WASHINGTON — Iran’s quarreling and competing leaders have decided, by their acts, to reject the offer by Europe and the United States of a nuclear reactor, aircraft spare parts, economic cooperation and more in exchange for giving up uranium enrichment.
Many people hoped that Iran’s leaders, despite their extremism, would accept the offer if only to avoid sanctions — which are sure to come even if China and Russia refuse to support them in the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. and Europe are united this time, and can effectively cut off Iran from world banking, bar Iranian leaders from traveling to the West, and stop exports to Iran of everything but food and medicine.
Instead of waiting passively for sanctions, Iran’s leaders decided to start a Middle East crisis by organizing attacks against Israel. Their aim is to discourage the U.S. and the Europeans from starting another crisis — financial markets and everyday politics in Europe can tolerate only so much conflict. They may also hope to shatter the unified EU/U.S. position that now exists.
Moreover, Iran’s claim to leadership in the Muslim world is being undermined by the conflict in Iraq, where Iran supports the Shiite militias that are killing Sunnis. Every bloody day of bombings and executions in Iraq reminds Arabs that the Iranians are neither Arab nor Sunni. But attacking Israel unites Muslims, and gains Arab gratitude.
Iran’s move was prepared in a series of meetings with both Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Khaled Mashal, Hamas’ overall leader, who lives under Syrian protection in Damascus, traveled to Tehran, where he received some $50 million in badly needed cash. Although an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, whose Arab financial supporters loathe the ayatollahs, Hamas decided to cooperate in Iran’s scheme because it was diplomatically isolated and cut off from Western funding due to its refusal to recognize Israel.
Hamas acted by increasing rocket attacks on nearby Israeli territory, and by launching a raid into Israel itself, killing two soldiers and capturing another. That provoked Israeli retaliation, starting the Gaza end of the crisis that Iran wanted.
As for the impact on lives in Gaza, Hamas — like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — has again shown itself to be more devoted to the idea of Palestine than to the welfare of Palestinians.
It was far more costly to get Hezbollah to serve Iran’s strategy. While it retains a heavily armed, salaried and uniformed guerrilla/terrorist force of some 5,000, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been striving for years to build Hezbollah into a legitimate political party and the main representative of Lebanon’s Shiites. This effort was so successful that Hezbollah now has two ministers in the government.
But to be accepted by other Lebanese, and to some extent even to retain the support of fellow Shiites, Hezbollah had to agree to join the Lebanese consensus on the priority of reconstruction and economic recovery after years of civil war. That meant avoiding a war with Israel.
Hezbollah is under order by the U.N. Security Council to disarm and disband its militia, but it claimed that even after Israel’s full withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, it needed its weapons to continue to liberate “Lebanese territory.” That refers to a tiny fragment of land, the so-called Sheba farms, declared by U.N. inspectors to be in Israel, but which Hezbollah claims as part of Lebanon.
Other Lebanese political parties agreed that Hezbollah could keep its weapons to fight there — but only on condition that it keep the peace on the rest of the border. That is the condition Nasrallah violated by ordering an attack on an Israeli patrol nowhere near the Sheba farms and launching rockets into Israeli territory. With that, Hezbollah threw away its political position in Lebanon.
For the Israeli coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, matters are relatively simple. It ordered the withdrawal from Gaza in order to stop the cycle of violence there, on the presumption that Israeli territory proper would not be attacked. But the possibility of attack was of course anticipated, and military planners determined that the only possible response was to counterattack as heavily and for as long as might be needed, until Palestinian attacks stop, whether from exhaustion or agreement.
Hamas’ control of the Palestinian Authority does not diminish or increase the need for Israeli military action, but it does increase the political benefits for Israel, because the fighting and destruction tells Gaza’s population that their rulers are endangering their physical survival.
As for Hezbollah, the Israeli military response is by no means confined to retaliation. Over the years, Hezbollah has received and stored several thousand rockets and some one hundred longer-range missiles from Iran.
Recently, and very revealingly, two Iranian leaders threatened Israel with bombardment by Hezbollah’s rockets if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear installations. Thus, Israel is using the opportunity brought by the current fighting to search out and destroy Hezbollah’s underground and other hidden sites where it keeps its rockets and missiles.
Israel’s political aim is to destroy Hezbollah’s position as a legitimate Lebanese political party by exposing it as the paid agent of Iran, which serves foreign interests at grievous cost to Lebanon.
So Israel is blocking Lebanon’s ports from the sea, has breached the runways of all three jet-capable airfields, including Beirut’s international airport, and remains ready to destroy generating plants and other high-value targets, if necessary, to generate sufficient political pressure on Hezbollah.
If Lebanon’s political forces and Nasrallah’s followers cannot get him to revert to a truce, Israel will bomb more targets, including Nasrallah’s offices in south Beirut. If more missiles are launched, Israel will cross the border deep into Lebanese territory.
Of course, in both Gaza and southern Lebanon, the outcome is predetermined by the one-sided military balance. The only open question in both places is how much damage Israel will need to inflict to obtain new ceasefires.