Tehran’s not-so-mixed signals to Israel

He who pays the piper calls the tune and, when push comes to shove, the IRGC may ask Nasrallah to retaliate against Israel.
Sunday 03/02/2019
A Shia Hezbollah supporter stands on a rocket launcher in Nabatieh with a poster of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in the background. (Reuters)
Loose cannon. A Shia Hezbollah supporter stands on a rocket launcher in Nabatieh with a poster of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in the background. (Reuters)

Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has a warning for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

In an interview aired January 25 by Al Mayadeen television, Nasrallah counselled: “Be cautious. Don’t continue what you are doing in Syria. Don’t miscalculate and don’t drag the region into a war or a major confrontation.”

Then he jokingly added: “I’m telling the Israelis: It’s in your interest that we have precision missiles so we don’t miss the military targets and civilians are harmed!”

The fallout of Nasrallah’s comments was interesting. In the Tehran media, Iranian analysts such as Sabah Zangeneh, emphasised Nasrallah was speaking as Hezbollah leader and not on Iran’s behalf. However, Zangeneh also said Hezbollah’s “response” to Israel would “not be proportional” but “beyond” proportional.

Iranian Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Supreme National Security Council secretary and adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, on January 29 insisted Iran “has no intention to increase” the range of its missiles.

At first glance, Tehran would appear to be sending mixed signals to Israel, the United States and the Europeans. On the one hand, it’s threatening war and a disproportionate response to any provocation but then it’s also trying to project moderation.

Tehran’s message may not be quite so mixed. There is not necessarily a discrepancy between Nasrallah’s warning and Shamkhani’s assurances. So long as Iran’s ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah, possesses Iran-made missiles, there is little need for Tehran to further alienate the Europeans by increasing the range of its missiles.

The background to the seemingly different signals is understandable. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is not only actively engaged in a sustained bombing campaign against Iranian and allied positions in Syria, it openly admits to carrying out the attacks.

These attacks may force Iran out of Syria, luring Iran into counterattack. This would allow Israel to escalate the conflict and inflict even greater blows on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). At the very least, Israel would tarnish the prestige of Hezbollah and the IRGC if they don’t retaliate to its attacks.

It is out of the question for Tehran to leave Syria, after all the blood and treasure sacrificed to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, as well as to establish a permanent military presence in that country and open a potential front against Israel. And prestige does matter to the IRGC and Hezbollah.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people, most of them Iranian nationals, were killed in the latest Israeli strikes in Syria.

In Iranian media, however, there was no mention of the fatalities or even of the attack. Hezbollah and the IRGC have stopped announcing the funeral services in Lebanon and Iran for fighters killed in Israeli bomb raids. Even so, how long can the IRGC and Hezbollah remain silent?

In the Mayadeen interview, Nasrallah said he was silent so as “not to feed” an “Israeli publicity stunt.” But for how long? This leaves open the risk of Hezbollah retaliation against Israel on Tehran’s behalf to escape the cycle of passivity and inaction in the face of sustained IDF bombardment of Syria.

Is another war between Hezbollah and Israel imminent? Probably not.

Tehran, after all, primarily sees Hezbollah’s arsenal of Iranian missiles as a deterrent to Israeli attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Once Hezbollah is engaged in war, it would no longer be possible to talk of a deterrence but he who pays the piper calls the tune and, when push comes to shove, the IRGC may ask Nasrallah to retaliate against Israel.

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