Eurasianet For the radical conservatives calling the shots in Iran, the fighting in Lebanon marked an exercise in self-restraint. And now that a ceasefire is taking hold in the conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, Tehran’s restraint stands to bring it significant geopolitical benefits.
The United Nations-mandated cease-fire went into effect early August 14 after just over a month of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Since its creation in 1982, Iran has served as Hezbollah’s principle patron, and it may well have had a hand in instigating the conflict, which began following a Hezbollah cross-border raid that resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when Iran’s chief government spokesman, Gholam-Hossein Elham, proclaimed Hezbollah the winner of the war, the official IRNA news agency reported August 14.
But Elham’s outspoken support for Hezbollah contrasted sharply with the behavior of Iranian officials while the fighting raged. From the outbreak of hostilities up to the cease-fire, Tehran sought to remain aloof from Hezbollah, pointedly striving not to do or say anything that could serve as a pretext for widening the conflict. It was as if Iran was trying to hide its paternity of Hezbollah from the international community.
This policy was not a product of indecision, but of cold calculation.
This policy was not a product of indecision, but of cold calculation. From the start, Iranian policymakers saw the conflict in Lebanon as an integral part of a larger struggle – the one over Tehran’s nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].Accordingly, it appears that Iran, consistent with its resistance to international pressure on the nuclear issue, wanted the conflict in Lebanon, which many in Tehran viewed as a proxy war, to simmer, and not reach a boil.
Tehran’s strategic objective sought to achieve a fine balance – prolong the fighting enough to damage Israel’s strategic image, but not so long that it would cripple Hezbollah’s fighting capacity. In this, Iran seems to have succeeded – at least for now – as it remains uncertain how long the ceasefire will hold.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s ability to avoid a crushing defeat in the face of an Israeli military offensive has sent a powerful message to those who have contemplated the use of force against Iran in order to crush that country’s nuclear ambitions. Not only would force now, more than ever, seem unlikely to derail Iran’s nuclear plans, an attempt to do so would guarantee considerable retaliation. Thus, international leverage to compel Iran’s compliance on the nuclear issue would seem to have been significantly reduced by developments in Lebanon.
Restraint was perhaps the key tactical component in Iran’s approach to the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, as it was Tehran’s desire to keep the fighting localized in Lebanon. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council reportedly pressured both state and non-state entities to refrain from making statements that might encourage non-Lebanese Shi’as to join the fight. The council also wanted to downplay Iran’s close association with Hezbollah. Likewise, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khameneh’i, reportedly asked Iran’s grand ayatollahs not to issue a fatwa, or a religious order, exhorting Muslims to join the fight.
The policy was generally successful, although Iran’s political leaders did face considerable discontent from ultra-conservative constituencies, including a sizeable portion of the religious establishment.
On July 26, for example, about two dozen volunteers attempted to travel from Iran to join Hezbollah forces. They made it to the Turkish border before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezjad personally intervened and put an end to the adventure.
An Iranian website, the pragmatic-conservative Baztab, posted a commentary on August 1, in which an anonymous cleric chastised Iran’s grand ayatollahs for their "inaction and irresolution" in connection with their studied silence on Lebanese developments.
The grand ayatollahs reply came on August 5, in the form of a statement also appearing on “Baztab”. The statement stressed that the grand ayatollahs were closely monitoring the situation, adding that they were following the lead of the Supreme Leader, who had refrained from issuing a fatwa concerning the fighting in Lebanon. It also pointedly reminded the dissenting cleric, who the statement characterized as a "high-ranking" teacher, that it was in Iran’s best interests to maintain a united front.
"We have absolutely no right to channel our personal wishes and desires to the public domain without regard to imperatives, limitations and capacities," the statement said. "Now is the time for collegiality and solidarity rather than attacking one another, or losing one’s head in exasperation."
To help manage public opinion inside Iran, many pro-presidential media outlets carried distorted reports about the fighting in Lebanon, hyping Hezbollah’s military accomplishments. Some political observers, such as Ahmad Zeydabadi, a Tehran-based Iranian journalist, believe such lopsided coverage was designed chiefly to mollify hardliners at home, trying to convince them that Hezbollah could hold its own, and did not need help from the Islamic Republic.
Hezbollah is considered Iran’s most important asset anywhere in the world.
International experts believe that Hezbollah will continue to figure prominently in Iran’s strategic calculus, as Tehran’s standoff with the international community on the nuclear issue plays out. "Hezbollah is considered Iran’s most important asset anywhere in the world", a Tehran-based political scientist told the EurasiaNet. "For over a quarter century, Iran has patiently nurtured and assisted in every possible way its Lebanese stepchild [Hezbollah] for this exact moment."
From Hezbollah’s viewpoint, Iran’s relative silence during the conflict did nothing to damage the relationship between Tehran and the militia, Zaidabadi suggested. Hezbollah’s leaders tend to view Iran as the font of a Shi’a revolution in the Muslim world and, thus recognize the need to put Tehran’s political priorities "above all other considerations," Zaidabadi wrote in a commentary, portions of which appeared in Paik Khabari-e, a monthly published in California.
Iran’s restrained approach appeared to exert influence over Hezbollah’s tactical choices during the conflict, analysts said. Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at Council on Foreign Relations in New York, pointed out that Hezbollah was widely believed to possess long-range Zelzal missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel, but the militia refrained from using them. Kipper suggested that the medium-range missiles constituted a card that could be played at a later date. "Iran is serving notice that if its nuclear facilities are brought under attack, it can unleash these missiles in any future conflict", Kipper said.
Editor’s Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.
The above article was posted on 14 August 2006 by Eurasianet
Highlights are by IPS