An interview with Kamran Matin – lecturer in International relations at the University of Sussex and director of the Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT).
Jose Rosales (JR): It is always hard to identify, in real time, the crucial turning points in any given conflict. That said, are we entirely wrong to view the US-UK bombing of Yemen as an escalation that makes the possibility of an out and out regional war ever more likely, especially after the US-UK’s successive drone strikes over the past 48 hours?1
Kamran Matin (KM): I think that the bombing of Yemen by the U.S. and UK basically showed the breakdown of the US’ policy of compartmentalizing the conflict in the region. Since Hamas’ attack on 7 October, both Israel and even more so the U.S. and its Western allies have tried to separate the Gaza conflict from other regional tensions — tensions regarding the Lebanese-Israeli border; the attacks on foreign U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria; the situation in the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait — and have tried to deal with this situation as if these tensions were separate issues and, thereby, trying to avoid dealing with the Gaza war as the conflict that has instigated this unprecedented instability across the region. With the bombing of Yemen, this policy has effectively broken down and the U.S. have become party to that conflict as your question suggested. So, yes, I think that the potential for a regional conflict involving Iran, in particular, is higher. However, the basic underlying logic whereby both sides have refrained from getting directly involved still remains. Iran is interested in a direct conflict with the U.S. because, militarily, it’s difficult to see how they can get out of it intact. And all of this without mentioning how such a conflict would actually bring about unexpected situations domestically in terms of a renewed protest movement, which could lead to a situation such as the one in Syria where the government has lost control of certain areas, at which point everything will be up in the air and very difficult for the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) to contain the potential domestic fallout wherein the security and military forces are perceived to be vulnerable to external threats. On the other hand, the Biden administration is also keen on avoiding another war, especially in a year leading up to the Presidential elections in November later in the year, the Ukraine crisis, tensions with China regarding the South China Sea. There are all kinds of geopolitical headaches, which the U.S. has to deal with. So a war with Iran is not something they want at this point. However, the logic of unqualified support for Israel and their failure to force Israel, in any meaningful way, to accept a ceasefire in Gaza leaves open all sorts of possibilities, including a direct conflict [with Iran]. One reason for this is that, while the Houthis might have their military capabilities degraded due to the US-UK air strikes, they can quickly replenish said capacities with Iranian help. So at some point, the U.S. and the UK might have to intercept Iranian ships transferring weapons to the Houthis and, at which point, would bring them face to face with Iran. So, yes I think the likelihood, or the potential for a regional war, is greater now after these attacks on the Houthis in Yemen.
JR: Given the current situation2 in Iran and in light of the Kerman bombings and the subsequent dissolution of the air of security promoted by the regime, do you think all of this puts the regime in a place where they are more likely to undertake riskier strategies — i.e. not simply in terms of bringing about a direct confrontation with the U.S. but in terms of the possibility of forms of everyday violence, domestically, that prove to be even more vicious than what we have seen thus far?
KM: Whether the responsible party came from parts of the Iranian security establishment who simply looked the other way — which is not unprecedented given previous cases of Iranian security organizations have, themselves, actually bombed places including a site in Mashhad some years ago in order to pursue a particular kind of domestic, political, project — or whether it was really a lapse of national security and the ISIS claim is true, the regime typically uses these moments as justification for even more intense repression. We have already seen reports of multiple executions, either having taken place or prisoner’s who have been taken to solitary confinement in anticipation of their execution sentence. So they can use the [Kerman bombing] to both rally nationalist sentiments and attract political sympathy, if not from the broader public, then at least from their own social base while simultaneously intensifying repression, domestically to preempt a potential new phase of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ Movement. Externally, however, I think that some elements within the regime — especially within the Revolutionary Guards — see the current situation as quite fertile for maximizing their possible gains [at the moment]. These elements see the West — i.e. the U.S. and NATO — as being quite hard pressed on several fronts: the problem of supplying Ukraine suggests to them that the West is running out of both political will and material resources, the stand-off within China persists, the war on Gaza and the way that the U.S.’ close association with Israel has further damaged their international image; all of this gives them more of a reason to push harder and insofar as their stated goal for many years now has been their desire to remove the U.S. from the region, and from Iraq and Syria in particular, and they seem to be pushing harder in this regard. Moreover, with the U.S. out of the region, at least in their calculation, they can more effectively assert a regional hegemony or at least form relations with other Arab states — and particularly with Saudi Arabia, who recently joined BRICS. Such regional partnerships would benefit the regime without compromising their nuclear project, which obviously has, once again, accelerated in recent weeks.
