According to some Lebanese analysts I spoke with this afternoon, the main point of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s much-anticipated speech today was that the Golan Heights would be Hezbollah’s, and therefore Iran’s, next arena of activity. That’s a marked change from his last public speech, delivered more than two weeks ago, when he reassured Hezbollah’s Shia constituency, which is anxious about fighting in Syria to defend Bashar al-Assad, that the organization was not active on the Golan Heights at all. The Israeli strike on a three-car convoy near Quneitra Jan. 18 revealed the truth: Hezbollah and Iran are indeed on the Golan and up to no good. So, even as Israel and Hezbollah both signaled that they were finished with their latest round of hostilities, it is nearly certain that the conflict is certain to flare up again, and perhaps much worse next time out. After all, as Iran marches toward a nuclear weapons program the stakes are getting increasingly high.
The most relevant fact about the recent mini-conflict was the nature of the delegation dispatched to the Golan two weeks ago. It seems that the six Hezbollah operatives and perhaps as many as six Iran Revolutionary Guard officers, including Brig. General Mohamed Ali Allahdadi, a confidante of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, were setting up a missile base. Accordingly, Hezbollah’s retaliatory strike Wednesday from Lebanon—which killed two IDF soldiers and wounded seven more—was meant less to avenge the death of major Iranian and Hezbollah figures, like Jihad Muhghniyeh, the son of the late Hezbollah director of operations, terror mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, than it was to reaffirm the purpose of that three-car convoy targeted by Israel two weeks ago.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has explained, Iran seeks to establish a second front against Israel on the Golan Heights in addition to the Lebanese border. The exchange of fire that ended Wednesday was a carefully calibrated conversation between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah about the legitimacy of that second front. Israel needed to show Hezbollah that it would pay a steep prince inside Lebanon for any monkey business on the Golan. The question that can’t be answered at present, but which will surely shape the intensity of the next round of fighting between the two sides, is whether Israel’s retaliation was strong enough to deliver that message.
Clearly the prospect of a second Iranian front would be a major problem for Israeli decision-makers under any circumstances. However, it is an especially delicate issue at present with negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program underway. Think of Israel’s Jan. 18 operation on the Golan as Bibi’s seat at Geneva. Here’s how the talks are playing out. The Iranians want to protect their nuclear facilities from a possible Israeli attack and therefore seek to harden their deterrence by establishing a second front from which they can threaten to strike Israel. The United States effectively recognized Iranian interests in Syria when it informed the Iranians that U.S. strikes against the Islamic State would not target Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad. However, the Israeli attack communicated to Washington that Jerusalem would not acknowledge Iranian interests there. Indeed, contrary to the White House’s regional accommodations with the Iranians and their allies like Hezbollah, Israel would kill those that came in its crosshairs on the Golan. In part, that’s because Israel needs to disrupt Iranian deterrence. But Israel also needs to keep Iran on a very tight leash and establish its own regime of deterrence and containment in the event that the P5+1 negotiations do not stop Iran from getting the bomb.
The big picture then is not about an exchange of fire on the Lebanon-Israel border, or revenge for fallen Hezbollah and Iranian martyrs. Rather, it’s about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In effect, it’s a race: Israel must establish powerful deterrence before Iran gets the bomb, or else it is likely to find itself encircled by an Iranian regime on the verge of a nuclear breakout. Israel can barely afford any mistakes in building its posture of deterrence, or else it risks being put in the unfortunate position of having to attack Iranian nuclear facilities directly. And this is clearly a choice that Israeli officials, perhaps Netanyahu above all, dread making.
It’s hard to know right now what lesson Hezbollah and the Iranians drew from the recent flare-up. As Nasrallah hinted, it’s unlikely they’ll retreat at this point since their deterrence depends on it. Israel also can’t afford to back off since its deterrence is also at stake. Perhaps much more, too.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).