The US has raised the level of tension with Iran without taking any concrete steps to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. The reason why Trump is expected to limit himself to verbal abuse and continue threatening hostile measures against Tehran without executing them is fundamentally to avoid a breach between the US and the EU. The Nuclear deal is not bilateral, so the withdrawal of the US theoretically cannot scupper it. Nevertheless Iran is likely to consider the deal totally void if the US pulls out, with all that that implies. So the US continues its aggressive verbal campaigns against Iran, confusing the Europeans, who rightly fail to predict what decisions this US President is capable of adopting in the medium to long term.
However, the target is not only Iran but also its main ally and military arm in the Middle East: the Lebanese Hezbollah. The US posted bounties on two Hezbollah members of the military council (the highest military authority within the organisation), Haj Fuad Shukr and Haj Talal Hamiyeh, allocating “$12 million to whomsoever is able to offer information” that brings these two to justice. The US bounty purposely showed old photos of the two men to avoid revealing the intelligence sources which have provided the most recent ones. The main question remains: which country is going to take advantage of such an offer, and how?
Iran is not longer interested in what Donald Trump will do in relation to the nuclear deal. The Iranian leadership has created hundreds of commercial companies during the embargo, mainly in Oman, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, to counter over 30 years of US sanctions and embargo. Moreover, Iran used gold and oil in exchange of goods and technology and managed to hold on for many years, accepting to buy at a higher price in the open market.
Today the nuclear deal has opened the thirsty Iranian market and connected it to the European markets. The EU is unwilling to lose that now – especially with the financial crisis the old continent has been going through since 2008 – all because Trump, the US President (alone among all the signatories) considers unilaterally that the “spirit of the nuclear deal has been violated”. The US would like to see the Iranian missile program halted and the supply of weapons to Hezbollah cease: this would also please Saudi Arabia and Israel. However these issues are considered by all the countries who signed (including Iran but excepting the US) as unrelated to, and excluded from, the nuclear deal.
Saudi Arabian officials visited recently Washington, offering unlimited financial assistance as long as the US helps to destroy Hezbollah and limit Iran’s influence in the Middle East. In fact, Hezbollah is considered responsible for spoiling the game of the international and regional countries who were supporting a regime change in Syria. Therefore, many would like to see Hezbollah, the strong arm of Iran, cut off completely because this would transform Iran into a giant without arms.
Moreover, during the Saudi Arabian King Salman’s visit to Moscow, the monarchy told the Russian President Vladimir Putin that all groups operating in Syria, such as the “Islamic State” (ISIS), al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are considered terrorist and should be eliminated. Putin, despite the King’s generous financial offer of contributions to invest in Russian products was very clear: any country or group fighting in Syria following the request of the legitimate government is not a terrorist group. The “head of Hezbollah” was not on the table in the Russian capital.
As for as the US rewards are concerned, the Hezbollah leaders of the first, second and third ranks of the organization are moving freely between Beirut, Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad according to the requirements of the “war on terror” the organization is involved in against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.
No authority – neither the Lebanese authorities nor the US authorities – would dare to arrest any of Hezbollah’s leaders without suffering direct consequences that would backfire against their solders or interests in the Middle East. Abduction (or capture) is expected to be treated similarly and rejected without hesitation.
The most recent “incident” occurred in Iraq when Washington expressed its desire – when Baghdad asked all US forces to pull out from Iraq under President Barack Obama – to take the Lebanese Hezbollah commander, Ali Moussa Daqduq, to ??America. Hezbollah then sent a clear message to the US administration – through Iraqi leaders – that taking Daqdouq away from Iraq meant that every US soldier and officer in the Middle East, mainly in Iraq, would be held hostage.
This prompted Washington to turn a blind eye and leave the Iraqis to decide the fate of the Hezbollah officer who had participated in the killing of five American soldiers and officers in an impressively planned operation in Karbala. In January 2007 Daqdouq – along with Moqtada al-Sadr’s resistance group AsaebAhl al-Haq – used bulletproof black cars belonging to an Iraqi minister that the same US had given him as a donation. The fact that Daqdouq was on board facilitated the entry of the convoy into the government building without raising the suspicions of the American forces stationed inside the building.
Hezbollah is aware there are many American soldiers and officers who travel freely within Lebanon, mainly operating with the Lebanese Army. Therefore, the organization is reassured that the United States is conscious of Hezbollah’s capability for responding by reciprocity and will not leave their men prisoners without an action or reaction. Hezbollah thereby considers its own leaders safe from kidnapping, though not from assassination attempts.
Thus, the US ”bounties” on the two Hezbollah commanders aim to please the US’s Middle Eastern allies (mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia) saying “we are all in one boat against Hezbollah’s presence and operational capabilities”. Indeed, it shows how Washington is serious about taking political – rather than operational – measures to limit Hezbollah and Iran in the Middle East. Both are considered enemies of the US and its close Israeli and Saudi Arabia associates.
Tel Aviv – like Washington – is limiting itself to adopting a threatening rhetoric, talking about “a nearby war” against Hezbollah but without taking the narrative further or adopting any belligerent steps besides the rumbling of its drums.
In the unlikely event of war between Israel and Hezbollah, there is no doubt that Israel has the destructive military capability to bring back Lebanon to the “Stone Age,” as it claims. However, this is a situation that the Lebanese have already experience of since the civil war in1975 and the two (1982 and 2006) Israeli wars. In these wars, Israel launched attacks and destroyed the Lebanese infrastructure, killing thousands of civilians and hundreds of Hezbollah militants.
However, there is also no doubt that Hezbollah would give Israel a taste of a similar “Stone Age” scenario, with its tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, among them some of the very highest accuracy. The Israeli population however is not accustomed to such a harsh possible scenario: Hezbollah missiles will hit the infrastructure (bridges, concentration locations, markets, water, electricity, chemical plants and more), harbours, airports, military barracks and institutions, and civilian homes.
It is true that Israeli political and military leaders are not naïve and will never exchange their own security against economic and financial support (which was offered by Saudi Arabia to destroy Hezbollah), no matter how substantial the offer. Israel won’t exchange a public diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf countries to give up its own safety and the well-being of its people. Israeli commanders are fully aware of the unique military experience which Hezbollah developed in Syria and Iraq, and how Hezbollah is using new underground caches for its long-range accurate missiles on the Lebanese-Israeli borders.
Nevertheless, Israel and the US are capable of carrying out security and intelligence attacks to strike Hezbollah leaders, as both countries have done in the past with the late Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Abbas al-Moussawi, with Sayed Hasan Nasrallah’s vice Imad Mughnniyeh and against other minor positions within the leadership such as Hussein al-Lakis, Samir Qantar, Jihad Mughnniyeh, and others.
The “account” is still open between Hezbollah and Israel. The Lebanese organization has certainly tried similar intelligence strikes against Israel. However, several attempts have failed due to poor planning and a US-Israeli intelligence breach of Hezbollah security by an officer involved in the external operations unit.
But the balance of terror between Hezbollah and Israel remains: Hezbollah feels more at ease in Syria today and is able to dedicate more resources to the fight against Israel and its allies in the region.
Thus, American pressure remains within the limits of the inability of anyone to take it further: there is no country or entity that wants to confront a rival like Hezbollah, trained in the art of war and politics and an essential player in the Middle Eastern and international arenas.