Tensions with Iran are escalating. The Iranians have staged a number of sabotage attacks on oil tankers earlier this month, and have seized a British vessel. Their proxies – the Houthis - have conducted drone attacks on at least 10 targets including a major Saudi oil pipeline. Although Tehran is being very careful and seems to be calculating every move so as not to cause a full-fledged war, escalation seems to be the most probable path and Iran might choose aggressive responses rather than negotiations.
Iran, via the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, has the capacity to stage terrorist attacks worldwide. There are a number of scenarios of where and how Iran’s reactions could take place. Each scenario has its own advantages and challenges, and Tehran, despite its calculations, could be tempted to take the risks, depending on its proxies and the countries where they’re present.
THE HEZBOLLAH FRONT
Iran’s best military arm, Hezbollah, is receiving one blow after another. In addition to the Israeli strikes that have demolished most of its facilities in Syria, US sanctions are not leaving Hezbollah a space to breath. Earlier this month, the US Treasury issued a new list of names designating three members of Hezbollah under Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism: Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc MP Muhammad Hasan Ra’d, and Beirut MP Amin Sherri.
The Trump administration has chosen these three specifically because they symbolize Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese state and its institutions. The sanctioning Muhammad Hasan Ra’d was received as a message to the Lebanese Parliament and the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Berri is the leader of Amal, Hezbollah’s main Shiite ally, and uses his position to promote their agenda. This specific sanction also warns the Lebanese parliament that its members can and will be targeted with sanctions. MP Amin Sherri has been accused of threatening Lebanese banks for carrying out the measures imposed by the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, passed by the US Congress in 2018. Sanctioning Sherri sends a message to Lebanese government officials and the banking sector that such figures will no longer be tolerated.
Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah’s highest public security chief as head of the Liaison and Coordination Unit, is the most interesting and significant move. As a liaison among political parties, and Hezbollah’s main man within the security institutions – especially the Lebanese Army - Safa will no longer be able to publicly visit any of the Lebanese heads of security, especially the LAF which is on the receiving end of financial aid and training from the US government.
In Syria, Hezbollah has lost many of its senior commanders and elite fighters, mostly during Israeli strikes. Their military facilities, mainly those producing accurate missiles, have been demolished by these strikes for the most part. On the financial front, Hezbollah is suffering from a serious financial crisis because of the US sanctions on Iran, which is incapable of sending cash to its Lebanese proxy as it used to.
All that, and Hezbollah hasn’t responded to the US pressure and the Israeli attacks. But that might not stay the case, in case Iran decided to respond from Lebanon or from Syria. Recent reports suggest that Hezbollah are deploying forces on both Lebanon’s and Syria’s border with Israel. According to these reports, while the majority of deployment has taken place on the Lebanese side of the border, Hezbollah has also bolstered its forces on the Syrian Golan Heights, bordering Israel. A Hezbollah commander told The Daily Beast that the group is feeling the bite of the sanctions the US has imposed on Iran, which has cut into Hezbollah’s budget. Hezbollah is “ready to initiate hostilities – if and when Tehran deems that necessary. The sanctions now have us preparing for dealing with the Israeli front. … We will fire the first shot this time,” he said.
President Donald Trump talks to journalists as he departs the White House for a campaign rally in Pennsylvania May 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty)
However, “firing the first shot” requires readiness for a devastating response that Hezbollah does not enjoy. If Iran decided to use Hezbollah – in Lebanon or in Syria – to respond to pressure, this might result in a total loss on the side of Hezbollah, which has already lost its main military commanders in Syria. In addition, Hezbollah cannot afford to go into a war because they simply cannot fund it. Their financial crisis makes it difficult to finance the logistics and hiring for a war of that magnitude. Last but not least, Hezbollah cannot enter such war unless the reconstruction is guaranteed, like in the July 2006 war with Israel. However, this time around, the countries that rushed to help Lebanon with the reconstruction back in 2006 – mainly the Gulf States – might not be as enthusiastic this time around. Not only is Lebanon no longer a priority, the line that separates the Lebanese state from Hezbollah has become very blurry and sending money to Lebanon means sending money to Hezbollah.
For all these reasons, Iran will probably not use the Lebanon/Syria option due to the many losses that Hezbollah will suffer.
IS IRAQ AN OPTION?
Earlier this month, an unmanned drone bombed a base used by pro-Tehran paramilitary units in central Iraq. The US immediately denied involvement in the attack. While speculation of an Israeli involvement rose, reports suggested that the attack killed Hezbollah and IRGC members.
The attack happened amid rising tensions between Iran and the US, both of which have troops in Iraq. On July 18, The Treasury Department sanctioned four Iraqis who are close to Iran. Those include two former provincial governors and two militia leaders, all known as figures close to Iran. The four individuals are Ahmed Abdullah al-Jabouri, known also as "Abu Mazen," Rayan al-Kildani, Nawfal al-Akoub and Waad Qado (Abu Jaffar al-Shabaki)
The United States had already sanctioned the Nujaba Movement and its leader, Akram al-Ka’abi, in March. Also, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned during his recent visits to Iraq that the United States would target some PMU factions that are backed by Iran if any attack takes place against US interests in Iraq.
During the last three months, several attacks have occurred against US interests, including the US Embassy and ExxonMobil, sparking concern of a potential confrontation between the US and Iran on Iraqi soil.
The possibility of such confrontation has always been an option, but with the current rising tension, it has become a serious possibility. And if Iran was not able to respond from Lebanon or Syria for the reasons mentioned above, could Iraq be a plan B?
Probably not, as the Iranian interests in Iraq are more fragile than they seem. Internally, Iran does not have full control over state institutions as it does in Lebanon. More significantly, the Shia community and leadership are also divided over Iran’s presence and power in Iraq. But in contrast to Lebanon and Syria, the US has significant troops in Iraq and more can be sent. A war initiated by Iran in Iraq would significantly weaken its already delicate presence. Iran will certainly think twice before escalating in Iraq as well.
Although it is challenging for Iran to respond to pressure from Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, that does mean that mistakes and miscalculations will not lead to a full-blown war. But in any case, no matter who starts a war, it wouldn’t be in Iran’s advantage, or its proxies’.