JR: In the U.S. intelligence statement said to “confirm” ISIS’ responsibility for the Kerman bombings, it wasn’t simply ISIS in general that was held responsible. Rather, it was ISIS’ Afghanistan-branch, ISIS-K, who the U.S. claimed was behind the bombing attack. Is there any significance in holding the Afghan-branch of ISIS responsible in light of the dramatic rise of Afghanophobia in the country?
KM: At the very least, this definitely inflamed the xenophobic attitudes of the population at large towards Afghan refugees on the part of the people who are there. This is something that is, unfortunately, larger than the regime being racist or xenophobic. There is a deep and widespread social situation in regards to them [Afghan refugees]. The fact that the United States so quickly confirmed, or claimed to have confirmed, those responsible for the bombing can also be seen as a calculation that was partly behind the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — i.e. to leave a very costly presence there, to let the Taliban and Iran deal with the security vacuum the U.S. left behind, and potentially bringing the Taliban and Iran into conflict with each other. One or two years ago, the Taliban and the IRI almost came into conflict over the issue of the distribution of water. Although the Taliban, themselves, actually view ISIS-K as an enemy and actually try to deal with them but, obviously, they cannot. The fact that this bombing has originated from Afghanistan can potentially strain the relation between the Taliban and the regime even further — something that obviously plays into the U.S.’ interests. Moreover, while the IRI still claims that Israel was ultimately behind the bombings, though mediated by ISIS-K, the actual people who carried out the attacks were citizens of Tajikistan. And, of course, ISIS has a lot of recruits from that part of central Asia so that is not entirely surprising.
JR: While it is a fairly damning bit of self-criticism that the UNSC is able to pass a Resolution3 to protect international maritime trade despite proving incapable of passing a resolution regarding a ceasefire in the Gaza strip, what effect will the UNSC resolution have for both the Houthis in the Red Sea and the so-called “axis of resistance” as a whole?
KM: The key point is that the UNSC Resolution did not authorize the use of force. It simply called on the Houthis to cease and condemned their attacks. This is why I think that China and Russia probably did not veto the resolution, although both of them did abstain from voting altogether. Insofar as the U.S. is concerned, of course, this gives them some sort of legitimacy in taking action even though the resolution itself did not authorize any use of force. While Russia’s case may be slightly different, China also loses out from the current situation due to all of the maritime trade from China to Europe, which is now much more costly because of re-routing ships around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. So, while China might not be against the resolution, it is very unlikely that the U.S. and the UK can completely prevent the Houthis from doing what they are doing. On the other hand, the passage of this resolution when multiple other resolutions concerning a ceasefire in Gaza had failed is something that both the Houthis, Iran, and other resistance members will, of course, point out. But there is not one single reading of the effects of this resolution, and each side of the conflict will have a narrative that fits into their broader conception of the situation in the region.
JR: Would you say that Israel has more or less succeeded in forcing its Western allies to enter the ongoing regional conflict as “active hostile forces”?4
KM: It’s difficult to talk about Israel as a unified actor on this particular issue. I think that there are some fractures within the Israeli cabinet. There are those who are more susceptible to U.S. persuasion in terms of limiting the worst effects of the war. Then, there are the far-right members of the cabinet who see a war with Hezbollah as inevitable in the long run and therefore figure “why not do it now?” given that Israel has American support. And then there is Netanyahu himself, whose political life depends on the continuation of the war because as soon as the war is over, I think that multiple investigations into his conduct will be carried out. Insofar as these assassinations are concerned, Israel’s calculation might be as follows: either they can get away with taking out these important figures without instigating a wider regional war (due, in part, to Hezbollah’s more restrained approach given the domestic situation in Lebanon) and if they somehow widen the war then so be it since this is something that at least part of the Israeli cabinet wants. Because then America will act upon its promise and come to Israel’s aid, at which point Iran will much more likely be dragged into the conflict given the strategic significance of Hezbollah for Iran. Moreover, if Hezbollah looks like it will be destroyed or massively undermined by a joint US-Israel attack, then Iran might have to officially enter the conflict. So, for Israel, this looks like a win-win situation — they either get away with breaching the rules of the game with Hezbollah or, indeed, they lead the region into a wider war, which is, again, something that Israel doesn’t necessarily dislike.
