As the day approaches when Israel may decide to launch a preemptive strike against Iran in order to cripple its nuclear infrastructure, Israeli policymakers and their allies abroad would carefully assess how the Lebanese-based group Hezbollah would react.
Although Israel is unlikely to launch an attack on Iran prior to the U.S. Presidential election in November, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be running out of patience and is becoming more vocal in warning that Iran’s nuclear program could cross Israel’s so-called “red line” by next spring or summer at the latest. Other factors, including the outcome of the U.S. elections, the outcome of the P5+1- Iran talks that are expected to follow the U.S. Presidential Election, growing instability in neighboring Syria, and the outcome of the early elections that Netanyahu has just called, will all factor into Israel’s decision on whether to use force against Tehran, and if so, when.
But perhaps no single factor, besides Iran’s nuclear program itself, will be as important in influencing Israel’s strategic assessment as the realization that attacking Iran risks sparking a war on several fronts; that is, one that not only invites retaliation from Iran, but very likely from its regional ally and sometimes proxy, Hezbollah. With the debacle of the 2006 war against the Lebanese group still fresh in Israeli minds, the possibility that the Shi’a organization would renew hostilities against the Jewish state through cross-border raids, terrorism, or rocket attacks against its cities, will have to be part of Israel’s calculations for any “day after” scenario.
Besides helping create the “Party of God” on the anvil of the Lebanese civil war and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, Iran’s support for Hezbollah has become multifaceted over the years, and now includes: military training, arms transfers, intelligence and, perhaps most crucially, financial support. Although a fair share of the funding provided by Tehran has gone towards building schools and hospitals, as well as the provision of social services in poor Shi’ite neighborhoods in Lebanon, the aid has also helped the organization’s militant wing. Moreover, Hezbollah fighters are known to have received extensive training from, and to be working closely with, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). While Hezbollah is now a political party competing in elections and an important social force in long-neglected parts of Lebanon, and while it has for the most part ceased serving as an extension of the Islamic Republic, its armed wing’s ability to inflict pain on Israel remains a powerful bargaining chip, if not an adequate deterrent against an Israeli attack on Iran. As journalist Nicholas Blanford wrote in a recent book on the organization: “the billions of dollars Iran has spent on Hezbollah since 2000 was not an altruistic gift to help Lebanon defend itself against the possibility of future Israeli aggression … through Hezbollah, Iran has established a bridgehead on Israel’s northern border, enhancing its deterrence posture and expanding its retaliatory options in the event of an attack on the Islamic Republic.”
Indeed, Hezbollah packs a formidable punch. According to IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Naveh, Hezbollah today has at least 60,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, or about ten times the number it had during the 34-day war in 2006. While the organization had few rockets that were capable of hitting Tel Aviv during that conflict, today it is said to have several thousands in its arsenal capable of doing so. In addition to the short- and medium-range rockets, Western intelligence assesses that Hezbollah has acquired a Syrian version of the Iranian Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missile, with a range of 200-300km, and may have received Russian-made SA-8 tactical air-defense systems. Hezbollah is also suspected of possessing a number of Chinese systems that were reverse-engineered by Iran or Syria, including the Raad anti-ship missile, the Misagh-2 MANPAD, and the B302 rocket, a Syrian version of the Chinese WS-1 multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). Other rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal include the Iranian Fajr-3 (42km), Fajr-5 (~70km), and the Zalzel I/II(125/210km). In recent years, Hezbollah has placed medium- and long-range rockets deeper inside Lebanon and further away from the border with Israel. According to Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution, many of those are concealed in homes. Such an arsenal, added to geographical proximity, has led some Israeli security officials to argue that an attack by Hezbollah would be more dangerous than Iranian retaliation following a preemptive strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.