Nasrallah may talk tough, but Iran has reasons for caution
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Analysis

Nasrallah may talk tough, but Iran has reasons for caution

Tehran doesn't want to be blamed for an escalation, but Hezbollah chief's arrogance increases pressure to strike Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah speaking in southern Beirut, November 3, 2014. (AP/Hussein Malla)
Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah speaking in southern Beirut, November 3, 2014. (AP/Hussein Malla)

At the end of the day, the key to what happens on the northern border in the wake of the Israeli attack in Syria on Sunday lies in Iran’s hands.

If Ali Khamenei and the Iranian leadership want an escalation, then an escalation there will be. If Tehran isn’t looking for one, then it simply won’t happen.

In contrast to earlier incidents, the midday attack near Mazrat Amal in in the Quneitra district didn’t end with only Lebanese casualties. Yes, initial reports gave the name of Jihad Mughniyeh, thought of as a symbol because of his father Imad Mughniyeh, as the most senior official killed in the attack. But Colonel Ali Reza al-Tabatabai, commander of the Radwan force of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, was also killed. This force, seen as a special operations unit, is responsible for planning attacks against Israel. These operations range from kidnappings and tunnel attacks to capturing territory.

It’s not likely Muhgniyeh and Tabatabai were on their way to a picnic when they were struck from the air, and it is very possible they were examining various ways to carry out attacks against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights.

Still, it’s not clear how urgent this attack was for Israel. Iran’s and Hezbollah’s activities in the sector are not exactly secrets, and neither was the presence of the younger Muhgniyeh, the Hezbollah commander responsible for the sector.

Jihad Mughniyeh sits during a memorial service for his father Imad in his hometown of Tair Debba, south Lebanon on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008.  (photo credit: AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
Jihad Mughniyeh sits during a memorial service for his father Imad in his hometown of Tair Debba, south Lebanon on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008. (photo credit: AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

We can also assume that Israeli intelligence knew about the presence of the Iranian commander in the car with Mughniyeh when it gave the order to strike. The decision to attack such a vehicle is not to be taken lightly, and one must hope that those responsible for the operation in the political and defense establishments understood completely the potential it held for immediate escalation against Hezbollah and its patron Iran.

Iran’s dilemma right now is whether or not to allow Hezbollah to respond with force, which could well lead to a general escalation. A Hezbollah response is not necessarily what Iran wants, especially when the White House is pressuring Congress not to enact new sanctions on Iran. Tehran does not want to be seen as responsible for a regional deterioration, which could bring about new sanctions. In addition, it doesn’t want to get Hezbollah stuck in another active front while the drop in oil prices has left Iran with less and less money to fund its operations in Syria. What’s more, Hezbollah continues to lose men fighting the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations.

On the other hand, ignoring the incident will be taken as weakness, even cowardice.

Hezbollah itself will want to respond, of course, even though it has an even more difficult dilemma. It may be that the decision would be easier were it not for the stupid, arrogant interview Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave on Friday to the friendly Al-Madayeen channel. As he usually does, Nasrallah explained how strong Hezbollah is, and how its ability to strike Israel is limitless. He described his advanced Fateh-110 rockets as outdated, and claimed that his organization already had those weapons in 2006, and that today it has much more advanced weapons.

What’s more, Nasrallah promised that any Israel attack on Syria would lead to an attack by Hezbollah, in a time and place of its choosing.

And now, only two days after the interview was aired, Israel has made clear how high is the tree that Nasrallah has climbed. Israel assassinated one of his senior commanders, and a major symbol no less: Jihad Mughniyeh’s father founded Hezbollah’s military wing, and was considered for more than two decades one of the Middle East’s biggest terrorists.

Now, Nasrallah is seemingly bound to respond, at least to show he stands behind his word. One third of his organization’s fighting force is in Syria today, caught up in daily battles against radical Sunni groups. According to Israeli estimates, Hezbollah has lost around 1,000 men in Syrian fighting, with many more injured.

Hezbollah’s political situation is not much better, to say the least. Even Sunday after the results of the attack were made public, Lebanese critics continued to attack the Shiite organization. One called it a “terrorist organization,” while former president Amine Gemayel chose to focus on Nasrallah’s arrogant interview from Friday. “Whoever wants to protect Lebanon doesn’t need to attack Bahrain,” Gemayel said, referring to Nasrallah’s harsh verbal attack on Bahrain during the same interview.

Lebanese mourners carry the coffin of a senior commander of the Lebanese group Hezbollah (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)
Lebanese mourners carry the coffin of a senior commander of the Lebanese group Hezbollah (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)

But Nasrallah’s and Hezbollah’s decision will ultimately be made in Tehran. The commander of the Al-Quds Force, who was close to Mughniyeh and Tabatabai, according to reports, will be the one to decide the tone of the Shi’ite organization’s response.

And it may be that, for the time being, Hezbollah and Iran will be satisfied with a minor response, and at another time, in another place, they will try to carry out a much more dramatic strike.

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