Clearing the path for US war on Iran
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Israel has argued that the war against Hezbollah's rocket arsenal
was a defensive response to the Shi'ite organization's threat to Israeli
security, but the evidence points to a much more ambitious objective - the
weakening of Iran's deterrent to an attack on its nuclear sites.
In planning for the destruction of most of Hezbollah's arsenal and prevention
of any resupply from Iran, Israel appears to have hoped to eliminate a major
reason the US administration had shelved the military option for dealing with
Iran's nuclear program - the fear that Israel would suffer massive casualties
from Hezbollah's rockets in retaliation for an attack on Iran's nuclear
One leading expert on Israeli national-defense policy issues believes the aim
of the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah was to change the US administration's
mind about attacking Iran. Edward
Luttwak, senior adviser to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and
International Studies, says administration officials have privately dismissed
the option of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the past,
citing estimates that a Hezbollah rocket attack in retaliation would kill
thousands of people in northern Israel.
But Israeli officials saw a war in Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah's arsenal and
prevent further resupply in the future as a way to eliminate that objection to
the military option, says Luttwak.
The risk to Israel of launching such an offensive was that it would unleash the
very rain of Hezbollah rockets on Israel that it sought to avert. But Luttwak
believes the Israelis calculated that they could degrade Hezbollah's rocket
forces without too many casualties by striking preemptively.
"They knew that a carefully prepared and coordinated rocket attack by Hezbollah
would be much more catastrophic than one carried out under attack by Israel,"
Gerald M Steinberg, an Israeli specialist on security affairs at Bar Ilon
University who reflects Israeli government thinking, did not allude to the link
between destruction of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal and a possible attack on Iran
in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations in
New York last week. But he did say there is "some expectation" in Israel that
after the US congressional elections, President George W Bush "will decide that
he has to do what he has to do".
Steinberg said Israel wanted to "get an assessment" of whether the United
States would "present a military attack against the Iranian nuclear sites as
the only option". If not, he suggested that Israel was still considering its
Specialists on Iran and Hezbollah have long believed that the missiles Iran has
supplied to Hezbollah were explicitly intended to deter an Israeli attack on
Iran. Ephraim Kam, a specialist on Iran at Israel's Jaffe Center for Strategic
Studies, wrote in December 2004 that Hezbollah's threat against northern Israel
was a key element of Iran's deterrent to a US attack.
Ali Ansari, an associate professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland
and author of a new book on the US confrontation with Iran, was quoted in the
Toronto Star on July 30 as saying, "Hezbollah was always Iran's deterrent force
Iran has also threatened direct retaliation against Israel with the Shahab-3
missile from Iranian territory. However, Iran may be concerned about the
possibility that Israel's Arrow system could intercept most of them, as the
Jaffe Center's Kam observed in 2004. That elevates the importance to Iran of
Hezbollah's ability to threaten retaliation.
Hezbollah received some Soviet-era Katyusha rockets, with a range of 8
kilometers, and hundreds of longer-range missiles, after Israel withdrew from
southern Lebanon in 2000. But the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, citing a report by
Israeli military intelligence at the time, has reported that the number of
missiles and rockets in Hezbollah hands grew to more 12,000 in 2004.
That was when Iranian officials felt that the Bush administration might
seriously consider an attack on their nuclear sites, because it knew Iran was
poised to begin enrichment of uranium. It was also when Iranian officials began
to imply that Hezbollah could retaliate against any attack on Iran, although
they have never stated that explicitly.
The first hint of Iranian concern about the possible strategic implications of
the Israeli campaign to degrade the Hezbollah missile force in south Lebanon
came in a report by Michael Slackman in the New York Times on July 25. Slackman
quoted an Iranian official with "close ties to the highest levels of
government" as saying, "They want to cut off one of Iran's arms."
The same story quoted Mohsen Rezai, the former head of Iran's Revolutionary
Guards, as saying, "Israel and the US knew that as long as Hamas and Hezbollah
were there, confronting Iran would be costly" - an obvious reference to the
deterrent value of the missiles in Lebanon. "So, to deal with Iran, they first
want to eliminate forces close to Iran that are in Lebanon and Palestine."
Israel has been planning its campaign against Hezbollah's missile arsenal for
many months. Matthew Kalman reported from Jerusalem in the San Francisco
Chronicle on July 21, "More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer
began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to US and
other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the
current operation in revealing detail."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's main purpose in meeting with Bush on May
25 was clearly to push the United States to agree to use force, if necessary,
to stop Iran's uranium-enrichment program. Four days before the meeting, Olmert
told CNN that Iran's "technological threshold" was "very close". In response to
a question about US and European diplomacy on the issue, Olmert replied, "I
prefer to take the necessary measures to stop it, rather than find out later
that my indifference was so dangerous."
At his meeting with Bush, according to Yitzhak Benhorin of Israel's ynetnews,
Olmert pressed Bush on Israel's intelligence assessment that Iran would gain
the technology necessary to build a bomb within a year and expressed fears that
diplomatic efforts were not going to work.
It seems likely that Olmert discussed Israel's plans for degrading Hezbollah's
missile capabilities as a way of dramatically reducing the risks involved in an
air campaign against Iran's nuclear sites, and that Bush gave his approval.
That would account for Olmert's comment to Israeli reporters after the meeting,
reported by ynetnews but not by US news media: "I am very, very, very
Bush's refusal to do anything to curb Israel's freedom to cause havoc on
Lebanon further suggests that he encouraged the Israelis to take advantage of
any pretext to launch the offensive. The Israeli plan may have given US Vice
President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld new ammunition for
advocating a strike on Iran's nuclear sites.
Rumsfeld was the voice of administration policy toward Iran from 2002 to 2004,
and he often appeared to be laying the political groundwork for an eventual
military attack on Iran. But he has been silenced on the subject of Iran since
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took over Iran policy in January 2005.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His
latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.