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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Northern Tinder Box



February 28, 2010
The war of words is continuing.  The latest salvoes were fired last week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and his Lebanese ally and client Hassan Nasrallah.  Ahmedinejad reportedly told Nasrallah that if Israel attacks Hizballah, the response should be sufficient to lead to the closure, once and for all, of the Israeli 'case.'  In the same week, Nasrallah promised attendees at a 'Resistance Martyrs Day' celebration that his movement would target Israel's infrastructure in the event of further hostilities.  The Hizballah leader mentioned airports, factories and refineries as possible targets. 
Hizballah second in command Naim Qassem joined in this week, describing Israel as 'worse than Nazism,' and the 'leader of international crime under the sponsorship of the U.S. and major world powers.'  Qassem reiterated his movement's rejection of any diplomatic option vis a vis Israel, saying that "What was taken by the force of occupation can only be regained by the force of the resistance."    
The self-confident, warlike tones of  these leaders are by now familiar.   But what, if anything, is revealed by these most recent statements?
Some analysis has suggested that the heightened rhetoric may presage an attempt by Iran to heat up the northern front in response to the hardening international stance to Iran's nuclear program.
While nothing should be ruled out, a number of factors should be borne in mind in this regard.  Hizballah and its backers are well aware of the broad contours of Israel's likely response in the event of further aggression by the movement on the northern border.  The message has been adequately transferred that a future conflict would not remain within the parameters of  a localized Israel-Hizballah clash in southern Lebanon. 
Rather, with Hizballah present in the Lebanese government, and its decisions regarding war not subject to supervision or appeal by any other element in Lebanon,  a future war is likely to take on the characteristics of a state to state conflict.
The results of such a conflict would be damaging to northern Israel, without a doubt. But to Lebanon and to Hizballah, they are likely to be devastating.  This means that from the Iranian point of view, the Hizballah card is one of the most valuable that Teheran holds - but it can probably be played only once.
So there is reason to suppose that the Iranians have good reason to hold back on committing their Hizballah clients until a possible later stage - most likely, in response to a future western or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. 
Of course, past wars in the region have often erupted not from a decision by one or other of the sides, but rather from a situation of ongoing, rising tensions,  which was then ignited by a single, ill-judged action - such as the attempted murder of Ambassador Shlomo Argov, which led to Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, or the Hizballah kidnapping attempt which precipitated the war of 2006. 
Hizballah's failure to avenge the death of senior movement official Imad Mughniyeh remains a major issue for the movement.  In his speech to the rally last week, Nasrallah referred to this issue, saying "What we want is a retaliation that is up to the level of Imad Mugniyeh."
But here the movement faces a dilemma. Any major strike on an Israeli target is likely to provoke precisely the conflagration that Hizballah and its supporters fear.  Hizballah, in addition to being a client and proxy of Iran, is also a Lebanese Shia movement, requiring the support of the Shia of southern Lebanon for its longer term goal of dominating the country.  And for all their pride in the 'divine victory' of 2006, the stream of residents of south Lebanon seeking to flee the area whenever security tensions have risen over the last three years has surely not escaped the Hizballah leadership's attention.
So can we conclude that deterrence has been achieved, and the situation of latent tension in the north is likely to remain at its current level for the foreseeable future, short of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities? 
To do so would be to assume that the thinking of the Hizballah leadership and its allies in Iran is ultimately pragmatic, rational, and non-ideological.  This would be a mistaken assumption. The writings of Hizballah's leaders, and its actions - particularly since 2000 - offer clear evidence that its commitment to jihad against Israel is a genuine one. Recent visitors to Beirut speak of an atmosphere of high, even delusional morale, among Hizballah's cadres. It is sincerely believed that the next war will initiate Israel's demise. And there is in the public domain clear evidence of at least one abortive operation which could have sparked renewed conflict - namely, the foiled IRGC/Hizballah plan to kidnap the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan , for which two movement members are on trial. 
Ultimately, there are ample pragmatic reasons as to why the Iran/Hizballah side might want to avoid escalation at the present time. But there are also irrational elements within the thinking of these forces - which incline them toward underestimation of their enemy.  There is also a clear motivation for actions intended to reap a cost to Israel, but one not sufficiently high that Jerusalem will launch a full scale response. The possibility here for error and mis-calculation is obviously immense.  The recent deployment by Hizballah of sophisticated M-600 surface to surface missiles adds further fuel to the mix. The situation in the north is complex, multi-faceted, and requiring of only a single wrong move to end the fragile quiet of the last three and a half years. 
 *Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel
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