TCS Daily


Hizbullah's Double-Edged Deterrent

By Michael Young - May 10, 2006 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards official recently warned that "wherever America does something evil, the first place that we target will be Israel." He did not specify how Iran would do so, and there are missiles in the Iranian arsenal that can reach Israeli territory. However, a much-discussed scenario has been that the pro-Iranian Hizbullah in Lebanon would be at the forefront of a retaliatory strike, using its purportedly ample store of rockets deployed in the country's south.

This is certainly possible, and with Syria now out of Lebanon and Iran expanding its regional influence, there are definite signs that Hizbullah's Iranian side has gained ascendancy over its Syrian one. The party is closely linked to the Iranian intelligence establishment and the Revolutionary Guards, and because of this, one might expect it to be involved in any of Iran's rejoinders to an attack against nuclear facilities.

However, Hizbullah is likely to pay a heavy domestic and international price for transforming itself into an Iranian enforcer on the Lebanese-Israeli border. The party's allies in Tehran probably know that what Hizbullah loses would also be lost to Lebanon's Shiites, with whom the Islamic Republic has been consolidating relations since the early 1980s. However, is this enough to rule out a Hizbullah military option?

Hizbullah would face three broad sets of difficulties if it were to bomb Israel in response to Iranian instructions or entreaties. The first is that the party's arsenal (estimated at anywhere between 10,000-20,000 rockets, though no convincing evidence has ever surfaced to confirm the numbers) would probably soon be depleted in a rapidly escalating clash. The conventional wisdom is that while Hizbullah might damage Israeli towns or cities in its initial salvoes, this would only provoke massive Israeli retaliation without the party's being able to benefit from a substantial weapons re-supply effort, because of the reluctance of the Lebanese government to turn its own citizens into Iranian cannon fodder.

This leads to a second difficulty. By virtually begging for a fierce Israeli riposte, Hizbullah would not only infuriate non-Shiite Lebanese who have no sympathy for Iran, it could lose some support in the predominately Shiite south, where Israeli bombing would be focused. At a time when Hizbullah's loyalties are already suspect to many Lebanese, this might escalate sectarian tensions between Shiites and non-Shiites, leading to accusations that Hizbullah and the Shiites are an Iranian fifth column. For a party and community that have moved into the mainstream of political life in postwar Lebanon, this would be a serious setback.

A third difficulty is that by attacking Israel, Hizbullah would only reinvigorate international efforts to disarm the party. In September 2005, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which, among other things, demands the disarmament of militias in Lebanon. The Lebanese government, fearing confrontation with a heavily armed Hizbullah, favors moving slowly. However, a conflagration between Hizbullah and Israel would push the disarmament question back to the top of the UN and American agendas, and this would be reinforced by the domestic antipathy toward Hizbullah an Israeli attack would arouse.

The Iranians have invested too heavily in Hizbullah to discredit the party by asking it to pursue a rash policy that ultimately poses little if any strategic threat to Israel. This doesn't mean that some sort of military option won't be considered. However, Iran and Hizbullah will have to consider the parameters of that action carefully, so that Hizbullah can survive, or even be strengthened, if it is asked to enter the fray.

One alternative is that Hizbullah will not have to use its firepower at all against Israel, but will put its networks at the disposal of the Iranian intelligence services for operations against Israeli civilian or military targets. This seems to be what happened in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Hizbullah is believed to have collaborated with Iran in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish Community Center in 1994. However, after 9/11 the advantages of pursuing such a strategy are questionable, since it would only compound Iranian isolation and transform Hizbullah into a more acute international menace.

That's why the most plausible tactic, if Hizbullah were integrated into an Iranian response against Israel, would be to provoke a situation where the ensuing conflict itself mobilizes Lebanese and Arabs behind the party. This is what took place in April 1996, when Hizbullah managed to transform Israel's three-week-long Grapes of Wrath assault against Lebanon, which targeted the south and areas in and around Beirut, into a political victory. Today, this is much trickier to do, since Syria is no longer around to impose unanimity behind the party's efforts. However, any Israeli outrage similar to the killing at the time of over 100 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge at a UN base in Qana could create a groundswell of backing for Hizbullah. Would the party be cynical enough to somehow precipitate a similar tragedy? It's hardly impossible; though such could just as easily backfire if the Lebanese were to begin questioning why it is they have to defend distant Iran with their blood.

Hizbullah may well carry out reprisals against Israel, but the Iranians are not eager to throw out the Hizbullah baby with the retaliatory bathwater. For the moment, the party's rockets are a useful deterrent to have, but one neither the hardliners in Tehran nor in Hizbullah want to have to use. The problem with a double-edged deterrent is that sometimes it turns into a trap precipitating one's own downfall.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.

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