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Source: The Telegraph

Oct 26, 2023

A colossal Israel-Iran war is much closer than anyone imagines

Some of Hezbollah’s leaders might be asking, if not now, when? It would be a brave body who would bet against a widened conflict


While Israel debates the timing and extent of a ground incursion into Gaza, (hideously complicated by the over 200 hostages taken by Hamas), she cannot afford to ignore the potential threat coming from Lebanon and Syria in the north and northeast in the shape of Hezbollah and supporting militia groups in Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance”.

Dedicated to the elimination of the state of Israel, Hezbollah have come a long way since their small start in Lebanon organising suicide bombings and kidnappings. 

Supported materially and politically by Iran, they are now a force to be reckoned with internally in Lebanon where they play a usually malign role in further dividing an already destabilised country. And externally they played a key role at Iran’s behest in maintaining Bashar al Assad in power in Syria. They have for years been allied to Hamas. 

Although there is no definite indication of their complicity in the attack of 7 October, it would come as no surprise. For Hamas to have launched such a complex and audacious operation by sea, air and land simultaneously and hoodwinking the formidable Israeli intelligence capability in the process marks such a step change in Hamas’s capability as to suggest instead careful planning and training organised with the assistance of others. 

Israel’s concern, while it prepares its operation in Gaza to decapitate the Hamas political and military leadership, is having to fight simultaneously on a second front against Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, may be reluctant to embroil his forces too heavily with Israel as the inevitable Israeli response within Lebanon would play very badly with the non-Shia communities there.

(Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war in 2006 which led to an Israeli invasion). In the last few years, it has played a major role in supporting Iran’s policies in the region, notably in Syria at a major cost in terms of soldiers and materiel. 

Nasrallah may feel that it is better to regroup and consolidate. His focus is after all primarily on exercising power in Lebanon in the service of Iran. But Hezbollah released yesterday an account and a photo of a meeting their leader held with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad where they discussed “what the parties of the Axis of Resistance must do ... to realise a real victory for the resistance in Gaza and Palestine and to halt the brutal aggression”. 

While Hezbollah’s initial reaction to the Hamas attack was plenty of rhetorical support but limited military activity, more recently Hezbollah has launched sophisticated anti-tank missiles into northern Israel with predictable Israeli counter-strikes.

And perceived large-scale suffering by Palestinian civilians in the wake of the Israeli incursion into Gaza might force Nasrallah’s hand. Indeed he might be tempted by the fact that Israel will be so heavily committed to its Gaza operation as to have relatively few resources available to deal with a Hezbollah, reinforced perhaps by material and personnel support from the IRGC. 

Even without Iran, it has substantial military assets in southern Lebanon and unlike Hamas it has the capacity to launch more powerful missiles that can reach all of Israel and potentially overwhelm its Iron Dome defence. Some of Hezbollah’s leaders might be asking, if not now, when? The tripartite meeting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad may have primed the starting gun. 

This raises the spectre of a major escalation. After years of a shadow war, a direct Israeli-Iran conflict, prompted in part by Israel’s conviction that Iran may now have reached a nuclear weapons threshold, looks a real possibility.

If Iran itself were to become involved – and her rhetoric is becoming more strident under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – this could easily lead to an Israeli attack on Iran itself, perhaps drawing in US forces and a wholesale escalation to a regional level of an already inflammable situation. 

The US decision to send two naval task forces to stand off Lebanon is clearly meant as a deterrent, a warning to Hezbollah and Iran not to get further involved. But prudence is often trumped by miscalculation and, at a time when the region’s most vaunted intelligence service has been comprehensively deceived, the risks of misperception and blunders pouring oil on the flames are high.

It would be a brave body who would bet against a widened conflict. 

Sir Ivor Roberts is a former British ambassador and was head of counter-terrorism in the Foreign Office. 

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