Hizbullah factor in Iran fray

Tehran-backed militants could be drawn into conflict if US or Israel strikes Iran.

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.

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.

Hizbullah officials, however, say that its weapons are for the defense of Lebanon, not Iran. "Iran is capable of launching its own retaliation," says Ahmad Malli, a member of Hizbullah's political council. "It's not logical for Iran as a regional power to ask a small organization to attack Israel."

The domestic constraints on Hizbullah convince many analysts, including some critics, that the party is unlikely to attack Israel in a knee-jerk reaction to a military strike against its Iranian backer.

"Any act that is perceived internationally and domestically as serving Iran would call Hizbullah's Lebanese credentials into serious doubt and confirm the widely circulated hypothesis that Hizbullah is Iran's proxy in Lebanon," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, assistant professor of politics at the Lebanese-American University and author of "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion."

However, Mr. Malli offered another scenario in which Israel launches a preemptive strike against Hizbullah to degrade Tehran's retaliatory options in the event of an attack.

"If Israel attacks Iran, it may well attack other targets at the same time, including Hizbullah in Lebanon," he says. "In that case, Hizbullah has the right to defend itself and Lebanon with all possible means."

Far from a theoretical concept, Malli's scenario is one that is under serious consideration by Israel, says Gerald Steinberg, professor of politics at Israel's Bar Ilan University.

"Hizbullah is seen as the main force of the Iranian response, and IDF [Israel Defense Force] planners could be expected to be prepared for such a strike [against Hizbullah] in the context of a military move against Iran," he says. "Some Israelis would argue that since a Hizbullah response in the event of an attack on Iran is inevitable, not striking against Hizbullah would be irrational."

The uncomfortable proximity in which these bitter foes find themselves is best illustrated on this wind-swept hilltop 2,400 feet above northern Galilee.

Nestled against the Israeli side of the fence is a massive structure bristling with antennae, cameras, and rotating radar dishes. Yards away on the Lebanese side is Hizbullah's bunker of bulldozed earth ramparts surmounted by two metal turrets that Hizbullah has had fitted with bulletproof glass windows. Closer to the fence, Hizbullah has erected surveillance cameras pointing at the Israeli position.

UN officials believe Hizbullah's construction work is probably defensive in nature, to improve the monitoring of Israeli troop movements, rather than preparations for an attack. But in this volatile corner of the Middle East, misreading the intentions of the enemy can have dangerous consequences.

"Hizbullah ultimately benefits from the West's inflated assessment of its capabilities and intentions," says Mr. Leenders, the Dutch academic. "It effectively presents them as a source of deterrence without them having to lift a finger."

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