Monday, May 17, 2010

Iran, Hezbollah, and the Bomb


by William Harris


The futility of containment.


When Iran gets the bomb, the nuclear club will have a crucial new feature. Without an Iranian bomb and barring regime change in Pakistan, we know that no nuclear power will transfer a device to a private army of the religious elect like Hezbollah in Lebanon. With an Iranian bomb, such assurance instantly ends. This is a looming, tangible state of affairs--in contrast to the hype about loose nuclear materials at the April 2010 Washington nuclear security summit.


Proponents of containing a nuclear Iran in and around the Obama administration conceive of deterring Iran in standard realist style. The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, has become a hybrid of the government of God and ruthless militarized mafias. It is well practiced in long-range subversion, intimidation, and weapons smuggling. It may be confidently expected to shred so-called containment, especially when equipped with a nuclear aura and facing the quivering potentates of Arabia.


In any case, Iran has a strategic extension across the Middle East to the Mediterranean that puts it beyond containment. On February 25, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah met in Damascus to celebrate their alignment and its achievements. The Syrian-Iranian partnership has enabled the Syrian ruling clique to go from strength to strength in dealing with the West and the Arabs. Syria only looks forward to more gains from the partnership as Iran moves toward the bomb. At the tripartite summit, Assad mocked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for Syria to steer away from Iran.


What of Hezbollah? Thanks to Western promoted demoralization of the West's own friends in Lebanon, Hezbollah has advanced from commanding a large part of Lebanon to effectively commanding the Lebanese state. This is the fruit of the West's courting of Bashar al-Assad, and pressing "consensus" with absolutists on the Lebanese. As a result, Lebanon is more than ever the business end of Iran's Middle Eastern operations.


Hezbollah is integral to the ruling clerical and military establishment in Iran. It has pledged itself to supreme guide Ali Khamenei, and from the perspective of Iran's leaders it is a wing of their apparatus. The party's formidable armory, fortified territory, and intelligence capability give it credibility as a base for Iranian strategic weaponry bordering Israel, in the heart of the Arab world, and half way to Europe.


It would be entirely within character for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to establish a clandestine strategic unit in Lebanon, with nuclear devices. There are considerable temptations: targeting Israel without needing to use ballistic missiles; deniability (at least in the mind of Tehran); and a secret reserve outside Iran. If a speedboat brought a ten-kiloton surprise early one morning to the Tel Aviv shore, with all evidence vaporized who could say for sure who was responsible? The mere prospect that Iran might implement a nuclear transfer to its base in Lebanon after crossing the weapons threshold would drastically change calculations on the Israel/Hezbollah front.



When Ahmadinejad speaks of Nasrallah's uprooting Israel in the "grand victory," it is difficult to think of a mechanism other than nuclear. Perhaps Ahmadinejad actually means what he says. He tells us that he has seen the light of the Twelfth Imam while speaking at the U.N. General Assembly.  While he may not command Iran, his mode of thinking is widespread in ruling circles.


Hezbollah having any link to nuclear devices is terrifying, not least for Lebanese Shiites. The party combines technical sophistication, global reach, and delusional demagogy. For Nasrallah, Israel is nothing more than "a spider's web," to be swept away at a blow. Hezbollah restrains itself for the present, but its impetus and soaring ambition after Iran acquires the bomb will be another matter.


The future is bleak; the Lebanese mountain communities sport a history of disastrous miscalculations. The Druze lord Fakhr al-Din Ma'n invited and received an Ottoman avalanche after he expanded east to Palmyra and north toward Aleppo in the early 1630s. Within the mountain, the Maronites came to grief in 1845 and 1860 in overestimating themselves against the Druze. Hezbollah's journey to wherever its insouciance and hubris take it, with the Shiite community and all Lebanon along for the ride, is an escalated version of an old story, now with stratospheric stakes.


In the meantime, U.S. engagement of Syria's ruling clique only encourages Bashar al-Assad's provision of missiles and munitions of diverse descriptions to Hezbollah. One of the Syrian regime's sub-plots is to blackmail acceptance of its return to Beirut. The arsonist is selling himself to the credulous as a fire fighter, but he remains an incorrigible arsonist—not to mention a murder suspect, fingered in the 2005 reports of the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


What to do? Suspending the policy of engaging Syria and Iran, of repeatedly proven futility, would be a start. Indeed, the principal utility of engagement may be the impact of publicly acknowledging it as unproductive and stepping back from it. Given the near certain provenance of the 2005 political murder in Lebanon, insistence on pursuing international justice to the end of the trail would also not go amiss. Despite the sclerotic condition of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, international justice might still pull down Iran's friends in the Levant. To the east, Iraq should not be considered hostage to engagement; the determination of the Syrian and Iranian regimes to wreck a pluralist Iraq has never wavered. As for Iran's rulers, the trick is to integrate whatever can be squeezed out of the U.N. Security Council with a new level of Euro-American sanctions. Only rigor with the regime might affect Iran's domestic environment in the couple of years that are probably all that are left. President Obama has spoken of proceeding "boldly and quickly." So far this is just hot air.



William Harris, is a professor at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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