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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Iran makes its move: proposing an analytical framework 


The more I think about it, the more I believe Iran has deliberately touched off the conflict between Hamas, Hezbollah and Israel (see the huge Pajamas Media round-up for background and other analysis).

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is acting as though Iran was behind the Hezbollah attack that triggered Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Iran pledged its "decisive support" to Palestinian groups fighting Israel. "Support" is one thing -- anybody can give or withhold moral support -- but "decisive support" strongly implies a material contribution that can alter the outcome. Otherwise, the support is not "decisive."

Indeed, Iran seems to have cranked up the rhetoric against Israel. Yesterday, Ahmadinejad again predicted or promised -- it is always difficult to tell -- "the fall of the Zionist regime," and today he said that "[t]he Zionists and their protectors are the most detested people in all of humanity...." This is the "billion Muslims can't be wrong" theory of global popularity.

Rather than posting anything new this morning, I found myself swapping comments over at The Belmont Club, which developed my thinking a bit beyond the post I wrote last night. In that post, I wondered whether Hezbollah was acting on Tehran's direction, or had left the reservation. There are good reasons in favor of each position, but increasingly I believe that Iran is calling specific shots. Why? To secure its position as the leading Muslim state, a destiny that it believes is manifest in light of its glorious imperial history and necessary to protect Shiites throughout the Middle East.

Leadership of the Muslim world, the essential ambition of the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979, has come to require leadership in the confrontation with Israel. Since 1948 Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia has set the agenda of the Muslim world in the waging of war, the making of peace, and the support, such as it has been, for Palestinian national aspirations. In order for Iran to achieve its "rightful" status and prestige, it must supplant Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the premier Muslim advocate for Palestinian Arabs.

Arafat and Fatah were first and foremost Arab nationalists, not Islamists, even if they made alliances of convenience with Islamists. The rise of Hamas reveals, among other things, that traditional Arab nationalism is no longer a credible ideology among Palestinian Arabs. The collapse of Arab nationalism as a motive force in Palestinian politics created room for the Islamists. Iran is their leading benefactor, through both Hamas and Hezbollah.

Syria has become Iran's satellite for all intents and purposes. Syria is increasingly isolated from an Arab world that has largely aligned itself with the United States and the explicit or implicit recognition of Israel. That fact, and the proximity of powerful American forces in Iraq, has pushed Syria toward the only regional power that has the wherewithal and the inclination to help.

Whatever the precision of Iran's command and control over Hezbollah (see my previous post for a discussion of that question), it is Iran's principal means for projecting power to the border of Israel. Iran supplies Hezbollah through Damascus. In return, Hezbollah advances Iranian interests in Lebanon and in the war on Israel and supports the Assad regime whenever the latter gets wobbly (remember, for example, the early claims of Hezbollah involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik al-Hariri, which exposed Hezbollah's reputation even if they may not have been true in that specific case). Hezbollah has also been supporting Hamas, an overt ally of the Islamic Republic.

So you have Iran and its clients Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah lining up against the remnants of Fatah, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, secular and Christian Lebanese and the Gulf States. There are a number of prizes, but control of the Palestinians and the all-important opposition to Israel is the big prize for the bloc that wants to be seen as the leading power of the Muslim world. Iran establishes itself as the leading Muslim power if Hamas and Hezbollah control the Palestinian agenda and if Iran is seen to direct Hamas and Hezbollah. That is why Ahmadinejad's Iran has been so much more overt in its support for these terrorist organizations and in calling for the destruction of Israel. Tehran wants for the world to see that it is leading the charge.

Iran and Syria have therefore been building this confrontation with Israel to change the terms of debate in the region in their favor. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others have been muted in their criticism of Israel because they would love to see Hamas and Hezbollah -- and therefore Iran and Syria -- taken down a few pegs. By the way, so would the rest of the world.

The question then is, why has Iran chosen to pick this fight now? The answer, I think, is to draw the attention of the world away from Iran's nuclear program, and to build Iran's leverage in the confrontation over its program.

Comments?

