Middle East tinder box

For most of April Iran and Israel appeared to be teetering on the brink of an all-out war, which could have engulfed the whole of the Middle East in flames. The month opened with Israeli missiles flattening the Iranian consulate in Damascus, killing sixteen, including a top general and eight other officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

This was a major escalation from previous Israeli assaults on Iranian-backed forces in Syria, attacking supposedly inviolable diplomatic ‘territory’. From the point of view of the Iranian regime, to have not responded would have been a serious sign of weakness. Hence, almost two weeks later, for the first time ever Iran directly attacked Israel with a barrage of more than 300 missiles and drones. However, advance notice to the regimes in the region and, indirectly, to US imperialism and Israel, meant that virtually every missile was shot down and very limited damage done. Then, in what appears to be the final act of this particular dramatic episode, after a week of dithering, on 19 April an Israeli retaliatory strike took place, seemingly targeting an air base in central Iran.

On the one hand, this military dance is almost farcical. One joke doing the rounds among Iranians after the bombing of Israel was that ‘many Israelis have died – laughing’. The far-right Israeli security minister, Ben Gvir, was equally scathing about his government’s response when he tweeted one word about it, “lame”.

But of course, there is nothing funny about this dance of death, where one miscalculation could lead to a deadly escalation. And while for now the danger of a direct conflict between two of the region’s strongest military powers appears to have receded, the horror being suffered by the Palestinian masses in Gaza continues unabated, as does the gradual ratcheting up of regional tensions that has been taking place over the last six months. While the tinder box of the Middle East was not engulfed in flames in April 2024, it remains inherently combustible.

Nonetheless, the fact that the enormous brutality of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) onslaught on Gaza has not, as yet, resulted in an all-out regional war, does reflect the interests of the different regional and imperialist powers. It is striking the lengths to which the different forces involved, apart from the far-right elements in the Israeli government, are going to try and keep the conflict within limits, and prevent qualitative escalation.

Fear of the masses

One reason, which all the different players have in common, is a deep-seated fear of awakening the currently sleeping giant that could bring them all down: the working class and poor of the Middle East. The Arab and North African uprisings thirteen years ago are seared into the memories of all the ruling elites and the imperialist powers. Neither the theocratic regime in Iran nor Israel’s government were directly affected by the ‘Arab Spring’, although it had an echo in the movement over housing costs in Israel later in 2011. However, both have since been shaken by huge movements, graphically demonstrating the shallowness of the social bases they rest on.

While, for now, the Iranian regime has succeeded in repressing the huge protests that shook the country in 2022 and early 2023, mass discontent with the regime remains widespread. One Iranian government poll leaked to the BBC, for example, showed support for a separation of religion and state had jumped from 31% in 2015 to 73% today.

Anger at the theocratic dictatorship found a means of expression in the national elections on 1 March this year. Turnout was 41%, the lowest since 1979, with many voters consciously boycotting in protest at the regime’s complete control of who could stand as a candidate. Another 5% of ballots cast were reported as being spoiled. Ultimately, at the root of the increasing fragility of the regime’s social base is growing economic hardship. Inflation has been running at 40% for the last three years, devastating living standards. While a few will put the blame entirely on US imperialism and international sanctions, a growing number blame the regime.

The Israeli government’s social base is also extremely limited. For six months prior to 7 October the country was engulfed in a gigantic anti-government movement. Inevitably this was cut across in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks, and the government was able to mobilise the majority behind the onslaught on Gaza. Nonetheless, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains extremely unpopular, with polling last month showing 57% of Israelis think his performance over the last six months is ‘poor or very poor’. Only 4% of the Israeli Jewish population believe he is a reliable source of information on the war in Gaza. A majority want to see a general election this year in order to remove him from office.

Enormous pressure was exerted on Netanyahu by US imperialism, backed up by the other Western powers, to try and prevent the Israeli military response to Iran being on a scale that would have led to a counter-attack. However, it was not only external pressure which stayed the hand of the Israeli government. A survey by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the days following Iran’s attack found that 52% opposed a military response. It could not be clearer that the already unpopular Netanyahu government would have been hated by Israelis if he had escalated towards war with Iran in these circumstances.

