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Accueil > Entretiens > Interview with Dr Raz Zimmt : “What happened in the last weeks in Iraq and (...)

Interview with Dr Raz Zimmt : “What happened in the last weeks in Iraq and Lebanon is just a consequence of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran”
Article publié le 03/09/2019

Interview by Ines Gil

Last week, several events have raised fears of a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel : The PFLP-GC, a Palestinian pro-Syrian regime movement was targeted on the border with Syria. At the same period, two drone attacks were launched against Hezbollah bastion, in south Beirut. Both events are attributed to Israel. Also, Israel has claimed responsibility for an attack in Syria against Hezbollah fighters, and the Israeli government has admitted having attacked a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, killing one. Last Sunday, Hezbollah delivered a promise that it earlier made to respond to the Israeli attack by firing a couple of anti-tank missiles against Israeli troops on the border. This eventually led to an escalation on the border and a limited exchange of fire from both sides.

Interview with Dr. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran. Dr. Zimmt holds a Master’s degree and a PhD in Middle Eastern history from Tel-Aviv University.

Following the incidents that occurred during the last few days, the Head of Hezbollah’s communication Office has confirmed the party’s will to take action. The official have said : "Hezbollah’s response is definite, it is now just a matter of when and where.” Last Wednesday, the Lebanese Army targeted Israeli drones penetrating Lebanese airspace. In Lebanon, the drone incidents are seen as acts of Israeli aggression. However, Hezbollah cannot risk a new major conflict with Israel. How hard can the Shi’a party hit back ?

Hezbollah is in a big dilemma now, and there is no doubt about it. The party cannot act idle and ignore the attacks, however, it does not seek a large scale offensive that could turn into a war with Israel. What makes this incident unusual is the fact that it is the first time (that we know of) that Israel attacks a target in Lebanon ever since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. What also makes it a unique incident is the fact that the Israeli drone attack against Hezbollah took place on Lebanese territories, which is a clear redline for the Shi’a party. Various internal and external reasons force the party to have a limited response ; the financial issues it has been going through recently, the complex internal Lebanese scene, and the fact that Iran, the party’s main ally, does not want Hezbollah to exhaust its strategic capabilities at this stage.

The financial issues of the party stem from the financial crisis Iran has been going through. Considering the absence of official statistics, it is hard to speculate the amount of aid Iran provides Hezbollah with. However, we can assess that there was a recent significant decrease in Iran’s assistance to Hezbollah, which has even forced Hezbollah to launch a public donation campaign.

Isn’t it a bad timing for Iran ? Teheran wants to negotiate with the United States, and after the G7 organized in Biarritz, France, it seems that there is a small window for negotiations between the Americans and the Iranians. In other words, as Iran finances Hezbollah, it also seeks to portray itself as a peace-wanting nation. Under these circumstances, how does Iran influence Hezbollah in its response ?

We need to separate between two issues : What is happening between Iran and the United States and what is happening between Iran and Israel :

1. Concerning Iran and the United States : There might be more Iranian provocations in the Strait of Hormuz or Iraq, among others, due to the ongoing escalation between Tehran and Washington. Consequently, negotiations between both parties remain uncertain due to the existing gaps between them.

2. Concerning Iran and Israel : The continuing conflict between them in recent years is mainly due to the situation in Syria. Iran has used the war in Syria to try and establish military-strategic arrays in the Syrian territory. Israel has successfully hit and destroyed Iranian targets including stockpiles of weapons, convoys of sensitive weapons transferred to Hezbollah through hundreds of aerial attacks. As a result, Iran has decided to move its military efforts to northern parts of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In Lebanon, Iran has tried to set up factories of high-precision missiles in areas controlled by Hezbollah. In addition, Iran has been increasingly using domestic proxies. For example, Iran has expanded its activity using pro-Iranian militias to deploy long-range missiles, which can be used against Israel. It has also used these militias to transfer weapons from Iran to Syria and Lebanon, through Iraq.

Thus, Israel has also expanded its activities to other fronts. In other words, what happened in the last few weeks in Iraq and Lebanon is just a consequence of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran.

What could be the consequences of the new Israeli strategy ?

There is a difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in Lebanon. In the latter, if recent events are to be repeated, they could lead to a full-scale military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel. If Israel keeps on attacking the Lebanese territory, it is only a matter of time before a direct confrontation erupts.

In Iraq, the problem is different due to the American presence in the country. In the last few days, after Israel’s attack on the pro-Iranian militia [Hachd al-Chaabi], the Pentagon issued press releases claiming that Iraq has the right to defend itself against any aggression. The United States is very concerned about what Israel has done in Iraq. If the Israeli strategy continues, the pro-Iranian militias could demand the Iraqi government to request the withdrawal of the American troops or even target them in Iraq.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri asked Russia to intervene to avoid an escalation with Israel. Is Russia, an ally of Iran and Israel, currently an intermediary to negotiate with those two enemies ?

Russia does not want Iran and Israel to be engaged in a military confrontation, especially in Syria where such a confrontation might risk the Russian efforts to stabilize the country. There are some indications that Russia has asked Iran not to violate some red lines requested by Israel. For example, Israel has demanded that Iran must limit its activities in Damascus. However, it cannot be guaranteed that Russia would have the capabilities or the will to answer Israel’s concerns as it [Russia] still needs the support of the local pro-Iranian proxies on the field. It has already proven difficult to challenge the Iranian presence on ground as Hezbollah’s fighters are already around the borders of the Golan Heights, in spite of Israel’s demand to have them relocated.

The recent tension took place as the Israeli legislative elections are around the corner, some politicians and journalists wonder about the connection between the two events. Do you believe that there is a connection between them ?

The Israeli military actions, whether in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon are usually the result of military assessments and intelligence. They are not related to electoral considerations.

Having said that, public statements made by Israeli politicians, including PM Netanyahu, concerning those actions may be linked to political considerations. Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to present himself as the only Israeli leader who can ensure the safety of the Israelis. He can do that by making public statements and claiming responsibility for Israeli actions in the region.

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