A string of recent assassinations and strikes, conducted several miles from Israel’s borders, often in broad daylight, have driven back some of the shadows that cloak Hezbollah’s war against Israel. They’ve also highlighted Iran’s regional role and underscored a lingering question about Hezbollah’s allegiances: whether to its coreligionists and religious patron state, Iran, or to its compatriots in the Cedar State.
The revelations are particularly relevant now, as Israel watches from the sidelines while Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 enter the homestretch in negotiations that have steadfastly avoided Iran’s role in fomenting instability across the region. The talks have also mostly skirted Tehran’s championing of the cause of prying the Zionist entity from the Middle East – a role that many Israelis believe will only rise in prominence if it is bulwarked by the bomb.
A review of the facts: On January 18 Israel reportedly faced a situation that either invited or demanded action. A team of senior Hezbollah operatives, accompanied by Iranian officers from the Quds Force, moved in a two-car convoy near Israel’s border with Syria. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made clear last week, without expressly owning the operation, that Israel knew full well that there was an Iranian general in the convoy. He also said that “an Iranian-Hezbollah co-production” was establishing a network in order to attack Israel from Syrian soil.
An Israeli aircraft reportedly targeted the convoy, killing senior Hezbollah commander Jihad Mugniyeh, the Iranian general, and the rest of the crew, 12 men in all.
The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, arguably the most influential covert operative in the Middle East today, dispatched two officers to Hezbollah’s front line in Lebanon to facilitate a swift revenge. The counter-strike came on January 28, when Hezbollah fired five guided anti-tank missiles at an Israeli army convoy coming down from Mount Dov. The target – soldiers – and the location, along the western flank of a contested ridgeline, were chosen with sophistication. Luck and poor operational performance from Hezbollah left only two Israeli soldiers dead; direct hits on all five vehicles, or a slower response from the soldiers, who fled the civilian vehicles, might have resulted in the deaths of 12 soldiers – nearly the entire officer corps of the Tsabar Battalion of the Givati Brigade.
Soleimani, at roughly the same time, got to his knees before Mughniyeh’s grave — he was close to both Jihad and his father, Imad Mughniyeh, whose 2008 death was detailed over the weekend in a Washington Post exposé — and solemnly read from the Quran. That gesture, amid regional convulsions described Sunday by the IDF chief of staff as “a passage between historic periods,” also highlights how the regional ties that bind are increasingly religious and ethnic rather than nationalist.
Hezbollah, it would seem, is the prototypical agent of Iranian influence, based predominantly on shared faith rather than citizenship. In 1990, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his second year as Iran’s supreme leader, said that the mission of the Quds Force is to “establish popular Hezbollah cells all over the world,” according to a 2013 article in The New Yorker.
Ya’alon, who has long argued that the focus of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is far too narrow, said last week on Army Radio, several days after the strike in Quneitra, that “We need to look at this through a wide framework.”
In his depiction, the Hezbollah-Iran axis, which was temporarily thwarted on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, is part of a larger regional and global initiative, being played out in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Gulf. “Alongside the talks about the number of centrifuges,” the defense minister said, “is an Iranian effort to open terror fronts against Israeli and Western interests in the Middle East.”
In 2013, when Guatemalan President Otto Fernando Perez Molina came to Israel, he said that Iran’s goal “is regional and global hegemony, today through terror and subversiveness” and later, once it is shielded by the bomb, in an even more brazen and accelerated manner.
Bassem Eid, an East Jerusalem-based human rights worker and Mideast analyst, said that while Iranian influence was surely “growing” in the region, his primary concern, agitated by the recent revelations, was the partially renewed ties between Hezbollah and the Palestinian terror organizations. The recent Iranian push to try and link Hamas back up to Hezbollah, despite the titanic struggle between Shiite and Sunni populations – a move predicated on the notion that help even “from the devil” is legitimate in the war against Israel — “puts us, Israelis and Palestinians, in ever more danger,” said Eid.
In recent weeks two Hamas delegations from Lebanon have met with Hezbollah leaders and traveled to Tehran. Mahmoud a-Zahar, a Hamas leader barred by Egypt from leaving Gaza, has called on Tehran to provide Hamas with funds and weapons. Additionally, Eid said, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas held large-scale mock-funerals in support of the Hezbollah men killed in Quneitra. “I’ve never heard of this in the past,” he said.
Still, Professor Shlomo Shpiro, a veteran Hezbollah scholar, asserted that despite the melting of shadows, revealing Iranian involvement in the region, Hezbollah remains first and foremost Lebanese. The organization, he said, maintains “its own interests, its own identity, and its own policies,” and is not merely a forward arm of the Iranian revolution in the Levant.
“Not to compare, but I vividly remember a US president coming to Israel for the funeral of a prime minister [Yitzhak Rabin],” he said. “That doesn’t mean Israel is a US puppet in the region.”