MORE: Regular Belmont Club commenter Aristides propounds some first rate speculation:

Now, let's talk about transferring the captured soldier to Iran. Whether this was planned all along, or whether this move is opportunistic, it shows me two things: 1) As Tigerhawk said, Iran is positioning itself as the Muslim champion against the Zionists and the guarantor of the Palestinian agenda. 2) It also is a glimpse of what could happen if Iran had nukes. Every act of terrorism, every kidnapping, could be ultimately underwritten and protected by the Mullahs and their bomb.

Another thing that we must at least address. Tom Holsinger thinks Iran already has a few nukes (Luttwak dismisses this as preposterous). If that is so, it changes the analysis somewhat.

But let's deal first with what we know:

1. The decision to capture Shalit two weeks ago was given by Mashaal, who gave the order from Damascus. The Palestinian chapter of Hamas was not in charge, and couldn't successfully intervene.

2. Egypt was very close to diffusing the situation. Israel had agreed to multiple prisoner transfers. This would have been a political victory for Hamas. Mashaal and Damascus (and Iran?) wanted something more than a political victory, because they sabotaged the deal.

3. The Hezbollah border raid and kidnapping, a plan that was disseminated five months, was executed coincident with this crisis. More precisely, the plan was executed almost to the day that Mashaal and Damascus sabotaged Egypts deal. Hezbollah takes its orders from Damascus and Teheran.

4. Therefore, not only did they reject a short-term political victory, they deliberately decided to up the stakes.

5. Syria was recently kicked out of Lebanon by the new Lebanese government after Syrian intelligence assets assassinated PM Hariri. We know from their statements that the Lebanese government was not aware of Hezbollah's operation.

6. Five months ago the IAEA decided to refer Iran to the UNSC.

7. The EU-3 has now done the same.

8. The Bush Administration has issued a statement of unqualified support for Israeli actions. The Europeans and Russia are calling for proportionate responses.

Now for some speculation:

1. If, as Tigerhawk argues, Iran's regional aspirations are tied to its opposition to Israel and its support for the Palestinian agenda, then Iran has maneuvered itself conceptually to a place where it can never be seen to back down from any real or perceived Zionist attack. If Israel escalates this thing anymore--and they may already have escalated to a sufficient degree--Iran must respond or it will lose its long-sought prestige. If Iran desires to be the anti-Israel, it must show it here. If Hezbollah get's dismantled without Iran doing anything, that might just be intolerable for the Mullahs' self-perception. Therefore, war may already be determined.

2. If Iran has nukes, then they need war with the Zionists. And this was not, therefore, a miscalculation.

3. If they don't have nukes, why tempt Israel by asking for the captured soldier? Merely for propaganda?

Finally, is this merely a way for Syria to get back at the Lebanese government? They have motive.

The bolded text reveals the danger in this crisis. Iran cannot afford to let Israel decimate Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Israel measures its response to preserve Hezbollah, a wider war can still be avoided. However, if Israel decides that it can no longer allow Hezbollah to attack it from Lebanon, Iran will have to intervene. The question is how? One method might be to increase the pressure on the United States, the external player with the greatest ability to influence Israel. If Iraq's Shiites rise up during the crisis in Lebanon, we will know who is behind them.

24 Comments:

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Jul 13, 01:12:00 PM:

The question then is, why has Iran chosen to pick this fight now?

That is indeed the $64,000 question. I just left a comment at your previous post on this subject, the gist of which is that it seems inconceivable to me that the world will not see below the surface of these events and come to perceive what an absolute necessity it is to deny Tehran's nuclear ambitions. (And who could blame the Israelis at this, or some not too distant, juncture if they took it upon themselves to do just that?)

What am I missing?  

By Blogger Andrew, at Thu Jul 13, 01:56:00 PM:

One way Iran can up the pressure is by threatening to close down the gulf.

Watch to see if Iran starts claiming that Saudi Arabia isn't doing enough to support the Palestinians.

Once the oil weapon is pulled out, that's when it becomes a world war.  

By Blogger Solomon, at Thu Jul 13, 02:02:00 PM:

Why now? The opportunity is there. It's the inexorable logic of the Arab/Muslim world's relentless brand of Jew hating "anti-Zionism." Where else could it lead but to a general fight? It had to happen some time. Eventually the Israelis were going to reach a point where they could no longer turn the other cheek to acts of war and remain a credible government. Now Ahmadinejad gets to look forward to the coming of the Hidden Imam.  

