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The Israel-Iran theater show–a distraction from Gaza genocide 

Michael Karadjis explains how the recent interchange of missiles between Israel and Iran was an episode of theater distracting from the ongoing genocide in Gaza and leaving Israel more powerful.

How many Palestinians have Israel shot, bombed, and starved in the last week or so? Not a lot of it has been in the news, because we’ve been distractedby “bigger” theatre: a “regional” conflict may be brewing. Let’s observe and analyze this bigger picture, while remembering that the ongoing genocide in Gaza is the real issue here, not Israeli and Iranian fireworks.

At least 43 more Palestinians were killed and 62 others injured on April 13 in four Israeli massacres in Gaza. The next day another five Palestinians were killed “when the Israeli army shelled hundreds of displaced Palestinians trying to return to their homes in the northern Gaza Strip.” Meanwhile, as Al-Jazeera reported, in the West Bank in the same period, while drones flew overhead, mobs of Israeli settlers, backed by troops,

spearheaded a large-scale attack on the village of al-Mughayyir, where they killed one Palestinian man and injured 25 others. Since then, settlers have attacked more towns and villages near Ramallah including Bukra, Deir Dubwan, and Kfar Malik.

This is the ongoing reality behind the theatrical scenes we have witnessed over the last week. While the world witnessed the performative deployment of great military hardware on both sides, as both proclaimed self-defense, there was no power to knock out Israeli planes bombing Palestinians; no discussion of Palestine’s right to defend itself.

The U.S. has been pleased that decades of Iranian-regime “anti-Zionist” bluster (aimed at internal and regional homogenization rather than at being taken seriously) amounted to nothing at all as Israel committed genocide in Gaza for six months. Despite Iranian leaders initially promising to back Palestinian resistance “until the liberation of Palestine and Al-Quds,” with one leader claiming an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would “open that gates of hell,” in reality “the chasm between Iran’s bellicose rhetoric and relatively restrained action is even sharper in the current Gaza war” than in previous wars. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei famously told Hamas chief Ismael Haniyeh in Tehran, that since Hamas “gave us no warning, we will not enter the war on your behalf,” allegedly demanding that Haniyeh silence Palestinian voices calling on Iran or Hezbollah to join the battle. In November, the U.S. allowed Iraq to transfer $10 billion it owed Iran in electricity payments in a sanctions waiver. According to The Economist, this was a reward to Iran for holding back its proxies after October 7.

However, Israeli leaders were less pleased. They were probably pleased in the first month or two, allowing them time to get on with the genocide. Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, boasted that “no one has come to [Hamas’s] aid – neither the Iranians nor Hizbullah.” But after that, Israeli leaders, or at least Netanyahu’s gang, appeared to want to escalate. For example, while the attacks and counter-attacks between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanese border were initially well-calibrated on both sides, restricted to a few kilometers, Israel soon upped the ante: While some twenty troops and civilians have been killed on the Israeli side, about 240 Hezbollah and other fighting cadre and forty Lebanese civilians had been killed by increasingly violent and reckless Israeli bombing by March. By late in 2023, Israel was escalating with targeted killings of leading Hezbollah cadre and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon and Syria, which appeared to be aimed at getting a response.

missiles are small lights in the night sky above a gold-domed building.
Iranian missiles above Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For years, Israel has bombed Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, but mostly they targeted weapons shipments, warehouses, and the like where Iran was transferring missiles to Hezbollah. These Israeli bombings were carried out with the facilitation of Syria’s Russian-controlled air defenses, an arrangement made through countless high-level meetings between then-best-friends Putin and Netanyahu, who over a decade met together more than any other two world leaders. Israel supported the Assad regime remaining in power, but without Iranian backing, and therefore welcomed Russia’s intervention on Assad’s behalf as an alternative. Russia and Iran jointly saved Assad, but then became rivals over domination of the Assadist corpse.

Yet over all these years of attacks, none of them were ever carried out in response to any imaginary Iranian or Hezbollah attacks on “Israel” (i.e., the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan); the Israeli and Western propaganda that Israel attacks Iranian forces because they pose a “threat” to Israel was very theoretical indeed. In fact, only twice, in my close reading, was there even retaliation (once by Iran, in May 2018, once by Hezbollah, in January 2015), as against hundreds of Israeli attacks.

But only in the last six months has Israel progressed to these targeted killings of significant numbers of important Iranian or Hezbollah figures, but no matter how many were killed, even leading Revolutionary Guards, still there was zero retaliation from Iran. Following a series of suspiciously precise Israeli strikes killing around a dozen leading Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria in December and January, Iran’s response was to pull back the Guards from Syria to avoid getting pulled into the conflict.

