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.
So far, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has revealed little of his organization’s intentions vis-à-vis Israel should Iran be attacked, though he told Lebanese media in September that Iran would lash out not only at Israel proper, but also against U.S. military bases across the region. On the other hand, a senior military advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently said that Israeli leaders are placing their constituents “a step away from the grave” because “Hezbollah, will easily respond” if Iran is attacked. While we can only guess which account is most accurate, and though it may be tempting to imagine that Hezbollah would instantly spring into action if Iran was attacked, the group faces constraints of its own that could limit its options.
For one, both the Hezbollah leadership and the Iranian government would have to consider that an all-out attack by Hezbollah against Israel would have deadly consequences for the organization and Lebanese state. In other words, if its militants were to unleash thousands of rockets and missiles against Israel, the IDF would conceivably respond with overwhelming force, triggering a war from which the Shi’a organization might not be able to recuperate. The Israeli military learned several valuable lessons from its misadventure in 2006, and we can expect that IDF forces will be far better prepared in the next war than they were last time.
For its part, even if the 2006 war bolstered its credentials as a resistance force across the greater Middle East, Hezbollah suffered a serious credibility blow at home for the systematic damage the war caused to Lebanon’s infrastructure. Nasrallah himself subsequently admitted his organization had miscalculated and that had he known of the IDF’s response beforehand, he likely would have called off the cross-border raids that sparked the war. In other words, Israel’s deterrent credibility this time around, added to Hezbollah’s need to act responsibly to ensure the welfare of ordinary Lebanese (what Blanford terms Hezbollah’s increasingly “Lebanocentric attitudes”), could persuade it against launching an all-out retaliation against Israel.
This underscores the central dilemma Hezbollah has faced in recent times: namely, its need to honor its commitments to the Islamic Republic without jeopardizing the crucial support it enjoys among its coalition partners and constituents in Lebanon.
In the context of responding to an Israeli attack on Iran, this dilemma could push Nasrallah towards the option that comports an element of deniability: terrorism. Rather than launch military strikes against Israel proper, Hezbollah, acting on its own or in cooperation with the IRGC, could decide to launch attacks against Israeli or American interests abroad, such as embassies, cultural centers, and so on. While the point of origin of a rocket can easily be traced, the intelligence work that is required to identify the individuals or organizations behind a terror attack can take months and will often times yield inconclusive results, thus making it more difficult politically for Israel to retaliate.
Consequently, while placating the Islamic Republic by attacking Israeli interest, Hezbollah would mitigate the risks of overwhelming retaliation against its positions within Lebanon. The group’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, may have lost its terror master, Imad Mugniyeh, in a 2008 car bombing (presumably the work of Israeli intelligence), but there is little doubt it retains the ability to orchestrate devastating attacks worldwide, such as the bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community’s AMIA building in July 1994, in which 85 people were killed and more than 300 injured.
Some analysts have also speculated that Hezbollah could ramp up its militant activities outside Lebanon to destabilize the region and thereby complicate Israel’s plans to derail the Iranian nuclear program — a sort of preemptive move by Iran to nix Israel’s own preemptive attack. The ongoing uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, is proving both a threat and opportunity for the organization. A longtime backer of Hezbollah, Syria’s al-Assad regime has served as an arms conduit to the organization and propped it up politically within Lebanon, even after Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 amid political backlash from Lebanese citizens and demands from the UN following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February of that year.
Because it is drawn largely from the Alawite sect, al-Assad’s regime, like Iran and Hezbollah, believes it is threatened by Sunni Muslims, including the rebel groups that are seeking to overthrow it. The war in Syria is quickly becoming internationalized, with Damascus and Tehran claiming that Israel, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are actively aiding the rebels. Indeed, the regional and extra-regional ramifications of the uprising in Syria have been underscored by the ongoing exchange of mortar fire between Turkey and Syria over the past week.
Despite Hezbollah’s continued denials, there are strong reasons to believe that Hezbollah fighters are on the ground in Syria, to some degree or another. Moreover, Iran and Hezbollah do not want to see their Syrian ally fall and be replaced by a Sunni-led government or complete chaos. At the same time, the possibility that Syria could spiral out of control and spark a regional war could also convince Israel that the timing is not right to launch a preemptive strike against Iran, though delaying this attack would give Iran more time to make further advances on its nuclear program. In other words, Iran and Hezbollah could regard instability in Syria as a useful sideshow to prevent an attack by Israel, and thus could decide to add fuel to the flames of conflict there.
The challenges posed by the Iranian nuclear program are numerous, with many of the different nodes being interrelated. The problem is made all the more intractable by an increasingly volatile region that is sharply divided along sectarian lines. Hezbollah is but one of the many players involved, but should it choose to do so, it has the capacity to inflict great harm on Israel. As such, any future plans by Israel cannot afford to not take the organization into account. And while several factors would militate against Hezbollah directly retaliating against Israel, Hezbollah has a number of other options — including intensifying the proxy war in Syria or conducting asymmetric attacks against Israeli interests in third party countries— by which it can complicate Israel’s choices before the Jewish state launches operations against Iran, or inflict pain should such a course of action be adopted.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based journalist who focuses on military issues in Northeast Asia and in the Taiwan Strait. He previously served as an intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. You can follow him on Twitter: @jmichaelcole1.