The first thing to point out is that I’m no fan of either Israeli or Iranian government policy. Both nations appear (to me at least) to be suffering their own collective psychoses. Israel’s is a type of post-traumatic stress exacerbated by decades surrounded by hostile neighbours, so that it’s developed into a paranoid psychosis. Iran, on the other hand, spent decades trapped within a classic double-bind and has now found itself in the grip of religious fundamentalism. I have a great deal of sympathy for the ordinary people of both nations, terrorised as they are by enemies internal and external; real and imagined.
That said, I have very little sympathy for the actions of either government, who appear hell-bent on bringing the region as close to the brink of war as possible. The current civil uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, while to be lauded for ending tyrannical regimes, are likely to make Israel (in particular) more jittery than usual and serve, in that sense, to ratchet tensions up even further.
Let me be clear; this is not an attempted justification or a call for the continuation of these regimes. Tyrants need to be overthrown, and while we all hope this happens with a minimal increase in regional instability, we do not expect a people to remain in oppressive conditions merely to ensure that their twitchy neighbours don’t get spooked. At the same time, we should collectively face up to the likelihood of an increase in regional instability and explore ways to mitigate it.
Because it seems we can’t expect nations in the region to do so. While dictators topple and political vacuums beckon — or else “the army” takes over, which is rarely a good sign no matter what assurances of a future transition to civilian rule are offered — Israel and Iran appear intent on sabre-rattling at what must surely be the least appropriate time to do so.
Warships through The Suez Canal
Today the BBC carries a news story about two Iranian warships passing through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. As someone who objects to the routine projection of military power beyond national borders (I’m even dubious about the projection of military power within national borders, but that’s an issue of national sovereignty and, within reason, should be left to each nation to decide), I unconditionally condemn this action by Iran. Just as I condemn the US, British (and any other) fleets patrolling the oceans of the world as though someone appointed them custodians of us all. I understand the current need to keep warships in certain areas to help deal with piracy (though this itself is part of a wider issue, and those ships should be flying a UN flag). But I don’t believe the world should accept national navies adopting threatening positions just outside the territorial waters of nations they don’t like.
And Iran’s claim to be conducting exercises with the Syrian navy is farcical. Despite not being a physical threat to Israel, a fact that’s acknowledged in the BBC article, these ships are clearly entering the Mediterranean to piss off the Israelis. No other reason. And a nation like Israel, in the grip of paranoid psychosis, rarely deals with provocation in a rational or proportional manner. Look at their response to the Gaza aid flotilla. Witness their policy of collective punishment whenever Palestinian militants attack — or just threaten to attack — Israel. Provoking Israel is a dumb thing to do, because it can quickly create a situation that spirals out of control.
This is hinted at by the Israeli Foreign Minister himself in that BBC story, when he says:
To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations. The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli Foreign Minister)
It’s familiar rhetoric all right, but no less ominous because of that. And it neglects a crucial element in this “Iranian warships in the Mediterranean” narrative that is currently ongoing. An element that is simply ignored in the four different news stories I’ve read about this issue today. Despite describing this act by Iran as “unprecedented”, why has much of the western media chosen to gloss over the fact that it’s nothing of the kind? Isn’t the fact that Iran’s action is clearly and unambiguously a response to Israel’s 2009 decision to send two warships the other direction through The Suez Canal worthy of reporting?
I’m not saying that “they did it first” is an adequate response to criticism of Iran’s action. It’s certainly a pathetic justification for something that clearly increases the likelihood of a military engagement between two heavily-armed nations. But without that crucial piece of information, Iran’s naval manoeuvre looks like a unilateral act of provocation, when in fact it’s actually another chapter in an ongoing tit-for-tat escalation between two psychotic nations. It must be viewed in that context, and whatever the western response to Iran may be, it must be made in that context.