Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What next in Lebanon?

Aug.15, 2006

By PV Vivekanand

THE QUESTION that hangs in the Middle Eastern air today is: What next after the Lebanon war?
The Israeli military offensive against Hizbollah of Lebanon was one of the scenarios in a US-scripted move against Iran. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration is bent upon realising its goal of a "new Middle East" before the current occupant evacuates the White House in January 2009. One of the first spot-kicks for that goal was the effort to eliminate Hizbollah as a potential threat to Israeli "security" in view of the Lebanese group's stockpile of rockets and missiles said to be supplied by Iran.
It was and is presumed that the Hizbollah rockets and missiles would be one of the means for Tehran's retaliation for any US military strike against Iran in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear programme.
Iran has clearly stated that the US would be held responsible for any military action against it — regardless of who actually carries it out — and that both the US and Israel would be targeted for retaliation. The implication is also clear: Iran would use whatever means at its disposal to hit at the US and Israel, and this includes using pro-Iranian Shiites and sympathetic groups and individuals around the world to carry out anti-US and anti-Israeli attacks anywhere and everywhere.
Therefore, "pulling the Hizbollah" teeth was a sort of insurance that the US and Israel wanted in order to reduce the impact of Hizbollah leaping up to serve Iran's purposes, and hence the recent attack on Lebanon following Hizbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12.
The action was pre-planned, and the capture of the Israeli soldiers was the window that the US and Israel were waiting for in order to unleash Israel's US-backed military might against Hizbollah. However, the 34-day war failed to achieve its objectives.
The war could be described even as a proxy US-Iran battle. The US rushed advanced weapons and support material and equipment to Israel for stronger strikes when it became clear that Hizbollah fighters were far better and prepared than expected. On the other side, Iran had already given thousands of missiles and rockets to Hizbollah through Syria, but continued supply was interrupted with Israel imposing a tight air and sea blockade on Lebanon and destroyed land transport means by bombing key bridges and highways.
By denying Israel a victory — return of the captive Israeli soldiers and an end to rocket attacks against Israeli towns and cities across the border — Hizbollah scored a highly symbolic victory. The soldiers remained in Hizbollah captivity and Hizbollah rockets rained on Israel even on the day the UN-engineered cease-fire went into effect but not before Israel made a last-minute effort to destroy whatever was standing in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the heartland of Lebanon's Shiite community.
The fact that Israel is now ready to negotiate the return of the captive soldiers in exchange for the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails is the most outstanding evidence of Israel's failure to subdue Hizbollah.
Indeed, Israel has at its disposal enough and more weapons — including nuclear bombs — to destroy the entire Middle East and perhaps even beyond, but these could not help it subdue Hizbollah despite the massive destruction and massacres the Israeli military inflicted on Lebanon.
However, the UN-arranged cease-fire which went into effect on Aug.14 is at best fragile. Hostilities could re-erupt at any point because the conditions of the cease-fire are heavily loaded against Hizbollah.
If we note that Europe is taking the leading role in the expanded UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon — with an authorisation to use force if necessary — it would be clear that the US and Israel want to use the UN force against Hizbollah. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 does not mean that the UN force should disarm Hizbollah, but Israel and the US would resort to deception and create conditions that would bring a confrontation between the UN force and Hizbollah. This would mean the Europeans waging war to serve Israel's interests. This is a definite eventuality.
In the meantime, the US also going ahead with plans for action against Iran. The first steps have already been taken in the form of UN Security Council resolutions that could lead to tough sanctions — most likely imposed by the US and its allies and not by the Security Council was a whole — against Iran for its refusal to suspend nuclear enrichment and its vow not to let go of its rights to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
While it is implicit that Iran is definitely seeking nuclear weaponisation at some point in future, there is no real case against it at present. However, that is immaterial for the US, which is planning its own action to not only destroy Iran's nuclear ambitions but also bring about "regime change" in Tehran.
Conventional wisdom would indicate that the US, which is bogged down in the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan and risking and losing the lives of American soldiers, is not ready to complicate the situation by launching action against Iran and drawing retaliation.
Furthermore, there would be strong opposition to a US war against Iran from the American Congress and people.
On the other hand, President George W Bush has proved himself to be unpredictable and reckless enough to undertake misadventures — all the time maintaining that he is always right — and the danger is very much real that he could order military action against Iran without waiting for congressional authorisation, experts familiar with the Bush White House say.
They point out that it was widely held in the US in 2002 that Bush would not actually order a war against Iraq, but he did so in early 2003 despite strong affirmations that most of the "evidence" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was faked and doctored. The US president could not have but known the truth but he still went ahead with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is critics argue.
The key factor here in the context of Iran is how Bush weighs the risks and costs of launching military action against Iran opposed the risks and costs — including the humiliation — of allowing Iran to thumb its nose at the US and continue to advance towards nuclearisation.
For many, Bush could not wait much longer since Iran could pass the "threshold" or the "red line" into a nuclearisation in a matter of months. Although this does not mean possession of an atomic weapon, it is a dead-bent course towards that goal and by this stage the threat of nuclear fallout from an attack on Iran's atomic plants would be too high to be risked.
Israel, which is clamouring for action against Iran, is growing impatient, and experts suggest that it might opt for unilateral strikes aimed at crippling Iran's nuclear programme (It would take at least 300 missile hits and bombings to make a serious difference to Iran's nuclear activities, according to Israeli reports quoted on websites). With the expanded UN force deployed in Lebanon to check Hizbollah, Israel could be emboldened to launch strikes at Iran.
For many analysts, the question is only when the action against Iran — whether by the US or Israel — would come. Some suggest that it could come before mid-term November elections to the US Congress where Bush's Republican Party is predicted to take a beating, but others say the administration feels it has the luxury of a few more months beyond that before it would be too late to hit Iran.