Hezbollah, Iran, and the geopolitics of the conflict in Israel

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11. Hezbollah, Iran, and the geopolitics of the conflict

November 17, 2023 -

Hezbollah fighters rise their group's flag and shout slogans, as they attend the funeral procession of Hezbollah fighter, Bilal Nemr Rmeiti, who was killed by Israeli shelling, during his funeral procession in Majadel village, south Lebanon, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Hezbollah fighters rise their group's flag and shout slogans, as they attend the funeral procession of Hezbollah fighter, Bilal Nemr Rmeiti, who was killed by Israeli shelling, during his funeral procession in Majadel village, south Lebanon, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Hezbollah fighters rise their group's flag and shout slogans, as they attend the funeral procession of Hezbollah fighter, Bilal Nemr Rmeiti, who was killed by Israeli shelling, during his funeral procession in Majadel village, south Lebanon, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently explained the importance of Israel to the Jewish people:

Jews have lived in almost every country under the sun. In four thousand years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of Torah and its concern for freedom, justice, and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Abraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.

We can easily understand why Israel matters so much to the Jews. But why should it matter to Americans? Why should we pay a price to support the Jewish state in its war with Hamas?

After all, Hamas has not attacked America or Americans, nor does it plan to do so. Its charter is pledged to the destruction of Israel, not the United States. While we should all be outraged and grieved by the atrocities it committed against Israeli civilians on October 7, genocidal attacks are also going on in Sudan and elsewhere today.

What makes the war between Israel and Hamas different for the US and the rest of the world?

NOTE: This resource article belongs to a series regarding the foundational issues behind the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. The full series is also available as a free ebook.

Hezbollah: The threat from the north

The October 7 invasion did not happen in a geopolitical vacuum. Hamas is just one of several jihadist groups in the Middle East pledged to the destruction of Israel. Most are supported by Iran, which has its own apocalyptic reasons to attack the Jewish state, as we will see.

We begin our survey with “Hezbollah” (“Party of God”), which was founded in Lebanon by Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in 1982, heir to the former coalition of militant groups known as Islamic Jihad. Since its beginnings, it has been sponsored by Iran and Syria.

Hassan Nasrallah is the group’s senior political leader. Najib Mikati, the current prime minister who was previously elected to this post in 2005 and from 2011 to 2014, was chosen by Hezbollah for this role. His election represented the first time the organization had been involved formally in the government of Lebanon.

The group is a major provider of social services, hospitals, schools, and agricultural services for Shias living in Lebanon. However, its militant wing has been defined by the United States as a terrorist organization.

The year after its founding, the group launched a truck bombing on the US Marine barracks in Beirut, killing more than two hundred soldiers. In 1992, they bombed the Israeli embassy in Argentina, killing twenty-nine, and bombed a Jewish community center in 1994, killing ninety-five people. Periodic border skirmishes and shelling escalated into a full-scale war with Israel in the summer of 2006. A United Nations-brokered peace ended the conflict, but tensions in the region remain high.

Hezbollah especially poses a threat to Israel because its military is far more powerful than that of Hamas and other jihadist groups. It claims one hundred thousand fighters and boasts weapons including precision rockets and drones that it says can hit all parts of Israel.

Since October 7, it has engaged in brief border skirmishes with Israel, but it has not entered fully into the war at this writing. Given the economic hardships Lebanon is currently facing, many do not believe that Hezbollah would risk an Israeli response that could further decimate the country.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad: A threat from the east

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a Sunni Islamist jihadist group that is committed to establishing a Palestinian state by destroying Israel. It is the second-largest militant group in the Gaza Strip next to Hamas and is prominent in the West Bank as well. It also maintains a presence in Lebanon and Syria and has offices in Tehran.

It was formed in 1981 and has received backing from Syria, Hezbollah, and especially Iran. It is working to help foment another intifada in the West Bank to bring a second front into the war with Israel. Such an uprising could be fueled by violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Iran: Sponsor of terrorism

Iran is considered the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The country was the seat of the Persian Empire, once the largest the world had ever seen, and its leaders seek to restore that empire through a “Shiite crescent” that extends westward through Syria to Lebanon. The revolution of 1979 brought an Islamic theocracy to power run by the country’s clergy and led today by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Central to their worldview is the return of the divinely inspired Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Hujjah (commonly called the “Mahdi,” meaning “the guided one”). Shiite Muslims who are anticipating his return are often called “Twelvers” as a result. This figure is believed to have been hidden by Allah in AD 872 and transported to a transcendent realm in AD 934 (this event is called the “occultation”). They expect his return shortly before the Day of Judgment to lead the forces of righteousness against the forces of evil. This apocalyptic war will establish Islam and peace around the world, in their view.

Many Shias voice and write prayers to the Mahdi regularly. Many also believe that the current era represents the final period of history ahead of the Mahdi’s reappearance.

They view the world as currently divided between the “will of the essence of transcendence” led by “the people and the leadership of Iran” and the “arrogant powers.” They believe that the existence of Israel is the “greatest barrier” to the Mahdi’s reappearance. As a result, Iran’s clergy state that the “Jewish state will be destroyed before Mahdi’s arrival.” Some even believe that this conflict will take place after a world war. And some view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as this necessary precursor.

