Israel Readies for Iran Showdown by Attacking Lebanon

As the fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah persists, an Israeli strategy of enlarging the conflict seems to be crystallizing.

Neoconservative pundits in the U.S. have pointed an accusatory finger at the usual suspect – Tehran – arguing that Hezbollah was pushed by Iran to open a new front against Israel to capitalize on Israel’s involvement in Gaza and to draw attention away from the controversy around its nuclear program.

Recalling Hezbollah’s close ties to Iran and Syria, both Washington and Tel Aviv argue that the recent clashes must have the support and blessing of these two states.

But even considering the anti-Israeli rhetoric of these states – in particular Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s venomous comments regarding Israel’s right to exist – they seem to lack either a credible motive or a plan for escalating violence against Israel.

Such a conclusion rests on the assumption that Tehran and Hezbollah could have predicted Israel’s reaction to the ambush and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Mindful of the decades-long fighting between Israel and Hezbollah – in which kidnappings of soldiers have been the rule rather than the exception – the assertion that Iran and Hezbollah aimed to draw Israel into a major war remains unconfirmed.

Israel’s heavy-handed response, which risks embroiling the entire region in a war, is rather unprecedented and unlikely to have been predicted by Hezbollah, despite Israel’s shelling of the Gaza strip after Palestinian fighters took an Israeli soldier prisoner.

Clearly, Ahmadinejad seeks to exploit the conflict – both by appealing to the disgruntled Arab and Muslim public outside of Iran by defying the U.S. and Israel, and by drawing attention away from its nuclear program and send the West a signal of what its allies in the region are capable of. But credible intelligence proving this was an Iranian trap is yet to surface.

In fact, much indicates that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have little to gain from an extensive confrontation with Israel at this time. Syria is in a weak position – the George W. Bush administration refuses to talk to it, its diplomatic maneuverability is limited, and its army is in shambles. Just the other week, Israel humiliated Syrian President Bashir Assad by having Israeli jets break the sound barrier over his palace in Damascus. Assad’s inability to respond was a poignant reminder to the Arabs of their impotence.

Hezbollah, in turn, needs to prove to the Lebanese public that it doesn’t need Israel’s enmity to justify its existence. Dragging Israel into the heart of Beirut, recently rebuilt after decades of warfare, does the exact opposite. It sends Lebanese society the signal that Hezbollah’s continued existence comes at great peril for Lebanon’s future.

"It led us to a war we are not prepared to fight," Yassin Soueid, a retired Lebanese general, told the Washington Post. "Israel could hit the presidential palace. … They can hit wherever they want, and there is nothing we can do about it."

Iran, on the other hand, is playing a high-risk game with the West over the nuclear issue. Its strategy seems to be to continuously defy the U.S. but stop short of trapping itself in a military confrontation it knows it cannot win.

While Ahmadinejad huffs and puffs – he has warned Israel that it "will face a crushing response" if it attacks Syria, and accused Arab leaders who have refused to cheer on Hezbollah of being "complicit in the Zionist regime’s barbarism" – there is little evidence showing an active Iranian role in the fighting.

"This is rhetoric, not actual policy," Mohammad Atrianfar, editor of the reformist Iranian newspaper Shargh, told Time magazine’s Azadeh Moaveni.

Accusing Israeli officials of using the Lebanon crisis to find new reasons to attack Iran, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes that "There is no evidence that [Iran] dominates the Hezbollah or has more control than Syria. … Until there are hard facts, Iran’s role in all of this is a matter of speculation, and conspiracy theories are not facts or news."

On the contrary, the one state that may have a strategic interest in expanding the conflict is Israel itself. Numerous Western states have condemned Israel’s actions as disproportionate and inflammatory. "One could ask if today there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon," France’s President Jacques Chirac told reporters. "I find, honestly, like most Europeans, that the reactions are completely disproportionate."

Tel Aviv seems to have – with a potential future showdown with Iran in mind – sought an opportunity to neutralize Hezbollah and Hamas in order to weaken Iran’s deterrence and retaliation capabilities. Over the last few months, Israel’s policy on Iran has been reassessed, partly due to Iranian warnings that it would retaliate against Israel if the United States targeted its nuclear facilities.

Through Hamas and the Hezbollah, Iran could bring the war to Israeli territory, a scenario that has further accentuated Israel’s vulnerability to asymmetric warfare. By preemptively attacking Hamas and the Hezbollah now, Israel can significantly deprive Iran of its capabilities to retaliate against the Jewish State in the event of a U.S. assault on Iran. Once Iran obtains a nuclear capability, however, this option may no longer be available to Israel.

Furthermore, Israel’s harsh reaction may be motivated by a need to conceal the reduced strategic maneuverability it enjoys as a result of Washington’s failure in Iraq. Though Israel certainly possesses the military means to fend off any conventional Arab offensives, the strength of its deterrence is to a large extent tied to U.S. military prowess.

An overextended United States may embolden Israel’s enemies, who may be tempted to test Israel’s resolve and ability to uphold its tough posture. Through its crushing response and by expanding the conflict, Israel seeks to conceal this potential vulnerability and signal the Arabs to abandon any adventurous ideas that the U.S. difficulties in Iraq may have given them.

What may have started with a Hezbollah ambush on an Israeli convoy seems to be ending with a much larger Israeli campaign to reduce its vulnerability to Iranian retaliation, while exposing Tehran by neutralizing its deterrence capabilities in the Levant.