By Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for
Strategic and International Studies.
July 14, 2006.
Iran’s leaders have apparently decided to reject the Western offer to peacefully
settle the dispute over its weapons-grade uranium-enrichment program.
Many had hoped that, in spite of its extremism, Tehran would agree to be
bought off with a deal that included a light-water reactor, supplies of safer
enriched uranium, aircraft spare parts and economic co-operation, if for no
other reason than to avoid sanctions that are sure to come soon.
(Even if China and Russia refuse to vote for them in the UN Security
Council, the United States and Europe can do much by themselves to cut off
Iran from world banking, prohibit the travel of Iranian leaders, and stop exports
to Iran of everything but food and medicine.)
So, instead of waiting passively for the inevitable retaliation, Iran’s leaders
decided to trigger a Middle East crisis of their own by organizing recent attacks
Their aim is to discourage the U.S. and the Europeans from starting
another crisis vis-Ã -vis Iran – after all, financial markets and everyday politics in
Europe can only tolerate so much.
Iran’s moves were prepared in a series of meetings with its local allies, both
Hamas of Palestine and Hezbollah of Lebanon.
Khaled Mashaal, the overall Hamas leader who remains safely in
Damascus under Syrian protection, travelled to Tehran at one point, where he
received about $50-million in cash.
Although an offshoot of the (strictly Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, whose
financial supporters in Saudi Arabia loathe Iran’s Shia ayatollahs, Hamas
evidently decided to co-operate in Iran’s scheme. It was already cut off from
Western funding because of its refusal to recognize Israel, and it was
diplomatically isolated. Hamas acted by increasing rocket attacks on nearby
Israeli territory and by launching a raid across the international border into Israel
in which two soldiers were killed and one was captured.
That duly provoked Israeli retaliation, starting the Gaza end of the crisis that
It was altogether more costly for Hezbollah to serve Iran’s strategy. While it
retains a heavily armed, salaried and uniformed guerrilla force of some 5,000,
its leader Hassan Nasrallah has been striving for years to build up Hezbollah as
a legitimate political party in Lebanese politics, and the main representative of
the country’s Shia population. This effort was so successful that Hezbollah has
two ministers in the current coalition government.
But there was a stringent requirement. To be accepted by other Lebanese, and
to a degree even to retain the support of its fellow Shiites, Hezbollah had to
agree to join the Lebanese consensus on the priority of reconstruction and
economic recovery after years of civil war. That meant avoiding a war with
Hezbollah is under an order of the UN Security Council to disarm and disband
its armed force, but it claimed that it needed its weapons even after Israel’s full
withdrawal, because it had to continue to liberate what it calls “Lebanese
territory.” That refers to a tiny fragment of land, the so-called the Shebaa
Farms, which UN inspectors specifically declared not to be part of Lebanon.
Other Lebanese political parties agreed that Hezbollah could keep its weapons
to fight there – but only on condition that it keep the peace on the rest of the
Lebanon-Israel border, to avoid Israeli retaliation and the destruction of newly
That is the condition that Hassan Nasrallah has now violated by ordering his
men to attack an Israeli patrol, taking two prisoners, and to launch rockets into
Israeli territory. With that, Hezbollah has thrown away its political position in
Lebanon, because it is obvious to all that it is bringing destruction upon the
Evidently, Sheik Nasrallah felt compelled to serve Iran’s strategy. Aside from
the multimillion-dollar monthly subsidy it provides, Iran is the spiritual homeland
of Hezbollah leaders, some of whom have studied in Iranian religious schools.
For the Israeli coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, matters are
It had ordered last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, on the presumption
that Israeli territory would not be attacked. But the possibility was anticipated
and military planners determined that the only possible response was to
counterattack, as heavily and for as long as might be needed, until Palestinian
attacks would stop by exhaustion or by agreement.
As for Hezbollah, the Israeli military response is by no means confined to
retaliation, let alone to attempts to retrieve the two captured soldiers. It has
much wider military and political aims.
Over the years, Hezbollah has received and stored several thousand
bombardment rockets and some 100 longer-range missiles, these from Iran by
way of Syrian ports and airports. They amounted to a large and an almost
instantaneous bombardment capacity against Israel.
Recently, and very revealingly, two Iranian leaders threatened Israel with
bombardment by Hezbollah’s rockets, if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear
installations. Israel, therefore, is now using the opportunity of the current
fighting to search out and destroy the underground and other hidden sites
where Hezbollah keeps its rockets and missiles.
Israel’s political aim, on the other hand, is to destroy Hezbollah’s much-desired
position as a legitimate Lebanese political party, by exposing it as the paid
agent of Iran, serving foreign interests at grievous cost to Lebanon.
Therefore, the Israelis are blocking Lebanon’s ports from the sea, they
have breached the runways of all three jet-capable airfields in the country,
including Beirut International Airport, and remain ready to destroy generating
plants and other high-value targets if that is what it takes to generate enough
political pressure on Hezbollah.
Its first success has been to induce Hezbollah to deny that it launched a missile
against Haifa… In the past, it would have boasted of the feat.
As for the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora has already stated that he
knew nothing of the long-planned Hezbollah attack. If other Lebanese political
forces, and its own followers, cannot persuade Hassan Nasrallah to revert to a
ceasefire, Israel will bombard more targets, including Sheik Nasrallah’s offices
in south Beirut, while, if more missiles are launched, the newly mobilized Israeli
division will cross the border deep into Lebanese territory.
In both Gaza and southern Lebanon, the outcome is, of course, predetermined
by the very one-sided military balance. The only open question in both places is
how much damage the Israelis will have to inflict to obtain new ceasefires.