Iran-Israel conflict poses an existential risk for Lebanon, unless Biden can intervene

Israel will be looking to retaliate for Tehran's recent strike, and Hezbollah may be in the crosshairs

Iran's direct attack on Israel on April 14 was unprecedented. Reuters
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Iran's failed attack on Israel may have sealed Lebanon's fate. Israel undoubtedly has come out the winner in the latest exchange, having killed several key commanders who are said to have played a role in directing Iran's regional network of Arab militias to help Hamas fight Israel in Gaza and help Hezbollah prepare for a potential Israeli attack.

Israel suffered no fatalities, few injuries and very little damage in the Iranian barrage of over 300 projectiles aimed at military facilities. The US estimates about 140 of the drones and missiles failed due to malfunctions. US forces downed most of the remaining 160 projectiles, with the UK, France, Jordan and Israel's own Iron Dome antimissile system also involved.

Iranian chest beating – and misleading news reports depicting fires from Chile and Texas as damage in Israel – aside, Iran seems to have been effectively thwarted.

Yet Iran does not appear to have intended to cause significant damage and fatalities in its attack, despite its size. Tehran telegraphed both the timing and the nature of the attack to Arab and European diplomats close to Washington well in advance. This explains warnings to Iran from US President Joe Biden, in his now-standard diplomatic catchphrase, “don’t”. Moreover, by using mainly slow, cheap drones, Iran actually may have pulled its punch. These missiles were fairly easily, and almost completely successfully, defeated.

Yet there can be little doubt that Iran could have done a great deal of damage, had that really been its intention. Not only do the Iranians have much greater capabilities than were on display in the attack on Israel, they also held back their biggest weapon, which is Hezbollah in Lebanon and its massive arsenal of over 150,000 missiles and rockets, many with precision guidance. Hezbollah's stockpile is, if nothing else, capable of overwhelming the Iron Dome, and would have posed a huge challenge even to the US forces that did most of the important work.

So, what did Iran think it was doing? Clearly, Tehran believed that a direct strike on Israel in retaliation for the stinging assassination of its senior operatives in Syria was necessary. But it's likely that domestic politics and political pressure from hardliners was the main factor, rather than a desire to escalate unduly with Israel. This is reflected in the failure of the Iranian attack, which is rather predictable given its structure and handling, and the obvious alternatives Iran could have used and still holds in reserve.

It appears Iran's leaders wanted to score a “win” in the eyes of their people, while simultaneously giving Israel every opportunity to avoid feeling compelled to launch an additional new escalation. Indeed, Israeli leaders, too, can look at the score sheet and conclude that they have achieved a massive “win” over Iran. Neither side, rationally, has a real reason to push the confrontation further.

In addition, the Iranian attack was the antithesis for Israel of October 7. Rather than a shock which took the Israeli state and military completely by surprise and overwhelmed it, at least for a couple of days, this was telegraphed in advance and was easily dealt with by existing forces, even if they involved many other countries. Besides, most Israelis think their own military did the heavy lifting against the barrage. Instead of feeling violated, vulnerable, stateless and abandoned, Israelis can now feel a new sense of security, stability, predictability and that they are under the protection of a powerful and effective government that defends them and their interests against powerful foreign attacks.

The Iranian attack was the antithesis for Israel of October 7

The real question is, will Israel see this latest round with Iran as a sufficient "win"? Israeli leaders have been looking for such a victory since October 7, under the rubric of "restoring deterrence" but, really, in order to restore the national morale and sense of security and stability among a traumatised Israeli society. It was obvious from the outset to many, and has surely become clear to everyone by now, that such a "win" isn't available in Gaza.

The great danger in recent months, not just to the region but to US policy as well, has been the prospect that Israeli leaders were seeking this restorative and cathartic "win" against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The group represents the most powerful immediate threat to Israel and is a much more conventional enemy than Hamas. Such a conflict would provide the Israelis with obvious targets, quantifiable metrics of success or failure, and no quagmire of having to occupy large chunks of Arab land indefinitely. They could simply pummel the group, damage and degrade its arsenal, kill some of its leaders and commanders and attack its infrastructure in relatively short order and then declare a victory that could be clear-cut in a way that no development in Gaza could.

The greatest problem with the Iranian attack on Israel is that it could well stoke, rather than mollify, the passion among some leading Israelis, like Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, for a war in Lebanon. Such hawks can point to the Iranian missile attack and claim that Hezbollah's arsenal represents of much deadlier and intolerably dangerous version of the what Iran ineffectively flung in their direction.

The ball is now in Israel's court. It could retaliate significantly against Iran, escalating prospects of a regional war. It could employed much more limited, or targeted, reprisals of a kind that has characterised its grey war with Tehran in recent years. Or it can decide to deliver Iran the biggest possible strategic blow by taking on, and, it would hope, taking out, Iran's strategic trump card: Hezbollah.

If the Israelis decide the Iranian attack justifies an offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, it will be up to Mr Biden, who has successfully held them back from such a folly on numerous occasions since October 7, to once again successfully restrain them. This will not come naturally or easily to Mr Biden, even though he has made his opposition crystal clear. Nonetheless, his powers of persuasion with Israel may face their ultimate test in the coming weeks. It may be up to the US President to stop Israel from committing the most dangerous and readily avoidable escalation in recent Middle East history by yet again invading Lebanon.

Published: April 16, 2024, 2:00 PM