In the middle of a region experiencing unprecedented change, a question lingers: Will Israel attack Iran? As a result, a flurry of writings have appeared attempting to answer this pertinent question. A “yes” comes with a list of consequences of which the most troubling is the threat of an escalating regional conflict. In the middle of this regional war it is said that the most powerful non-state actor in the Middle East, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, would be a key player.
Conventional wisdom amongst analysts suggests that Hezbollah, acting as an Iranian proxy, will retaliate against Israel. While certainly a possibility, policy-makers should recognize that today’s Hezbollah is fundamentally different from the one that fought Israel for 34-days during the summer of 2006. Members can no longer afford to take actions that don’t pass a cost-benefit test. Recent remarks by Hassan Nasrallah best reflect this altered strategic calculus. The Secretary General declared that if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities, Hezbollah’s leadership would have to “sit down, think and decide what to do.” This seemingly uncharacteristic remark can be attributed to two factors: 1) Hezbollah is now the strongest political actor in the Lebanese government; and 2) both Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon will incur a massive retaliatory military campaign by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Therefore, Hezbollah will only undertake military action against its historic enemy if Israel pursues a policy that harms the organization’s vital geostrategic interests — primarily regime change in Iran. As long as Hezbollah retains both a political and military wing, they will still require Iran’s ideological, military and financial assistance. With uncertain days ahead for their other ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, ties between Iran and Hezbollah will only strengthen.
Although Hezbollah maintains a military wing, they are no longer the 1990s resistance movement whose sole purpose was to fight off an Israeli occupation. In the last two decades, they have gone through a ‘Lebanonization.’ Essentially, they have chosen to transform themselves into a Lebanese political party by participating in a sectarian parliamentary system. Last year the party and its allies effectively toppled Lebanon’s coalition government and formed a new one by selecting the next prime minister. Ironically, Hezbollah’s power play in a democratic system makes them vulnerable to multiple constituencies. If Hezbollah were to provoke a conflict with Israel that violently consumes Lebanon and its neighbors, Lebanon’s Sunnis would take political — perhaps even violent — action to reassert their dominance in the government. Other groups, such as Christians, Druzes and maybe even some Shi’as may not react too kindly to Hezbollah starting another war. Sectarian tensions are already high with the accusations made by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon that Hezbollah operatives were behind the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — an immensely popular Sunni leader. Additionally, Nasrallah’s support for the Syrian regime’s crackdown against a primarily Sunni revolt further agitates sectarian tensions. Hezbollah is now forced to simultaneously navigate the road between being what has historically been their calling — a “resistance” movement — and what they have evolved into — the most powerful political party in Lebanon.
Since the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel and Hezbollah have largely lived in a peaceful state of mutual deterrence. This can be attributed to the cliffhanger that defined the end of the last conflict. In July 2006, Hezbollah’s military wing crossed the Israel-Lebanon border and ambushed an Israeli patrol, taking two hostages for a prisoner exchange. Unexpectedly, a 34-day war ensued in which Israel responded with a massive bombing campaign and ground incursion. Their goal was to destroy Hezbollah’s military wing while simultaneously turn the non-Shi’a population of Lebanon against the group. The results were a Lebanon that temporarily rallied around the resistance movement, the deaths of 1,200 Lebanese (mostly civilians), considerable damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure (more than $3.6 billion) and an outcry from the international community.
The Israelis were unable to decisively defeat Hezbollah, who inflicted heavy casualties on the IDF (121 killed) by successfully using a combination of guerilla and conventional tactics. They also launched thousands of rockets into northern Israel, killing 44 civilians. Both sides claim to have won but in reality the conflict ended in a stalemate, albeit with a symbolic victory for Hezbollah who enjoyed increased popularity in the Arab world immediately thereafter. Still, the cost to the Lebanese state was immense and later resulted in political backlash, specifically from segments of Sunnis, Druze and Christians, all of which questioned Hezbollah’s right to bring such destruction upon their country. Nasrallah later claimed he would have not ordered the raid if he had known the consequences would be so dire.
