Muslim World: The northern tinder box

Warlike tones from Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah are by now familiar. But what is revealed by their most recent statements?

February 26, 2010 16:36
4 minute read.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah (AP).

nasrallah 311. (photo credit: AP)

The war of words is continuing. The latest salvos were fired last week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his Lebanese ally and client, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Ahmadinejad reportedly told Nasrallah that if Israel attacks his organization, Hizbullah’s response should be sufficient enough to lead to the closure, once and for all, of the Israeli “case.” In the same week, Nasrallah promised attendees at a ‘Resistance Martyrs Day’ celebration that his movement would target Israel’s infrastructure in the event of further hostilities – airports, factories and refineries were specifically mentioned.

Hizbullah’s second in command, Naim Qassem joined the goading this week, describing Israel as “worse than Nazism,” and the “leader of international crime under the sponsorship of the US and major world powers.” Qassem reiterated his movement’s rejection of any diplomatic option vis-a-vis Israel, saying that “What was taken by the force of occupation can only be regained by the force of the resistance.”

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The self-confident, warlike tones of these leaders are by now familiar. But what, if anything, is revealed by these most recent statements?

Some analysis has suggested that the heightened rhetoric may presage an attempt by Iran to heat up the northern front in response to the hardening international stance to Iran’s nuclear program.

While nothing should be ruled out, a number of factors should be borne in mind in this regard. Hizbullah and its backers are well aware of the broad contours of Israel’s likely response in the event of further aggression by the movement on the northern border. The message has been adequately transferred that a future conflict would not remain within the parameters of a localized Hizbullah clash in southern Lebanon.

Rather, with the organization present in the Lebanese government, and with its decisions regarding war not subject to supervision or appeal by any other element in Lebanon, a future fight is likely to take on the characteristics of a state-to-state conflict.

The results of such a conflict would not doubt be damaging to northern Israel, but to Lebanon and to Hizbullah, they are likely to be devastating. This means that from the Iranian point of view, the Hizbullah card is one of the most valuable that Teheran holds – but it can probably be played only once.

So there is reason to suppose that the Iranians have good reason to hold back on pushing Hizbullah into a fight until a possible later stage – most likely, in response to a future western or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Of course, past wars in the region have often erupted not from a decision by one or other of the sides, but rather from a situation of ongoing, rising tensions, which was then ignited by a single, ill-judged action – such as the attempted murder of Ambassador Shlomo Argov, which led to Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, or the Hizbullah kidnapping attempt which precipitated the war of 2006.

HIZBULLAH’S FAILURE to avenge the death of one of its most senior members, Imad Mughniyeh, remains a major issue for the movement. In his speech to the rally last week, Nasrallah referred to this issue, saying “What we want is a retaliation that is up to the level of Imad Mugniyeh.”

But here the movement faces a dilemma. Any major strike on an Israeli target is likely to provoke precisely the conflagration that Hizbullah and its supporters fear. Hizbullah, in addition to being a client and proxy of Iran, is also a Lebanese Shi’ite movement, requiring the support of the Shi’ites of southern Lebanon for its longer-term goal of dominating the country. And for all their pride in the “divine victory” of 2006, the stream of residents of south Lebanon seeking to flee the area whenever security tensions have risen over the last three years has surely not escaped the attention of the Hizbullah leadership.

So can we conclude that deterrence has been achieved, and the situation of latent tension in the North is likely to remain at its current level for the foreseeable future, short of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities? To do so would be to assume that the thinking of the Hizbullah leadership and its allies in Iran is ultimately pragmatic, rational, and non-ideological. And this assumption would be mistaken.

The writings of Hizbullah’s leaders, and the actions of the group – particularly since 2000 – offer clear evidence that it is genuinely committed to jihad against Israel. Recent visitors to Beirut speak of an atmosphere of high, almost delusional morale among Hizbullah’s cadres. It is sincerely believed that the next war will initiate Israel’s demise, and there is in the public domain clear evidence of at least one abortive operation which could have sparked a renewed conflict – namely, the foiled IRGC/Hizbullah plan to kidnap the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan, for which two movement members are now on trial.

Ultimately, there are ample pragmatic reasons as to why the Iran/Hizbullah alliance might want to avoid escalation at the present time. But there are also irrational elements within the thinking of these forces which incline them to underestimate their enemy. Furthermore, there is a clear motivation for actions aimed at harming Israel, but not to the point where it will launch a full-scale response.

The possibility here for error and miscalculation is obviously immense. The recent deployment by Hizbullah of sophisticated M-600 surface-to-surface missiles adds further fuel to the mix. The situation in the North is complex, multi-faceted, and requires only a single wrong move to end the fragile quiet of the last three and a half years.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.

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