Imperialist pressure

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that pressure from the imperialist powers played a central role. The same Hebrew University survey showed that a huge 74% opposed a counter-attack if it undermined the security alliance with the US, the UK, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia: all of whom assisted in the bringing down of the Iranian missiles. US President Biden was making clear that a serious attack would have done so, whilst still confirming his “ironclad” commitment to Israel.

The US pressure piled onto the Israeli government not to escalate a direct conflict with Iran has been qualitatively greater than its much more limited pleas not to ‘go too far’ in Gaza. It is true that, in order to limit the chances of regional escalation, and also because Biden is feeling the heat from the growing anti-war mood among many in the US – not least the student campaigns spreading across American universities, and the ‘non-committed’ protest votes in the Democratic primaries – Biden has starting putting public pressure on Netanyahu over Gaza. He is performing a balancing act. Most recently he has introduced largely symbolic sanctions against the ultra-orthodox IDF Netzah Yehuda battalion, guilty of human rights abuses in the West Bank. However, at the same time the essence of his position, and behind him US imperialism, remains to back Israel, as the most important US ally in the region. The US House of Representatives has agreed $26 billion of military aid for Israel.

There are now widespread rumours that, ‘in return’ for a low-key response to Iran, Biden might even have given Netanyahu the green light for some kind of attack on Rafah. Two extra IDF reserve units have been called up, and Egypt is building a third ‘tent camp’ on its side of the border, to be ready to provide new prison compounds for those fleeing the Strip. The number of IDF units is still far short of the 28 that were in Gaza at the height of the war, perhaps indicating something short of an all-out offensive on Rafah, but any kind of ground attack would be a catastrophe for the 1.4 million Gazans currently sheltering there, many having fled the utter devastation in the rest of the territory. Nothing could make it clearer that none of the regional or global powers with a stake in this twenty-first century ‘Great Game’ care one iota about the lives of the Palestinian masses. Each is interested only in defending their own prestige and profits.

What ‘great game’ is US imperialism playing?

US imperialism remains the most powerful player in the theatre of the Middle East, as it is globally. As Hannah Sell explains on page six, it is in relative decline, and is no longer able to ‘call the shots’, but it is still the strongest single global power. In fact, it was events in the Middle East, starting with US imperialism’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, that marked both the height of US hubris after the collapse of Stalinism, and the first graphic demonstration of the limits of its power. Iraq had been considered by US imperialism a source of instability in the Middle East since the 1991 Gulf war. However, while overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 proved easy, consolidating a stable stooge regime to act in the interests of US imperialism was a completely different matter. Instead, Iraq has suffered occupation, half-a-million dead, civil war, an ISIS insurgency and social disintegration. As Christine Thomas explains in her article on the anniversary of NATO, far from bringing a ‘New World Order’ of peace and capitalist democracy, the brief period of total dominance by US imperialism led to growing crisis, instability and war.

When Barack Obama became US president in 2009 he began to withdraw troops from Iraq. His foreign policy was characterised by an attempted economic and military ‘pivot to Asia’, as US imperialism tried to counter the growing strength of China. Broadly this has remained the desired approach of US imperialism since. However, while Donald Trump as president recklessly fuelled the world’s conflicts under a brazen ‘US first’ banner, Biden has endeavoured to be a reliable defender of the interests of US imperialism within a ‘rules -based’ system of international relations, which has necessitated responding to the growing crises around the world, not least trying to contain the current crisis in the Middle East.

From its inception Israel has acted as a bulwark of support in the region for Western imperialism, particularly the US. Frustrating as Biden might find the current Israeli government, US imperialism is not about to abandon its historic position. It’s true that today the Middle East is no longer so vital for US oil supplies as it once was. The development of shale and fracking has meant that for the last six years the US itself has been the biggest global producer of crude oil and become an oil exporter. Nonetheless, the Middle East is still responsible for around a third of global crude oil production and, together with its shipping and land routes for large quantities of other goods, particularly against the background of the Ukraine war disrupting supplies, remains crucial for the world economy and cannot be ignored by US imperialism.

