Thursday, May 15, 2008

Iran So Far Away?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the backlash in Iraq against the increasingly brazen intervention of Tehran within its borders. With PM Maliki's courageous pushback against Sadr's Iranian-backed goons in and around Baghdad, and the increasing professionalism and nationalistic esprit de corps within the Iraqi Army, Iran shows every sign of having suffered a severely bloodied nose. Indeed the recently more conciliatory tone set by Iranian spokesmen on Iraq has the authentic look and feel of a tactical retreat. This would, of course, be a very significant strategic gain in our overarching goal of going into Iraq, which was and is to apply pressure on regional actors to change their behavior vis a vis fostering extremism and supporting terrorism.

However, it would be dangerously naive to assume that the Gamesters of Tehran are not running more than one table at a time. In an article for The Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht writes at length about the recalibrations taking place within an Iranian government knocked off balance by the deterioration of its proxy campaign within Iraq. Among the more ominous avenues available to the Mullahs is that of fomenting mayhem in Lebanon:

Israel may soon be embroiled in an ugly war with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist movement supported spiritually and militarily by Tehran. This could turn into a two-front confrontation, as Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran's most faithful offspring, is demonstrating its willingness to use force to become the dominant player in Lebanon. Rearmed massively by Tehran since the 2006 summer war against Israel, Hezbollah could again let the missiles fly against northern Israel, while Hamas attacks from Gaza.

The recent and dishearteningly successful challenges of the Lebanese government by Hezbollah have set the board for a disturbingly promising gambit by Iran to regain its feet in the region. By so humiliatingly delegitimizing the Lebanese government, and revealing the Lebanese Army to be powerless/unwilling to defend the sovereignty of that ailing nation against its thuggish tactics, Hezbollah has shown itself once again to be a formidable shaft in Iran's quiver. Thus weakened, Lebanon teeters on the brink of dissolving into bloody wasteland of warring sectarian militias. Sunni, Druze, and Christian populations, now certain that the Army will not protect them from Tehran's Shiite shock troops, will look to their own, and enlist help where they can find it...including from groups such as al Qaeda. Into the ensuing maelstrom, Iran will stretch its arm (wrapped in its Syrian sock puppet) to graciously restore order...and so the last nail will have been driven into the pine box of the Cedar Revolution.

If this sounds unnervingly like what Iran has been trying to accomplish in Iraq, then you have been paying attention.

There are two main aspects of this situation which are especially worrisome. The first is the absence in Lebanon of a cohesive national identity like that which --for better or worse-- was forged (possibly in both senses of the word) by Saddam in Iraq over the course of the calamitous 1980-1988 war with Iran. That nationalistic impulse --animated by the primordial enmity between Persians and Arabs-- has arguably formed a basis for the unwillingness of the Iraqi people to allow Iran to impose its will on them, once its designs became so transparent. I fear that a similar pushback will be hard to come by in a Lebanese society which has long been more salad than melting pot. My second main concern is the fact that, unlike Iraq, Lebanon sits squarely on the border with Israel. In the midst of the turmoil which may soon overwhelm Lebanon, one of the few unifying threads among the various Islamist factions will be their blistering loathing of the Jewish State (or "Zionist Entity," if you must). Imagine a pressure cooker with one escape valve, bleeding live steam toward its neighbor to the south.

If there is in all of this one hopeful note --if it may be so termed-- it is the fact that Hezbollah has tipped its hand by effectively abandoning any pretense of being a Lebanese resistance movement with even a bissel of political legitimacy. Having once expelled Syrian forces from within its borders, it is conceivable that even the fractured populace of Lebanon will resist such a naked power grab by its erstwhile occupiers. I would, however, not bet the farm on this. More likely, the government of Ehud Olmert will [re]discover its vertebrae and "take steps" to interdict Syrian/Iranian aggression from its northern border...or finally fall for failing to do so. The likely result of this would be a repeat of the 2006 Summer War, with the gloves off.

Or, alternately, a show of resolve from the US, Israel, and a sufficient subset of the Lebanese people will push the Iranians into a corner where they must risk open warfare, something which, despite all of their eschatological bluster, they have been consistently circumspect about least until their "peaceful" nuclear program has borne its final fruits.

I judge it to be highly unlikely that full-on war with Iran is in the offing --the strident fantasies of the Left notwithstanding. However one should not mistake this for anything remotely resembling "peace," and those who hang their hopes on diplomacy and persuasion would do well to get a clue.

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