As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror explained this past weekend, President Obama’s Geneva deal with Iran “almost delegitimized” a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. By making the regime in Tehran a negotiating partner, the White House has essentially insulated Iran from attack—and the results were not long in coming.
What seems clear now is that stepped-up clandestine operations are likely to become a major component of Israel’s deterrence strategy against Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah. After Hezbollah commander Hassan Laqqis was shot five times outside his Beirut apartment last week, the Party of God’s official statement pointed at Israel, which denied involvement. “These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah,” said an Israeli foreign-ministry spokesman. “They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts, they just blame anything on Israel.”
Israel’s denials of responsibility may be diplomatic, but they probably aren’t true. While it’s true that Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has made it a target for Sunni groups based in both Syria and Lebanon, Israel is almost certainly responsible for the operation. The target, reputedly a technological mastermind, was, among other things, in charge of Hezbollah’s drone program. He had previously been targeted by Israel, most recently in July 2006 during Israel and Hezbollah’s monthlong war, when an F-16 sent a rocket through his apartment, killing his son.
Laqqis’ death was long a priority for Israel, but coming a week after the Nov. 24 interim agreement between the White House and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons, it may be even more significant when seen as a message to Israel’s foes in the region: A nuclear Iran means that Israel’s margin for error has gotten smaller, which means that its response to real and perceived threats must become even more aggressive, lest anyone in Tehran wrongly imagine—for even a split second—that the consequences of a nuclear strike, directly or by proxy, on the Jewish state might be anything other than the obliteration of Iran.
By engaging the Iranians for the purpose of making a deal over the nuclear program, and perhaps other outstanding regional issues like the Syrian civil war, the Obama Administration has wrapped up the Iranians in a warm hug to keep the Israelis at bay—promising the Islamic Republic a partnership with the world’s sole military superpower that will allow them a relatively free hand with regard to Iran’s own interests in the region.
Think of the interim deal struck at Geneva as a mirror image of the Arab-Israeli peace process. For U.S. policymakers, the purpose of the peace process was to embrace the Israelis so closely and tenderly that the Arabs would understand they had no hope of ever defeating the Israelis in war. Thus Washington all but eliminated the possibility of any Arab state going to war against an Israel whose defeat America would never allow.
It’s true that the current White House isn’t as outwardly affectionate toward Iran as past generations of American officials, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for instance, have been toward Israel. But the administration’s Rouhani Fever and visions of a historical reconciliation with the Islamic Republic on the part of a broad cross-section of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment are key indicators showing that the prospective comprehensive agreement is one of Obama’s highest policy priorities.
Thus, were Israel to strike Iran, it would therefore not only be going alone—that is, without the United States—but would also be attacking what the United States has defined as its own core interests and major partner in the region. The consequences, as Israeli officials understand, could be catastrophic. The result of any Israeli attack on Iran would not simply be a matter of poisoned relations between Israel and America, but would also involve some very serious practical considerations—of a kind that Israel has not had to face in previous wars. For instance, if Israel gets into war with Iran, how does it get out of war when an angry White House is reluctant to ensure that Israel gets a fair deal with the ceasefire? And absent such assurance, how does Israel end a war—except through extraordinary violence?
The choice between extraordinary violence and poisoned relations on the one hand or not going to war at all on the other is a potentially paralyzing one—and one that is likely to embolden Israel’s enemies. But rather than dissuading Israel from using violence to solve its disputes, the U.S. alliance with Iran instead raises the stakes of disputes that were previously seen as minor. With no margin for error, Israel’s enemies will be encouraged to see violence as a more effective means of getting what they want—and Israel will be encouraged to respond with overwhelming force, to keep minor incidents from blowing up into the kind of full-scale warfare that could rupture relations with the United States. The result of this dynamic will be more violence on both sides and greater instability in the region as a whole.
It is in this new and terrifying context of Israel’s downgraded relationship with the United States that the assassination of Hassan Laqqis needs to be understood. Laqqis wasn’t simply a senior Hezbollah official, he was a component in a serious weapons program involving Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria, all under the direction of the Islamic Republic—a weapons program that involves drones, missiles, and other weapons systems that could easily be used to deliver a nuclear device or dirty bomb.
