Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hezbollah, Syria and Iran

My colleague at The Nixon Center Geoff Kemp has organized a roundtable discussion today on the topic, "Hezbollah: The Syrian and Iranian Connection", which C-SPAN is covering, so I won't provide a detailed summary here. Instead, let me draw on the some of the points made by the speakers.

Brigadier General Michael Herzog of the Israeli Defense Forces made some key points--how, in the Iranian strategic view, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is considered to be a front-line fortified position to counterbalance Israel which is viewed as the front-line of the Western world in the Middle East. Hezbollah has received sophistical weapons that many states do not even posses, and has been the recipient of more than $100 million a year in assistance. He felt, however, that the deterrent capability of Hezbollah to prevent military action from being taken against Iran over its nuclear program had been wasted.

After a cease fire, UN Resolution 1559 should be implemented in full, which means that all remaining Syrian intelligence and Iranian military advisors--plus the sophisticated rocket weaponry they brought with them--should be withdrawn. He also noted that in the future all reconstruction aid, including aid from Iran, should have to be channeled through the central Lebanese government, to prevent Iran from being able to develop an Iranian state presence in Lebanon. Ultimately, Hezbollah should also have to choose between serving as Iran's proxy in Lebanon versus Israel or becoming a completely Lebanese political party.

My thoughts: this would require a much greater degree of involvement on the part of the U.S. in Lebanese affairs, a commitment I cannot see this administration giving, or the U.S. public supporting.

Karim Sadjadpour, of the International Crisis Group, pointed out that this crisis has emboldened the right wing in Iran, which sees militant Islamism on the march, as the wave of the future, and the U.S. vision of secular democracy in retreat--in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, and elsewhere. There is also short-term confidence that the temperature can be raised to make things quite uncomfortable for Israel. And that there is no incentive at this point for Iran to be more accommodating to U.S. concerns. I did find it interesting, however, his assessment of the Hezbollah-Iran tie. Certainly there is still some ideological sympathy, but he felt that the relationship was now characterized by much more strategic calculations--for Iran, Hezbollah offers strategic real estate to pressure Israel (and through that the U.S.); for Hezbollah, Iran is loved because it provides material support, not because Lebanese Shi'a want to recreate the Iranian Islamic Republic in Lebanon.

A point raised by former U.S. Ambassador Theodore Kattouf mirrors ongoing discussions that have been taking place on TWR. The first is whether U.S. policy is to change regimes or change behavior (or whether you believe that changing regimes is the only way to affect state behavior), as this colors whether one feels some sort of pragmatic compromise can be found with Damascus. (He opined that, at least with Asad pere, that was possible). The second is whether the very act of talking to an opposing government is such a reward that it cannot be undertaken without undermining the U.S. position. I was also struck by his commentary on what Syria and the U.S. want and what they are prepared to deliver. We want Syria to cut all support for terrorism, make peace with Israel and undergo domestic liberalization, but are prepared only to offer the prospect of a vague "better relationship"; the Syrians want to recover the Golan Heights and to have firm security guarantees for their regime, something the U.S. is not in a position to extend. It calls to mind the discussion around Christopher Layne's distinction between what he terms 'compellence' and deterrence; that the U.S. ability to get regimes to act and undertaken policies is not as strong as its ability to deter overt attacks. And, I would add, even here, a calculation that the U.S. ability to respond to deter attacks on Israel is also limited.

Two other points. Geoff Kemp reminded the audience that Israel's two successful peace treaties in the neighborhood were negotiated with and upheld by two pro-Western but authoritarian governments, and a theme, carried over from the first Nixon Center discussion on the crisis in July, notes that popular sentiment did not support initial statements from some Arab governments that blamed Hezbollah for provoking the crisis. The second is whether or not what is occurring in Lebanon is in fact a proxy war between Iran and Israel and the U.S., or even a prelude to a larger conflict. This is the barometer to watch--whether this crisis can be localized and dealt with or whether the violence will spread further afield, and even begin to spill over and merge with the ongoing violence in Iraq and the territories.

Nick, there is an important intersection in this post that I wanted to call your attention to. Herzog talks about how Hezbollah, as a movement, is better armed than some states; Kemp points out that the two states which have treaties with Israel are not democracies. So if the U.S. pursues twin policies of weakening states and promoting "democracy" then popular movements can arise that won't reach the kind of pragmatic deals that states can reach and with groups increasingly able to project power using means formerly limited only to states, this will be an explosive confrontation.
Is the United States prepared to go war with Iran?

Can the United States reach any of its numerous objectives in the Persian Gulf and Levant by such a war?

If the war is inconclusive; what will the position of US be in the Levant in 20 years?
Having watched the event, and also responding to your post from yesterday--the issue I felt the discussion tip-toed around was responsibility. Hezbollah's success, it seems to me, is that it can act as a state when it wants (that is, carry out war) and when it doesn't want the responsibility it becomes a political movement and Israel is "carrying out aggression against Lebanon."

Why doesn't the Lebanese government declare it doesn't control the south and that this is a no-man's land beyond its authority? And why not get an international force deployed that doesn't play games with the fiction of Lebanese sovereignty in the south?
Anonymous 11:25

Why should we (non-US nationals) die for Israel?

What is in it for us?
Anonymous 11:19--the right questions to ask. Everyone is so focused on a ceasefire, what happens beyond? And is the U.S. really prepared to go to war with Iran (I think no).
Nik, could not help but be struck by Karim's description of the Iranian right--sounds like some mirror imaging here, the forward march of Islamism, Islam is the wave of the future, paralleling the talk here about democracy.
Each coutry has its own kitsch: Democracy & Freedom in US,Islam in Iran, Holocaust in Israel, etc.
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