JR: In light of U.S. intelligence’s recent “confirmation” that ISIS was responsible for the bombing in the south-eastern city of Kerman, Laleh Khalili underscored the perplexity with which one confronts the U.S. intelligence recent confirmations regarding ISIS’ responsibility for the two bombings in Iran’s south-eastern city of Kerman. As Khalili put it, “I am not sure why we are expected to believe that ISIS did the bombing in Kerman. Much more interesting is that both Iran and the U.S. seem not to want to escalate the bombing into something more significant by attributing it to the U.S.” What conclusions are we to draw from what professor Khalili identified as both the U.S.’ and Iran’s reluctance to further escalate regional tensions?
KM: Iran is in a sort of dilemma, or at least was in a dilemma and may still be in one. On the one hand, it is quite costly, domestically speaking, for Iran to accept that it is so vulnerable, but not to the United States or Israel, both of whom are mighty opponents, but to ISIS, which has largely been destroyed in Syria and Iraq and was never that strong in Afghanistan. So to accept that it was just ISIS behind the bombings would be a sign of profound weakness on the part of the regime. Thus, the regime has an interest in attributing responsibility for the attacks to Iran’s more powerful adversaries such as the United States. But then, this creates a problem of how the regime will respond. Because identifying the U.S. as the culprits but not doing anything about it is also signaling weakness. And you can see that in the very different, if not contradictory, reactions from different officials within the Iranian state. This is especially true of the Supreme Leader himself who was unusually vague and whose comments didn’t single out any individual actor but simply promised some sort of response against whoever was behind the attacks. So it is true that Iran does not see any benefit in direct conflict with the U.S. and Israel and it is likely that the very existence of the Islamic Republic would be in jeopardy if they did so. Moreover, the regime is mostly getting what it wants at the moment with this kind of war, which Western analysts would call ‘proxies’ or allies which the regime has in this ‘axis of resistance.’ On the other hand, and for various reasons, the U.S. also doesn’t want a direct conflict with Iran. So, in a way, both state-actors have intersecting interests in not escalating the situation. And yet, the dynamic is such that escalation is always one, if not the, likely possibility.
JR: U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent statement5 proposing the two-state solution as the best deterrent to Iran’s regional influence made me think of Aimé Césaire’s diagnosis of ‘Western’ powers: “And now I ask: what else has bourgeois Europe done? It has undermined civilizations, destroyed countries, ruined nationalities, extirpated ‘the root of diversity.’ The hour of the barbarian is at hand. The modern barbarian. The American hour.”6 What can the US/EU realistically offer in terms of regional diplomacy? Does Blinken’s statement fundamentally alter the US’s endgame with respect to Israel’s settler-colonization of historic Palestine and its ongoing genocide in the Gaza Strip? Moreover, what can we expect from neighboring Arab countries vis-a-vis Blinken’s suggestion of establishing an independent Palestinian nation-state?
