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The Race for Iran


There has been much talk in recent weeks about the possibility of another war between Israel and Hizballah and/or HAMAS (the Middle East’s two most prominent resistance movements, both supported by Iran) in coming months.  Perhaps most notably, President Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, told a Washington think tank audience last month that

“when regimes are feeling pressure, as Iran is internally and will externally in the near future, it often lashes out through surrogates, including, in Iran’s case, Hizballah in Lebanon and HAMAS in Gaza.  As pressure on the regime in Tehran builds over its nuclear program, there is a heightened risk of further attacks against Israel”. 

Just today, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Damascus for discussions with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  It is widely anticipated that, while he is in Damascus, Ahmadinejad will meet with both Hizballah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and the head of HAMAS’s Political Bureau, Khalid Mishal.      

But, contra General Jones, after spending much of last week in Lebanon and Syria, we are struck by how disinclined both Hizballah and HAMAS are to provoke another round of military conflict with Israel.  The day before we arrived in Beirut last week, Nasrallah gave a speech on the second anniversary of Imad Mughniyah’s assassination that also commemorated Hizballah fighters who fell in the fight against Israeli occupation (including one of Nasrallah’s own sons).  In the course of the speech, Nasrallah addressed Israel directly, declaring that

“if you destroy buildings in Dahiyeh [a large Shi’a neighborhood south of Beirut], we will demolish buildings in Tel Aviv…If you strike martyr Rafiq Hariri’s international airport in Beirut, we will strike your Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.  If you hit our ports, we will hit your ports.  If you attack our refineries or factories, we will bomb your refineries and factories”. 

Western media reports characterized Nasrallah’s speech as “throwing down the gauntlet” to Israel, while pro-Saudi commentators in the regional media denounced Nasrallah’s speech—and Ahmadinejad’s endorsement of it—as inviting war.  Writing in Al Hayat and Al Arabiyya, one of these commentators argued that  

“previous experience has shown that Iran’s talk of war has been serious when the matter concerns the regime’s interests.  The summer 2006 Lebanon war erupted after economic sanctions were imposed on Tehran, and there is nothing preventing such a scenario from being repeated, a scenario which produced a ‘victory’ Iran and its allies still boast of”.      

But this reading of Nasrallah’s speech is diametrically opposed to the prevailing local interpretation of the Hizballah leader’s rhetoric.  In his address, Nasrallah stressed that, while Hizballah would respond to any Israeli aggression, it does not seek war.  Nasrallah noted that “since July 2006, nothing has happened on the South Lebanon front”.  A prominent Hizballah parliamentarian described Nasrallah’s speech as “historic and crucial”, underscoring that, while Hizballah was not fearful of another war, it was not seeking one.  Another Lebanese politician with close ties to Nasrallah told us that, the day after the speech, people throughout south Lebanon “breathed a sigh of relief” because, in their perception, the Hizballah leader’s speech had substantially reduced the risk of conflict with Israel over the next several months. 

The message that local resistance forces are not out to provoke another round of confrontation with Israel also came through clearly during a meeting with Khalid Mishal in Damascus.  Mishal was very explicit in stating that, while HAMAS is prepared to deal with another Israeli military incursion into Gaza, it “does not want another war”—among other reasons, to spare Palestinians in Gaza the suffering that would come with another conflict, especially so soon after the 2008-09 Gaza war.  Mishal said he had given instructions to HAMAS in Gaza not to fire rockets or do anything else that would give Israel a pretext for military action. 

It was notable that, in our meeting with him, Mishal did not say a word about the murder of a prominent HAMAS figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai last month.  In the immediate aftermath of Mabhouh’s death, HAMAS publicly pressed Emirati authorities to launch a homicide investigation.  That investigation has yielded substantial evidence that Mabhouh was assassinated by Israel’s Mossad, creating tensions between Israel and several European countries—including the United Kingdom— as well as Australia over the Mossad’s apparent use of forged passports for their agents.  In times past, the assassination of a prominent HAMAS figure would have been taken as a casus belli prompting retaliatory action.  One can easily speculate that Mabhouh’s assassination resonates deeply with Mishal, who himself survived an assassination attempt by the Mossad in 1997 in Jordan—an episode that boosted his standing within HAMAS as “the martyr who did not die”.  But, today, Mishal and his colleagues seem intent on using Mabhouh’s assassination to focus international attention on Israel’s provocative stance, while holding off pressures from within HAMAS to retaliate.     

