Iran's Interest in Lebanon Has Nothing to Do With Israel

Neither Hezbollah and Iran nor Israel want an escalation on the Golan Heights, but the violent dialogue in which they are engaged could still lead to just that.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Israeli military vehicles burning along the Israeli-Lebanese border near Ghajar village, on January 28, 2015, following a Hezbollah missile attack.
Israeli military vehicles burning along the Israeli-Lebanese border near Ghajar village, on January 28, 2015, following a Hezbollah missile attack.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Is this the response that Hezbollah meant when it warned Israel that it would strike at a time and place of its choosing? Is this what Iran had in mind when one of its Revolutionary Guard leaders promised to exact revenge for the January 18 operation in Syria, attributed to Israel, which killed an Iranian general and six Hezbollah operatives?

The exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel can be defined as violent dialogue, in which each side makes clear to the other the boundaries of discourse. About 10 days ago, Israel killed senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah in a manner interpreted in Iran as intended to thwart the deployment of Hezbollah forces on the (Syrian side of the) Golan Heights. That is, that Israel wants to break the Syrian-Iranian monopoly on the way the war is played out on Syrian territory.

This Iranian assessment is based on Israel’s lack of response to the conquest of most of the Syrian Golan Heights by rebel forces, among them radical Islamist groups, but that it sounded the alarm when Hezbollah planned to expand its control on the Heights. Syria and Iran regard Israel's lax attitude toward the presence of rebel forces on the Golan as support for the rebels and interference in internal matters.

Planned and measured response

The response dilemma has therefore been resolved in a planned and measured way. The Iranian-Syrian fear is over the opening of a broad front on the Syrian Golan Heights that could draw Israel into responding directly against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and his army, thus bolstering the rebels. Because with Israel preferring to place responsibility on formal regimes, like the government of Lebanon, which is responsible for nothing, or the regime of Assad, who does not control the field, Assad’s palace could join Israel’s bank of targets.

Smoke rises from IDF shelling in Al-Wazzani area of southern Lebanon following Hezbollah attack, January 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The opening of a broad front on the border with Lebanon is also dangerous, because it could divert Hezbollah’s war efforts, from the regions in which it is assisting the Syrian army to the Israeli border, and thus weaken Syrian efforts to subdue the rebel groups. That is the reason Hezbollah chose the Shaaba Farms area on Har Dov as the launch pad for the attack on the Israel Defense Forces Wednesday. While the Shaaba Farms area is part of Lebanon, the UN considers it Syrian territory, with the ultimate resolution of its status to be decided in the framework of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

Formally, the attack was carried out from an area that at the very least is disputed, and that is its advantage. It allows Hezbollah to claim that it is being faithful to its obligation that “any attack on Syria is an attack on the resistance,” that is, on Hezbollah and at the same time it absolves Israel, at least for the time being, from expanding the arena of response into Lebanon.

The working assumption of all parties is that none of them has an interest in igniting a front on the Golan Heights or in Lebanon.

Iran's goal

If at the beginning of the uprising in Syria, there was concern that Hezbollah might fire on Israel to divert attention from the massacres the Syrian army was perpetrating on civilians, this consideration no longer exists. The preservation of the Syrian regime has become a secondary factor in military decision-making on the ground in Syria. In the context of diplomatic efforts by Russia to achieve a political solution, Iran’s aspiration is to preserve its status and influence in Syria, whatever the outcome of these efforts.

From Iran’s point of view, Syria and Lebanon are a package deal; one cannot be given up in exchange for the other. That is why Iran ascribes such importance to political moves in Lebanon. The most significant of these is the political dialogue between Hezbollah and its rivals, such as the al-Mustaqbal ("Movement of the Future") bloc, headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri, as well as some of the Christian movements, and even the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s ally, who warned against the opening of a new front in Lebanon.

If this dialogue succeeds, it will bear fruit in the form of the election of a Lebanese president whom Iran will seek to bend to its will. That is the main battle Iran is waging in Syria and Lebanon. The exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel are secondary and even marginal and, at least under the current circumstances, must be contained and not allowed to thwart Iran’s strategic aspirations.

But even in the framework of these fragile considerations, Iran must ensure that Israel does not allow itself to strike at will at targets that are important to Iran and to Hezbollah. This is where the danger lies — in Israel misreading the map of Iranian interests and in secondary events like the killing of senior figures or unintentional gunfire that will send the sides rolling down a slippery slope that no one intended to reach.

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