KM: In terms of US/EU diplomacy, they are, first and foremost, not really qualified or legitimate mediators to the extent that they are so closely aligned with Israel, historically from the Oslo [Accords] onwards. Even if, for the sake of argument, assume that the U.S. and the EU are well intentioned, the fact is that Israel and the expansion of illegal settlements have materially removed the very basis on which a Palestinian state is supposed to be established. So in that sense, this mantra of a ‘Palestinian state is the road to peace’ rings hollow, and not only now but even before the current war. And as you probably know, a lot of academics and observers have long since buried the idea of the two-state solution and have begun to take seriously the idea of a ‘one-state solution’ even though that sounds completely unrealistic. But the fact is that a two-state solution is simply dead and impossible because no government can possibly remove close to one million settlers from the West Bank and without that, its not clear to me, at least, how a Palestinian state can be in existence if you understand ‘state’ in its territorial, modern, form. So in that sense I think that Blinken’s statement and the US’ line is designed more as a desperate appeal to muslim public opinion and is not really directed toward the leaders of Arab states.
With regard to the Arab states, it is often lost on many people just how anti-Palestinian many of these countries, in fact, are. While I have no evidence, I am sure that behind the scenes both the Saudis and Egyptians are quite happy about the destruction of Hamas, if not the Gaza strip and obviously Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been shooting down Houthi drones and missiles on behalf of Israel since the war began. So I think that most Arab states see Palestine as a barrier to their wider, regional, agenda vis-a-vis economic expansion and diversification. It’s a diversion for them. And as we know, the Abraham Accords were moving towards completely shelving the Palestinian issue, which, apparently, was one of the reasons why Hamas decided to do what it did in the time they did it. So I am extremely skeptical regarding Arab states in general, and even the states which are supposedly pro-Palestinian in a much more strategic way, such as Syria’s treatment of the Palestinian movement, which shows that, for the Syrian regime, its much more instrumental than what it seems to be. It just so happens that, because they are locked in this ongoing struggle with the West that the regime finds itself in a particularly conjunctural alignment with the Palestinian movement. But whenever a pro-Palestinian movement has been a threat, Syria has proved to be extremely violent in terms of repression — e.g. Bashar al-Assad killed thousands of Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camps. Seen in this light, Iran’s own support of Palestine is not illogical and quite rational and strategic in the realist sense, despite what many people think. Iran’s defense doctrine is based on a model of multi-layered defense located outside of the country due to the asymmetry between Iran and its foreign enemies. Thus, if the U.S. and/or Israel ever decided to attack Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas would be their first bulwark. Moreover, Iran’s cultivation of such a policy, in some ways, is a result of how the IRI views its own capacities for defending itself if a conflict were to arise with the U.S. and Israel. So there is a level of cynicism on the part of all state-actors involved, even though public opinion is more genuinely pro-Palestinian than the regimes themselves.
JR: As Laleh Khalili recently noted, militarized attacks and counter-attacks taking place in somewhere like the Red Sea substantially affect the behavior of state-actors on the other side of the world (e.g. Malaysia’s closure of its ports to Israeli shipping). “Though Malaysia is probably not coordinating with Ansar Allah,” said Khalili, “it is nevertheless establishing its own distinct mode of diplomacy to isolate Israel and bring some pressure too bear.” What, in your view, is the endgame of other, counter-hegemonic, state-actors be they international (i.e. China), regional (i.e. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran), or even actors who belong to another sphere of influence (e.g. Malaysia)?
KM: I’m not sure if they need to or whether they have an endgame in mind. However, what is clear to everyone is that the hegemony of the U.S. has largely disappeared after that brief period of unipolarity in the 1990s. What we are currently witnessing — whether in Ukraine or China or in the Middle East itself — is the birth pangs of a new world order. So, different actors are positioning or repositioning themselves, including historically close allies of the West such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I don’t think people have realized just how much Saudi Arabia and the UAE have distanced themselves from the West — e.g. [Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman refused to even answer Biden’s phone calls in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when America was desperate to increase oil production and decrease the price of oil and energy and the Saudi’s refused to do so and continued with their level of oil production. Moreover, there is of course all of the new trade treaties that they have concluded with China. All of this shows that even traditionally pro-Western, or even Western dependent, states such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE are, in the absence of a guarantee of security and protection from the U.S. (which was the case up until the 1990s), actually far more proactive in their foreign relations and diplomacy. Rather than relying on this exchange of security for oil, they are , at present, acting much more independently in many respects and especially in relation to their newfound closeness with China in the region. Other countries also sense this strategic decline of the US; and if these state-actors happen to also have some sort of postcolonial or third-world ideological heritage or direction/orientation, they will react in more obvious ways in order to mark their difference from what the West or the U.S. demands, which we can see in your example of Malaysia. This is because Malaysia has been active, both as an individual nation-state and as a member state within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in charting non-Western forms of diplomacy. So, while there can, of course, be a defined ‘endgame,’ what is clear is that the West’s unquestioned dominance is over, and various state-actors are dealing with this reality each in their own way relative to their respective histories and ideological and political discourses.
