Muhammad Sahimi Headshot
Katariina Simonen Headshot

Don't Blame Iran for Middle East Turmoil

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MENAHEM KAHANA via Getty Images

Amid bloodshed and chaos caused by Israel's latest military attacks on Gaza, the usual anti-Iran crowd has been hard at work to partly blame that country for the carnage.

Some analysts have claimed that the latest war between Israel and the Palestinian people in Gaza should be seen in the context of the Middle East's new landscape -- created by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran -- that provided the background for the current developments in the Middle East, including the civil war in Syria and Iran's support for the Syrian regime, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as part of the sectarian war between the Shiites led by Iran and the Sunni Arabs, and the fierce rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Others have claimed that the war is partly driven by the agenda of the Hamas/Hezbollah/Iran alliance, which supposedly do not want Israel to ever leave the West Bank and East Jerusalem so that they can justify their hostilities toward Israel.

Such claims represent deliberate attempts to distract attention from the true root causes of the conflict: Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem since October 1967, its suffocating siege of Gaza since 2007, confiscation of the Palestinians' lands to build settlements, and stealing their natural resources. The fact is that, for example, about 55 percent of drinking water in Israel comes from the territories beyond Israel's Green Line 1967 borders.

Iran's Islamic regime did not exist in 1967 when Israel began building the first settlement in the West Bank, and neither did the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry. If anything, when it comes to Iran, Saudi Arabia has a tacit alliance with Israel. The Syrian civil war has not spilled into Israel, but it has caused a split between Iran and Hamas.

During the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997-2005, Iran repeatedly declared that whatever solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that is acceptable to the Palestinian people is also acceptable to Iran. Khatami also proposed a "Grand Bargain" to the George W. Bush administration to address all the important issues between Iran and the U.S., including Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, but it was rejected quickly by the United States.

Khatami's predecessor, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, tried to improve relations with the United States that would have contributed to the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but he was blocked by the Clinton administration.

If the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had been allowed to win Iran's presidential elections of 2009, he would have continued Khatami's moderate foreign policy.

In fact, aside from a rhetorical appeal by Ayatollah Khameini, Iran has been remarkably silent about the current war between Israel and Palestinians. Iran's Hassan Rouhani has been trying to improve the relations between Iran and the West, and in particular the United States. Just a few days ago, Tehran's hardliners accused Rouhani of cutting off aid to Hezbollah and Hamas since coming to power a year ago.

True, the Middle East landscape is not the same as in 1979, right before the Islamic Revolution that contributed mightily to the awakening of political Islam. But, pundits who attribute the current war between Israel and the Palestinians to a changing Middle East landscape caused by Iran and its 1979 Revolution, ignore the most important factors contributing to the present horrible situation, namely, the changed political landscape in Israel and Israel's immunity from international laws.

Ever since the election of the first Likud government in Israel in 1977 and with the exception of a few "hiccups," Israel has been on a distinct trajectory to the far right, brought about by fundamental demographic changes as a result of at least 1 million Russian Jews immigrating to Israel, who are mostly extremist rightists. As a result, the same Benjamin Netanyahu who was an extremist only two decades ago, now represents the "moderates" or the "center" in Israeli politics, not because his views have changed, but because neo-fascists such as Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, and Moshe Feiglin, the Knesset's deputy speaker, have emerged on the scene. Feiglin has even called for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza as well as its annexation to Israel. Iran has played no role in the rise of neo-fascists in Israel.

Our own Israeli friends always claim that "Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East," and that "the majority of common Israelis do not approve of the harsh tactics used by the government." The two claims are contradictory. Unlike most of the Middle East where tyrants rule, the people of Israel do have a choice when they vote. If they truly do not approve what Netanyahu and his far right allies do, they can vote them out of office; but they have not. In election after election since 1977, the far right and ultra-nationalists have gained more power and votes, while the progressive community has been marginalized.

Compare this with Iran. Even though Iranian elections are not democratic, and the candidates are more or less handpicked by the ruling elite, Iranian people consistently vote for the most moderate, reasonable candidate, such as Rouhani in the 2013 elections.

Israel's total immunity for its possible war crimes also contributes to the present situation. U.S. blind support of Israel, not any action by Iran, has contributed greatly to the immunity. Instead of blaming Iran, there is a dire need to end the impunity of Israel under international laws that dictate not only the permissible grounds for resorting to the armed response, but also the conduct of the hostilities. Under both accounts, there are grave violations by Israel, especially concerning the principle of proportionality of armed response and the discriminating between combatants and civilians. These violations may amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, and they know no deadline. Criminal proceedings of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet are still fresh in memory. It is high time to ask for accountability of Israel for its actions. Evidently, the same principles and laws also apply to Hamas, if it has committed war crimes.

A state or states may try Israeli military and political officials for such crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction, even in absentia. It will not be easy, as Israel has the unconditional support of the United States. But, it is only in pursuing such hard cases that the strength of the laws is measured. It can only be hoped that some States are up to that challenge, because international laws' credibility and role are at stake. To allow any State to breach the laws with immunity is tantamount to giving permission to all to do the same.

Lasting peace for the people of Israel will not materialized without justice, dignified peace, and a viable, contiguous and independent state for the Palestinian people. Netanyahu and his cohorts are not interested in true peace, but only in graveyard type of calm that would allow Israel to continue its expansionist policy. It is time to stop blaming Iran and start addressing the true root cause of the problem.

Katariina Simonen, LL.D. in public international law, is a member of the Pugwash Executive Council and Associate Fellow at the Eric Castrèn Institute for International Law and Human Rights at the Helsinki University. Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and editor of the website Iran News & Middle East Reports

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