As Western diplomacy dithers, Iran's foreign policy chief chases Lebanese support
Aside from being a military support, Hezbollah is also a political party, which means that serving Iran's interests and inviting a devastating Israeli counterattack on Lebanese infrastructure will not win them many votes.
If not inevitable by most accounts by now, an Israeli attack on Iran is at least highly probable. But the drums of war beating from Jerusalem do not seem to have put any wind in the sails of international diplomacy. The phone conversations between the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who coordinates the P5+1 group of powers and Iran's chief negotiator, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, last Thursday, attest to that.
The accounts of the conversation are somewhat different, depending whether you prefer the statement put out by Ashton's office or the Iranian version, but on one point they seem to agree. Ashton said that another couple of weeks of "reflection" are needed and that talks with Iran could probably resume by the end of August. So no hurry there.
It is impossible also to predict when Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria will fall, though that eventual outcome can no longer be in doubt. The forces loyal to the president may hold on for a few more months, drenching the country in the blood of countless more citizens, or they may implode in a matter of days.
But as the UN’s special representative resigned last week, two world leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron found only 45 minutes to discuss the Syrian situation, among other issues at Downing on Thursday, before rushing out to spend some quality time watching judo at the Olympic Games.
There was so little chance of them reaching an agreement anyway, that they didn't bother to take advantage of the opportunity to travel in the same car to the arena, and get a few more minutes for non-sports related talks.
Diplomacy may have taken an Olympian holiday but at least one government isn't resting. Jalili, who is for all intents and purposes the real Iranian foreign policy chief, and, as opposed to Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is travelling tomorrow to Lebanon to make sure that Iran's last dependable ally in the region is ready for the nextdevelopments.
According to the official Iranian news agency, Jalili will meet with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, but it is a sure bet that he will be meeting up with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah as well.
Facing the prospect of an Israeli (or American) attack on Iran and a collapse in Syria occurring simultaneously, Lebanon becomes an even more crucial base for Iran.
Israeli contingency plans take into account the possibility of an Iranian retaliation for a strike on its nuclear facilities from four different launch platforms – its own territory, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip. But Iran's air-force lacks long-range capability and the number of missiles it has that are capable of striking targets at that distance is estimated to be in the dozens. Also, Gaza is less reliable today as Hamas increasingly come under the sway of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which while being no friend of Israel's, sees Shi’te Iran as a rival, even an enemy.
Hamas' ties with Iran, not long ago its main patron and funder, have greatly weakened of late, and Tehran can only rely now on the smaller Islamic Jihad, with its more limited resources and arsenal. If Syria descends into chaos at the wrong moment for Tehran, and an Israeli strike at such a juncture may not be a coincidence, the only major ally Iran can rely upon to rain missiles down on Israel's cities is Hezbollah.
But while being the largest military force in the Land of the Cedars, Hezbollah is also a political party. Serving Iran's interests and inviting a devastating Israeli counterattack on Lebanese infrastructure will not win them many votes.
It could likely also dissolve the March 8 Alliance, currently ruling Lebanon with Hezbollah's blessing. Iranian funded much of the rebuilding of Lebanon following the 2006 Second Lebanon War and will have to work very hard to build any kind of political support for another war with Israel. That is Jalili's work tomorrow in Beirut.