1. Merely 24 hours after the UN Security Council voted in favor of a resolution calling on the Houthis to “immediately cease all attacks” in the Red Sea on the basis that these attacks were impeding “global commerce and navigational rights and freedoms as well as regional peace”, news broke that the US-UK bombed Houthi targets in Yemen. As Nabil Khouri, a former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Yemen, put it, with the U.S. and UK bombings in Yemen, the Biden administration has effectively become “a direct participant in the Gaza war,” while adding that the “situation can only escalate from here.” What is more, prior to the US-UK’s drone strikes on the Houthis, Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor, James Bays, already voiced concerns that the UNSC resolution would “give a green light to Western forces for military action.” “And of course,” Bays remarked, “just over 24 hours later, that is what has happened.” And while concerns have already been raised regarding Biden’s possible violation of the War Powers Resolution, it seems naive to believe that Biden’s administration will be held accountable for any alleged violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution given congressional precedent. For example, in her 2011 congressional testimony, then Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton defended the view that the Obama administration did not require congressional authorization for the U.S. military’s involvement in Libya. In response, former Speaker of the House, John A. Boehner (R. Ohio), publicly commented on former US President, Barack Obama, and his decision to forgo Congressional authorization prior to the US’ bombing campaign in Libya. As Boehner remarked at the time, “The White House says there are no hostilities taking place. Yet we’ve got drone attacks under way. We’re spending $10 million a day. We’re part of an effort to drop bombs on Qaddafi’s compounds. It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test, in my view, that we’re not in the midst of hostilities.”
2. In other words, a context defined by a regime that views itself as squarely within the final phase of affecting a “smooth” transition of power and has begun to think about Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor, all while the ‘morality police’ has not been abolished and, instead, has been reconstructed through a variety of even more draconian surveillance measures capable of continuing the same kinds of repressive, gender-based, and violent practices that organizes the country according to the logic of gender apartheid.
3. On 31 December, news broke of the US Military and Navy helicopters firing on Houthis boats off the coast of Yemen, killing ten and wounding two others. And yet, such drastic and dangerous escalation on the part of the US has seemed to have done little to deter further Houthis operations in the Red Sea. On 1 January, Maersk reportedly suspended vessel passage through the Red Sea straight for 48 hours after what the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) said was the “23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since 19 November”. Then, on 3 January, “Yemen’s Houthis claimed responsibility for the latest attack Wednesday on a merchant ship in the Red Sea, as the vessel’s operator sharply raised prices between Asia and Europe.” Soon after, Maersk announced it would be halting Red Sea shipping ‘until further notice.’Moreover, Al Arabiya English reported that “after the latest attack, French operator CMA CGM announced a big hike in prices, with a 40-foot container between Asia and the western Mediterranean doubling from $3,000 to $6,000.”
4. On 25 December, an Israeli drone strike outside of the Syrian capital, Damascus, killed Razi Mousavi, a senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Quds Force. On 2 January, Israel launched a drone strike that killed a senior Hamas official in Beirut. On 5 January, the U.S. launched a drone strike in central Baghdad that killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al Jawari, a leader of the Harakat al Nujaba, which is part of the “axis of resistance.” Then, on 8 January, Israel launched another drone strike killing a senior Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon. Alongside the US-UK drone strikes in Yemen, both the U.S. and Israel have created a situation where an out and out regional war appears to be more likely now than at any time since 7 October.
6. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (Monthly Review Press: 2000), 76. Emphasis added.