Since then, rhetoric has taken the form of threats emanating from both sides on how they will respond to any future military provocation. Both sides learned vital lessons from their last conflict and have been actively preparing for the next. Israel appears to be following a refined policy of massive retaliation. Their military campaign can take one of two forms: a combination of air and ground operations to destroy Hezbollah’s military assets, or a strategy that avoids a ground war by using air and naval forces to bomb Hezbollah’s strongholds and Lebanese infrastructure. The latter is a form of “punishment” and serves as a deterrent by making sure the very state Hezbollah resides in suffers for their aggression. Both of these strategies would undoubtedly attract serious international criticism due to inevitable civilian casualties. But if attacked, Israel would feel compelled to respond using military force in order to maintain its military credibility in the region and protect its civilian population. Given the unsatisfactory ending of the last conflict and the changing political landscape in the region, Israeli leaders will be more determined than ever to remove the Hezbollah threat.
Hezbollah’s deterrent comes in the form of an estimated 42,000 missiles and rockets, including increasingly sophisticated weapons, such as long-range surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles, which have been redeployed deeper into Lebanese territory and can strike any Israeli city. Publicly, Nasrallah has threatened to use them if deemed necessary, and recently escalated his threats to include a ground invasion of Galilee. If the IDF were to pursue a ground campaign, Hezbollah would attempt to wear down Israeli forces through a protracted guerilla war and a simultaneous bombing of Israeli cities. Their intricate tunnel system and anti-tank weapons would also cause the IDF great headache. If the Israelis focused on a “punishment” strategy, Hezbollah would bomb civilian centers to compel them to stop. In both scenarios, the IDF would encounter serious difficulties in defeating Hezbollah but would inflict significant damage on the organization. In the end, neither side wants another conflict for fear of a more violent, destructive and broader war.
But the region is boiling and Israeli leaders seem to be seriously considering a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities for fear that the country is on course for building a bomb. Some have even argued that the only real way to remove the nuclear threat is to rid Iran of the current regime. For Hezbollah, Iran is a vital ally. Along with an unstable Syria and waning Hamas, the four form the “Axis of Resistance,” intent on challenging the hegemony of Israel, the United States and their allies in the region.
Hezbollah’s nexus with Iran developed in the 1980s when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard trained and assisted Shi’a militants in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. To date, Iranian support has empowered Hezbollah with state-like capabilities. For example, financial assistance has helped the organization win the trust and support of Lebanon’s historically downtrodden Shi’a community, as Hezbollah offers social services not provided by the state. At the core of this relationship is the Iranian revolutionary principle known as Wilyat al-Faqih or ‘guardianship of the jurist’. Hezbollah’s leaders have always been ideologically loyal to this doctrine prescribed by the Supreme Leader in Tehran. There has never been, however, any clear indication that Hezbollah receives direct orders from Tehran. Therefore, the question should not be, will Iran order Hezbollah to attack Israel, but rather will Hezbollah feel the need to?
That need will become clearer as it is increasingly apparent that instability in neighboring Syria could spell the end for Hezbollah’s arms supplier and geostrategic linchpin to Iran. If Syria’s Alawite (a branch of Shi’ism) regime falls and a Sunni regime takes power in Syria, Hezbollah and Iran will need each other more than ever. For Iran, Hezbollah would be their only ally and credible counterweight left against Israel in the region. For Hezbollah, Iran would be their sole ideological ally and supplier of money and weapons. One must wonder how long Hezbollah could sustain itself and its ideology of resistance if the regime in Tehran were to fall.
Will Hezbollah attack Israel? It is my belief that only if there is a clear and present danger to the survival of the Iranian regime. Striking Iran’s nuclear facilities fails to meet that criterion.
But the Israelis should ask themselves, is that a risk worth taking? Well, that’s another debate.
by Kip Whittington is a Research Associate at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He holds an MA in International Affairs, with concentrations in Middle East Regional Studies and Defense Policy & Military Affairs, from Texas A&M University’s George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. Please note that the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.For Small Wars Journal