Iran's nukes and Hizbullah's rockets

Posted in Broader Middle East , Israel / Palestine , Iran | 17-Jan-06 | Author: Patrick Devenny| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Director General Mohammad El Baradei.

Lebanon could soon become a battlefield in the war over Iranian nuclear power. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei's warning last year that Iran could be within three months of developing a nuclear capability, and Iran's resumption of atomic research last week, jolted those observers who felt a nuclear Iran was a problem of the distant future. Assuming - as many analysts do - that the Islamic Republic is determined to acquire nuclear weapons, the international community's window of opportunity to deter Iran is limited and rapidly closing.

Some have surmised that, in order to prevent or delay such a capability, Israel may seek to strike Iranian nuclear facilities in a fashion similar to its 1981 attack against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. Several weeks ago, Western newspapers featured reports of maturing Israeli war plans. Israel did little to deflect the speculation, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying: "Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with a nuclear weapon."

A scenario involving Israeli military strikes is far from academic, as the continuing diplomatic impasse between Iran and the West brings military action squarely into the realm of reality. On September 24, 2005, the IAEA found Iran "non-compliant" with its commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and recommended referral to the United Nations Security Council. In the wake of the IAEA ruling, several Israeli officials restated their unwillingness to tolerate a nuclear Iran. On September 29, Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, suggested that American and European officials should make clear to their Iranian counterparts there would be "no chance [Iran] will ever see the fruits of a nuclear program."

The fear voiced by Steinitz and other Israeli leaders is hardly unfounded, as opposition to Israel's right to exist lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic's ideology. On December 31, 1999, before tens of thousands at a Jerusalem Day rally in Tehran, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared: "There is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Zionist state."

Unfortunately, much of the debate concerning a hypothetical Israeli strike on Iran remains mired in the dry algorithms of logisticians, who frequently

remind the world just how difficult it would be for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear installations. Take, for example, a U.S. Army-sponsored report last year concerning the geopolitical repercussions of a nuclear-armed Iran. While thousands of words were devoted to the minutiae of the Israel Air Force's operational range and payload figures, relatively little effort was expended on outlining the regional repercussions of such an act.

Suffering from this narrow-minded analysis is Lebanon, which, more than any other local actor, could find itself in an unfortunate strategic position were hostilities to commence between Israel and Iran. Not only does Lebanon abut northern Israel, but it plays host to Hizbullah, which has made no secret of its fealty to the regime in Tehran.

In the event of an Israeli attack, Iran would likely respond with a Hizbullah missile barrage against Israel, thereby exacting revenge while maintaining its own distance. Recent Iranian-supplied upgrades to Hizbullah's rocket arsenal, including Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets, have placed major Israeli population centers - such as Haifa - within range. With Hizbullah's recent buildup, the aggregate Israeli conventional threat against the Iranian nuclear program has been rendered relatively minor in comparison to a potential Hizbullah response targeting Israel and its economy. Iran's leaders are well aware of this fact, and are likely to view Hizbullah's rockets as their primary deterrent against an Israeli attack.

These same leaders would have little trouble in convincing their allies in Hizbullah to unleash its arsenal, considering that the party's leadership maintains tight contacts with Iran's rulers and its ever-present security apparatus. Hizbullah religious leaders have trained in Iranian seminaries and maintain close connections with ruling Iranian clerics.

While the relationship between Iran and Hizbullah is, in many ways, an outgrowth of this more informal connection, the Iranian government has also instituted a bureaucratic mechanism to maintain their interests within the organization. This institutional bond is bolstered by material and financial connections, which increased following the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 to the tune of an estimated $100 million a year provided by Tehran to the Lebanese party.

Should a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities be considered, the United States and Israel may not be able to limit the conflict to the Iranian theater. Because Tehran may consider Hizbullah to be its best avenue to either deter or retaliate for a U.S. or Israeli attack, any such attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would likely be accompanied by an Israeli ground assault into Lebanon - an event with serious diplomatic and military implications. Israeli raids into Lebanon could serve as an excuse for opponents of the peace process to augment their sponsorship of terrorism. A backlash in Lebanon might undercut the country's fragile political stability. Anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment might dramatically increase across not only the Middle East, but Europe as well.

Iranian ideologues, Hizbullah leaders, and their sympathizers would find such a backlash to their advantage. Some may calculate it in their interest to instigate conflict, even prior to any strike on Iranian facilities. In the fires of a new Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, Hizbullah would undoubtedly draw new recruits to the banner of armed resistance. The party and its allies in Tehran could take comfort in the fact that they have very little to lose in unleashing their rockets on Israeli cities. Instead, ordinary Lebanese citizens will be the ones to bear the brunt of the violence, largely due to Hizbullah's willingness to convert southern Lebanon into a staging point for the Iranian regime.

One force that would conceivably have much to lose in an exchange between Israel and Lebanon is Hizbullah's other benefactor, Syria. Some have argued that Iran's desire to protect the Assad regime would lessen the likelihood of a Hizbullah rocket attack. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad may indeed welcome such a barrage, as it would rapidly overshadow his current travails regarding his regime's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Any Israeli counterattack, no matter how devastating, would only strengthen Assad's position, uniting Syrians in the face of external aggression.

Allowing the Iranian regime to flaunt international regulations and achieve nuclear power status is egregious enough; an Israeli pre-emptive attack which carries with it little chance of success could be much worse. If such an attack were to occur, the world could ill afford to be unprepared for the ripple effects that would batter an already troubled region.

Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington. This commentary, written for THE DAILY STAR, appears in a longer version in the Winter 2006 edition of the Middle East Quarterly.