The UK – and the left – are badly unprepared for a war between Iran and Israel

If the Middle East’s proxy wars ignite, British progressives should denounce militarism on all sides and back secular forces. 

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The danger 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 1.5 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.

The sequence of events is not hard to read, but they have bubbled under for months, framed as part of never-changing regional chaos by the news bulletins. If I list them, you will see there is a pattern to the escalation:

In July 2017 a new leadership took control of Saudi Arabia, more clearly aligned with the US on anti-terrorism and more belligerent towards Iran.

In Syria, the Assad regime is moving towards endgame in its war with the rebel forces, bringing US forces (and British special forces) into friction with Russian, Iranian and Iranian-backed militias

- Russia has doubled down in its defence of Assad, even after he likely used chemical weapons in Douma, rounding up witnesses to refute the US’s evidence and flying them to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague to testify.

The US, Britain and France launched a large, unilateral missile strike against Syria on 14 April, in which the Russian air defence units in Syria declined to defend the targets.

- Donald Trump is preparing to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal (JCPOA), in which Iran promised to end its nuclear weapons programme in return for the lifting of some sanctions.

- In March, Houthi rebels in Yemen managed to hit Saudi Arabia with seven ballistic missiles, inherited from Soviet and North Korean-supplied arsenals but presumed to have been enhanced with Iranian know-how.

- Israel has in the past month twice struck Iranian positions inside Syria, and is lobbying hard for Trump to scrap the JCPOA deal.

- This week Benjamin Netanyahu persuaded the Knesset to give him sole constitutional power to declare war. Three separate US officials have told NBC news in the last 24 hours that Israel is preparing for war with Iran.

If the US were still a global superpower and led by a statesperson, its course of action would be clear: calm things down. If Russia and America were still running hegemonic geopolitical blocs, as before 1989, calming things down would be even simpler.

Instead the region is full of players who possess partial autonomy, and whose military postures are becoming intertwined with gestures and emotions, to an extent that their actions are becoming unpredictable. The technical term for this is a shitshow.

If Trump walks away from the Iran deal, half a decade of European Union attempts at independent regional diplomacy will go up, literally, in flames. The JCPOA has come to signify an achievement for EU diplomacy independent of the US, which is why both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron spent time and energy trying to save it in separate visits to the White House last week.

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 collapsed, Iran moved into the gaps. You can now trace an emerging route for the transportation of heavy weapons from Iran to Hezbollah’s strongholds in southern Lebanon. But if you look at it from Iran and Russia’s point of view, all their actions can be sold as stabilising a region made unstable by the retreat of the US from active intervention.

The point about diplomacy is to explore the fears and the frameworks on all sides. But conflicts escalate through military logic, not just diplomatic logic.

The flurry of activity and concern has, up to now, largely been ignored in Britain, engrossed as it is with the meltdown of Amber Rudd and the royal baby. Theresa May’s decision to deploy four ageing Tornado jets in the strike on 14 April was framed as a kind of punishment for Assad and Putin, both in retaliation for the Salisbury attack and the gas attack on Douma.

But conflict between Israel and Iran is a completely different proposition, and one the frontbenches - let alone the British public - seem unprepared for.

If it happens, what should the British left do? By British left, I mean the half million members of the Labour Party, the tens of thousands in the Greens, the SNP and Plaid  – and millions of people who count themselves progressive, liberal and globalist. 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 SWP - are totally mismatched to the situation described above.

Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent, 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 well face. Walzer asks: who are “we”, 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 has in general to act via international institutions, aim to limit US hegemony and build an “internationalism of agency”.

He believes, in addition, that the left should be in favour of “completing” the state system – i.e.that the international rule of law should lead to the establishment of viable states where failed ones currently exist, as in Syria. Walzer adds that the left should always reject alliances with religious zealots, and that “we must never become the comrades of tyrants, oligarchs, or terrorists”.

Brilliant though these principles are, none of them helps if the Middle East suddenly erupts into a giant kill zone. And neither do anti-imperialism, pacifism, nor classic Cold War Labour militarism.

In this increasingly fraught and 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.

Though we have other mediums through which to influence the world – from tent camps to strikes – the primary tool of the British left has to be the state apparatus of the country we live in. I doubt whether Benjamin Netanyahu or Hassan Rouhani would give two seconds’ thought to what the British Foreign Office thinks. But that is not true of a conflict which drags in Saudi Arabia.

Britain has built a new naval base in Saudi-allied Bahrain in order to remain part of the naval balance of power in the Gulf. Theresa May’s fawning on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the Tories’ generalised addiction to Saudi money, would create a powerful impulse to take sides if the Saudis decided to pile in.

Right now, the first responsible thing to do is to de-escalate the conflict: to broker a comprehensive peace process for Syria, to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and to demilitarise the Persian Gulf.

The second responsible thing to do is to back the EU in its desire to save the JCPOA, and to put the considerable diplomatic resources of the UK behind that task.

The third responsible thing to do is to use British soft power and cultural influence to build progressive forces inside the potentially belligerent countries that can restrain belligerence.

But in an unpredictable world, one thing can be predicted: the pro-Trump foreign policy clique inside May’s government will push for the exact opposite of everything I’ve just outlined.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon and the Lib Dems under Vince Cable constitute -  if they could but acknowledge it - a potentially powerful alliance for restraint and peace. Right now, because of the local elections, they are knocking six bells out of each other on the doorsteps of suburban Britain.

But world politics are moving faster than most people understand. If the Middle East’s proxy wars ignite there is only one position possible for the British left: no to war.

No support for Iran. No support for Saudi Arabia. No support for Israel. It means depriving them of arms and ammunition, and refusing to share intelligence with any combatant. British involvement should be limited to humanitarian support to their beleaguered populations. A left foreign policy towards the Middle East, in Britain, means, above all, promoting democratic, secular and progressive forces against religious sectarianism on all sides, activating the UN and pursuing people who break the laws of war 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 the rising share price of arms makers everywhere; that 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.

You may wonder why, on the eve of the local elections, I have not written a diatribe against the Tories concerning bin collections. The answer is: the world is going to shit, and socialism is above all about stopping that.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.