Nasrallah assures Iranians Hezbollah will fight alone if war with Israel breaks out

Lebanon’s terror leader assured Quds Force’s Esmail Qani last month that Iran won’t be drawn into possible full-scale war

A composite photo showing the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Esmail Qaani (left), during a commemoration ceremony marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qassem Soleimani (on screen) in the capital Tehran on January 3, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP); and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah delivering a televised speech on February 16, 2024. (Al-Manar / AFP)
A composite photo showing the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Esmail Qaani (left), during a commemoration ceremony marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qassem Soleimani (on screen) in the capital Tehran on January 3, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP); and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah delivering a televised speech on February 16, 2024. (Al-Manar / AFP)

With ally Hamas under attack in Gaza, the head of Iran’s Quds Force visited Beirut in February to discuss the risk posed if Israel next aims at Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an offensive that could severely hurt Tehran’s main regional partner, seven sources said.

In Beirut, Quds chief Esmail Qaani met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the sources said, for at least the third time since Hamas’s deadly October 7 onslaught on southern Israel, which triggered Israel’s offensive aimed at eliminating the terror group.

The conversation turned to the possibility of a full-scale Israeli offensive to its north, in Lebanon, the sources said. As well as damaging the Shiite terror group, such an escalation could pressure Iran to react more forcefully than it has so far since October 7, three of the sources, Iranians within the inner circle of power, said.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, causing loss of life and widespread damage with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

At the previously unreported meeting, Nasrallah reassured Qaani he didn’t want Iran to get sucked into a war with Israel or the United States and that Hezbollah would fight on its own, all the sources said.

“This is our fight,” Nasrallah told Qaani, said one Iranian source with knowledge of the discussions.

This picture taken from Israel along the border with southern Lebanon shows smoke billowing near the Lebanese village of Khiam during Israeli airstrikes on March 12, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Calibrated to avoid a major escalation, the skirmishes in Lebanon have nonetheless pushed tens of thousands of people from their homes on both sides of the border. Hezbollah attacks have resulted in seven civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 10 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 244 members to have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 41 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 30 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

In recent days, Israel’s counter-strikes have increased in intensity and reach, fueling fears the violence could spin out of control even if negotiators achieve a temporary truce in Gaza.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant indicated in February that Israel planned to increase attacks to decisively remove Hezbollah fighters from the border in the event of a temporary Gaza ceasefire, although he left the door open for diplomacy.

In 2006, Israel fought a short but intense air and ground war with Hezbollah that was devastating for Lebanon.

Israeli security sources have said previously that Israel does not seek any spread of hostilities, but added that the country was prepared to fight on new fronts if needed. An all-out war on its northern border would stretch Israel’s military resources.

Iran and Hezbollah are mindful of the grave perils of a wider war in Lebanon, two of the sources aligned with the views of the government in Tehran said, including the danger it could spread and lead to strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations.

The US lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and has sought for years to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program. Israel has long considered Iran an existential threat. Iran denies it is seeking a nuclear weapon.

File: A barrage of rockets launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon is intercepted by the Iron Dome over Kiryat Shmona, March 5, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

For this story, Reuters spoke to four Iranian and two regional sources, along with a Lebanese source who confirmed the thrust of the meeting. Two US sources and an Israeli source said Iran wanted to avoid blowback from an Israel-Hezbollah war. All requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The US State Department, Israeli government, Tehran and Hezbollah did not respond to requests for comment.

The Beirut meeting highlights strain on Iran’s strategy of avoiding major escalation in the region while projecting strength and support for Gaza across the Middle East through allied armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, analysts said.

Qaani and Nasrallah “want to further insulate Iran from the consequences of supporting an array of proxy actors throughout the Middle East,” said Jon Alterman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, responding to a question about the meeting.

“Probably because they assess that the possibility of military action in Lebanon is increasing and not decreasing.”

Already, Tehran’s carefully nurtured influence in the region is being curtailed, including by Israel’s offensive against Hamas along with potential US-Saudi defense and Israel-Saudi normalization agreements, as well as US warnings that Iran should not get involved in the Israel-Hamas war.