In this context, steps by various regional players that Israel and its friends in Washington are seeking to portray as provocative—Nasrallah’s speech, a recent statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim that Israeli military action against Syria “would move to [Israeli] cities”, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus—are better understood as efforts by regional resistance forces to bolster their own deterrent posture by reminding Israel of the potential consequences of another large-scale attack on Lebanon and/or Gaza.  (In this regard, Mishal suggested to us that one consequence of the Goldstone Report about violations of international humanitarian law during the 2008-09 Gaza war might be that Israel is now more likely to attack Lebanon than Gaza—where Israeli military action would probably generate higher numbers of civilian casualties.)  In his speech last week, Nasrallah noted with apparent satisfaction that,

“when Israel threatened Syria with war, the foreign minister, who is the top diplomat, responded.  This was intentional and not just a coincidence.  I am sure that Israel and Arab regimes were stunned when they heard the Syrian response because it was clear and transparent.  Two hours after the response, everyone in Israel was denying threatening Syria.  This is an example.  You remember [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak speaking about a swift and decisive victory…But what we are hearing today is that any Israeli war should have “modest objectives”.   

If Hizballah and HAMAS are not seeking an armed confrontation with Israel in coming months, does Israel want another war in Lebanon and/or Gaza?  Certainly, the Israeli posture toward both Lebanon and Gaza has grown increasingly provocative.  Violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli military aircraft are not new, but have increased dramatically in recent weeks.  For the past several weeks, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has been warning of escalating Israeli threats against Lebanon.  On a state visit to Italy earlier this week, Hariri said explicitly that Israel is seeking war with “Lebanon, Syria, and Iran”.  Likewise, earlier this month, Syrian President Assad said that Israel is “pushing the region toward war”.  Israel also appears to be stepping up the pace of its military incursions in Gaza and engaging in more skirmishes with HAMAS fighters there.  Mabhouh’s assassination in Dubai indicates that Israel has not abandoned its policy of targeted killings, and is now prepared to violate longstanding agreements with European countries not to forge these countries’ passports in order to facilitate Mossad operations. 

Why is Israel doing these things?  Three possible explanations suggest themselves. 

First, it is possible—though, in our view, not likely—that Israel is deliberately laying the predicate for major military action against Hizballah and/or HAMAS later this year.  Israeli intelligence estimates that Hizballah has more than replenished its military stockpiles since the 2006 war, and has acquired longer-range and more capable rockets that significantly increase the damage it could do to Israel in a conflict.  In the wake of last year’s elections in Lebanon, Hizballah showed that it remains indispensable to the country’s political stability, and Hariri’s government has formally endorsed Hizballah’s weapons as an integral part of Lebanon’s national security posture.  Israel also believes that HAMAS is rebuilding its military capabilities in Gaza.  Politically, Egyptian efforts to force HAMAS to accept a blatantly pro-Fatah “unity” agreement have blown up, damaging the credibility and standing of both Egypt and Fatah in the eyes of many Arab observers.  Under these circumstances, it is not wholly implausible that the Israeli security establishment (the IDF, the intelligence services, and the Foreign Ministry) and the Netanyahu Government calculate that Israel needs to strike before the region’s two most prominent resistance groups—as well as their chief regional backers, Syria and Iran—grow even stronger.        

But all-out war in the Levant during the next several months is a high-risk and potentially high-cost option for Israel.  Consequently, Israel may have adopted a more aggressive posture toward Lebanon and Gaza with the aim of bolstering what Israeli military commanders like to describe as their country’s deterrent edge.  Current and former senior Israeli military officers tell us that, in the view of the Israeli security establishment, Israel’s military initiatives in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09—along with its 2007 air attack on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria—actually “worked”.  As Nasrallah himself acknowledges, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been quiet since 2006.  Furthermore, since the 2008-09 Gaza war, HAMAS has been substantially observing a ceasefire with Israel.  Against this backdrop, the Israeli security establishment—now with the backing of the decidedly right-leaning Netanyahu government—may well calculate that a more aggressive day-to-day posture toward Hizballah, HAMAS, and Syria could extend the deterrent benefits of the Israeli military’s most recent engagements. 

Finally, Israel’s more aggressive posture toward Lebanon and Gaza may be part of a broader strategy for dealing with the Obama Administration regarding Iran.  This strategy grows out of two assessments that seem to be becoming consensus positions among political and policymaking elites in Israel. 

–First, conversations with a range of Israeli interlocutors indicate that there is profound skepticism within the Israeli establishment that President Obama will deal effectively with Iran.  Israeli elites do not expect that there will be successful diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program; likewise, they do not expect international sanctions to effect significant change in Iran’s nuclear activities. 

