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Pivot to Iran? Decoding April 1st

Op-Ed 2024-05-19, 9:20am


Pivot to Iran. Decoding April 1st

By Richard Falk

18 Apr 2024 – This is a revised text published in Turkish, a contribution invited by Semin Gumusel on 14 Apr 2024; developments arising from the convergent incidents on 1 Apr continue to reverberate, making updating a high priority.

April 1st Pivot from Gaza: Damascus Massacre, Al Shifa Hospital, World Central Kitchen Attack, the Biden/Netanyahu Diplomatic Dance, and Iran’s Retaliation

Certain dates become iconic through being engraved in the public consciousness of an era. The 21st century has already had two such enduring occurrences: the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the United States, initiating ‘the war on terror’ and the Hamas cross-border attack on Israel prompting a genocidal response. April 1st has not yet such heightened significance. Yet the five events that arose from what took place on this single day in April exhibit the dangerous and both visible and secretive interactions affecting the political life of the Middle East. The fallout from April 1st that might come to be regarded as producing a cycle of responses of such magnitude as to mark  the end of the post-Cold War Era.

These five happenings associated with April 1st are inter-connected developments that if considered together bring a sense of coherence to the long ordeal of the Gaza population of 2.3 million Palestinians. Each occurred during a slowly unfolding crisis throughout the Middle East that has heightened dangerously combustible regional global tensions.  As a result, attention, energies, and resources have been in recent months diverted from a series of urgent global challenges arising from climate change, regressive forms of nationalism, and failures of political leadership made worse by a weakening transnational populist engagement. Earlier it was hoped such engagement from below might exert sufficient pressures on governments and economic elites to produce needed regulations and reforms with respect to the seemingly distinct underlying problematic issues. Despite the dark skies now overhead, the confluence of these five events at the start of April might even induce shifts in policy priorities in ways that could influence regional and international behavior to enhance or further diminish prospects for ecological resilience and humane global governance.

Pivot to Iran: Temporary or Transformative?

The first of the April 1st events to be considered was the Israeli missile attack on a consular building within the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus. Twelve persons were killed, including seven members of the Iranian Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps who were apparently serving as military. Among these latter victims, presumably the Israeli targets, was General Mohammed Reza Zahedi, the highest ranking Iranian to be assassinated since the US Baghdad high-profile assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a popular political figure and military leader in Iran who was killed while he was on a diplomatic peace mission in January 2021 during the last days of the Trump presidency.

Carrying out such violent actions across international borders is itself an international crime, often treated as an act of war, and certainly a political provocation. In addition, in the present instance the assassinations of these Iranians were aggravated by being not only an unlawful use of force that violated Syrian territorial sovereignty but additionally involved the illegal targeting of a foreign diplomatic facility, which international law treats as a prohibited target area. Such attacks are forbidden in deference to the reciprocal interests of all sovereign states, even when relations between governments are strained, in the security of diplomacy and the safety of their diplomats.

The Supreme Guide of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was not wrong when he denounced the attack as equivalent to an assault on Iranian territory that was located in Syria. Iran’s leader vowed to retaliate for Israel’s allegedly evil acts by attacking Israeli territory. The Israeli government lost no time officially warning Tehran that any retaliation from Iran that causes harm on Israeli territory will result in an Israeli response intended to harm targets in Iran. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, and Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement with their own escalatory threats in the form of policy statements—Israel harms any country or non-state actor that harms it, and given its past practice, it will do so disproportionately as it has against the entire Palestinian population in Gaza during the past six months in response to the October 7 Hamas attack. [Israeli reliance on disproportionate force has long been a feature of its national security practice. See Falk, “Dahiya Doctrine: Justifying Disproportionate Warfare—A Prelude To Genocide,” April 1, 2024, blog,]

This provocation of both Iran and Syria on April 1st somewhat surprisingly posed no acknowledged difficulties for Biden’s foreign policy, which remained steadfastly both anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian, despite the fact that this non-retaliatory Israeli attack flagrantly violated international law, caused death and destruction, and escalated risks of a wider war in the region if, as was expected, Iran carries out its threat of retaliation. Biden while lecturing Netanyahu on attacking and otherwise interfering with humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza, went out of his way at the same time to reaffirm the US resolve to stand with Israel in any future eruption of violent struggle with Iran, Syria being left in limbo, but also without doubts about the willingness of America to side with Israel should Syria decide to retaliate or to join Iran in a joint response.

