Hit Beirut, target Tehran

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 July 2006

The fast pace of events over the past nine days makes it increasingly essential from the Israeli government's point of view to destroy Hizbollah's capacity to fire missiles into Israeli territory. After 3,000 air strikes into Lebanon, in addition to bombardment from land and sea and troop incursions into the south of the country, Hizbollah remains active and defiant. It launched 150 missiles on 19 July and another forty on 20 July. Moreover, Israeli ground forces have experienced severe difficulties when engaging Hizbollah units across the border; four more Israeli soldiers were killed yesterday, and two Apache helicopters crashed near the Lebanese border.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since October 2001

Paul Rogers tracks the July 2006 war in a series of daily columns:

Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation"
(17 July 2006)

"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)

"A proxy war"
(19 July 2006)

"Israel: losing control" (20 July 2006)

There are external as well as internal factors requiring Israel to achieve a wide-ranging victory. During the past thirty-six hours, European TV stations have given much more coverage to the devastation caused in Beirut and some of the southern cities of Lebanon, helping to swing the public mood more strongly against Israel.

The Israeli government is not greatly concerned by this, given the strong support it is receiving from Washington and London. At the same time, it is aware that a shift of the conflict to a ground war following a major Israeli assault into southern Lebanon would (perhaps surprisingly) be easier to justify. The bombing of civilians from the air is one thing, but engaging Hizbollah in ground conflict can more easily be depicted as taking on an identifiable enemy in a "clean" fight.

In any case, the experience of incoming missiles raining down on Haifa, Tiberias and elsewhere across northern Israel exerts even more pressure on the Ehud Olmert government to remove that threat. In the context of the massive military operation now underway over Lebanon, anything less – even just a handful of missiles in the coming months – would be seen as a failure.

At present, Israel has the substantial advantage of remarkably strong support from Washington. George W Bush's administration sees Israel's action against Hizbollah as a key part of the global war on terror – and Israel as the most important ally in that war.

In the past, an outbreak of hostilities in the middle east has normally been met by calls from the United States for a ceasefire. This time it is not just a matter of a deafening silence but of active encouragement of Israel. As the Washington Post puts it, the US position "reflects Bush's deepening belief that Israel is central to the broader campaign against terrorists and represents a shift away from a more traditional view that the United States plays an 'honest broker's' role in the Middle East" (see Michael Abramowitz, "In Mideast Strife, Bush Sees a Step To Peace", Washington Post, 21 July 2006 [subscription only]).

The view of the United States as an "honest broker" will hardly be accepted across the middle east, but it is certainly evident that with this war Washington is fulsome in its open support for Israel. Britain is certainly demoted to second place behind Israel as Washington's leading ally, and perhaps that is what lay behind George's cursory treatment of his friend Tony in the famously overheard exchangeat the G8 summit in St Petersburg (see Godfrey Hodgson, "'Yo, Blair'", 19 July 2006).

Israel's requirement for a complete victory against Hizbollah has two more features. The first is that it would be seen from Israel to deliver a direct rebuff to Tehran. The Israeli and American governments see the hand of Tehran behind much of what is going on; they may be greatly overestimating this influence, but since it is their position, a defeat for Hizbollah would send a necessary message to Tehran.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

The second and more significant factor is the recognition that if there is any operation against Iranian nuclear facilities in the coming months, whether by Israel or the United States, one of Tehran's options in response would be to encourage Hizbollah to open up a front against Israel. The likely consequences of the range of actions available – including action against United States forces in Iraq, and disruption of Gulf oil traffic – would make any plan to attack Iranian nuclear installations fraught with danger (see Paul Rogers, Iran: Consequences of a War, Oxford Research Group, February 2006).

In this context, destroying Hizbollah's capacity to fire rockets on Israel would remove one problem with attacking Iran – a matter of "getting your retaliation in first". Moreover, the mood in Washington has moved markedly towards a confrontation with Tehran, with support extending well beyond the traditional neo-conservative centres (Jim Lobe, "The drums of war sound for Iran", Asia Times, 21 July 2006).

In 2002-03, there was a common view in Washington that terminating the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and installing a friendly government backed by a major US military presence would guarantee that Iran's potential to threaten US interests in the region would be seriously diminished. "If we get Iraq right, we won't have to go for Iran", was a regular refrain; more colloquially it was "the road to Tehran goes through Baghdad".

The Bush administration and its neocon cheerleaders didn't "get Iraq right". As a result, it may well be that the road to Tehran goes through Beirut, not Baghdad.

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