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 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 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. 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 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 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 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 Iran's arms."
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 Palestine."
Israel has been planning its campaign against Hezbollah's missile arsenal for
many months. As Matthew Kalman reported from Jerusalem 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 detail."
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,
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 2005.
(Inter Press Service)