How is Israel supposed to maintain a 30-year propaganda campaign, that it faces not just the brutally oppressed Palestinians, but behind them a large evil power bent on wiping out Israel and Jews (sometimes referred to as “the Fourth Reich”) allegedly dedicated to Israel’s destruction, when, for years, that power never does anything, not even as a response? And continues the same, no matter how much Israel has turned up the dial in recent months. Israel cultivates this propaganda not because it fears Iran – a laughable proposition for a nuclear-armed military and economic superpower – but because of its utility as a key ideological prop for the Zionist enterprise. In the same way, Iran plays the same propaganda game in relation to Israel. Just as Israel used this propaganda to justify the brutal oppression of Palestine, Iran used the same to mobilize supporters and death squads against opponents – mostly Sunni Muslims – in Iraq and Syria as it built its sub-imperial arc from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea.

But now in the context of its Gaza genocide and the mass global opposition that was confronting it, an Iranian response became especially important for Israel, because if Iran’s response were harsh enough, it may force the U.S. to enter the battle directly against Iran, and under the cover of such a region-wide conflagration, Israel could carry out its genocide in Gaza–and the West Bank–to completion. Israel’s crimes would become a mere sideshow compared to this “bigger picture,” and the world could be convinced that “poor little Israel” faces powerful enemies attacking it. So, it finally made the decision to hit the Iranian consulate in Syria, knowing Iran would now have no choice but to respond at some level or lose face completely.

At first, Iran said it held the U.S. responsible, a hint that the response might simply be that its Iraqi Shiite militia proxies go back to hitting U.S. bases in Iraq or Syria, something they stopped completely months ago (under Iranian regime pressure). Then the U.S. stressed that it was not “involved in any way whatsoever,” that it had received no advance warning from Israel (and was not happy about that), so Iran had better not hit U.S. forces. This was a hint that Iran should instead hit Israeli interests, somewhere. Then Iran hinted that its response would not be of an escalatory nature, and U.S. sources initially agreed that the response would be minor. But then we began to read in the media exactly what its response would be–a drone and missile attack on Israel from Iranian territory–somewhat more significant than initially expected. But the reason we could read about it was that Iran gave the U.S. 72 hours’ notice via various intermediaries–Oman, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Switzerland have all been mentioned–so that the U.S. and Israel would know exactly what was coming, giving them plenty of time to prepare. In real-time theatre, discussions were essentially going on in the media between the U.S. and Iran through these intermediaries over what was deemed to be within reasonable limits to avoid escalation and so on. The U.S. made it clear that if Iran hit Israel, U.S. support for Israel’s defense is “ironclad.”

Of course, this well-choreographed retaliation gave time for Israel, the U.S., the U.K., France, and even Jordan to be well-positioned to shoot down 99 percent of the 350 drones and missiles that Iran sent against Israel. Reportedly, some drones even had their lights on! Iran’s attack was aimed at an Israeli military base, not at civilians, as U.S. leaders confirmed. Iran then declared that the matter was “concluded”. Meanwhile, since the U.S.’s “ironclad” defense of Israel had indeed been successfully put into action, the U.S. therefore, did not need to do any more. Biden commended Israel on the success of its amazing air defense system–even though this may not have been the case if the U.S. and others had not helped–telling Israel, “You got a win. Take the win” and move on; Biden stressed that the U.S. would not support or participate in any offensive Israeli operations against Iran in retaliation.

Two men stand in a pile of rubble.
Damage in Gaza, October 2023. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The U.K., France, Germany, and other Western countries all likewise called on Israel to avoid retaliating. Russia and China neither supported nor condemned Iran’s attack (just as the U.S., U.K., and France had refused to condemn Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in the UN) but expressed alarm about escalation and called for calm.

So, who won, lost, or came out even in this?

Iran and the U.S., for their own reasons, want to avoid escalation. Israel, for reasons explained above, wants to escalate, but not to fight Iran itself, but rather focus on smashing Gaza. For Israel, escalation means that the U.S. gets sucked into a war of non-choice with Iran while Israel gets on with killing the Palestinians, its real, not phantom, enemies. The U.S. has given Israel 100 percent of its support – despite occasional toothless hand-wringing – to Israel’s war of genocide in Gaza but has no interest in getting sucked into Netanyahu’s escalatory games. This reluctance is not out of pacifism; it’s just that it has much bigger issues with Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea, and, as Obama’s Iran nuclear accord showed, the Democrats at least have a more rational understanding that Iranian capitalism merely wants a recognized place in the region and that the bluster, is, well, bluster.

From that perspective, Israel did gain a lot. Above all, the whole episode created a theatrical distraction from Gaza; it allowed Israel to get on with mass murder while the world’s attention was elsewhere; it covered  Israel scuttling the latest negotiations of ceasefire and hostage release; and it demonstrated how efficient its defenses were. The fact that Iran chose a full frontal attack on Israel, rather than an equivalent act such as hitting an Israeli embassy somewhere, allows Israel to again play-act that it is up against a powerful “evil” regime that wants to destroy it. The episode assembled a collection of Western powers and even Jordan as a “defend Israel” coalition. The escalating criticisms of its monstrous war coming from various Western powers, even to some extent from Biden and the U.S. government, have now been blunted. Massive new arms deals with Israel and sanctions on Iran are the word from the U.S. and Western allies.

On the other hand, this is not quite enough for Netanyahu; it is not quite a regional conflagration. The limitations, and above all the choreography, of Iran’s harmless attack do nothing to bring in the U.S. to wage war on Iran; on the contrary, it allows the U.S. to preach restraint.

