Letter from Beirut: Hezbullah Holds the Balance of Power Email Print

Hezbullah's well-fortified and battle ready army presents a threat to Israel should they or the United States decide to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Hezbullah missiles in southern Lebanon are capable of inflicting instant retaliation upon Israeli towns, should their Iranian ally demand their help. Recent attempts by political opponents in the Lebanese cabinet to reduce the power of Hezbullah have been unsuccessful. The détente signed in Doha in late May merely solidifies Hezbullah's' position and gives them veto power in the new government. While the fear of another massive bombing such as the Israeli Air Force inflicted upon Lebanon in 2006 could keep Hezbullah from responding to an Iranian request for help, Israel must take the threat on their northern border seriously.

Israeli Concerns: Israel has based its long-term defense strategy upon the neutralization of its Arab neighbor-states. This has been accomplished in the case of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with US support and funding. The potential threat from Syria is not real: they have not launched a single missile into Israeli-occupied land since 1973. The Palestinians are now walled off into small enclaves and unable to import any of the heavy weapons or guided missiles they would need to be taken seriously. Hamas in Gaza is repeatedly choked by Israel's shutting off power, water and border crossings. Only the well dug-in Hezbullah militia in south Lebanon presents a serious and immediate threat to Israel's regional hegemony.

The Iranian Challenge: Iran aspires to regain the respect and power it lost with the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlevi in 1979. It had begun to emerge in the 1970s as the most advanced country in the Middle East with extensive oil, gas and mineral resources and with a growing middle class. Since the ascension of the Ayatollahs, the US has done its best to suppress any Iranian challenge to US hegemony in the Gulf Region. They will not much longer bend to U.S. financial sanctions nor will they abandon their nuclear ambitions.

Iran could become a major threat should their nuclear ambitions even appear to challenge Israeli nuclear dominance of the Middle East. As former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently pointed out in this regard: "Politics is not just about facts but also about perceptions". Israel feels that it cannot tolerate even the remote possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb ten years hence. Thus, they propose the "Begin Option" last used to wipe out the Osirak test reactor in Iraq in 1982. Israel feels fully justified in a surgical strike upon Iranian test facilities at Nantaz. In their view, all of their Arab and Persian neighbors are irrational and totally unpredictable. Regional treaties or the establishment of some sort of nuclear parity would be worthless with such people.

Unfortunately for Israel, a single pinpoint raid would not eliminate the fear of future Iranian nuclear weapons. Iranian test facilities, pilot enrichment plants and processing centers are spread over hundreds of miles: the support of US air power and long-range missiles would be essential. With the Bush regime due to retire in seven months, it is now or never for the Israelis. Strangely enough, the Hezbullah could upset all of these strategic plans.

The Hezbullah Threat: It is real, as shown by the failure of ground attacks by the Israeli Defense Force during the 2006 conflagration. Their most advanced tanks were stopped in their tracks a few miles from the border and Hezbullah rockets attacks killed 40 IDF soldiers and civilians in northern settlement towns. New and much improved missile systems and other advanced weaponry supplied by Iran in the past two years could inflict unacceptable losses upon the  IDF. As Hezbullah's arms supplier and financier, Iran must expect and demand that their ally retaliate immediately for any Israeli action against Iran. They have not financed and supplied Hezbullah all these years merely because of their common Shi'ite traditions.

Israel has concluded that Hezbullah's control of the southern Lebanese border must be eliminated. A state-of-the art command and control system has been installed linking Hezbullah front line troops with headquarters in the Ouzai District, just south of Beirut, using fiber-optic telecom lines that cannot be intercepted. Cameras on the Beirut airport runways now warn Hezbullah of any Israeli attempt to land advance battalions at the airport. Strangely enough, several political parties within the Lebanese cabinet suddenly complained in early May that Hezbullah's fiber-optic lines were an intrusion upon Lebanese sovereignty and a forewarning of their plan to take over the national telephone system. After several days of uproar in the Cabinet, Hezbullah pointed out that this telecom system was what saved Lebanon in 2006 from an Israeli invasion. They further emphasized their determination to maintain these defenses by putting their very well disciplined militia on the street and taking effective control of West Beirut. Various pro-government militias offered little serious opposition and the Lebanese Army maintained its customary neutrality. Once it had made its point, Hezbullah militia turned security over to the Army, who stationed rusty 40 year-old tanks at major intersections for the next week while the politicians went off to Doha for a little negotiating over cabinet seats.

Conclusion: Now after four days of talks hosted by Sheik Kalifa El Thani of Qatar, all Lebanese parties have acquiesced in Hezbullah's continued control of Lebanon's southern defenses. They also settled a long-standing dispute by giving Hezbullah a more equitable number of seats in the next government. The big loser in this affair has been the Ohlmert government in Tel Aviv that wants no further threats from either their northern border nor from the Persians 1000 miles to the east. The Bush administration continues to see Hezbullah as the problem rather than as the holder of the balance of power between Israel and Iran in the region. Does all this maneuvering mean that the threat of US or Israeli air attacks upon Iran have been lessened? It does not appear that all the cards have been played in this political game.

James F. Houle most recently visited Beirut during May 2008. He has lived and directed development projects in ten Arab countries during his career as a consultant to the World Bank, the US Government and various local governments.


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Omg, when will the war end? it's too painful i think
jordy, designer of herbal pain killers

by jordy on 11/29/2008 06:10:05 PM EST

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