|War on Iran?
by Gareth Porter
ISRAEL HAS ARGUED that the war against Hezbollah's
rocket arsenal was a defensive response to the Shi'ite
organization'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
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
program – 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 defense 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 Center
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.
Gerald M. Steinberg, an Israeli specialist on security
affairs at Bar Ilon University who reflects Israeli
government thinking, did not allude to the link
between destruction of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal and
a possible attack on Iran in an interview with Bernard
Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations in New
York last week. But he did say there is "some
expectation" in Israel that after the U.S.
congressional elections, Bush "will decide that he has
to do what he has to do."
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 Center 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.
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 July 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 Center'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 Ha'aretz,
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
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 July 25. Slackman quoted an Iranian
official with "close ties to the highest levels of
government" as saying, "They want to cut off one of
The same story quoted Mohsen Rezai, the former head of
Iran's Revolutionary Guard, 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
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 July 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
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's main purpose in
meeting with Bush on May 25 was clearly to push the
United States to agree to use force, if necessary, to
stop Iran's uranium enrichment program. Four 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 Defense
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
(Inter Press Service)