By Blogger Solomon, at Thu Jul 13, 02:03:00 PM:

Why now? The opportunity is there. It's the inexorable logic of the Arab/Muslim world's relentless brand of Jew hating "anti-Zionism." Where else could it lead but to a general fight? It had to happen some time. Eventually the Israelis were going to reach a point where they could no longer turn the other cheek to acts of war and remain a credible government. Now Ahmadinejad gets to look forward to the coming of the Hidden Imam.  

By Blogger A, at Thu Jul 13, 02:05:00 PM:

Didn't one of those conservative war bloggers (maybe Michael Yon?) point out that Iran was inciting Hezbollah back 6 months ago? No time to google for a link, but maybe someone else has the info handy  

By Blogger Joe Buzz, at Thu Jul 13, 02:08:00 PM:

Dont forget that DinnerJacket has promised a big surprise for his climbing out of the well on 8/22. I suppose he would like to be able to have some prior aggression on the part of his enemies to point to.  

By Blogger nowhere girl, at Thu Jul 13, 02:18:00 PM:

I don't think we know enough yet to answer "why now?" For one thing, we don't really know whether Iran was thinking tactically or strategically. That choice produces different answers. (Never mind whether Iran can think effectively at either level.) If it's strategic, they clearly haven't played all their cards yet. Or they think it can work as a diversion from the nuclear question. If it's a tactical decision, well, I can't think of any tactical reason for "now" but a tactical decision would have been based on an assumption that Israel would respond tactically and not strategically.

On a very different line of thinking, if this operation has been planned for five months, that takes it back to the time of Sharon's stroke. This may have been planned with an assumption of a much weaker Israeli government.

While it's true that Iran cannot back down without tremendous cost, the same is true of Israel. And what we may be seeing right now is a game of chicken to see which side can provoke the other into doing something which would justify (to the world) an open declaration of war. This would explain Israel's focus on Lebanon at a time when Israel clearly knows that it must take on Syria and Iran in order to succeed. Israel is not yet ready to delcare a wider war.

Finally, it's worth remembering that wars are often started by miscalculation.  

By Blogger Matt, at Thu Jul 13, 02:22:00 PM:

The only reason I can think Iran is escalating the stakes so much is that the higher the stakes, the higher the international pressure will be on Israel to back down (from the Europeans because that's what they do, and from us (America) because of the Shiite situation in Iraq). If they really are trying to etablish themselves as the anit-Israel, then they need not only to overtly antagonize them, they need to get Israel to back down, and to let a major provocation go unpunished (i.e. to achieve what Egypt never could).

What I think the Iranians miscalculated on was the level of internarional pressure Israel would face. They likely misunderstand how much elite opinion shifted in Europe. Iran has lost a lot with the holocaust-denial stuff, and whatever problems Israel got from the Gaza pullout, it very much reduced the ill-will in Europe. Not that the Euros are in danger of becoming pro-Israel, but compare the response with the past- 3 years ago, killing a Hamas honcho would warrant calls of "restraint" from europe, bombing his house would get condemnation in europe, and the "restraint" business from the State dept, and doign something like invading Lebanon or arresting palestinian parliamentarians would promt France into making security council rumblings. Now, the Euros (not even all of them, just France) didn't use the r-word until they bombed the Beirut airport, and the State Dept. has been silent. This gives Israel a much freer hand to cause serious damage to Hezbollah in a way Iran probably did not foresee.

The big wildcard in this is the Iraqi Shiites. Iran may be in over its head, feeling that having raised the stakes this high (by putting Hezbollah's continuing effectiveness at risk), that backing down now just makes Ahmadinejad another Nasser or Sadat, and it's fair to say his ambitions are higher than that. Unless the Iranians have some unknown ace up their sleeves, their best chance at defeating Isreal through international pressure is to imperil Iraq through a Shiite uprising (thus prompting us to make Israel back down).  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Thu Jul 13, 02:23:00 PM:

Why now is an interesting question with, of course, many plausible replies. But ultimately, it doesn't matter much. It's done and the rest is conjecture. I could just as easily ask why did the Norks launch weapons this week, and is it also related to what's going on. The point is a reply involves pure speculation with little insight into the workings of Iranian domestic politics, for instance, or Hez politics, or Hamas.

