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The Hezbollah Maneuver

[Editor's Note: On August 14, 2006, the New Yorker posted on its website "Watching Lebanon" by Seymour Hersh, in which Hersh interviewed...

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[Editor’s Note: On August 14, 2006, the New Yorker posted on its website “Watching Lebanon” by Seymour Hersh, in which Hersh interviewed several unnamed sources privy to U.S.-Israeli discussions on dealing with Hezbollah. These sources say that Israel had been planning to attack Hezbollah months before the recent Israeli offensive in southern Lebanon-an offensive that Israel made sure had prior U.S. approval. Among the reasons Hersh’s sources gave for U.S. support for the Israeli attack was that a successful Israeli “bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control [could] serve as a prelude to a potential American preemptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.” In the following article, a version of which was published by Inter Press Service, Gareth Porter details another potential rationale-to degrade Hezbollah’s rocket capability so that it could not be used to deter a U.S. attack on Iran.]

Although Israel has argued that its attack in southern Lebanon was aimed at knocking out Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal, the evidence points to a much more ambitious objective-the weakening of Iran’s deterrent to an attack on its nuclear sites.

One leading expert on Israeli national defense policy issues believes that the aim of the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah was to change the Bush administration’s mind about attacking Iran. Edward Luttwak, senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Bush administration officials have in the past privately dismissed the option of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, citing estimates that a retaliatory Hezbollah rocket attack would kill thousands of people in northern Israel. But Israeli officials saw a war in Lebanon that destroyed Hezbollah’s arsenal and prevented future resupply as a way to eliminate that U.S. objection to the military option, says Luttwak.

The risk to Israel of launching such an offensive was that it would unleash the very rain of Hezbollah rockets on Israel that it sought to avert. But Luttwak believes the Israelis calculated that they could degrade Hezbollah’s rocket forces without too many casualties by striking preemptively.

“They knew that a carefully prepared and coordinated rocket attack by Hezbollah would be much more catastrophic than one carried out under attack by Israel,” he says.

Gerald M. Steinberg, an Israeli specialist on security affairs at Bar Ilon University who reflects Israeli government thinking, did not allude to the link between destruction of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and a possible attack on Iran in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in early August. But he did say there is “some expectation” in Israel that after the U.S. congressional elections, Bush “will decide that he has to do what he has to do.”

Steinberg said Israel wanted to “get an assessment” of whether the United States would “present a military attack against the Iranian nuclear sites as the only option.” If not, he suggested that Israel was still considering its own options.

Specialists on Iran and Hezbollah have long believed that the missiles Iran has supplied to Hezbollah were explicitly intended to deter an attack on Iran. Ephraim Kam, a specialist on Iran at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, wrote in December 2004 that Hezbollah’s threat against northern Israel was a key element of Iran’s deterrent to an attack.

“Hezbollah was always Iran’s deterrent force against Israel,” said Ali Ansari, an associate professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and author of a new book on the U.S. confrontation with Iran, in the July 30 Toronto Star.

Iran has also threatened direct retaliation against Israel with the Shahab-3 missile from Iranian territory. However, Iran may be concerned about the possibility that Israel’s Arrow system could intercept most of them, as Kam observed in 2004. That elevates the importance to Iran of Hezbollah’s ability to threaten retaliation.

Hezbollah received some Soviet-era Katyusha rockets, with a range of only 5 miles, and hundreds of longer-range missiles after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. But Israel’s daily Ha’aretz, citing a report by Israeli military intelligence at the time, reported that the number of missiles and rockets in Hezbollah hands grew to more than 12,000 in 2004.

That was when Iranian officials felt that the Bush administration might seriously consider an attack on their nuclear sites because it knew Iran was poised to begin enrichment of uranium. It was also when Iranian officials began to imply that Hezbollah could retaliate against any attack on Iran, although they have never stated that explicitly.

The first hint of Iranian concern about the possible strategic implications of the Israeli campaign to degrade the Hezbollah missile force in southern Lebanon came in a report by Michael Slackman in the July 25 New York Times. Slackman quoted an Iranian official with “close ties to the highest levels of government” as saying, “They want to cut off one of Iran’s arms.”

The same article quoted Mohsen Rezai, the former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as saying, “Israel and the United States knew that as long as Hamas and Hezbollah were there, confronting Iran would be costly”-an obvious reference to the deterrent value of the missiles in Lebanon. “So, to deal with Iran, they first want to eliminate forces close to Iran that are in Lebanon and Palestine.”

Israel planned its campaign against Hezbollah’s missile arsenal over many months. As Matthew Kalman reported from Jerusalem in the July 21 San Francisco Chronicle: “More than a year ago, a senior Israeli Army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists, and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s main purpose in meeting with George W. Bush on May 25 was clearly to push the United States to agree to use force, if necessary, to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Four days before the meeting, Olmert told CNN that Iran’s “technological threshold” is “very close.” In response to a question about U.S. and European diplomacy on the issue, Olmert replied: “I prefer to take the necessary measures to stop it, rather than find out later that my indifference was so dangerous.”

At his meeting with Bush, according to Yitzhak Benhorin of Israel’s YnetNews, Olmert pressed Bush on Israel’s intelligence assessment that Iran would gain the technology necessary to build a bomb within a year and expressed fears that diplomatic efforts were not going to work.

It seems likely that Olmert discussed Israel’s plans for degrading Hezbollah’s missile capabilities as a means of dramatically reducing the risk of an air campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites and that Bush gave his approval. That would account for Olmert’s comment to Israeli reporters after the meeting, reported by the Israel’s YnetNews but not by U.S. news media: “I am very, very, very satisfied.”

Bush’s refusal to do anything to curb Israel’s freedom to wreak havoc on Lebanon further suggests that he encouraged the Israelis to take advantage of any pretext to launch the offensive. The Israeli plan may have given Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld new ammunition for advocating a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Rumsfeld was the voice of administration policy toward Iran from 2002 to 2004, and he often appeared to be laying the political groundwork for an eventual military attack on Iran. But he has been silenced on the subject of Iran since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took over Iran policy in January 2005.

Gareth Porter is a writer for the Inter Press Service, which published an earlier version of this article.

 

Citations

Gareth Porter, "The Hezbollah Maneuver," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, August 22, 2006).

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