Iran also gained: It could say, we retaliated for the violation of our consulate, but we also acted responsibly. If Iran had not planned for all its drones and missiles to be shot down, then this would be a severe humiliation. But since that was precisely the plan, Iran simultaneously gained credibility and showed “responsibility.” It also demonstrated that it had had the potential to do damage if it had not given extensive warning, and clear notice to Israel that it no longer accepted the previous rules. It was also a useful exercise for Iran to “test out” Israeli air defense weaponry, though of course, Israel benefits in the same way.

But again, on the other hand, it can also be argued that Iran fell into Israel’s trap by retaliating, though it had little choice. While the planned results of its attack show restraint, just the fact that it chose a full-frontal attack from its territory as its method of retaliation has allowed the West to denounce “Iranian aggression” and step up support for Israel.

Arguably, the U.S. gained the most by being in a position to jointly choreograph, with Iran, the latter’s response through intermediaries and then play the decisive role in helping Israel shoot down all the Iranian hardware, it placed itself in a strong position. If its aim was to show it could defend Israel while avoiding escalation, it came out on top. While the U.S. tells Israel it should be happy to see how well its defenses performed, Israel knows its dependence on the U.S. has been displayed; this arguably puts the U.S. in a strong position to moderate Israel’s next steps.

Of course, the U.S. has continually criticized some aspects of Israel’s war while at every stage supplying Israel with the weapons to carry out its genocide, so no one should wager too much on the idea that the U.S. will not buckle if Israel were to choose a hard escalatory response. However, it appears that this has been avoided with yet another piece of elaborate theatre, this time by Israel.

Following Iran’s attack, Israel immediately announced that it had to respond and would “decide for itself” in a pointed snub to U.S. advice. As expected, the U.S. began to come around, U.S. leaders now claiming to understand that Israel “had to respond” in some way. So, the U.S. advised Israel to keep it non-escalatory. But if Israel’s response to Iran’s response was not proportionate or bigger, that would not be good for Israel’s credibility. Some Israeli leaders wanted to wage a massive attack on Iran. To prevent that, it appears that the U.S. came up with a deal to save Israel, Iran, and the region from escalation at the expense of the Palestinians.

According to Egyptian officials cited by The Times of Israel on Thursday, “The American administration showed acceptance of the plan previously presented by the occupation government regarding the military operation in Rafah, in exchange for not carrying out a large-scale attack against Iran” [emphasis added]. In other words, no retaliation has been replaced with no “large-scale” retaliation. This is all Israel has to promise in order for the U.S. to give its assent – thus far not clearly given – for Israel to launch its heralded attack on Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians have been driven, up against the border of Egypt, into which Israel would like to expel them.

On Friday, April 19, Israel launched its retaliation. Explosions were heard in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Israel did not explicitly report anything; Iran said the explosions were not missiles but the actions of its air defenses knocking out several drones; Iran said the event was so small that it is uncertain where the drones came from and speculated that it may have been an internal attack by “infiltrators” and indicated that it therefore had no plans to retaliate.

Before proclaiming this as a victory for Iran and a climb-down by Israel, by targeting Isfahan, where Iran has major sites of its nuclear program, without hitting them, Israel has shown that it can target them if it chooses to. Therefore, despite the small size of the action, it is an important implicit threat.

Iran wins; Israel wins; escalation is avoided (for now); the U.S. wins. But if the terms of the alleged deal are true, Palestine loses. Following Iran’s retaliatory attack, its UN mission declared it had been conducted “in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus” based on Article 51 of the UN Charter “pertaining to legitimate defense,” and therefore the matter can be deemed concluded.” This was not only a message to Israel, but also to Palestine; if, as expected, Israel now goes ahead with a savage attack on Rafah, backed by the U.S., Palestine is on its own.

Ruthlessly repressive capitalist dictatorships like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, the UAE, and so on have nothing to offer the Palestinian people and never have had – regardless of their rhetoric and whether they use hollow phrases like “resistance” in their titles or not. On one hand, none have ever done anything to aid Palestine; on the other, given their nature as active enemies of human emancipation, even if they did make bumbling attempts to live up to their rhetoric, it would tend to be counterproductive.

The entirely theatrical nature of the past week’s events merely highlights this fact graphically. Only the oppressed peoples of the region, when they next rise against their oppressors, can be real allies of Palestine. In the meantime, all solidarity with the Palestinian resistance in Rafah and throughout Gaza is essential to prevent Israel from using the past week’s events to further its genocidal project.

Featured image credit:; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”




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Michael Karadjis View All

Michael Karadjis teaches Social Sciences and International Development at Western Sydney University. He has been active in progressive campaigns and the socialist movement since marching against the Vietnam war as a high school student. In recent years, he has written extensively on Syria and Middle East issues for a number of publications and has been involved in a number of solidarity campaigns, including the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, Syria Solidarity Australia and Agent Orange Justice. He blogs on Syria, Palestine, Ukraine, and other issues at