BEIRUT – In light of mutual threats between Iran and the United States, heated debates have broken out over the fate of the region during the transitional period in Washington, during which the Trump administration will leave President-elect Biden with many challenges.
Amid uncertainty, experts are increasingly concerned over the possibility of Iran moving its arms in the region, including the Lebanese Hezbollah group, in order to attack Israel.
Eyes are specifically turning towards southern Lebanon, with fears of Lebanese retaliation against the Israeli north or vice versa.
These fears come particularly after the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Air Force Ali Haji Zadeh said in statements to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar channel, last Saturday, that “all the missile capabilities that Gaza and Lebanon possess were provided by Iran,” noting that both Gaza and Lebanon “are the two main frontlines for confrontation.”
Though quite serious, Zadeh’s statements were deemed pointless and divorced from reality.
In an implicit response to Zadeh and in apparent warning to Hezbollah, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Sunday that “Lebanon’s independence, its sovereignty, and the decisions it takes are the responsibility of the Lebanese alone,” which means that Iran will bear full responsibility for any provocative act.
— Media war —
Each time Iran finds a taker for its conventional weapons, it creates a voice for itself in the region. The taker this time is Hezbollah. This creates a threat to Tel Aviv amid expectations of a military escalation between Iran and Israel, with Syria being the field for such a confrontation and Lebanon functioning as the operation room
However, some experts take lightly the seriousness of the Iranian threats. Wahbi Qatisha, a retired brigadier general with the Lebanese Army and a representative of the Forces Bloc, denied that the threats of the commander of the air forces in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were military or serious.
“Iran is using Hezbollah to make threats, but it is just an information and rhetoric war,” he said.
Hezbollah seems aware that the international community’s concern about the disruption of the political process in Lebanon is more serious than its desire to contain Iranian influence there. In this context, the Iran-backed group can work to benefit from international support for Beirut, especially from France, in order to prepare for its next step.
Political observers consider that Iranian threats to Israel are nothing more than media venting. They argue there is no indication that Hezbollah wants to carry out any attacks against Israel on the anniversary of the killing of Iran’s revered commander Qasem Soleimani.
All the threats issued by the Israeli side are pre-emptive warnings, they said.
Qatisha noted Hezbollah remains aware that the response to any military action will be devastating for the Shia group and Lebanon.
“The Israeli response will be cruel and unpredictable, and any wrong move will cost Hezbollah a heavy price,” he said.
The retired brigadier general predicted that the US policy will remain unchanged towards Iran and its proxies, whether with Trump in the White House or Biden.
Lebanese officials, including Muhammad al-Hajjar, a deputy with the Future Movement bloc, led by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, denounced the recent Iranian statements. He said Tehran apparently wants to use its regional proxies to improve its position and expand its influence.
Certainly, the decision for war and peace in Lebanon should not be in the hands of Hezbollah or Iran, but rather in the hands of the state, and this gives new momentum to the officials’ call for the Shia group to abandon its weapons.
Hezbollah is in possession of advanced weapons, including missiles, and this has led to divisions in Lebanon, with some parties supporting the group’s right to keep its arsenal under the pretext of “confronting Israel” that occupies Lebanese lands. Others, however, consider these weapons illegal and argue that the decision to declare war or peace should be left only with the state.
Although the assassination of the scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a devastating blow to Iran’s nuclear project, Tehran only pursued a policy of idleness coupled with media provocation, avoiding any action that could provoke the United States, an ally of Israel.
— A strategic advantage —
During the 1990s, the Israelis became accustomed, during the war in southern Lebanon, to an Iranian policy based on achieving media victories to shift the balance on the ground. This policy enabled the Lebanese Hezbollah group, during the July 2006 war with Israel, to achieve a morale “victory,” that is still exploited until today to threaten Israel.
Iran achieved a similar media victory in February 2018, when the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 jet received more media attention than the brief confrontation between the two sides.
Despite all the hype about the targeting of the Israeli jet, the brief confrontation also saw the downing of an Iranian drone, the destruction of Syrian military bases, control towers, military centres, and an Iranian base under construction near Palmyra, in central Syria.
Israel is trying to preserve a strategic advantage that has allowed it, since 2012, to move freely in the skies of Syria, pick targets and strike them, without provoking any response from Iran, the Syrian Army, or the Russian forces stationed in Syria.
However, the advantage that Israel has enjoyed over the past years seems to be at stake.
There is already a large Israeli mobilisation on the northern front extending between Lebanon and Syria, amid concerns that Tehran might launch attacks. An intense presence of the Israeli air force was recorded in Lebanon’s airspace, while a show of strength appeared to deliver a warning message, especially to the Lebanese Hezbollah group, Tehran’s strong arm in the region, about the consequences of any military misadventure.
Over the past weeks, local and Western reports revealed that Israeli warplanes have flown intensively over various regions in Lebanon, especially over the skies of Nabatiyeh, reaching the Iqlim al-Tuffah, where they carried out mock raids at low altitude.
These flights were also recorded over the Litani River, Qalaat al-Shaqif, Hammar, Arnoun, Kafr Nabet, Ad-Duwair, Sharqiya, and Qaaqaait Al Jisr.
Intense overflights of Israeli aircraft were also recorded over Beirut and its suburbs last November, as well as in the airspace of Sidon, its east, and Jezzine, and this was repeated in the areas of Hasbaya and Arqoub, up to the heights of Mount Hermon and the occupied Syrian Golan.
A researcher in security and political affairs, Brigadier-General Khaled Hamadeh, does not consider the Iranian threats to be serious or realistic.
“Iran is going through a difficult situation, and is currently unable to enter into an armed confrontation with the United States,” he said.
“The result of a confrontation is not guaranteed. Israel, too, seems unwilling to launch a limited military campaign in the Lebanese interior,” Hamadeh added.
He noted that Israel has been destroying the Iranian infrastructure in Syria, and “this happens every week.”
With these factors in mind, Hamadeh does not believe that a military operation will be launched from Lebanese territory against Israel, especially since there is no objective that Tehran could achieve from such an attack.
Members of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement, take part in a parade under a large poster of slain Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (L) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani