Israel, Iran and Hezbollah: A dangerous triangle
If the leadership of Israel, Iran and the Hezbollah will not exercise extra caution, they may find themselves entangled in a much bigger and bloodier conflict
In recent months one could have been lulled into false sense of security. The danger that the Israeli, Iranian and the Hezbollah triangle would flare up seemed to be somewhat subdued. This is proving to be an illusion, as strategic interests, domestic political considerations and haunting events from the past threaten to interfere with a very delicate modus vivendi. A missile attack, widely thought to be carried out by Israel, that left six Hezbollah and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general dead, exposed the volatility of the relationship between the three. The attack took place on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, leaving behind it the anticipation of possible retaliation by Iran and the Hezbollah. Among those killed was Jihad Mughnieyeh, the son of the assassinated senior commander Imad Mughniyeh, a rising force in his own right within the ranks of the Hezbollah; field commander Mohammad Issa; and most interestingly, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) general Mohammad Allahdadi.
If the leadership of Israel, Iran and the Hezbollah will not exercise extra caution, they may find themselves entangled in a much bigger and bloodier conflictYossi Mekelberg
Whatever operational considerations led to the decision to attack the convoy, the seniority of those killed created a major dilemma for the decision makers in Tehran, and those in the Lebanese Shiite movement. If they decide on a large-scale retaliation against Israel, they risk an all out war with unforeseen consequences. If on the other hand, they refrain from any retribution they will come across as weak, possibly encouraging further attacks on them. Hence, some response is expected, though its nature is unknown. Israel has taken precautionary measures along its northern borders and to protect Israeli missions abroad.
It would be over simplistic to look at the deadly incident last week only in terms of Israel responding to her security concerns regarding Hezbollah’s possible plans to open a new front along the Golan. The presence of the convoy in Quneitra with senior military personal from the Hezbollah and Iran, clearly indicates the importance attached to this front for both and them. Violent incidents between Israel and the Hezbollah take place from time to time in both Syria and Lebanon. Nevertheless, the history between Israel and the Hezbollah reveals that such localised clashes have the potential to escalate into major confrontations. Currently it seems that there is no appetite among any of these three nemeses to dangerously escalate the tensions between them into a wider bloody conflict. Still the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have threatened that Israel will face “ruinous thunderbolts,” to avenge the killing of General Allahdadi.
All three operate in conditions of mutual suspicion, distrust and fear, not to mention very negative perceptions of each other, which naturally affects their behaviour towards one another. For Israel the enmity with the Hezbollah is twofold. It seen as an enemy in its own right, as it continuously attempts to increases its military capabilities, as well as also being seen as an extension of what Israel perceives as her main enemy and rival in the region, Iran. Statements such as the ones made by the leader of the Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, to Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen news channel in a recent interview do not help to ease the tense situation. In the interview Nasrallah boasted that the organisation has an arsenal of weaponry beyond Israel imagination. Nasrallah’s use of inflammatory language may be both an attempt to deter further such actions from Israel, and also a means to enhance his rather shaky political position Lebanon. Nevertheless, this is not the way it is read in Israel. In the Israeli strategic thinking this military capability is seen as lethally worrisome in terms of facing either a direct confrontation with the Hezbollah, or in the unlikely case of a war with Iran. These concerns relate to the other major theme in Israeli strategic concerns – Iranian nuclear capability and the fact it is perceived as an existential threat to Israel.
The Iranian nuclear program
Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 about a permanent agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program have reached a sensitive and uncertain state. The March deadline in fast approaching and an agreement is far from being guaranteed. The Israeli government and especially its Prime Minister Netanyahu are campaigning relentlessly, one might argue obsessively, against such an agreement, on questionable grounds. They oppose an agreement of which they do not even know the details, and reject the removal of any sanctions against Iran almost under any circumstances. Netanyahu appears to argue that he will not be satisfied unless Iran strips itself entirely of its nuclear capability, including for peaceful purposes; a very unlikely outcome of the current negotiations. In his mind, and that of his close allies in the Israeli government, the Israeli military option to stop Iran from developing nuclear military capability is still a viable option. Very few military experts of any repute agree with this view, but regardless of the viability of such an operation, the nexus of Iran-Hezbollah feeds into the nuclear issue as well and exacerbates it.
It is hard to imagine that the decision to attack the convoy was taken without the Israeli intelligence knowing the identity of its passengers, including the one of general Allahdadi. This information did not stop the decision makers from taking this course of action. Ordering this operation, with very little room for plausible deniability, is a direct and clear message from the decision makers in Jerusalem of their readiness to act on available intelligence and interrupt Hezbollah’s operations. They also work on the, not necessarily substantiated, assumption that the Hezbollah is too embroiled in Syria and also in domestic politics in Lebanon to launch a large-scale attack. Even if they are correct in their assumptions, the margins of error are rather small. In their quest to establish clear deterrence, they also challenge the Hezbollah and Iran’s resolve and their own quest for deterrence vis-à-vis Israel.
The internal domestic scenes are as important for understanding the developing dynamics along the Syrian and Lebanese borders as much as the international power configuration between Israel, Iran and the Hezbollah. Israel is in the midst of election fever. For the first time in a long time, the Likud Party and its leader Netanyahu are trailing behind in the public opinion polls. This leaves a very perilous period until March during which the Likud Party’s leaders in government will be tempted to prove their hawkish credentials. This may result in careless adventurous foreign policy. Political and social divisions in Iran are also never too far from the surface, and the IRG might provoke crisis, especially if the nuclear negotiations seem to approach, which does not concur with their views. An agreement with the P5+1 will certainly strengthen the more pragmatic elements with the Iranian regime led by President Rouhani. This will be at the expense of those who would like to maintain the revolutionary fever for ideological reasons or to maintain their privileges. Hassan Nasarallah and his fundamentalist Shiite movement are feeling the public resistance against a renewal of hostilities with Israel, which could lead to wars like the ones of 1982 or 2006, wars which brought massive devastation to Lebanon.
Under these circumstances, Israeli’s attack last week threatens to interfere with a very delicate balance of power and fear between these three protagonists in which Syria is serving at times as a mere stage for a much bigger and more complex set of rivalries. The caveat is that if the leadership of Israel, Iran and the Hezbollah will not exercise extra caution, they may find themselves entangled in a much bigger and bloodier conflict than what they ever intended.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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