Iran, Hezbollah Answer Escalating Israeli Rhetoric With Even Cruder Threats

The Iranians have always marked their version of Jerusalem Day, which fell on Friday, with warlike declarations, but this time they, and Hezbollah, raised the volume in response to Netanyahu's threats to strike Iran.

Escalating Israeli rhetoric regarding a possible strike on Iran's nuclear facilities was answered this weekend by even cruder threats from Iran and Hezbollah. The Iranians have always marked their version of Jerusalem Day, which fell on Friday, with warlike declarations, but this time they raised the volume a bit.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally in Tehran that he hopes for "a new Middle East, with no memory of the American or Zionist presence." The Zionist regime, he added, is "a malignant cancer, an insult to humanity." And Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' aerial corps, said he would welcome an Israeli attack, because it would allow his country to "get rid of Israel forever" in response.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that the debate within Israel over whether to attack Iran stems from recognition of how strong Iran is. "Will Israel give Iran the excuse it has been awaiting for 32 years?" he asked.

Nevertheless, he declined to say whether Hezbollah would attack Israel in response to an Israeli attack on Iran. Instead, he warned against an Israeli attack on Lebanon, saying Hezbollah would respond with a missile barrage that would kill "tens of thousands" of Israelis - a number far greater than the Israeli defense establishment's estimate of a few hundred.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to be taking Israel's threats to attack Iran seriously, and is looking for a way to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu get out of the corner he's painted himself into. U.S. President Barack Obama's former adviser Dennis Ross published an opinion piece over the weekend proposing that Obama make the Iranians one last offer, while also giving Israel weaponry that would improve its ability to attack Iran.

The recent spate of declarations - including President Shimon Peres' warning last week against a unilateral Israeli strike, which infuriated Netanyahu - essentially reflect the fact that the prime minister's room for maneuver has contracted. If, as reported, an Obama-Netanyahu meeting really is set for September, that would leave the prime minister with less than six weeks for an Israeli strike between then and the U.S. presidential elections in November. This timing would make it hard for him to rebut charges that he attacked Iran in part in an effort to influence the outcome of the elections. In fact, Netanyahu may have backed himself into a corral, to use former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's favorite analogy: He is now being hemmed in on every side, in a way that might push him into making a bad decision.

Amid all the verbiage on Iran - a new headline hits the Internet news sites every three or four hours - it's especially interesting to follow Hezbollah's position. Nasrallah's statements seem to stem in large part from his own shaky situation in Lebanon, given the increasingly precarious situation of his patron, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Lebanon itself is on the brink of falling apart, and this has led to unprecedented criticism of Hezbollah.

"Nasrallah asked just a few days ago if we'd reached the point where we could give up the resistance [i.e., Hezbollah]," noted an article on a Lebanese news site known to oppose the organization. "Does Israel really constitute a threat? There's no proof that Israel has territorial designs on Lebanon ... Therefore, the 'resistance' has become a burden. As long as this group maintains and enlarges its arsenal of long-range missiles, something it terms 'a deterrent,' Israel will always be nervous."

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. More and more politicians are demanding that Hezbollah disarm. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, one of the leaders of Hezbollah's main rival, the March 14 movement, said yesterday that "the defense of the nation must be done solely by the state and its institutions, not by any political group," and called for a "national dialogue" among all the Lebanese political factions on "the key issue of weapons that are not in the state's hands."

Even Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Hezbollah appointee, has recently been distancing himself from the organization: He approved continued funding for the international tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and authorized Lebanese intelligence agencies to give it information about attempts to assassinate members of the March 14 movement.