These theological and geopolitical viewpoints help explain Iran’s role in the current war against Israel and its desire to see this conflict widened across the region. It should also inform our view of Iran’s quest for nuclear power (and perhaps nuclear weapons). And Americans should note that Iran also considers the US to be complicit in this conflict through our support for Israel; Ayatollah Khamenei has stated that Iran is in a permanent war with the “American mafia regime.”

Consequently, Iran has spent more than $13 billion over the last twenty years to develop proxies in the region it calls an “axis of resistance.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran helped Hamas plan its October 7 invasion. According to senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah, officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps worked with Hamas since August to devise its air, land, and sea incursions. Details were refined in meetings attended by representatives of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Iran-backed militant groups.

A few days before the attack, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claimed that “the usurper [Israel] regime” is a “cancer” that “will definitely be eradicated, God willing, at the hands of the Palestinian people and the resistance forces throughout the region.” Hamas likewise stated that its attacks were backed by Iran, whose Parliament members chanted “death to Israel” after they began.

Iran wanted to disrupt the Israel–Saudi Arabia peace process lest it be left outside a growing consortium of Sunni Muslim states in alignment with Israel. In what the Economist calls “the Middle East’s most dangerous game,” Iran seeks to escalate conflict with Israel without triggering full-blown war involving its proxies and Iran itself.

Iran’s proxies have repeatedly attacked American troops in the region since October 7; Houthis in Yemen have especially been engaged in such conflict. Iranian proxies in Syria have also escalated their activities near the Golan Heights on Israel’s northern border. Iran has warned of “new fronts” if Israel continues its ground offensive in Gaza.

Given its apocalyptic need to attack and (if possible) destroy Israel to hasten the coming of its Mahdi, Iran will continue to play a massive role in this conflict and the larger geopolitics of the Middle East.

Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia: Global implications

Iran does not stand alone: its military and economic ties with Russia have strengthened significantly since the latter invaded Ukraine. This is just one factor in a war with frightening implications for the world.

Ukraine “will live for only a week”

How could the war with Israel benefit Russia? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted immediately after the October 7 invasion: “If Israel is about to invade Gaza and embark on a long war, Ukraine will have to worry about competition from Tel Aviv for Patriot missiles as well as 155-millimeter artillery shells and other basic armaments that Ukraine desperately needs more of and Israel surely will, too.”

Friedman quoted Vladimir Putin’s recent statement that Ukraine was being propped up “thanks to multi-billion donations that come each month.” Putin added, “Just imagine the aid stops tomorrow.” In that case, Ukraine “will live for only a week when they run out of ammo.”

While an escalating war in the Middle East could force Russia to increase its military presence in Syria, the tradeoff of American entanglement in the region to the detriment of its support for Ukraine is appealing to the Kremlin.

Next there is China, whose relations with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine are now at a “historic high.” China clearly seeks to control Taiwan and its high-tech manufacturing so essential to the global economy.

According to Atlantic writer Graeme Wood, “If war breaks out generally around Israel, and questions arise about Israel’s very survival, the United States will have to start counting its ammunition. How much is left for Israel, after Ukraine has taken its share? And what about Taiwan, now third in line? These are hard questions, and Iran, Russia, and China would be thrilled, collectively and separately, to force them on the United States.”

Harvard professor of international relations Stephen M. Walt adds: “The latest war in the Middle East is not good news for Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, or any other country that is facing growing pressure from China.”

Saudi Arabia is directly affected as well. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks regional stability so he can diversify his country’s economy and reduce its reliance on oil exports, a goal that propelled movement toward normalizing relations with Israel prior to October 7. However, his government has also been pressured to speak up for the Palestinians suffering under Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza.

Bin Salman has paused talks with Israel, but renewed progress is plausible when the conflict with Hamas is over.

“The world is mustering for war”

Robert Clark is a British military veteran with postgraduate degrees in defense studies and Arabic. He served operational tours in the Middle East and Afghanistan and is currently director of defense and security at the think tank Civitas. His sobering article for the Telegraph is titled, “The US stands on the brink of global war with the Middle East and Asia.”

He writes: “The world is mustering for war. Conflict is already raging in Europe, with Russian and Ukrainian forces locked in offensive and counteroffensive. The aftermath of the Hamas terror attack upon Israel could now see the Middle East ignited.”

Clark points to drone and missile attacks on American forces by Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria. He adds that three cruise missiles launched by Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists in Yemen were potentially targeting Israel before they were shot down by a US warship. If successful, such an attack could have led to Israeli retaliation against Iran, potentially triggering a direct war—and US involvement.

Meanwhile, Clark writes, “Washington is engaged in frantically regearing its own military to face the threat posed by an increasingly belligerent Chinese communist regime, intent on reunification with Taiwan by force if necessary.” Between the war in Europe and our increasing involvement in the Middle East, Beijing “may see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

And Clark notes that Iran could “decide to further provoke the US in its attempts to assert regional dominance, attempting to drive the Americans to disengage and leave Israel to stand on its own.” In short, he warns, “Within months, the US could be directly involved in two devastating wars on two continents [while] bankrolling a third in Ukraine.”

Continue this series: Why America should support Israel >

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