Lebanese supporters of Shiite Hizbullah movement. (Mahmoud Zayat/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon Stuck Between Triad of Iran, Hizbullah and US

Simmering fears US-Iran tensions could lead to confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah

With tensions increasing between the United States and Iran, some analysts argue that the confrontation may ultimately manifest itself in a war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group Hizbullah.

According to the US-based Daily Beast news outlet, Hizbullah has started preparations to deploy forces to both southern Lebanon and in Syria near the areas adjacent to the Golan Heights.

But most believe that the chances of war breaking out are slim.

In a report, the American media outlet quoted members of Hizbullah as saying the Shi’ite armed group is “suffering from US sanctions imposed on it and its ally, Tehran, and is preparing to start fighting when Iran orders it.”

Mohammed Afifi, Hizbullah’s spokesperson in Lebanon, declined to comment directly on the report but conceded that US economic sanctions were also having a negative impact on Hizbullah and its allies.

Following Washington’s exit from the 2015 nuclear deal, the US reinstated full sanctions against Tehran last year, including on its oil exports and banking sectors. In May, US President Donald Trump ended a six-month waiver on oil exports to countries such as Japan, China and India, which rely on Iran for a great deal of their energy needs.

The US president claimed that the Islamic Republic was not holding up its end of the deal and was still working toward becoming a nuclear power. For its part, Tehran called the move “economic terrorism.”

Hisham Jaber, a security analyst who served in the Lebanese army, explained to The Media Line that a war between Israel and Hizbullah could happen only if clashes between the US and Iran in the Gulf escalate.

“Everyone is thinking of which party is going to attack first, however none are going to. It’s more of a show of each parties’ military force,” Jaber said.

He believes that Israel wants to start a conflict against the Shi’ite group but fears the consequences, especially before the Israeli elections in September .

“The Israelis know about the missiles that Hizbullah has but has not revealed,” Jaber said.

In addition, he pointed out that there has been a change to the rules of engagement between the foes.

“The Golan Heights is a new front that Hizbullah can attack Israel from,” he said.

Moreover, Jaber stressed that if Israel attacks first, Hizbullah’s opponents in Lebanon would come to its defense. On the other hand, he qualified, if Hizbullah initiates a conflagration, it would drag Beirut into a broader geopolitical war with parties maintaining competing agendas.

“Seventy percent of the Lebanese people are against a war with Israel for internal reasons,” he added. “A war would destroy [the country’s] infrastructure.”

Notably, at a recent European meeting between Israeli and Lebanese officials to discuss a possible framework for talks over disputed maritime borders – that ended with no progress – the Lebanese president reportedly conveyed a message to the Israelis that “Hizbullah does not intend to attack Israel, although it may respond to an American attack on Iran, possibly inside the Gulf.”

Tensions are already high in the region, with the US blaming Iran for numerous attacks against ships belonging to pro-western countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On Friday, Iran captured a British-flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) posted a video showing speedboats pulling alongside the Stena Impero, and IRGC forces wearing ski masks and bearing machine guns rappelling down to the vessel from a helicopter.

Alon Pinkas, a political analyst and former consul general of Israel in New York City, agrees that the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah largely depends on developments in the Gulf.

“If it does [escalate], Iran may try to broaden the conflict through Hizbullah, provoking Israel into a conflict,” Pinkas told The Media Line.

He further contended that while no provocations have yet transcended the contours of “business as usual,” the potential for miscalculation is growing with each incident.

“Israel would be ready for a war only if it is imposed on it,” Pinkas said. “A clear Israeli [military] initiative before the election is highly unlikely.”

The State Department designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984 and classified Hizbullah as a terrorist group in October 1997. In an April press conference, US Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, Michael T. Evanoff, noted that Hizbullah receives weapons, training and funding from Iran.

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