Editorial: Iran’s hegemonic program under pressure

People protest against increased petrol prices, on a highway in Teheran, Iran November 16, 2019 (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

 

The political deadlock in Israel since its September election is continuing and it looks probable that Israel will head to an unprecedented third election in 12 months. This is particularly unfortunate because Israel’s strategic environment is becoming more unpredictable than ever, requiring a stable government as soon as possible.

The chaotic reality has been underlined by recent events in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran. 

From Nov. 11 through 14, Israel experienced 72 hours of rocket fire from Gaza against civilian targets, some 450 rockets in all, effectively shutting down much of the country. This bout of violence followed Israel’s counter-terrorist killing of the Gaza-based senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) military commander Baha Abu al-Ata.

While this may suggest that the conflict was a “war of choice”, which arguably would not have occurred had Abu al-Ata not been targeted by Israel, this is not so. Abu al-Ata was the driving force behind repeated waves of PIJ attacks on Israel this year and was reportedly in the midst of preparing a major new campaign of violence when he was killed. That was the initial escalation, not Israel’s efforts to pre-empt this violence by targeting him. 

Hamas, despite its menacing rhetoric, did not join the fighting. 

Israeli policy has usually held Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, responsible for all attacks emanating from there – but not on this occasion. According to Israeli media reports, Israel and Hamas have recently been working towards an informal, temporary ceasefire, which Abu al-Ata, and PIJ more broadly, were determined to undermine. 

Unlike Hamas, which accepts money and arms from Iran but also has its own independent interests, PIJ is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, taking orders from Teheran. Reportedly, Iran has recently been pushing PIJ to dramatically escalate violence from Gaza against Israel.

The pummelling of Iran’s Gaza client was a setback to Iran’s efforts to encircle Israel with well-armed proxy forces – an effort stretching across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as Gaza. 

Fortuitously, those efforts are also now under unprecedented pressure because mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq, and now Iran itself, threaten both the revolutionary theocracy’s program of regional hegemony, and perhaps the regime’s very legitimacy. 

Iran has been able to dominate Iraq and Lebanon by establishing parallel states in both, using proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) in Iraq. 

Though the protests in both countries were originally not primarily about Iran, they have taken on a distinctly anti-Iranian character. In Iraq, despite an ongoing brutal crackdown with a death toll so far over 300, massive cross-sectarian protests against the entire political establishment and its corruption have seen attacks against Iranian and PMU facilities and anti-Iranian chants and slogans. 

In Lebanon, too, most of the country has risen up to reject the whole current political order, regardless of sect, which inevitably and forcefully targets Hezbollah.

Even more importantly, Iran itself is on fire. The Islamic regime is under immense economic strain due to both effective US sanctions and its own corrupt mismanagement and obsession with funding proxies, militias, and allies across the region. While these protests were catalysed by a price spike in fuel necessitated by the regime’s dire economic straits, popular resentment has been long-standing against the regime for its massive spending on regional clients to the detriment of Iranian citizens. Chants against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and against sending money to Iran’s proxies, have been heard across Iran. Iran has switched off access to the internet, but reports and videos are leaking suggesting potentially hundreds killed by security forces. 

The US Trump Administration deserves considerable credit for helping precipitate the current crisis afflicting Iran’s regional hegemonic plans through its policy of “maximum pressure” – though it also deserves criticism for an unwillingness to respond more forcefully to violent Iranian aggression against major Saudi oil facilities and Persian Gulf shipping, and for effectively signalling a hasty US withdrawal from the region more generally. 

The Administration also deserves kudos for the Nov. 18 announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the US was reversing an incorrect and unhelpful position of the previous Obama Administration, instead now correctly noting that, “establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.” 

Pompeo’s announcement was both a victory for common sense and a positive step toward encouraging recommencement of genuine two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The argument that the settlements are illegal rests primarily on Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and is fundamentally flawed on two levels. The West Bank is not “occupied” under the terms of that convention because it is not the recognised territory of a signatory of that convention, as its provisions require. Moreover, even setting this objection aside, the interpretation of Article 49 used to argue any Israeli civilian presence in the West Bank violates the Convention is tendentious, contrary to the stated intentions of the Convention’s authors, and is never applied to any other conflict area anywhere in the world.

Pompeo was also correct in pointing out that, “there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace. This is a complex political problem that can only be solved by negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.” The false claim that all settlements are illegal – denying the Jewish people any claim to central parts of their historic homeland – has long been a significant barrier to the successful negotiations which are the only way to resolve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the West Bank and other disputed territories.

The Australian Government also deserves some credit for its positive contributions on this issue, such as then-foreign minister Julie Bishop’s statement in January 2014 questioning why settlements should be considered illegal, before later adding “I don’t think it’s helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re going to get a negotiated solution.”