Nathan Patin - Tensions between Iran and Israel over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program may soon erupt into armed conflict. That is if we are to believe key officials in both the American and Israeli governments who have recently made statements to the effect that a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, if it is to happen, will come sooner rather than later.
If the big question this spring whether or not Israel is going to attack Iran, the runner-up has to be how Iran would respond. Opinions are varied, ranging from Iran doing nothing to sparking a regional war. While much is still unknown of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, there does seem to be general agreement among experts, and certainly also among Israeli leaders, that casualties would be relatively low and thus not enough of a deterrent for an Israeli strike. But ballistic missiles aren’t the only means by which Iran can retaliate. Israel must also consider a possible barrage of missile attacks from Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza.
So, would Hezbollah launch a reprisal of some sort against Israel in the event of an Israeli strike on its main benefactor’s nuclear facilities? I’ll be the first to tell you that I just don’t know. Without the benefit of sitting among Hezbollah’s leadership in its Advisory Council or being privy to classified intelligence on its current decision making, the best I –any observer?– can do is provide an informed assessment based on past behavior and present context.
With that said, it seems that one piece of the puzzle would involve Iranian influence over Hezbollah. If the Party of God is nothing more than an Iranian proxy, a mere puppet of the Islamic Republic, then one could very well surmise that a significant retaliation could be in the offing. Indeed, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, some experts maintain that “Iran’s considerable and seemingly irreplaceable material and financial support are such that Hezbollah figures are not in a position to resist demands from Iran.” This “material and financial support” includes restocking Hezbollah’s rocket and missile stockpile, which was depleted during the 2006 Lebanon War, and granting Hezbollah with between $100 and $200 million per year according to the US government. Thanks to weapons shipments from Iran and Syria (which often serves as a conduit for Iran), Hezbollah is now said to have more munitions than ever before with some 40,000 to 50,000 missiles and rockets, perhaps including Scuds, according to Israeli and American sources. According to this view, then, Hezbollah would feel compelled to carry out any directives from Iran lest it lose its main source of military and economic clout.
Another position holds that Iran might provide guidance but isn’t necessarily in the driver’s seat. The aforementioned CRS report points out that some experts believe
Iran’s ability to influence political and security developments on Israel’s northern border would be much diminished without Hezbollah’s support, giving Hezbollah leaders significant leverage in discussions with their Iranian benefactors.
I’m more inclined to see the merit of this latter position. Iran, being a revolutionary Shiite and Persian state surrounded by unfriendly Sunni and Arab monarchies (Iraq is possibly an exception in the making but this remains to be seen) doesn’t have any natural allies in the region. Syria, I would argue, is an alliance of convenience based on shared animosity toward Israel, and so supporting Hezbollah, it seems, is one of the few means by which the Islamic Republic can extend its influence beyond its borders. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of Party of God’s leadership are surely aware of this and wouldn’t likely resign themselves to being little more than Iran’s lackey.
Nasrallah said as much several days ago in a speech marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, in which he acknowledged Iran’s role in supporting his organization but contended that if Iran is attacked by Israel, the Iranian leadership “would not ask anything of Hezbollah.” One, of course, has to take such assertions with a grain of salt given the source and the venue –Iran would very likely attempt to persuade Hezbollah to come to its defense; why else spend millions of dollars on the group?– but the more important point is that the Nasrallah and the rest of the members of Hezbollah’s Advisory Council may rebuff Iran, or perhaps offer a token volley of rockets aimed at northern Israel.
Nasrallah also raised another important point during his speech, namely, unlike that of an Iranian puppet, Hezbollah’s own leadership would “sit down, think and decide what to do.” Puppets don’t think; they simply do as they’re directed. And so it’s possible that Hezbollah would act on its own, striking Israel without strategic or tactical direction from its coreligionist patron. I’m not aware of any concrete instances in which Hezbollah has acted in defense of Iran at the Islamic Republic’s behest or otherwise (unless, of course, the recent assassination attempts in Thailand, Georgia, and India prove to be Hezbollah’s dirty work), but there is a first time for everything, as the saying goes, and an Israeli military strike on Iran would certainly be unprecedented (for Iranian-Israeli relations, at least).
There would be costs to Hezbollah as well as all of Lebanon if it retaliates against an Israeli attack. Senior Fellow at Brookings, Bruce Riedel, notes that
The odds are very strong that Hezbollah would retaliate, but if it does so it would face a massive Israeli response that could shake the group’s grip on Lebanon. At a minimum, the group would face widespread destruction –not only of its arsenal, but of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure as well.
That is, Hezbollah and the Lebanese civilians it purports to protect would likely face a massive and devastating response from the Israelis per the terms of its Dahiya Doctrine.
Would such a risk be worth it? If Hezbollah is just Iran’s proxy with no agency of its own, Iran might calculate that because its ballistic missiles are inadequate for the job, the only way to effectively retaliate against Israel would be to have its Lebanese protégé unleash a barrage of rockets and missiles upon its southern neighbor. Iran, at the same time, would not want to risk the destruction of the main organization through which it wields influence in the Levant if it doesn’t have to. Given this desire to protect Hezbollah, it would seem that Iran (assuming Hezbollah is a mere puppet) would want to instruct Nasrallah to say the exact opposite of what he said in his speech, namely, that if Israel attacks Iran, Hezbollah will rain down upon “the Zionist enemy” every rocket and missile in its entire arsenal—or something to that effect. Such a proclamation might have helped bolster Iran’s deterrent by taking the guesswork out of the Israel’s calculations, making it clear that a war with Iran will also be a war with Hezbollah.
But Nasrallah’s remarks didn’t reflect this at all, which seems to lend a bit more credence to the view that, although Iran possesses some sway over Hezbollah, the Party of God has the last word concerning matters of war and peace. The Iranians want to deter Israel from attacking, but Hezbollah, apparently, isn’t ready to fully and publicly back the Islamic Republic, lest it face a withering counterattack from Israel or a loss of credibility if it backs Iran but doesn’t attack Israel after all.
Nathan Patin is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, as well as Philosophy. Living just outside of DC, Nathan is currently the Middle Eastern Studies intern at the American Enterprise Institute. In addition to studying in Egypt and Lebanon throughout the summer of 2010, he has also volunteered as a mentor to an Iraqi refugee family in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia since 2009.
You can also follow Nathan on his personal blog, hadeeqa bi amreeka, which touches on just about anything related to the Middle East, but focuses primarily on politics and security issues.