Tehran is counting on a surefire device for drawing Israeli forces out of the Gaza Strip and saving its Palestinian protege Hamas from collapse.
Gen. Mohsein Rezai, former Revolutionary Guards commander and one of the few Iranian high-ups with intelligence contacts in the West, sent those contacts a message Wednesday, Jan. 7.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources reveal its main thrust:
A second front opened up against Israel from its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria would force the Jewish state to halt its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Rezai wrote. In his view, therefore, Hizballah must heat up the Lebanese border, while Syria should call up its military reserves and move units from Lebanon's borders to the Golan.
Just days before Israel launched its offensive against Hamas on Dec. 27, Iran's powerful foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki made telephone calls to some of his opposite numbers in Europe. He warned them that Tehran could not afford to disregard an Israeli attack on Hamas. If Israel went to war on Hamas, he told Per Stig Moller of Denmark, it would have to contend with more than one front.
Our Iranian experts translate these warnings as signifying a decision by Tehran to intervene in the Gaza conflict if Hamas faces military extinction.
Iranian officials are meanwhile trying to enlist Syria and the Lebanese Hizballah to the Hamas cause. But if neither is proactive enough to meet Tehran's expectations, the Iranians may decide to go for direct action.
Iran's calls to arms fall on deaf Syrian and Hizballah ears
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that this view began to gain ground in Washington and Jerusalem in the second half of this week. It was supported by three significant moves:
1. The trip made by Saeed Jalili, chairman of Iran's national security council and its senior nuclear negotiator, to Damascus, Beirut and Ankara.
According to those sources, he put before Syrian president Bashar Assad a selection of military options which Damascus was asked to pursue if Israeli persisted in its offensive against Hamas. One was to move the Syrian army to its Golan border.
Jalili explained that neither Tehran nor Damascus could afford a Hamas defeat, because it would cancel out their strategic gains from the 2006 Lebanon war, reflecting negatively on Hizballah and Syria's standing in Lebanon.
The Iranian official pointed to Israel's alarming military build-up on its northern borders. Iranian intelligence was certain, Jalili said, Israel was there waiting for an opportunity to attack Hizballah or Syria.
Assad was his usual noncommittal self. He bent only far enough to send his foreign minister Walid Moallem out with a statement that Syria was concerned by Israel's heavy call-up of reserves without cause – unless they were poised for aggression against Hizballah or Syria as well as the Gaza Strip.
2. No sooner had Jalili exited Damascus than Iran's Majlis (parliament) Speaker, Ali Larijani, arrived.
One of supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's closest confidants, the Speaker went from talks with Assad to meet the Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Ramadan Shelah. Together they formulated a collective strategy for Iran, Syria, and the radical Palestinian organizations against Israel.
In Beirut, Jalili held the same conversation with the Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
Rocket salvo denied by Hizballah's Nasrallah
3. Nasrallah, who delivers fiery speeches nightly since the Israeli offensive began, declared after meeting the Iranian official: “We are prepared for every possibility and every aggression. The Zionists will discover that the war they had in July was a stroll in the park compared with what we have prepared for a new aggression.”
He was referring to the 2006 Lebanon War when Hizballah bombarded Israel with rockets for 33 days.
Its leader had clearly been persuaded by his Iranian visitor that Israel was about to attack his movement and was gearing up for a counter-strike, possibly even a pre-emptive one.
4. The next morning, Thursday, Jan. 8, five 122-mm Katyusha rockets were fired into northern Israel from southern Lebanon. One hit the town of Nahariya, injuring two people.
Hizballah issued a statement denying its involvement.
According to intelligence sources, Hizballah took a direct hand in this attack, like the one that did not come off on Dec. 25, when brand-new Iranian rockets primed to fire at northern Israel were discovered and defused by Lebanese troops two days before Israel launched its offensive against the Lebanese Shiites' Palestinian ally, Hamas.
But Nasrallah is treading cautiously now – firing old rockets and quickly denying culpability.
Neither he nor Assad is in a hurry to be caught up in a clash with the Israeli army. But the pressure from Tehran is beginning to tell and will be intensified the further Israeli troops advance in Gaza and the harder Egypt squeezes Hamas.