The war over preemption

Why would Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, need more missiles to menace Israeli cities?

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/ Ahmad Shalha)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/ Ahmad Shalha)
Why would Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, need more missiles to menace Israeli cities if, as Israel claims, he had already amassed more than 50,000 rockets and missiles capable of reaching its population centers? The answer is that he does not. The solid-fuel, highly accurate, long-range (300 km) Fateh-110 missiles, armed with half-ton warheads, which was reportedly targeted by the IAF in the latest strike in Syria were not meant to attack Israeli cities. The Fateh-110 is a counter-force weapon designed to attack high value, pinpoint military and strategic targets. Indeed, it is all but certain that the provision of such missiles by Iran to Hezbollah is another step in the undeclared Israeli- Iranian war over preemption already underway.
Specifically, by equipping Hezbollah with the latest version of Fateh-110 – the MOD 4 – Iran is hoping to accomplish three strategic goals: First, to deter Israel from launching a preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities by holding hostage Israel’s Dimona reactor as well as other strategic installations identified in the foreign press as housing the Israeli nuclear arsenal and/or its delivery platforms. In this way, Iran makes a direct connection between attacking its nuclear facilities and the survival of Israel’s bomb-in-the-basement posture.
As well, Tehran is signaling Washington that any thought of a surgical strike on Iranian facilities is a dangerous hallucination as the outcome would be a nuclear catastrophe in the Middle East, given Iran’s ability to accurately attack Israeli nuclear installations via Hezbollah’s upgraded missiles. Thus Washington should do its utmost to restrain its “lunatic” Israeli ally and refrain from any aggressive designs of its own against the Islamic Republic.
Second, by providing its Lebanese proxies with highly accurate missiles the Iranians are attempting to turn the tables on Israel – they are developing their own capability to launch a preemptive strike against Israeli strategic facilities. Iranian leaders have already threatened to undertake such action. For instance, in February 2012 Mohammad Hejazi, deputy head of the Iranian armed forces, told the Iranian FARS news agency: “Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran’s national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions.”
In September that year, Iran’s state-run Arabic-language Al-Alam television cited Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier-general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as saying, “Iran will not start any war, but it could launch a preemptive attack if it was sure that the enemies are putting the final touches to attack it.”
Third, by boosting Hezbollah’s stock of highly accurate missiles Tehran is seeking to enable its proxy to launch heavier salvos, perhaps in conjunction with the Syrian-provided Scud-D missiles reportedly already in Hezbollah’s arsenal. The aim is to assure hits on key strategic targets despite Israel’s missile defenses. Clearly, irrespective of its pooh-poohing of its capabilities, Tehran is worried by the recent stellar performance of the Iron Dome system.
The bottom line is that Iran is laboring hard to prevent an Israeli preemption while developing its own option – via Hezbollah – of launching a preemptive attack on Israel’s most vital strategic assets.
It should be noted that the Iranian effort is being pursued despite repeated Israeli warnings and forceful action to stop it. Some in Israel have interpreted this Iranian determination as forced by growing fears of the mullahs and their Hezbollah brethren that the weapons would fall into the hands of Sunni rebels in Syria, and also that they will not be able to make use of the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut corridor much longer to transport arms and fighters. However, a more important reason is Iran’s fear of an imminent Israeli preemptive attack. In spite of Iran’s public ridicule, it appears it views with mounting concern Israeli statements that 2013 would be a year of decision.
For its part, Israel, by acting to destroy new additions to Hezbollah’s counter-force capabilities and the means to defend them (for e.g., the January 30 air raid to destroy advanced surface-to-air missiles en route to Lebanon), signaled its determination to keep its preemptive option open. Further, the operational successes of the IDF’s recent military undertakings in Syria communicate to Tehran the credibility of Israel’s intentions and capabilities in this regard. Thus, as long it races toward the bomb, Iran is likely to persist if not escalate its efforts to block and/or counter the Israeli preemptive option.
The ongoing conflict over preemption has produced two paradoxes. First, even before any military strike had been unleashed against a nuclear facility, armed conflict has erupted. The Israeli threat to use force as a last resort to stop Iran’s nuclear march had the effect of forcing Jerusalem to exert its military muscle without delay, ostensibly to preserve the final option.
Second, the more Hezbollah is transformed into a counterforce arm of the Islamic Republic, the less can it be “wasted” on any marginal conflict. As its room of maneuver has shrunk, Hezbollah has become in effect a weapon of last resort. (Conversely, the more extensive the destruction by Israel of Hezbollah’s counterforce capabilities, the lesser the organization’s strategic value to Iran and thus the greater its freedom of action.)
Similarly, recent upgrades to the US bunker-buster bomb – the 14-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) – which enhanced its effectiveness against deeply buried targets, were reportedly used by the Obama administration to convince Israel to delay any military action vis-a-vis Iran. Washington had argued that the new weapon effectively nullifies any talk of Iran entering a “zone of immunity” – where its nuclear program is so hardened as to virtually be invulnerable – which Israeli leaders cited as an incentive to preemption. Incredibly, both Washington and Tehran have sought to use the introduction of counter-force weapons into the arena to block or at least slow down Israel’s countdown to preemption.
The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).