President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have thrown all their weight into propping up Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and are backing to the hilt the international tribunal-STL probing the 2005 assassination of his father, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Transforming Lebanon into the primary arena of confrontation between the US and Iran represents a particularly bizarre strategic decision on the part of the American president.
Until the Lebanese crisis erupted this week, the current US administration, like its predecessor under George W. Bush, took care to avoid tangling directly with Iran on any front, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf – barring covert operations and sanctions. Suddenly, a week before nuclear negotiations begin in Istanbul (Jan. 21-22) between the Six Powers and Iran, the Obama administration changed course.
His decision is hard to explain in the light of America's ill-fated Lebanese ventures in the past.
Twenty-eight years ago, in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of Palestinian terrorists, President Ronald Reagan forced the IDF to withdraw from Beirut for fear that the Arab and Muslim world not tolerate Israel's occupation of an Arab capital. American and French marines were brought in within the framework of the Multinational Force in Lebanon-MNF to take the place of Israeli troops.
Past ill-fated US ventures in Lebanon
But less than 18 months later, the US Marine units shook Lebanese soil off their boots on Feb. 26, 1984 after two terrible terror attacks, in both of which Iran, Syria and Hizballah took a hand: the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in which 19 top CIA agents in the Middle East and Near East lost their lives, and the blasting of US and French Marine headquarters which left 241 American troops dead – 220 of them Marines.
That was the deadliest single attack to take place against Americans overseas after World War II.
After singeing their fingers so badly, US administrations fought shy of getting involved in Lebanon, which had always proved to be one of the most unpredictable countries in a volatile region.
Much later, in 2005, right after the shock of the Hariri assassination, the second President Bush briefly forced Syrian President Bashar Assad to cut Lebanon loose, remove his troops from Lebanon and take his meddling hands out of Beirut. Within a short time, Syria was back through the back door.
In 2006, when Washington pressed Israel to counter Syrian influence by waging war on Hizballah for which it was unprepared in response to a grave provocation, the contest ended in a flop with grave repercussions for the US and Israel: The IDF performed inadequately and failed to defeat Hizballah, a disadvantage on which Tehran and Damascus subsequently capitalized for transforming the small Shiite organization over the years into one of the most powerful and effective military forces in the Middle East.
Hizballah now commands 50,000 rockets, an arsenal unmatched by any power in the Middle East, including the US military.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that in deciding to play the Lebanese card against Iran, the Obama administration is counting on four advantages:
The Hariri Tribunal to drive a wedge between Tehran and Hizballah
1. The expected Special Lebanese Tribunal indictments of Hizballah officials for the Hariri assassination five years ago, is one. President Obama is preparing to press on with his drive against Hizballah and has charted a series of moves and counter-moves.
Should the Iranian-backed Shiite organization's attempt to establish an alternative government in place of the Hariri administration and have it pronounce the SLT – and hence its indictments – invalid, the US will counter by arranging to have the tribunal try Hizballah defendants in abstentia.
Tehran and Hizballah will then have to choose between aggravating their political or military disruptions or accepting growing international isolation. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 475 of Dec. 24, 2010: A New Option for UN Hariri Tribunal-US Brainchild: Trial in Absentia for Hizballah Leaders).
The Obama administration is consistent in that it is applying to Lebanon the same rationale of international sanctions and isolation it pursues for bringing Iran's nuclear program to a halt. This means placing Hizballah, Iran's military arm in the eastern Mediterranean under international pressure, a ploy that may work because many Muslim countries and some other powers like Brazil and India support the UN and the international Lebanese Tribunal's mission.
In this way, Washington hopes to drive a wedge between Tehran and its Lebanese proxy by non-military tactics, an objective which a direct confrontation with Tehran was unable to achieve.
US military pressure on Lebanon
2. President Obama is adding an extra layer of muscle to the US Sixth Fleet cruising the eastern Mediterranean. This week, he dispatched to Lebanese waters the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and its Strike Group of five warships – altogether 6,000 sailors and marines with 80 fighter-bombers on deck, together with the USS Bainbridge missile destroyer.
3. Israel's recovered military prowess. The IDF has staged several war games practicing both strikes against Iranian military compounds and responses to devastating Hizballah assaults on Israel's armed forces. Simulated too was a three-front war fought against Syrian units coming to Hizballah's aid and Palestinian organizations attacking from Gaza.
4. The pro-Western forces in Lebanon united in Lebanon's ruling March 14 bloc headed by Prime Minister Hariri are seen in Washington as an American ace in Beirut. The Obama administration must try and calculate in advance the strategic advantages versus the risks of pitting a pro-Western Christian-Sunni bloc against the Shiite Iran-Hizballah combination. Much depends on which of the two sides Sunni Muslim Damascus and Ankara chooses to back – or join.
The Iran-Hizballah combination's three assets
A. Hizballah is native to Lebanon and very much in control of many parts of the country supported by a powerful militia and intelligence system. The supreme commander of its military force is not a local man but Iranian Revolutionary Guards General Hassan Madavi, who answers directly to the Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme chief of Iran's covert campaign against the US in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.
Since no Lebanese force, including the national army, is a match for Hizballah, Iran and its proxy face Obama's challenge in Lebanon with a definite military and intelligence edge.
B. Iranian strategists believe American optimism regarding Syrian and Turkish behavior is misplaced. They see great advantage in Lebanon being surrounded by pro-Iranian, Sunni Muslim governments in Damascus and Ankara and are certain of their support. Tehran calculates that neither President Bashar Assad nor Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will welcome large American air, naval and marine forces massing opposite their shores. They both worked hard to get US troops to leave Iraq and away from their eastern borders and will not be happy to see American ships foregathering to their west.
Therefore, Iran believes it can enlist the backing of Syria and Turkey against the American drive for influence in Lebanon.
Tehran believes rockets will stop Israel's military in its tracks
C. The war planners in Tehran are confident that if Washington gives Israel the green light as it did in 2006 to mount an attack on Hizballah, Iran can stop that offensive in its tracks by an order to Hizballah to release thousands of rockets against Israel's military command centers and main cities and instruct the Palestinians of Gaza to open a second front with hundreds of missiles.
Tel Aviv and its heavily-populated environs on the Mediterranean coast are within the range of both Hizballah and Hamas thanks to Iranian upgrades of their arsenals.
(See a separate item in this issue – Iran Builds Hamas Fortifications for War on Israel).
Tehran will be able to calibrate the levels of attack from both fronts by means of its military presence in Lebanon and the Gaza.
In short, the Obama administration by choosing Lebanon as its arena of confrontation with Iran will be starting out in a proxy game in which Revolutionary Iran is an old hand. Military and strategic planners in Washington, Tehran and Jerusalem will need strong nerves for a gambit that could last far into 2011 with Lebanon's fate in the balance.
But if Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah succeeds in his effort to muster a parliamentary majority behind a new government which he heads, the contest between Washington and Tehran which the Obama administration planned will be resolved before it gets underway.