary forces. However, the threat of sanctions and war only strengthens Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. In the words of UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, any “rush to punitive sanctions – tightened to the point where ordinary Iranians, already suffering the effects of chronic unemployment, had to endure petrol shortages or big fuel price hikes – could backfire spectacularly”.
Hands Off the People of Iran has always condemned sanctions and threats of war against Iran. We oppose them not only because we want to see imperialism defeated, but because they increase patriotism and nationalism, thus helping the reactionary regime. The government will use the ‘threat of the enemy without’ to increase repression, to arrest and torture its ‘enemy within’. Sanctions disorganise the working class, as people are forced to squander their fighting energies on day-to-day struggles to keep their jobs and feed their families – Iranian oil workers are right to be concerned about going on strike at a time when sanctions will also target ‘imported refined oil’.
The proposed US-European sanctions dramatically degrade the ability of the working people to struggle collectively on their own account, to organise and to fight. In other words, for the sake of Iranian working class we must continue our opposition to war, sanctions and regime change from above, while increasing our solidarity with the revolutionary movement inside Iran.