–Second, at the same time, Israeli politicians and national security experts judge that it is increasingly likely Obama will be a one-term President. 

Given these assessments, Israeli political and policymaking elites anticipate that the next two years in U.S.-Israeli relations will be—as an Israeli colloquialism puts it—“garbage time”, particularly with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue.  For the Israeli security establishment and the Netanyahu Government, the strategic priority for the “garbage time” will be to prepare the ground so that the United States will be more favorably disposed to the imperative of eventual military action to contain the Iranian nuclear threat.  (This could mean preparing the ground so that President Obama’s successor will be inclined to support military action against Iran.  It could also mean preparing the ground so that, if Israel decides it must strike before President Obama’s term is over, public opinion and the political establishment in the United States are so strongly supportive of military action against the Islamic Republic that Obama cannot effectively oppose an Israeli unilateral initiative.) 

The Israeli agenda to prepare the ground so that the United States will be more favorably disposed to the imperative of military action has several interlocking elements. 

–The Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States will continue pressing for a “maximalist” U.S. agenda in whatever nuclear talks with Iran that might take place—including a complete suspension of Iran’s fuel cycle activities.  This position clearly reflects the strategic preferences of the Israeli government; if pursued by the United States, it also would undercut any prospects for a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.  

–The Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States will continue to push for tougher sanctions against Iran.  While Israeli political and policymaking elites are deeply skeptical that sanctions could actually leverage Iranian decision-making about the nuclear issue, they nonetheless believe that it is necessary to go through the process of debating and imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic in order to focus U.S. and Western opinion on the futility of sanctions and the imperative for military action against Iranian nuclear threats.     

–Alongside these steps, the Israeli security establishment and the Netanyahu government will work through multiple channels to condition American policymakers and public opinion to be more receptive to the possibility of military action against the Islamic Republic. 

–And, of course, the Netanyahu Government will continue to be unforthcoming on the Palestinian issue.  The position clearly reflects the government’s strategic and political preferences; it also is calculated to compound Obama’s image in the United States as a foreign policy “failure” in addition to his domestic policy break downs.   

–In this context, keeping tensions relatively high between Israel, on one side, and Hizballah, HAMAS, Syria, and Iran could also fit into the Netanyahu Government’s emerging “garbage time” strategy. 

We are inclined to believe that Israel’s current actions reflect both the IDF’s interest in boosting Israeli deterrence and the Netanyahu Government’s interest in pursuing its “garbage time” strategy.  But, even if the Netanyahu Government is not deliberately seeking to spark a military confrontation in the next few months, Israel’s more aggressive posture increases the risk of such a confrontation.  This is a situation that cries out for “adult supervision” of Arab-Israeli security affairs.  Is the Obama Administration up to the task?       

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



We just returned from a trip to the Middle East, which included stops in Lebanon, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.  We will be writing about our meetings, discussions, and observations on this trip in future posts.  First, though, we want to express our gratitude to the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran for inviting us to come and meet with their students and faculty. 

We particularly want to say how impressed we were with the graduate students in American studies with whom we had the opportunity to spend some time.  University admissions in Iran are done on the basis of competitive national examinations.  Those Iranian students who end up at the University of Tehran are among the brightest young people in the country.  But, beyond their obvious intelligence and talent, the graduate students in American studies impressed us with their seriousness and determination to explore their subject as deeply as possible. 

One of our favorite moments came when two female graduate students (most of the graduate students we met are women) asked us for advice.  The two were preparing for an exercise in one of their classes, in which students would—in English—hold a mock U.S. congressional debate about health care reform legislation.  These two students were tasked to represent the Republican side of the debate.  They had already done extensive research; they were, for example, aware of editorial differences among CNN, MSNBC, and Fox in these networks’ coverage of the health care debate in the United States.  But, while these two students had the opportunity to talk with a couple of American political analysts, they wanted to deepen their understanding of the nuances of conservative argument about health care reform in the United States.  So, we did our best to channel our inner David Frum and tell them what we could about conservative perspectives on health care issues.  We hope those students got something useful out of the conversation.  (They were nice enough to say that they did.)  We also wish that more Americans could encounter young Iranians like those we met. 

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Lee Smith has published another personal attack on us in The Tablet.  To rebut, point by point, Mr. Smith’s allegations by innuendo would not be appropriate here, and would distract us from addressing the many important Iran-related issues currently on the public agenda.  However, because Jeffrey Goldberg has again used the platform that the prestigious The Atlantic has given him to give wider circulation to Mr. Smith’s attacks against us, we feel compelled to respond to the title of the post in which Mr. Goldberg links to Mr. Smith’s piece.  That title is, “Are the Leveretts trying to do business with Iran?”  It is categorically untrue that we are “trying to do business with Iran”.  For us, as Americans, to “do business with Iran” would be a violation of U.S. law.  We have not broken the law, and we will not do so.  For Mr. Goldberg to insinuate that we might be breaking the law, simply because he disagrees with our analysis, is untrue, vicious, and the essence of McCarthyism.   