As Middle East analyst Tony Badran explained in an important article in February, shortly after the 2006 war Israel embarked on a campaign targeting the transit routes for Iran’s supply of strategic weapons, as well the network’s major figures. Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh died in a car bomb explosion in Damascus in February 2008. A few months later, Syrian Army Gen. Mohamed Soleiman was killed by a sniper. In January 2010 senior Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh was assassinated in a Dubai hotel room. His replacement Ahmad Jabari was killed at the outset of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. A year before, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam was killed in a mysterious blast at a military base outside Tehran. Laqqis was this strategic arms network’s most recent casualty.
In other words, Israel has already been employing assassinations as part of a policy of containment and deterrence against Iran and its assets for at least seven years. Bret Stephens argued in the Wall Street Journal that the Obama Administration has also moved to containment, even though it professes that prevention is still the policy.
But the current administration’s notion of containment is very different from Israel’s understanding of that strategy. Containment of course is the Cold War strategy that set American and Soviet proxies at odds on four continents over the course of nearly 50 years. Because either side was capable of delivering a nuclear knockout, the idea was to avoid a direct conflict with Moscow, one that would likely lead to the destruction of the United States as well. Americans therefore generally understand containment to have been a peaceful, relatively low-cost strategy that ended the Cold War in America’s favor without major conflict or bloodshed on either side: However, if you lived or died in Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, or dozens of other places during those bloody decades, there was nothing peaceful about the Cold War.
For the Obama Administration, containment merely means manfully resisting the use of military force. As former Pentagon official Colin Kahl explained in a working paper in May, containment is the policy that follows “if all else fails.” Nor is the price of containment seen, at this stage, to be terribly high, since Iran does not have the ability to destroy the United States as the Soviet Union did. The fact that the Iranians could, in a relatively short period of time, acquire the means to obliterate a small Jewish state on the eastern Mediterranean therefore has no major bearing on the larger success or failure of this strategy.
Israel sees things differently, though, since they are neither the United States nor the Soviet Union in the Cold War paradigm, but rather more like Korea or Vietnam—the battlefield on which a proxy battle might be fought. Israel’s version of containment and deterrence will therefore look much more like the classic Cold War battlefield version—bloody and vigorous. Even if the regime in Tehran really decided to launch an attack destroying Israel, the Israeli navy’s five German-built Dolphin-class submarines would undoubtedly deliver their payload, turning Iran into a sheet of glass. Even if the regime is messianic, or crazy, a nuclear attack on Israel would leave no one remaining in Tehran—or in Qom, Shiraz, or Isfahan—to gloat about the final destruction of the Zionist entity.
The most pressing issues for Israeli strategists right now have to do with the presence of Iranian military assets on Israel’s borders. How do you deter and contain a Hezbollah or Hamas operating under the umbrella of an Iranian nuclear bomb? Would Hamas, say, feel more emboldened to rain rockets on Israel knowing that a nuclear-armed Iran has its back? Would Hezbollah make good on its threats to send waves of troops across the border to kidnap Israeli citizens and garrison towns in the Galilee—knowing that severe Israeli reprisals might in turn force Iran into a nuclear exchange?
Israeli containment and deterrence are largely a matter of taking those decisions out of Iran’s hands before the fact and reining in Iranian assets before they have a chance to do something reckless. Hamas and Hezbollah will not have more room to operate under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, but rather less. Every Iranian-made drone that Hezbollah sends across the Israeli border will necessarily entail harsh responses against the Party of God and all of Lebanon. The same is true of any tunnel-building Hezbollah does underneath the border because, well, who knows? A tunnel, a drone, a rowboat might be used for classic terrorist attacks—or they might be a future delivery mechanism for a nuclear weapon.
This new, forward-leaning posture will make life especially difficult for Hezbollah, whose war against the Syrian rebels has turned the Middle East’s Sunni majority against them, including their Sunni neighbors in Lebanon. The Party of God can continue to rant against Israel, but active “resistance” to the Zionist enemy may well spell its doom. After all, Israel understands what its superpower patron seems not to—containment and deterrence does not mean eschewing force. The fact that direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Iran is unthinkable means using force sooner, rather than later.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).