In the Cold War, the Superpowers never engaged in direct head-on conflict with one another. To have worked like that, might well have led to a chain of escalation that ultimately culminated a nuclear exchange. Then, the outcome, even in victory, might well have resembled a “lose-lose” proposition, given the extent of devastation and loss of human life involved. Instead, when the ideological confrontation grew “hot,” it did so in the more limited context of proxy wars, some of which were formidable in their own right, in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The ongoing conflict being fought between Hezbollah and Israel, on a battlefield that extends across northern Israel’s civilian centers and throughout most of Lebanon, may well be an early proxy war waged on behalf of a rising Iranian power. According to the May 11, 2006 edition of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Iran views Hezbollah as “one of the mainstays of its strategic security.” Hezbollah is one of the strategic and tactical weapons Iran employs against its enemies, namely the United States, Israel, and the West. Former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi Al-Tufeili explained as much when he revealed that Hezbollah’s “real leadership is ‘the rule of the jurisprudent’ – in other words, Khamenei.”
The developments leading up to Hezbollah’s highly provocative step of abducting two Israeli soldiers from Israeli soil suggest that Iran might well have had at least an indirect role in initiating the act that led to the ongoing hostilities. On June 16, 2006, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported, “Well-informed sources in Tehran have told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the talks held in Tehran between Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani and his Iranian counterpart Mustafa Mohammad Najjar did not only deal with military and security aspects of the strategic cooperation between the two countries, but also with the situation in Lebanon.” At the time, there was no Israeli presence on Lebanese soil. The newspaper also noted, “Syria, on its part, has renewed its previous agreements with Iran which allow Iranian ammunition trucks to pass [through Syria] into Lebanon” to resupply Hezbollah. In short, at a time when the Lebanon-Israel border was quiet, Iran was discussing “the situation in Lebanon” with Syria and facilitating the supply of arms to Hezbollah.
Then, on July 8, multiple news organizations reported that President Ahmadinejad urged the Islamic world to take action to destroy Israel. Voice of America reported, “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke Saturday in Tehran at the opening of a regional conference of Islamic nations. He said the basic problem in the Islamic world is the existence of what he called the Zionist regime. He said the Islamic world must mobilize to remove the problem.” Arguably, that was the “green light” for Tehran that Hezbollah was awaiting.
Following Hezbollah’s act of aggression, Edward N. Luttwak, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Toronto Globe & Mail, “Iran’s leaders have apparently decided to reject the Western offer to peacefully settle the dispute over its weapons-grade uranium-enrichment program… Evidently, Sheik Nasrallah felt compelled to serve Iran’s strategy. Aside from the multimillion-dollar monthly subsidy it provides, Iran is the spiritual homeland of Hezbollah leaders, some of whom have studied in Iranian religious schools.”
Since the onset of fighting, Iranian media organizations having close ties to its ruling conservative clerics have used the outcomes to date to validate perceptions of Israeli and American weakness. Such commentary has argued that Israeli “invincibility” has ceased to exist, Israel is weaker than it was 40 years ago, and that Israelis are abandoning Israel.
On July 13, Jomhuri-yi Eslami wrote of Hezbollah’s raid, “Israel’s security network is now damaged and this will lead to more pressure on Israel’s government.” Five days later, it proclaimed, “[N]ow that the Hezbollah has shown its military superiority it proves that all of America’s plans have been nothing more than a mirage and they have to tolerate the bitter taste of defeat again.” On July 20, Resalat claimed, “Following the inefficiency of the Zionist regime in dealing with Hezbollah’s activities the myth of Israel’s invincibility has come to an end… Shelling Israel’s cities by Hezbollah has started a trend of reverse immigration from Israel and the people are leaving the occupied lands.”
Such commentary has also attempted to elevate Iran’s role vis-à-vis the rest of the Middle East as spokesman for the “world of Islam” and to proclaim the birth of a new Middle Eastern order arrayed against the United States and Israel. On July 20, pro-Khamenei daily Kayhan dismissed Saudi Arabian and Egyptian criticism of Hezbollah stating, “The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt can talk on behalf of themselves and their people but not on behalf of the world of Islam or even Arab people.”
Separately, the Kayhan explained what it saw as a new emerging geopolitical order in the Middle East:
American and Israeli groups are furiously confused. They have understood very well that their big Middle East plan has turned into a series of explosive traps against themselves. If Iran was alone in the past, gradually the triangle of Iran, Syria and Lebanon was formed. Now Hamas has turned this triangle into a square. And after the establishment of the principle-ist government in Iraq it has turned into a pentagon. This pentagon represents the new coordinates of the Middle East.
Iran’s geopolitical calculations suggest that the stakes in the outcome in Lebanon are too great for Iran to allow Hezbollah to be defeated. Therefore, if Iran is involved in any part of the ceasefire/peace process Iran will likely insist on a ceasefire from which Hezbollah would gain, whether it would be Hezbollah’s retaining its ability to function as an armed group in Lebanon or realizing its initial demand for a “prisoner swap.” At the same time, it would likely seek to thwart any deal if it cannot leverage gains for its nuclear weapons program.
Such backing will likely embolden Hezbollah and preclude its backers within Lebanon from accepting compromises that would diminish Hezbollah’s capabilities. Hence, if Iran has its way, a ceasefire would preserve Hezbollah, if not allow it to make gains, while failing to meet Israel’s core need for security. After all, why would Iran seek to accommodate Israel’s core needs when, according to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel is a “fake state” that should be eliminated. In fact, Iran’s commentary views the outcome in Lebanon as a potential downpayment toward that end with Keyhan, another Khamenei-affiliated periodical, describing it as “a big opportunity to demolish Israel.”
All said, the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hezbollah might well mark Iran’s first proxy war with Israel and the United States. Given the geopolitical ramifications involved, it probably won’t be the last such conflict and future ones could be even deadlier as more powerful weapons and technologies are injected into the mix. Therefore, if the international community seeks regional stability and peace, it will need to work toward a decisive settlement with Lebanon’s leaders to eliminate Hezbollah as an armed element. It will also need to work energetically toward translating any ceasefire agreement into a full peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. Otherwise, Lebanon will all but certainly become the host of combat in future proxy wars waged on behalf of Iran, and its people will experienced renewed suffering as a consequence.
Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.
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