Hizbullah factor in Iran fray
Tehran-backed militants could be drawn into conflict if US or Israel strikes Iran.
SHEIKH ABBAD HILL, LEBANON
In the spring sunshine, the 70-mile Lebanon-Israel frontier of olive groves and fields of bright green tobacco appears a picture of rural calm. But the looming confrontation between the West and Tehran ensures that tensions linger here, with Iran-backed Hizbullah fortifying its frontline observation posts and Israel recently increasing its aerial reconnaissance patrols over Lebanon.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
One alarming scenario gaining attention is if Iran's nuclear facilities come under attack by the US or Israel, it could inadvertently trigger a violent confrontation between Lebanon's Hizbullah and the Israeli military.
Hizbullah this week aired fresh warnings on the extent of its massive rocket arsenal, reinforcing concerns in Israel that it will be targeted as part of Tehran's retaliation to a strike against its nuclear sites.
"We have the power to destroy important and sensitive targets in northern occupied Palestine," Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general said in a speech marking the sixth anniversary this week of Israel's troop withdrawal from south Lebanon.
"The resistance now has over 13,000 rockets. All of north occupied Palestine is within our firing range. This is the minimum range. As for the range beyond the north ... it is best to be silent," he added, hinting at the existence of long-range rockets in Hizbullah's armory.
Earlier this month, Major General Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense ministry official, said that while Iran's main strategic arm was its long-range Shihab-3 missiles, "their second arm is Hizbullah, which has 13,000 to 14,000 rockets that threaten Israel."
Still, there are compelling reasons why Hizbullah would refrain from military action, analysts say.
Although Hizbullah looks to Iran for guidance and much of its logistical and financial support, the Shiite organization has spent the past decade and a half shedding its image as a tool of Iranian foreign policy. The party has the overwhelming support of Lebanon's Shiite community, the largest sect within the country, and it is represented by 14 politicians in Lebanon's parliament and entered the government for the first time last summer.
That assimilation into mainstream politics has helped bolster the party at a time when it faces intense pressure to disband its military wing. Last week, the UN Security Council adopted a French-proposed resolution that in part repeated a call for Hizbullah's disarmament. Hizbullah refuses to disarm, saying it is a vital component of Lebanon's defense strategy and that yielding its weapons would only benefit Israel, an argument that resonates with most Lebanese Shiites, if not other Lebanese.
"The irony is that without a US/French campaign against Hizbullah's arms, the party would have been in a much more difficult position to defend the rationale of continuing resistance," says Reinoud Leenders, assistant professor of politics at the University of Amsterdam and former Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Many non-Shiite Lebanese are uncomfortable with a political party possessing weapons, saying it risks Lebanon becoming embroiled in external conflicts.