In Israel’s sights

Qaani and Nasrallah between them hold sway over tens of thousands of fighters and a vast arsenal of rockets and missiles. They are the main antagonists in Tehran’s network of allies and proxy militias, with Qaani’s elite Quds Force acting as the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

While Hezbollah has publicly indicated it would halt attacks on Israel when the Israeli offensive in Gaza stops, US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein said last week a Gaza truce would not automatically trigger calm in southern Lebanon.

File: US special envoy Amos Hochstein (L) meets with Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut on March 4, 2024. (AFP)

Arab and Western diplomats report that Israel has expressed strong determination to no longer allow the presence of Hezbollah’s main fighters along the border, fearing an incursion similar to Hamas’s massacre on October 7, when terrorists killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took 253 hostages.

“If there is a ceasefire in (Gaza), there are two schools of thought in Israel and my impression is that the one that would recommend continuing the war on the border with Hezbollah is the stronger one,” said Sima Shine, a former Israeli intelligence official who is currently head of the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies:

A senior Israeli official agreed that Iran was not seeking a full-blown war, noting Tehran’s restrained response to Israel’s offensive on Hamas.

“It seems that they feel they face a credible military threat. But that threat may need to become more credible,” the official said.

Washington, via Hochstein, and France have been working on diplomatic proposals that would move Hezbollah terrorists from the border area in line with UN Resolution 1701 that helped end the 2006 war, but a deal remains elusive.

‘First line of defense’

A war in Lebanon that seriously degrades Hezbollah would be a major blow for Iran, which relies on the group founded with its support in 1982 as a bulwark against Israel and to buttress its interests in the broader region, two regional sources said.

“Hezbollah is in fact the first line of defense for Iran,” said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Yemen.

If Israel were to launch major military action on Hezbollah, the Iranian sources within the inner circle of power said, Tehran may find itself compelled to intensify its proxy war.

File: This handout picture provided by Hezbollah’s media office on February 12, 2024, shows the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah (R) meeting with Ziad Nakhaleh, head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, at an undisclosed location in Lebanon. (Hezbollah’s Media Office/AFP)

An Iranian security official acknowledged, however, that the costs of such an escalation could be prohibitively high for Iran’s allied groups. Direct involvement by Iran, he added, could serve Israel’s interests and provide justification for the continued presence of US troops in the region.

Given Tehran’s extensive, decades-long ties with Hezbollah, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put distance between them, one US official said.

Since the Hamas massacre in Israel, Iran has given its blessing to actions in support of its ally in Gaza: including attacks by Iraqi groups on US interests. It has also supplied intelligence and weapons for Houthi operations against shipping in the Red Sea.

But it has stopped well short of an unfettered multi-front war on Israel that, three Palestinian sources said, Hamas had expected Iran to support after October 7.

Before the Beirut encounter with Nasrallah, Qaani chaired a two-day meeting in Iran in early February along with militia commanders of operations in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, three Hezbollah representatives and a Houthi delegation, one Iranian official said.

Revolutionary Guard’s Commander-in-Chief Major General Hossein Salami was also present, the official said. Hamas did not attend.

“At the end, all the participants agreed that Israel wanted to expand the war and falling into that trap should be avoided as it will justify the presence of more US troops in the region,” the official said.

File: An image published on Ali Khamenei’s official website on September 25, 2019 showing Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, left, alongside Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, center, and then-Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. (

Shortly after, Qaani engineered a pause in attacks by the Iraqi groups. So far, Hezbollah has kept its tit-for-tat responses within what observers have called unwritten rules of engagement with Israel.

Despite decades of proxy conflict since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has never directly fought in a war with Israel, and all four Iranian sources said there was no appetite for that to change.

According to the Iranian insider, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not inclined to see a war unfold against Iran, where domestic discontent with the ruling system last year spilled over into mass protests.

“The Iranians are pragmatists and they are afraid of the expansion of the war,” said Iryani. “If Israel were alone, they would fight, but they know that if the war expands, the United States will be drawn in.”

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