World Central Kitchen Attack

The second incident at the start of April caused a more immediate policy impact. It consisted of an enraged Western response to the much publicized Israeli attack on a World Central Kitchen (WCK) well-marked foreign aid convoy of three vehicles delivering 100 tons of desperately needed food and medical supplies to starving and wounded Palestinians in northern Gaza, an attack that killed six aid workers and their driver. Similar atrocity incidents affecting the foreign delivery of equally needed aid to Gaza had occurred ever since the start of Israeli military operations in the days after October 7. Indeed many far worse incidents if measured by the deaths of innocent aid workers than this one had occurred ever since Israel started retaliating for the October 7 Hamas attack. What made the WCK attack different from other attacks was the fact that the aid workers killed were nationals of Western countries supporting Israel rather than Palestinians or nationals of Global South states. From a moral and legal perspective the national identity of the victims should make no difference, but if assessed from a political perspective a different story emerges.

What followed the WCK attack was a flurry of high-profile media and governmental expressions of outrage directed at Israel’s presumed deliberate responsibility for such an attack, holding both Netanyahu and Biden responsible for such deliberate lethal violence directed at nationals of their allies. The fact that 2024 Biden’s reelection prospects have become clouded by growing criticism of his unconditionally pro-Israeli policy in the face of the Gaza genocide, which were further aggravated by this incident. It was clear that Israel had crossed a red line. The deliberate killing of Western aid workers by Israel was not acceptable and must not be repeated. What followed was a sharp criticism of the WCK attack and a warning to Israel that if such incidents were repeated it would lead to a revision of US willingness to give the same level of support to Israel. What immediately followed was directly responsive, Biden’s public criticism of Israel which until the WCK attack was as rare as Netanyahu’s apologies to the Western governments of the victims. Sometimes, words matter more than deeds!

Geopolitical Panic: Biden/Netanyahu Fence-Mending Diplomacy

This concurrence of April 1st happenings produced a geopolitical panic attack in both Tel Aviv and Washington, prompting an emergency fence-mending telephone conversation between Biden and Netanyahu a few days later with Blinken reportedly listening quietly on the line. Although the actual conversation took place on April 4, it was organically tied to the WCK attack three days earlier. Netanyahu was so backed into a corner that he felt the need to apologize in public to the governments of the WCK aid workers killed without seeming to be either weak or antagonistic in addressing the concerns of Israel’s chief backers, especially the US. Biden, in contrast, was walking a tightrope straddling contradictory domestic critics with one side pushing for the US Government to break with Israel by pushing harder for a ceasefire and the other side seeking reassurance that Israel would continue to enjoy Western support come what may.

What gave away this unusual double diplomatic game was the immediate public disclosure of a normally private conversation between two embattled leaders. This represented a sharp departure from diplomatic practice in international crisis situations suggesting that special considerations were present. The usual practice in similar circumstances is to regard such direct conversations between heads of state as highly confidential, at least for a decent interval, leaving the public and even the media to engage in conjectures as to the exchange, and to make their best unverified guess as to the presumed blend of anger, explanation, and regret. But because the main purpose of the Biden/Netanyahu conversation seemed to be to reassure Americans, and the West more generally that Israel was neither abandoned nor any longer assured of unconditional support unless it changed its ways of interfering with the international aid and humanitarian efforts of Western countries, it became expedient for both leaders to disclose the content of what was said.

On reflection it is far more acceptable in the West for Israel to attack the aid workers of the UN (so long as no Westerners are killed), especially those working heroically throughout the crisis within the confines of UNRWA to mitigate Palestinian suffering, enduring the loss of their own staff throughout the Gaza onslaught.

In this sense, the most dangerously irresponsible feature of this complex public relations initiative was to reveal a strong pledge of continuing US support for Israel’s anti-Iran approach, which plausibly could have the effect of heightening Netanyahu’s incentives to foment a direct encounter with Iran to hide his multiple failures–to destroy Hamas, to gain the release of October 7 hostages, to minimize a surging global backlash against Israeli legitimacy, and to win back his own popularity among Israelis. It also conveyed to the leadership in Iran the unwelcome news that Israel would be backed in relation to Iran even when Israel violated basic rules of international law. This renewed show of solidarity with Israel made a devastating wider war much more likely and was obviously intended to frighten Iran sufficiently to moderate the retaliatory response that it had warned would be forthcoming. To send such signals to Tehran and Tel Aviv was to reinforce the impression that the US remained dedicated to achieving regime-change in Iran and willing to give Netanyahu indirect encouragement to hide his failures in Gaza by widening the conflict zone to include Iran and those non-state actors in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