I would rather speculate and "what now?" rather than "why now?". Who is trapping whom?

Is this Sharon's flytrap at work? The moment when Israel will have free reign to really war with the Palestinians, defeat them brutally and clear territory?

Is this the causus belli viz. Syria?

Is this the causus belli viz. Iran.

I agree with TH's main observation. Iran is positioning itself as the guarantor of global Islam and the Palestinians -- as a Shiite no less. This is a big, big deal. It is stepping into a vacuum, and it is doing so confidently.

It is making a wager that the provocation is sufficiently small that the US will choose not exercise its might, and the Israelis are too weak to respond seriously. That is their bet. They don't think Israel will escalate sufficiently to threaten Iran, and they don'
t think Israel alone can fight Hamas, Hez, Syria and Iran. If Israel chooses to fight Syria, Iran joins the war against Israel and Iran believes the US will not join Israel in the war. They believe that i) either the Iran axis can claim a victory in the war against Zionism because Israel is too weak to take on even Syria with Iran as its guarantor or ii) that they can drive a wedge between the US and Israel and overwhelm Israel.

It is clever. But wrong. They have little idea what Israel can do if it feels so compelled.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Jul 13, 02:28:00 PM:

In a post I linked to previously, Bill Roggio writes, "The sophistication of this attack indicates Imad Fayez Mugniyah, Hezbollah's chief of military operations was directly involved." [This post is well worth reading to get some flavor of what the civilized world is dealing with here.]

Further he suggests an operational link between Mugniyah, Ahmadinejad and Assad, stating all three are believed to have met in Syria in January of 2006.

What could they have possibly been discussing?  

By Anonymous nukemhill, at Thu Jul 13, 02:28:00 PM:

I'm going to do some thinking out loud here, much as you did on Belmont Club.

What are some possible outcomes?
1) Israel cleans house. Iran does nothing worth noting, and Hezbollah gets shut down, for all intents and purposes. Iran loses a major proxy in its anti-Zionist crusade.
2) Israel ratchets it back, before entirely destroying Hezbollah. Iran saves face because they can claim that Hezbollah was able to fend for themselves, due to Iran's ongoing training and support.
3) Israel keeps pressing, Iran (and Syria, lapdogs that they are) funnels troops and arms to Hezbollah. Israel either gets a) bogged down in a protracted battle, because they're not willing to go head-to-head with Iran, or b) they take the gloves off and start throwing haymakers at Damascus and Tehran. Short of nukes, but definitely high-powered conventional weapons.

Any other scenarios? Israel suddenly calls it all off? Negotiates the release of the captives and turns over 100s, if not 1000s, of prisoners? I don't see that happening, unless Bush suddenly does an about-face.

What are the underlying assumptions here? Is Iran playing for the short-term or long-term? If it's short-term (which wouldn't be the first time), then this is a moment-of-opportunity for them. They suddenly have a chance to dance with Israel, and they've let their hatreds get the better of them. But there appears to be much planning in all of this, as you and many others have pointed out. This leads to....

This was well-planned out. Iran's playing the next round in their game. The question comes back to: why? What do they think they have to gain by pushing Israel past the breaking point?

My guess: either they already have nukes, or they're really, really close. As in weeks to a couple of months, rather than years. This is their attempt to rally world opinion against Israel (note France and Russia), and push for Causus Belli. If Iran can hold the dogs off long enough, then they hit back with at least one, if not more, nukes, at their opportunity of choice.

I think they've made a mistake. I think Israel and the US will be hitting them very hard, very soon. I don't know how bad it will be, but this could get seriously ugly in very short order.

Thoughts?  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Jul 13, 02:38:00 PM:

Whatever world bodies might wish to try to control nuclear proliferation have one last chance. They need to get on it and deal effectively with both N. Korea and Iran and any other wannabee players. Otherwise, by default, individual countries will deal with their security issues individually. Japan is already talking about first strike potential. Israel is not too far away from having to actually consider the same thing. The NorKs and Iranian mullahs are playing a fools' game. They think the rest of the world are the fools. Poor deluded them.  

