New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. World
9 May 2018updated 07 Sep 2021 11:36am

Why we must oppose a new Middle East war – and get tough on Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia

Now that Trump has walked away from the Iran deal, half a decade of EU attempts at independent regional diplomacy have gone up in flames

By Paul Mason

The threat of war in the Middle East is rising. I don’t mean the small wars that, as in Syria, kill merely 470,000 people; or as in Yemen, place merely two million children in danger of starving to death. I mean the kind of war fought from hi-tech command bunkers, in which satellites, nerve gas, cluster bombs and long-range weaponry come into play, and where at least one combatant is in possession of nuclear warheads.

You can see the dangers: a new, bellicose Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince, even more aligned with the West; Houthi rebels in Yemen hitting Riyadh with missile strikes; two Israeli air strikes on Iranian positions inside Syria; and Donald Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal.

If the US were still a global superpower and led by a statesperson, its course of action would be obvious: calm things down. If Russia could control its client states – Syria and Iran – calming things down would be easier. Instead the region is full of players who possess partial autonomy, and whose military postures are becoming intertwined with gestures and emotions. The technical term for this is a shitshow.

Now that Trump has walked away from the Iran deal, half a decade of EU attempts at independent regional diplomacy have gone up in flames. What is left of the multilateral system needs to be mobilised now to prevent the Middle East’s scattered conflicts merging into one.

It’s clear what Israel is worried about. As order in Syria has collapsed, Iran has moved to fill the vacuum. You can now trace a potential route for the transportation of heavy weapons to Hezbollah’s strongholds in southern Lebanon. Yet from the perspective of Iran and Russia, all their actions can be sold as stabilising a region made unstable by the retreat of the US from active intervention.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

A new conflict between Israel and Iran is a development that the Conservative and Labour front benches – let alone the British public – are badly unprepared for. If war breaks out, what should UK left-wingers do? It should be obvious that the twin reflexes of the left – towards knee-jerk support for the US in the style of Tony Blair, and “anti-imperialist” solidarity with Russia and its allies in the style of the Socialist Workers Party – are wholly inadequate.

Michael Walzer, the former editor of Dissent magazine, recently published a book entitled A Foreign Policy for the Left, which – though I disagree with some of its conclusions – usefully poses the dilemma we could face. Walzer asks: who are “the left”, what is the political unit we are trying to take action through, and what is our definition of a progressive outcome to conflict?

He answers that, though it should “sometimes” support the use of force by powerful capitalist states, the left should in general seek to act via international institutions and aim to limit US hegemony. He adds that the left should always reject alliances with religious zealots, and that “we must never become the comrades of tyrants, oligarchs, or terrorists”.

Admirable though these principles are, none of them helps if the Middle East erupts into a giant killing zone. And neither do anti-imperialism, pacifism or classic Cold War Labour militarism.

In this increasingly conflicted world, the first principle of the left should be what Waltzer calls “the internationalism of agency”. In our defence of the multilateral system and of the rule of law, our aim should be to free as many human beings as possible from reliance on dictators, sectarians, bigots and demagogues for their security.

The left should put pressure on the British government to do three things. First, pursue comprehensive peace deals in both Syria and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a new security arrangement in the Persian Gulf. The latter means the US and Russia using diplomatic sway over their Gulf client states to enforce something similar to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Second, we need to support the EU in its work to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal). Third, we should use British soft power and cultural influence to build progressive forces inside the potentially belligerent countries.

In an unpredictable world, one thing can be predicted: the pro-Trump foreign policy clique inside Theresa May’s Conservative government will push for the exact opposite of these measures.

Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Vince Cable constitute, if they could but acknowledge it, a potentially powerful alliance for restraint and peace. But if war breaks out in the Middle East there is only one position possible for the British left: opposing it. No support for Iran. No support for Saudi Arabia. No support for Israel.

That means depriving these states of arms and ammunition, and refusing to share intelligence with any combatant. A left foreign policy towards the Middle East means, above all, promoting democratic, secular and progressive forces against religious sectarianism on all sides, activating the UN and pursuing those who commit war crimes through the International Criminal Court.

This is not pacifism. It is simply a recognition that nothing can be gained from an exchange of ballistic missiles and air strikes, other than rising share prices for arms manufacturers. The problems of today – hunger, dictatorship, illegal occupation, jihadism – will still exist the day after both sides run out of projectiles.

In a world where the great powers have lost control, peace is a better platform than conflict from which to achieve order.

Paul Mason is an NS contributing writer

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change