No doubt, Sean Matgamna intended his "discussion article" to provoke debate. Certainly, it does facilitate discussion when comrades are honest and make their views clear. But the article, which includes only minimal and superficial reference to independent working-class politics and any idea of working-class agency, instead dishonestly zigzags between empathising with Israeli hawks and using figleaf, weasel words to avoid openly 'advocating' an Israeli strike against Iran in advance. He says we should "least of all" support Ahmedinejad, as if we were under any compulsion to pick sides and support Olmert a little bit more instead.
(Throughout Sean also takes for granted the idea that the Iranian regime is indeed developing nuclear weapons. This claim is highly tendentious - it is not the opinion of US intelligence - and Sean does not cite any evidence in support of this assertion. Sean clearly uses this only for the reason that if true it helps justify his broader argument in an article light on analysis of what is actually going on in the Middle East as opposed to on the British left. The same could be said for his over-simplified drawing of an equals sign between the Iranian regime and al-Qaedist suicide bombers. However, since my opposition to Sean's position is far from reliant on any illusions in the peaceful intentions of the Iranian regime, I shall ignore this for now).
Sean begins: "An attack on Iran will most likely lead to great carnage in the Middle East and beyond as supporters of Iran resort to suicide bombings in retaliation. There might well be large scale Iranian civilian "collateral" casualties. An attack would strengthen the Iranian regime and license a smash down on its critics, including working class critics, inside Iran. It would throw Iran back into the worst chaos". The only part of the article citing reasons why Sean would be critical of an Israeli bombing raid on Iran (we may assume that a ground invasion would be impossible) this paragraph is interesting in that its main argument is simply that an attack could well be counterproductive for Israel because of how Islamists would react. Note that the opening sentence tells us that the cause of the carnage would in fact be that "supporters of Iran" would retaliate! And Sean's focus is not the interests of the labour movement or the tasks of Marxists in the (potential) belligerent countries, but rather hoping for a balance in the world of geopolitics, military manoeuvre and weapons competition. The reference to Iranian workers is only in passing, even though sabre-rattling and sanctions against Iran, Ahmedinejad's "anti-Zionist" rhetoric and Israel's oppression of the Palestinians all serve to foster a generalised chauvinism in the region and create enormous obstacles to the development of an internationalist labour movement. Sean's view is crude and one-sided and he is far from condemning the Israeli government's effort to cling onto its status as the leading regional power by force: if he realises that such a bombing run would hamper the possibility of workers in the region "uniting to fight for a socialist Middle East", he certainly doesn't show it.
From then on Sean confuses what is "rational" in the interests of Israeli imperialism and great-power realpolitik with what is "rational" in the interests of humanity. As if gazing into his crystal ball Sean predicts that Israel "will not tolerate" and "will act to stop" Iran's nuclear proliferation; Israel "will bomb Iran, with or without the agreement of the USA and NATO"; Israel "will act" on its interests; "Israel will act to stop this Muslim fundamentalist regime". Yet here the word "will" almost seems to be used not to mean that these events are likely but rather as an expression of defiance - you may have doubts in its leaders' confidence, but Israel will stand up for itself! Sean asks us to see the situation from Israel's point of view - "In Israeli eyes the facts and alternatives here are stark" - but is clearly talking about the alternatives as seen in the IDF leadership, ignoring the question of how an attack would be viewed through the eyes of any class-conscious Israeli (or indeed Iranian) worker. He focuses on the tasks of the Israeli government and indeed nearer the end of the article he neatly concludes: "the harsh truth is that there is good reason for Israel to make a precipitate strike at Iranian nuclear capacity".
What an awful, awful thing to write. Good reason for "Israel" to do this: or do you mean that the Israeli military would be justified in attacking Iran? This just playing the game of speculating on manoeuvres the great powers might make with their armies and airforces to guarantee stability, while discounting out of hand as utopian any possibility of the working class acting independently in the regional crisis. Of course, as a "left" figleaf Sean writes that he would rather it was the Iranian workers than the Israeli bombers who got rid of Ahmedinejad, as if the two eventualities are in any sense comparable or would have any similar results. Sean does not want to "advocate" or "endorse" an attack: but this is just playing with words, and clearly given the tone of the piece and the fact that he is so keen to defend the rationale for an attack which is not yet on the cards the article can only be read as offering justification for Olmert et al. How can you say there is "good reason" to do something but not "endorse" it?
Indeed, Sean denounces those who would "condemn" the Israeli government for "refusing to stand idly by", an argument which - if you believed that Saddam Hussein could launch an offensive in 45 minutes - could equally have been used to justify the invasion of Iraq in opposition to those who would prefer to "appease" the Iraqi dictator. Much in the same vein of those on the far left who accuse Third World tyrants of being insufficiently ardent in their opposition to US imperialism, Sean is incensed by "idlers" who would sit on their hands rather than stand up to Ahmedinejad, by fair means or foul.
Sean asks "In the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?" (having decided that the only choices on offer are (i) Israel attacks Iran or (ii) Iran attacks Israel) and goes on to score easy points against those who say that Israel has no right to exist or that Iran has a right to nuclear weapons. His conclusions do not automatically follow though - thinking that there is "good reason" for a pre-emptive bombing attack on Iran is not merely the logical corollary of the belief that, whatever its government's crimes and whatever its history, the Israeli nation has the right to self-determination and to have a state alongside Palestine if it so chooses. You do not have to be "kitsch left" to oppose an Israeli attack on Iran, nor do you have to be "kitsch left" to refer to Israel's hypocrisy in keeping its own nukes, which Sean avoids reference to. We can say these things whilst posing a positive alternative opposed to all "sides" in the stand off. Even if working-class forces are currently weak in the Middle East, Marxists cannot put off building this independent class camp for the sake of taking sides in some more 'immediate' conflict: doing so and fostering jingoistic illusions actually makes our main objective more difficult to realise.
Sean makes occasional, tokenistic references to 'the workers': these are abstract and separate from the general thrust of the article, and indeed Sean makes no effort to delve into the tasks of the working class in the region or how it might intervene in the crisis. Nor, for that matter, does he refer to the oppression of the Palestinian's or the utter hypocrisy of Israel, the region's sole nuclear power, posturing as "anti-nuclear".
Indeed, one among the "kitsch left reasons for criticising Israel" Sean throws up in his list is of a rather different character to the others: "Because for choice we would live in a world where the workers of Israel, Iran, Iraq were united in opposition to all their rulers, and strong enough to get rid of them and bring to the region an era of socialist and democratic peace and understanding." Sean clearly thinks this is just utopian, and portrays this approach in a carping and dismissive fashion. Of course, none of us think that there's going to be a worldwide socialist revolution in the next week, month or even before Iran is bombed. But that is our sole objective, and the way Marxists respond to more 'immediate' national disputes does indeed shape the possible future outcome: it is impossible to just mix and match between fighting for revolution and playing at imperialist geopolitics like Sean does. You can, however, oppose both regimes and their militarists.
We are not armchair generals willing the Israeli government to stand up for themselves against the "Muslim fundamentalists" or hoping that the big Western imperialist powers will be able to maintain some sort of ersatz "safety" for the Israeli Jews by keeping Israel's rival regional powers weak until that bright, sunny future day when the workers storm the Knesset and take power. Not only do we refuse to put our confidence in the Israeli generals, but we must ardently denounce their aggressive and imperialist stance, the very mirror-image of the Iranian theocrats and one which puts working-class unity further down the agenda.