The US-led overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003 increased the military weight of Iran in the region. Today Iran, with its ‘axis of resistance’, is considered by US imperialism the main source of regional instability. Many Sunni Arab regimes agree, although the mood of the Arab masses – who see Iran as standing up to Israel – limits their ability to say so openly. Erdogan, president of Turkey – the strongest military power in the region and a NATO member – has up until now combined pro-Palestinian rhetoric with a quiet continuation of ‘business as normal’ with Israel. In 2023 Turkey exported $5.4 billion worth of goods and services to Israel, only slightly less than its exports to Iran. Only now, desperate to shore up his domestic base, has Erdogan moved to introduce some sanctions against Israel.

For the US, however, trying to overthrow the Iranian regime militarily after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan has not been remotely on the agenda, although it supports the pro-Western capitalist opposition within the country. It was therefore in the interests of US imperialism when Obama presided over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed not to take steps to develop nuclear weapons in return for sanctions being lifted. In 2018 Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, and reimposed sanctions. But the consequences of Trump’s recklessness are far from the only factor that has changed since. The 2015 deal was agreed with the five members of the UN security council, including Russia and China. In fact it was Russia that bought Iran’s nuclear fuel, prompting hopes in Washington that Putin was becoming more willing to act in the interests of ‘world order’ – still led, of course, by US imperialism.

Now the world looks very different. Biden appears to have hoped he could reinstate the nuclear deal, but has not been able to do so. We are now in a multi-polar world, with the competing global powers increasingly backing different sides in the Middle East conflict. Regional war in the Middle East is certainly not in the interests of the Chinese regime. Nonetheless, China’s rivalry with US imperialism meant, for example, that when new Western sanctions on Iran were announced after the attack on Israel, Iranian oil exports hit a six-year high because China was buying up supplies (at a discount of course!)

Still, at this stage US imperialism remains by far the strongest military power on the planet. It has deployed its might, including two aircraft carriers, in the Middle East over the last six months. It’s goals are backing up the Israeli regime and preventing an escalation towards a regional war. So far it has just about succeeded. Meanwhile, more than 34,000 Palestinians have died, and the horror in Gaza continues unabated.

The potential superpower of the street

For all the peoples of the Middle East, capitalism has always meant suffering, instability and war. The only way out of the horror is for the working class and poor of the region to overthrow the existing order, opening the way to building a new socialist confederation of the Middle East, which could provide peace, national rights, and prosperity for all.

Thirteen years ago the Arab Spring gave a glimpse of the potential power of the masses of the Middle East to build a new world. Ultimately, those revolutionary movements were defeated because the working class of the different countries lacked their own parties with a programme for the socialist transformation of society. They nonetheless terrified the Arab regimes, who were forced to temporarily grant huge concessions in the face of the uprisings. In March 2011, for example, total fuel subsidies to the populations of the Arab countries almost doubled to $300 billion, 7.5% of GDP. In Egypt bread prices were kept at a few cents a loaf, while Kuwait offered free food for 14 months.

The Arab Spring spread like wildfire. When the working class of any country of the Middle East goes further, and takes decisive steps towards socialism, it will ignite a movement across the region that will dwarf those uprisings. The working class worldwide, including in the US and Britain, would also be hugely inspired.

Last time around the ‘potential superpower of the street’ lacked mass organised form and clear political aim. Crucially, while the working class was at the forefront of the movement, it was not decisively leading the struggle via its own organisations, including its own mass parties. On page twenty two Tony Saunois celebrates fifty years of the Committee for a Workers’ International fighting for this programme, and explaining why it is now more relevant than ever. Building such parties with a programme for the socialist transformation of the Middle East and the world is the key task for the future.