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Debunking Gasoline Sanction Myths

The Wonk Room‘s Matt Duss takes down Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz’ op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which the two writers argue that the United States should lead an international campaign to impose gasoline sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Duss’ post can be read here.

— Ben Katcher


Arms Sales and the Regional Balance of Power

(Armymil’s photostream)

In a previous post on this blog, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett described what they identify as the increasingly polarized strategic environment in the Middle East. They explained that

On one side of this divide are those states willing to work in various forms of strategic partnership with the United States, with an implied acceptance of American hegemony over the region. This camp includes Israel, those Arab states that have made peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan), and other so-called moderate Arab states (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council).

On the other side of this divide are those Middle Eastern states and non-state actors that are unwilling to legitimize American (and, some in this camp would say, Israeli) hegemony over the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran has emerged in recent years as the de facto leader of this camp, which also includes Syria and prominent non-state actors such as HAMAS and Hizballah. Notwithstanding its close security ties to the United States, Qatar has also aligned itself with the “resistance” camp on some issues in recent years. And, notwithstanding Turkey’s longstanding membership in NATO and ongoing European “vocation”, the rise of the Justice Development Party and declining military involvement in Turkish politics have prompted an intensification of Ankara’s diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, in ways that give additional strategic options to various actors in the “resistance” camp.

While the “pro-American” camp retains considerable resources and influence, the “resistance” camp has made impressive strategic gains since the turn of the millennium—in no small part, because of the George W. Bush Administration’s strategically counterproductive approach to the region. Against this backdrop, the “pro-American” camp clearly hoped that President Obama would re-legitimate America’s leadership role in the Middle East and deal effectively with the region’s most pressing strategic challenges—with the Palestinian issue and Iran at the top of that list. But, as we have met with senior diplomats and officials from the “pro-American” camp in recent weeks, we have been struck by the accelerating pace at which our interlocutors’ concern about the direction of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policies is mounting. They are becoming increasingly dubious that President Obama will “deliver” in the Middle East—on Palestine, on Iran, in Afghanistan, and on other important regional issues.

The importance of this analysis has been laid bare by Secretary Clinton’s recent trip to the Middle East and the United States’ growing arms sales to its allies in the region.

In this context, I thought I’d share this “Strategic Comment” published by The Institute for International and Strategic Studies back in November.

The report documents the large arms purchases by the Gulf countries and notes that in 2008, UAE and Saudi Arabia spent more than any other developing countries on arms-transfer agreements, committing $9.7 billion and $8.7bn respectively. The report goes on to explain key trends in Middle Eastern arms purchases including the deployment of missile defense systems.

Here is what the report concludes:

The bases and weapons purchases illustrate the dichotomy of Gulf thinking regarding Iran. Some Gulf states fear that Iran, with its size and wealth, aspires to the status of regional superpower. Were Iran to have nuclear weapons – or a ‘break-out’ capacity that could quickly furnish it with weapons – rulers fear Tehran could dictate to them in military and economic matters. They do not want a nuclear Iran. At the same time, however, they are concerned about the possible consequences of a hard Western line against Iran, and especially of military action aimed at disabling its nuclear programme. They fear that Tehran’s response would be to lash out not at the West, but at the West’s friends in its neighbourhood. Hence their increased expenditure on defence, missile shields and foreign bases.

Confronting this dilemma by tightening their embrace of the West – and doing so openly – represents a gamble for the Gulf’s rulers: it is an implicit acknowledgment that however much they may spend on weapons, their security, ultimately, lies with outside powers. With the closure of American facilities in Saudi Arabia and, eventually, Iraq, and an accompanying scaling-down of operations in Kuwait, the trend is obviously towards a smaller overall US footprint in the region. This, however, must be balanced against the new wave of weapons sales, the French base in Abu Dhabi and the significant expansion of American naval facilities in Bahrain. When the dust settles there may well be fewer foreign troops in the Gulf than there were a decade ago, but with Iraq no longer a strategic threat to its neighbours this was to be expected. The remaining forces are very openly focused on Iran. It is too soon to say whether Iran, looking from across the water, sees a threat or a deterrent.

You can read the full “strategic comment” here.

— Ben Katcher