By Blogger Dave Schuler, at Thu Jul 13, 03:15:00 PM:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I think it's more likely that Hamas and Hezbollah are forcing the situation rather than the Iranians. However, while we're speculating what's the likelihood of Israel's response being the beginning of a spoiling action against Iran?

Even if the acts of the last few days are just politically necessary responses to provocations by Hamas and, now, Hezbollah, it doesn't preclude all parties from exploiting them to their own ends.

BTW, Tigerhawk, this is said with love but this sentence:

Leadership of the Muslim world, the essential ambition of the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979, has come to require leadership in the confrontation with Israel.

should be taken out and shot.  

By Anonymous Stingray, at Thu Jul 13, 03:46:00 PM:

I think it's more likely that Hamas and Hezbollah are forcing the situation rather than the Iranians.

The problem with that statement is that Hezbollah was established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who came to Lebanon in 1982.

Syria supports Hezbollah but has also hedged its bets by supporting different factions of the group, not just the main faction.

Hezbollah would not have acted without the permission of Iran.

-Michael McCullough
Stingray: a blog for salty Christians  

By Blogger Dave Schuler, at Thu Jul 13, 05:24:00 PM:

You're assuming a tighter chain of command than I think is in evidence.  

By Blogger Dusty, at Thu Jul 13, 05:42:00 PM:

Whatever more cogent and thorough analysis might crop up to explain these acts, I can predict one 'moral' victory for the Palestinians -- the flow of dhimmi funding will resume. Any bets on the name of the western appeaser who first broaches the subject and what apopletic adjectives will be used?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jul 13, 08:46:00 PM:

I am not sure why almost everyone, and not just on this blog, assumes it is the IRI that picked this fight -- or that it has set the terms. HA last picked a fight on the border one month ago and the Israeli response was "measured." It seems to me just as likely that Israel means to show that Hizbullah arms are not at all a deterrence should it, or the US, go after the IRI nuke program. At least if I were the IRI foreign minister I would be thinking that perhaps we don't have as many cards as we think, and maybe the future of our prized program is not guaranteed.

Lee  

By Blogger LB, at Fri Jul 14, 12:43:00 AM:

What happens if someone decides to start taking Americans in Beirut hostage again?

I can see some people thinking that would make for good leverage against both the U.S. and Israel. At some point it will invite overt U.S. force insertion. If these recent events are being done to provoke war, that wouldn't be contrary to Iran's goals. Even if not to provoke war, it would but enormous stress on the Administration.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Fri Jul 14, 05:37:00 AM:

Why now? We're trying in vain to ascribe rational motives to actors driven by religious fervor. Ultimately, that passion has its own logic and imperatives-which is why a nuclear Iran is frightening and unacceptable.  

By Blogger Meme chose, at Fri Jul 14, 06:12:00 AM:

The situation does not seem that complicated.

The Iranian strategy is designed very simply to put pressure on the Europeans, to get them to turn their attention towards Israel's actions and away from Iran's nuclear program, and get them to wring their hands, freak out worrying about all the Muslims they have back home, and wimp out just like they did all the other times.

The only surprising thing in the whole picture is that so far it hasn't worked.  

By Anonymous yankeewombat, at Fri Jul 14, 08:49:00 AM:

I have speculated along similar lines on my own blog www.yankeewombat.com with the major difference that I wonder if Iran may be trying to 'kick the chessboard over' in the Middle East because things are not going thier way in Iraq.

It may be that Iran feels that it wants to destabilize the entire Middle East to break up the progress of the Iraqi government and the US toward gaining control. While we are most concerned with Iran getting the bomb, Iran may be worried that a successful Iraqi regime allied to the US is the greatest long term threat to thier drive for regional dominance based on their possession of WMD.

The Shiite led government in Iraq is following Sistani's ideas which do NOT support Mullocracy or alliance with Iran's Mullahs. That's Sadr's position. Remember that Iraqi Shia are Arab, the Inranins Persian. I offer this knowing that it is just another speculation that might be relevant. I agree with the idea that Iran is working hard to become the leading champion of the Palestinians.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 14, 09:22:00 PM:

I am convinced that Iran has the bomb. Why would they try to pick a fight with Israel they know they can't win.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Nov 30, 04:05:00 PM:

Excellent, love it!
» »  

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