As could have been anticipated, and perhaps desired by the Netahyahu leadership, was Iran’s retaliation by military drones and missiles programmed to hit targets within Israel. Most of the Iranian attack weapons were intercepted and destroyed by a combination of US military operations, the collaborative efforts of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK, as well by Israel’s formidable defense forces, and caused little damage within Israel. This attack occurred on April 13th, but as with the sharp shift in the tone of the Biden/Netanyahu relationship, the retaliation by Tehran was a direct consequence of the Damascus attack on April 1st. As suggested earlier, Netanyahu is fighting for his political life in Israel, making a wider war seemingly his tempting option to avoid facing the likely consequences of personal and national defeat. The recklessness of the Damascus attack makes little sense otherwise. The US involvement in Israel’s defense and Netanyahu’s initial reaction to the effect that Israel remains determined to attack Iran directly in view of its attempted military strike. Such a posture confirms Israel’s encouragement of a shift of attention away from Gaza, and in the direction of Iran with uncertain consequences. The reactions of other countries in the region, as well as China and Russia will determine just how wide this new phase of conflict becomes.

Atrocities at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City

The final noteworthy occurrence on April 1st took place when Israel withdrew its forces from the devastated al-Shifa Hospital and surroundings in Gaza City. On that day Israel ended its two weeks of atrocity at al-Shifa Hospital, where Palestinian patients confined to their beds were shot dead as were doctors who refused to abandon the hospital, and several hundred Palestinians killed in the course of the military operation. Hamas and Islamic Jihad suspects, often with no evidence of affiliation or even sympathies, were killed on the spot after being seized. Of course, for this there was no apology from Netanyahu or pretense from Biden of issuing a warning to Israel to refrain from such behavior. If atrocity victims in military operations are Palestinian, whatever befalls them, no feathers are ruffled in Washington. For its own domestic reasons, the US Government wants to show that it supports humanitarian aid efforts without challenging Israel’s war-fighting methods or insisting that international law guidelines be respected in struggles with regional rivals even as here under conditions of occupation subject to the constraints of international humanitarian law. For such admonitions, only the voices of moral authority in the West, such as Pope Francis or UN Secretary General Guterres can hope to be heard by the peoples of the world. The views of dissenters from the grotesque ordeal of genocide in Gaza are shunted to the sidelines of general awareness and media reportage. Their online words, analysis, and appeals, while influential for those opposed to the genocide, especially as reaching eyes and ears unfiltered by the informal censorship of the main media platforms in the Global West. These pleas for peace and in denunciation of international crime seldom carry weight with governments and political elites unless compatible with strategic interests of major states. The silence of the West in the face of genocide is a complicity crime shamelessly accentuated by the material, intelligence, and diplomatic forms of active support given to Israel since October 7, deserving criminalization.

Reflections on Convergence and the Future of the Middle East

Recounting these events makes it evident that April 1 is a day worth reflecting upon to gain an appreciation of the criminal dimensions of Israel reaction of the October 7 attack and the overall response of the Western liberal democracies (former European colonial powers except Spain, and breakaway British colonies, particularly the US, Canada, and Australia). Whether these focal points will drift toward a devastating regional inter-civilizational clash or hasten the declaration of a much overdue ceasefire cannot be currently known. Obviously embarking upon a genuine peace process is the haunting question that overhangs the prior discussion. This lends an abiding interest to how we come to perceive these five events, and how they play out in the weeks and months ahead, with the immediate preoccupation being the prospect of an Israel military strike against Iran. Whether this strike is symbolic or substantive may either avert the drift toward major warfare or accelerate it. Wiser heads do not often prevail in Israel, and so the fate of the region and world may depend on this being an exception.

The defense of Israel by military and intelligence cooperation of the Global West and several Sunni Arab governments suggests that containment of Iran, especially with respect to its nuclear program, has precedence over solidarity with the Palestinian people and their struggle. Whether the peoples of these countries will challenge these priorities of the governments who came to the defense of Israel is a question that will be clarified in the years ahead. The policy choice in the West between escalating hostility toward Iran and the renewal of normalization initiatives will remain relevant even if calm is eventually restored to Israel/Palestine relations, which itself can turn out to be delusional if Israel is faced with a combination of resistance activities and solidarity initiatives.

Prof. Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He is also one of JUST’s International Advisory Panel Members. 22 April 2024

Source: via JUST Commentary Malaysia