Trump set to zero in on Hezbollah in bid to curb Iran

Sunday 26/02/2017
A 2016 file picture shows a boy holding a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (L) and leader of the Houthi movement Abdul-Malik al-Houthi during a rally in Sana’a. (Reuters)

Beirut - As Iran and Hezbollah gain strength in Syria, the Trump administra­tion is signalling a de­termination to roll back Iranian influence across the Middle East, reviving regional fears of a possible new conflict between the long-time adversaries.

Hezbollah, which has evolved into a powerful enabler of Iranian influence projection across the Middle East, looks set to be a prime target of US President Donald Trump’s administration, sources in Washington familiar with White House thinking said.

Iran has been put “on notice” for its alleged role in backing Houthi rebels in Yemen and for test-firing ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

The Trump White House slapped fresh sanctions on Iran’s arms in­dustry, is reportedly considering proscribing the Islamic Revolution­ary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terror­ist organisation and to be mulling ways of prising Russia away from Iran in Syria.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasral­lah described Trump as an “idiot”. Tehran shrugged off Washington’s tough rhetoric.

“We don’t respond well to threats; we don’t respond well to coercion and don’t respond well to sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Min­ister Mohammad Javad Zarif de­clared February 19th at a security conference in Munich.

Hezbollah is active militarily in three countries other than Leba­non: Syria, with a full-blown mili­tary intervention to prop up Presi­dent Bashar Assad; Iraq, where a few hundred Hezbollah fighters are training Shia militias; and Yemen, where it is covertly training Houthi fighters battling a Saudi-led coali­tion.

The challenge facing Trump’s ad­ministration is how to dent Iran’s reach across the embattled region without triggering further destabi­lising conflict.

Trump has stated that his main foreign policy goal is to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS). But Iran and Hezbollah are actively engaged in battling ISIS.

Some administration officials propose splitting Russia from Iran in Syria, weakening Tehran in what it considers key strategic territory.

Tehran has invested heavily in treasure and troops in saving As­sad. Russia’s 2015 military inter­vention in Syria tipped the balance in Assad’s favour after six years of war but it is too soon for either Teh­ran or Moscow to claim victory.

If Iran was pressured to with­draw from Syria, Russia would have to fill the vacuum with its own troops, something Russian President Vladimir Putin wishes to avoid.

Russia and Iran have mutual in­terests in Syria and, even if those interests are not ultimately com­patible, they continue to need each other, making the likelihood of the United States being able to persuade Moscow to break its bat­tlefield alliance with Iran unlikely.

“The Russo-Iranian coalition will no doubt eventually fracture, as most interest-based coalitions ultimately do,” Frederick W. Ka­gan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote recently for Fox News.

“Conditions in the Middle East and the world, however, offer no prospect of such a development any time soon,” he said.

Yemen has been suggested as an area the United States could push against Iran. The United States supports the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting there for two years to defeat Houthi forces and to restore the deposed president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Tehran provides support to the Houthis although the scale of that assistance and the strength of the relationship are debatable. Hezbol­lah personnel are training Houthi fighters in Yemen and in Lebanon.

The United States has deployed a navy destroyer off Yemen’s Red Sea coast following a January 30th at­tack on a Saudi frigate in what ap­pears to have been an unmanned remote-controlled boat filled with explosives.

That is the first use of such a weapon in the Yemen conflict and has further fuelled accusations of Iranian support for the Houthis.

“I don’t know that it’s Iranian-built but I believe that its produc­tion in some ways was supported by Iran,” said Vice-Admiral Kevin Donegan, commander of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Riyadh would likely welcome further military support from the Trump administration against the Houthis to deny Iran a potential toehold in Yemen but an intensi­fication of the conflict against the Houthis will not only worsen an already calamitous humanitarian crisis but strengthen Washington’s other opponent in the area: Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a bitter enemy of the Houthis.

The Trump administration’s in­vective against the Islamic Repub­lic has once again awakened fears in Lebanon that Israel is preparing for a new war against Hezbollah.

Nasrallah addressed these con­cerns in a February 16th speech, blending reassurances that Hez­bollah’s deterrence against Israel would keep the peace with warn­ings that Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona and an ammonia plant in Haifa are vulnerable to attack.

It remains to be seen how Trump will approach Iran in the coming months but wading into the re­gion’s bloody morass carries sig­nificant risks for a president who preaches isolationism and who’s slogan is “America first”.

“We have to make a decision whether we’re going to get in­volved in the emerging proxy war in a bigger way than we are today, between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said US Senator Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, at the Munich confer­ence.