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Analysis by Gareth Porter*
WASHINGTON, Aug 8 2006 (IPS) - Israel has argued that the war against Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal was a defensive response to the Shiite organisation’s threat to Israeli security, but the evidence points to a much more ambitious objective – the weakening of Iran’s deterrent to an attack on its nuclear sites.
In planning for the destruction of most of Hezbollah’s arsenal and prevention of any resupply from Iran, Israel appears to have hoped to eliminate a major reason the George W. Bush administration had shelved the military option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme – the fear that Israel would suffer massive casualties from Hezbollah’s rockets in retaliation for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
One leading expert on Israeli national defence policy issues believes the aim of the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah was to change the Bush administration’s mind about attacking Iran. Edward Luttwak, senior adviser to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says Bush administration officials have privately dismissed the option of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the past, citing estimates that a Hezbollah rocket attack in retaliation would kill thousands of people in northern Israel.
But Israeli officials saw a war in Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah’s arsenal and prevent further resupply in the future as a way to eliminate that objection to the military option, says Luttwak.
The risk to Israel of launching such an offensive was that it would unleash the very rain of Hezbollah rockets on Israel that it sought to avert. But Luttwak believes the Israelis calculated that they could degrade Hezbollah’s rocket forces without too many casualties by striking preemptively.
“They knew that a carefully prepared and coordinated rocket attack by Hezbollah would be much more catastrophic than one carried out under attack by Israel,” he says.
Steinberg said Israel wanted to “get an assessment” of whether the United States would “present a military attack against the Iranian nuclear sites as the only option.” If not, he suggested that Israel was still considering its own options.
Specialists on Iran and Hezbollah have long believed that the missiles Iran has supplied to Hezbollah were explicitly intended to deter an Israeli attack on Iran. Ephraim Kam, a specialist on Iran at Israel’s Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies, wrote in December 2004 that Hezbollah’s threat against northern Israel was a key element of Iran’s deterrent to a U.S. attack.
Ali Ansari, an associate professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and author of a new book on the U.S. confrontation with Iran, was quoted in the Toronto Star Jul. 30 as saying, “Hezbollah was always Iran’s deterrent force against Israel.”
Iran has also threatened direct retaliation against Israel with the Shahab-3 missile from Iranian territory. However, Iran may be concerned about the possibility that Israel’s Arrow system could intercept most of them, as the Jaffe Centre’s Kam observed in 2004. That elevates the importance to Iran of Hezbollah’s ability to threaten retaliation.
Hezbollah received some Soviet-era Katyusha rockets, with a range of only five miles, and a hundreds of longer-range missiles after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. But Israel’s daily Haaretz, citing a report by Israeli military intelligence at the time, has reported that the number of missiles and rockets in Hezbollah hands grew to more 12,000 in 2004.
That was when Iranian officials felt that the Bush administration might seriously consider an attack on their nuclear sites, because it knew Iran was poised to begin enrichment of uranium. It was also when Iranian officials began to imply that Hezbollah could retaliate against any attack on Iran, although they have never stated that explicitly.
The first hint of Iranian concern about the possible strategic implications of the Israeli campaign to degrade the Hezbollah missile force in southern Lebanon came in a report by Michael Slackman in the New York Times Jul. 25. Slackman quoted an Iranian official with “close ties to the highest levels of government” as saying, “They want to cut off one of Iran’s arms.”
The same story quoted Mohsen Rezai, the former head of Iran’s Revolutionary guards, as saying, “Israel and the U.S. knew that as long as Hamas and Hezbollah were there, confronting Iran would be costly” – an obvious reference to the deterrent value of the missiles in Lebanon. “So, to deal with Iran, they first want to eliminate forces close to Iran that are in Lebanon and Palestine.”
Israel has been planning its campaign against Hezbollah’s missile arsenal for many months. As Matthew Kalman reported from Tel Aviv in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jul. 21, “More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s main purpose in meeting with Bush on May 23 was clearly to push the United States to agree to use force, if necessary, to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. Two days before the meeting, Olmert told CNN that Iran’s “technological threshold” is “very close”. In response to a question about U.S. and European diplomacy on the issue, Olmert replied: “I prefer to take the necessary measures to stop it, rather than find out later that my indifference was so dangerous.”
At his meeting with Bush, according to Yitzhak Benhorin of Israel’s ynetnews, Olmert pressed Bush on Israel’s intelligence assessment that Iran would gain the technology necessary to build a bomb within a year and expressed fears that diplomatic efforts were not going to work.
It seems likely that Olmert discussed Israel’s plans for degrading Hezbollah’s missile capabilities as a means of dramatically reducing the risk of an air campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites, and that Bush gave his approval. That would account for Olmert’s comment to Israeli reporters after the meeting, reported by the Israel’s ynetnews, but not by U.S. news media: “I am very, very, very satisfied.”
Bush’s refusal to do anything to curb Israel’s freedom to wreak havoc on Lebanon further suggests that he encouraged the Israelis to take advantage of any pretext to launch the offensive. The Israeli plan may have given Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld new ammunition for advocating a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Rumsfeld was the voice of administration policy toward Iran from 2002 to 2004, and he often appeared to be laying the political groundwork for an eventual military attack on Iran. But he has been silenced on the subject of Iran since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took over Iran policy in January 2005.
*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in June 2005.
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