As Israel comes closer to a confrontation with Iran, we should note that Iran’s primary strategy is unlikely to be direct conflict with Israel. Iran’s air and missile forces, despite their bragging, are not sufficiently well-developed to support such a conflict.
Instead, I expect that they will depend on their main proxy, Hizballah. Hizballah can be expected to attack with its considerable missile forces and even to attempt ground incursions into Israeli territory. At the same time, Iran will try to leverage Western fears of terrorism and oil-supply disruption into pressure on Israel; so we can also expect to see terrorist attacks against Western targets.
The difficulty of destroying or seriously damaging Iran’s nuclear capability is much-discussed, but I think the neutralization of Hizballah will also be a major task, and one of more immediate importance. In the short term, the number of Israeli casualties and the amount of damage to the home front in a conflict with Iran will be proportional to the time it takes the IDF to end Hizballah’s ability to fight.
Hizballah is also an essential component of Iran’s long-term strategy, whether or not she succeeds in building a bomb. A nuclear Iran is more likely to pursue her interests in the region by threats and low-intensity conventional conflict under a nuclear umbrella than by actual use of atomic weapons, which would expose her to devastating retaliation.
In 2006, the Bush Administration gave Israel a month to finish Hizballah. Israel did not make use of the opportunity because of the incompetence of the government and top military commanders, complacency, lack of planning, poor intelligence, etc. I believe that these problems have been fixed to a great extent.
Although one might expect Obama to be less cooperative, it’s possible that the administration’s closeness with conservative Sunni interests — primarily Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — which are natural enemies of Hizballah, might lead it to wait before lowering the boom.
On the other hand, if Hizballah terrorists are car-bombing buildings in New York, Los Angeles or Washington, there will be enormous pressure on Israel to end the conflict (yes, it’s irrational, but we’ve seen this response before). I don’t think that Israel can count on getting a month this time.
If I were an Israeli planner I would think about a preemptive attack on Hizballah — separately from and before attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, for the following reasons:
- Hizballah is the most immediate threat to Israel
- Hizballah will be Iran’s major weapon of retaliation if Israel strikes Iran
- By not attacking Iran, Israel does not give the regime an excuse to disrupt oil supplies
- The IDF can concentrate on defeating Hizballah
- It’s always better to initiate than to respond
- The chaos in Syria makes it easier to isolate Hizballah from its source of supply and keeps the Syrian military too busy to intervene
I would stress the importance of a short campaign, which will probably mean the use of massive force. Hizballah is very well dug-in in southern Lebanon, and an operation aborted by international pressure could be disastrous.
If Israel can be successful in removing Hizballah from the equation, Iran will be greatly weakened, Israel’s security and posture of deterrence will be strengthened, and the chances for future military action (or even diplomacy) to keep Iran from getting the bomb will improve.