Iran moves first

Teheran likely instigated both the Hamas Gaza attack and Hizbullah's northern onslaught.

hizbullah riot 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah riot 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Iran's quarreling and competing leaders finally decided to reject the US-European offer of an energy reactor, aircraft spare parts, economic cooperation and more in exchange for giving up uranium enrichment with which they could make nuclear weapons. Many had hoped that in spite of their extremism Iran's leaders would accept the offer, if only to avoid sanctions - which are sure to come even if in the end China and Russia refuse to vote for them in the UN Security Council. The United States and Europe are united this time, and they 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. Instead of passively awaiting the inevitable sanctions, Iran's leaders decided to start a Middle East crisis of their own by organizing attacks against Israel. Their aim is to discourage the US and the Europeans from starting another crisis against themselves - financial markets and everyday politics in Europe especially can only tolerate so much conflict. That gambit could also bring another benefit. Iran's claim to Muslim leadership is now being badly undermined by conflict in Iraq, where Iran supports the Shi'ite militias that are killing Sunnis. Every bloody day of bombings and executions in Iraq reminds Arabs that the Persian leaders of Iran are not Arabs, and it reminds Sunni Muslims everywhere that the Persians are not Sunnis. Attacking Israel overcomes all divisions among Muslims and gains Arab gratitude for Iran's help. IRAN'S MOVE was prepared in a series of meetings with its local allies, both Hamas of Palestine and the Hizbullah of Lebanon. Khaled Mashaal, the overall Hamas leader who remains safely in Damascus under Syrian protection, traveled to Teheran at one point, where he received some $50 million in cash. Although an offshoot of the strictly Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, whose financial supporters in Arabia loathe the Persian ayatollahs, Hamas evidently decided to cooperate in Iran's scheme. It was already cut off from Western funding because of its refusal to recognize Israel and it was already diplomatically isolated. As for the impact on lives in the poor and already afflicted Gaza Strip, Hamas is no different from Yasser Arafat in being much more devoted to the idea of Palestine than to the welfare of the Palestinians. Hamas acted by increasing rocket attacks on nearby Israeli territory, and by launching a raid across the international border into Israel proper, in which two soldiers were killed and one was captured. That duly provoked Israeli retaliation, starting the Gaza end of the crisis Iran wanted. IT WAS altogether more costly for Hizbullah to serve Iran's strategy. While it retains a heavily armed, salaried and uniformed guerrilla/terrorist force of some 5,000 - its leader Hassan Nasrallah has been striving for years to build Hizbullah up as a legitimate political party in Lebanese politics, and the main representative of the country's Shi'ite population. This effort was so successful that Hizbullah 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 retain the support of its fellow Shi'ites, Hizbullah had to agree to join the Lebanese consensus on the absolute priority of reconstruction and economic recovery after years of civil war. That meant avoiding a war with Israel. Hizbullah 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 "Lebanese territory." That refers to a tiny fragment of land, the so-called Shaba farms, which UN inspectors specifically declared to be on the Israeli side, but which Hizbullah claims as part of Lebanon. Other Lebanese political parties agreed that Hizbullah 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 reconstructed infrastructures. That is the condition that Nasrallah has now violated by ordering his men to attack an Israeli patrol nowhere near the Shaba farms and launch rockets into Israeli territory. With that, Hizbullah has thrown away its political position in Lebanon because it is obvious to all that it is bringing destruction upon the country. Evidently, Nasrallah felt compelled to serve Iran's strategy. Aside from the multi-million monthly subsidy it provides, Iran is the spiritual homeland of Hizbullah leaders and their more religious followers, some of whom have studied in Iranian religious schools. Besides, Nasrallah adores publicity and is very keen to appear as an important figure on the world scene. FOR THE Israeli coalition government headed by the new Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, matters are relatively simple. It ordered the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to stop the cycle of violence within it, on the presumption that Israeli territory proper would not be attacked. But the possibility was of course 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 stopped from exhaustion or by agreement. That Hamas now governs the Palestinian Authority does not diminish or increase the need for Israeli military action, but it does increase its political benefits, because the fighting and destruction tell Gaza's population that their Hamas rulers are endangering their physical survival. As for Hizbullah, the IDF response is by no means confined to retaliation, let alone to attempts to retrieve the two wounded soldiers - it has much wider military and political aims. OVER THE years, Hizbullah has received and stored several thousand bombardment rockets and some 100 longer-range missiles 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 Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah keeps its rockets and missiles. Some are being launched against Israeli targets, but in a ragged way that does not begin to inflict the shock and damage of a coordinated barrage aimed at hundreds of targets all at once. Israel's political aim, on the other hand, is to destroy Hizbullah's much-desired and much-needed position as a legitimate Lebanese political party by exposing it as the paid agent of Iran, which serves foreign interests at grievous cost to Lebanon. Therefore the Israelis are blocking Lebanon's ports from the sea; and 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 create enough political pressure on Hizbullah. AS FOR the Lebanese prime minister, he has already stated that he knew nothing of the long-planned Hizbullah attack. If other Lebanese political forces, and his own followers cannot persuade Hassan Nasrallah to revert to a cease-fire, Israel will bombard more targets. Nasrallah's offices in south Beirut have already been hit, 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, pre-determined 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 cease-fires. The writer is a Washington-based academic and military strategist.